They say good things come in pairs and that’s most certainly true for joan. The duo of Alan Thomas and Steven Rutherford released two EPs last year that were among 2020’s finest pop efforts.
If you’re new to joan [stylized in all lowercase], let me quickly fill you in: Alan and Steven hail from Little Rock, Arkansas, where they started making music together after being in different bands. They both grew up on a steady diet of ’90s pop listening to Usher, Boyz II Men, Prince and all of the Max Martin-crafted greatness that started to emerge later in the nineties. In fact, Steven has said in interviews that the first record that he ever bought was *NSYNC’s utterly-brilliant No Strings Attached.
Pop of the ’90s and ’80s hasalso been a huge influence on the duo’s own music. Alan and Steven skillfully combine classically powerful pop melodies with meticulous instrumentation and poignant writing that stir up pure nostalgia. I’ve said this before and I will say it again: Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. It captures a bittersweet sentiment that’s universally understood and instantly felt. If artists are able to capture just the right dose of it, their pop is golden.
It should come as no surprise that none other than Swedish hit writer Carl Falk got the Arkansas duo on his radar after their debut single, “Take Me On,” started to bubble up on streaming services. He started working with Alan and Steven to help further develop their sound. Their collaboration led to more great music, including the deliciously synthastic “Drive All Night” in 2019, which details joan’s retro yet forward-leaning brand of pop. (Side note: joan’s music is classified as ‘alternative’ on streaming services, but we know better. It’s a clever way to trojan-horse their high-grade pop beyond the expected realm.)
Fast forward to the summer of 2020 when joan released the first of two EPs of the year. Titled cloudy, the six-track EP is a pop stunner that will please both ’80s kids and ’90s babies. Take for example the EP’s opener, “Try Again,” that is reminiscent of *NSYNC boyband glory (and will likely have Justin Timberlake salivating with excitement). Marked by punchy string stabs and a cheerful piano riff, Alan and Steven take listeners right back to TRL’s heydays. The goodness continues with songs like “want you back” (hello there breakbeat!) and “love me better.”
Despite the ’80s and ’90s references, let me make clear that joan’s music is by no means solely rooted in the past. It’s not the impression I want to give. The duo is inspired by pop’s glory days; they flip that sound around and upside down to give it their own unique spin and incorporate their forward vision while maintaining the quality that made that sound so timeless in the first place.
It’s best described as, well, music that captures a future-nostalgia — forward-leaning pop that makes you reminisce.
The second EP that joan dropped last year following the release of cloudy is solid proof of that. Aptly-titled partly cloudy, it’s an EP with semi-acoustic and reworked versions of the song on cloudy. It’s an absolutely gorgeous companion to the original EP that showcases the power of the duo’s songwriting. The reimagined versions were inspired by being locked down at home. The cloudy EP was made to be a big live show but with Alan and Steven stuck at home something less festive and more introverted was right for the times.
If you’re curious about joan, I urge you to listen to “Brokenhearted” that’s included on both cloudy and partly cloudy. It’s a gut-wrenching, ‘80s-style ballad that will leave you breathless (It’s built around the sound of an electronic piano very reminiscent of the classic Yamaha DX7). On the reimagined party cloudy version of “Brokenhearted,” Alan and Steven turn the song into a searing and splendid power ballad. It’s a highlight for any rainy day. You will wipe a tear. I promise you.
This year, joan is in pole position for more pop greatness following two terrific EPs they released in 2020. And perhaps equally important, Alan and Steven have put Little Rock, Arkansas, on the map as a bonafide breeding ground for hot new pop.