James Bay has accomplished the rare feat of having now released two albums (Chaos And The Calm and Electric Light), without a skip-worthy track to be found on either of them. That makes choosing his top 10 pretty tough, if not next to impossible. You might consider this list a good place to start though, and then please listen to both albums from the first track to last, because that's the way they were meant to be heard, and because it will be time well spent.
As a teenager, James Bay stowed himself away in his room for much of the time, obsessed by and in love with the guitar. He played in a band with his brother for a while, but soon thereafter made the leap from his hometown of Hitchin to more seriously pursue music, first in Brighton, and later in London, where he played nearly nightly at open mics. As luck would have it, one of his performances was posted onto YouTube, and quickly spied by an A&R rep at Republic Records. Within a week or so, he was whisked away to the states and signed to the label.
There has been no looking back since, and indeed, James Bay seems to have been born for this; he positively owns the spotlight. This is an artist who takes what he brings to the world to a new level at every turn; he's someone who craves the work and the challenge of it, and we're all the better off for that.
The first track on James Bay's debut album, Chaos And The Calm. It's a fitting intro to his story, as he's commenting on a lifestyle that just doesn't suit him, "Everyone's life the same as yesterday, Just like the ticking of clocks," and his need for something more, "And I'm craving, craving, craving something I can feel." He's proven to be nothing less than tireless to that end, springing into action to start the work of his sophomore LP, Electric Light, only a week after returning home from three years of touring on CATC. His love for the road, and more specifically, for the rush of energy that exists between Bay and his audience, propels him forward. Craving fulfilled.
9. "Wild Love"
The first single from Electric Light, and a reminder to let down one's guard and to be real when you've found the right thing, from an artist who can't seem to be anything but real. The message here is direct, honest, uncomplicated, and welcome in what seems like an often complicated romantic era. As the first glimpse of his new work, it also showcased another side to James Bay, in terms of musical aesthetics, and features synthesized tones and effects not heard on Chaos And The Calm. The wonderful Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things co-starred in the beautifully filmed video by Prime Zero Productions.
A love song to the one who got away, "We were close, never close enough. Where are we now?" We've all been there; maybe that's why this song is famous for entire audiences joining in on the chorus, without fail really. Of course, James Bay fans know every word to every song, so the mere fact that this song is widely recognized as the singalong number speaks volumes.
Most musicians hope to put a song out there with spoken word to it, be it poetry, rap, or a monologue. It's tricky business though, to get it just right, especially when the spoken word element needs to be edited down to fit the song. It can be done well (think Paolo Nutini's "Iron Sky"), or it can come off a little bit awkward and clunky. Bay et al. do a superb job here. "Slide" ends with an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg's poem, "Song," recited impeccably by his good friend, and fellow artist, David Ryan Harris. It's a deceptively simple song, mainly just piano and voice, but it's an exquisite blend. The piano that accompanies Bay and Harris is never repetitive, adding just the right punctuation to each word, and James Bay's voice is up close and personal here, no special effects needed. Live, the band clusters together to support Bay in the ending chorus; in studio, all the voices you hear on that are James Bay and Jon Green, who co-wrote and co-produced Electric Light.
It's the sigh of relief that you feel when what you've been dreaming of becomes a reality. "Incomplete" is presumably written to the same person whom he welcomes back in "Scars," after a prolonged absence, one that he wasn't entirely certain would come to an end, "Scared of the hope in my head, It's been making me sweat but it turns out, You're here with your head on my chest. I should have guessed." This is a beautiful song that trails off on a note that feels just a tiny bit unresolved, and as the last song on CATC, it acts as something of a cliffhanger, to be continued.
James Bay at his edgiest, so far. "Wasted On Each Other" speaks to a love that might look bad on paper to some, but can't be denied, and is too good to walk away from. Anyone who has had judgemental eyes upon them because of whom they choose to love, often even those of friends and family, will know this feeling. Ultimately though, it's about not caring what anyone else thinks. This was the first number of the first date (Brixton) on the first tour for Electric Light.
4. "Stand Up"
What isn't in this song? "Stand Up" is, musically, a lesson in how to combine some of the more current synthesized musical modalities, including vocoder, with acoustic and electric instrumentation and naked vocals. The peaks and valleys of this song are truly exhilarating, and the musical means by which we're brought there are seriously impressive. "Stand Up" tells the story of what it means to have inherited the world as it is right now, coming from someone who, while he has left childhood and adolescence behind, holds dearly to the vitality of those times, "We were roller coaster screams, 'til our hearts burst at the seams, We're not gonna let it all go up in smoke!" "Stand Up" is an invitation to do just that, and hopefully it's one that will be widely accepted.
This was the single that catapulted James Bay to stardom and was, in fact, something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Things had just started to take off for him when he released "Hold Back The River," and promptly thereafter his career went right through the roof. Bay's '66 Epiphone is front and center on this rousing appeal for more time with those he loves in the face of new life demands. You don't have to tour non-stop to relate to this one, "Lonely water...."
2. "Let It Go"
Someone on YouTube posted a solid hour of "Let It Go," fully understanding that we all have those hard days. The intro, pretty much the musical version of fog, leads into that beautiful tone Bay gets on his '66 Epiphone, as he approaches the first verse. The narrative will be familiar to many, as it charts a romantic devolution, but the absence of blame on either party is refreshing. James Bay has said that he didn't write "Let It Go" as a breakup song, but it's still one of the best breakup songs ever written.
An anthem for our times, the inspiration for "Us" came from a more personal place until James Bay recognized the much broader significance of it. "Us" took less time to write than any of the others on Electric Light, and came to Bay in a flash of consciousness. In a Huffington Post interview, he spoke of how the song came to him, while he was getting ready to write with his friend Jon Green, "It was one of those rare moments where you feel like that one was waiting to come. That was the moment that we got lucky enough to be there to receive it." It's little wonder as to why he was chosen. James Bay has proven himself to be an artist who takes action to support what he believes in, whether it's by donating to causes like War Child UK or WaterAid via music and merchandise sales, or by bringing in a touring crew that's half female, upon witnessing firsthand the gender disparity within the music industry. He's also proven himself to be someone who can get the message out there, who knows how to transform a room into one of pure joy, with everybody singing along. As James Bay continues to reach new heights, he continues to invite us all to join him, and it's a pleasure to do so. The powerful video for "Us" is featured at the top of the page.