A New Playlist: The Year's Best
This newsletter won't always be solely about the What’s Good playlist. I’ll also be calling out some of the worst music (because it's fun) and highlighting the very best in a separate playlist which launches today. That playlist is called, simply, The Year’s Best, and it’s a way of putting additional emphasis on the artists and songs that keep pulling me back in, week after week. (Those tracks will kick off most editions of this newsletter.)
Anyway, that’s where this first edition of this newsletter comes in. Even though it's the second week of September— an editorially odd time to recap the year’s best music to date— it still feels right to kick things off with the tracks I’ve truly adored in 2021. So that’s where we’ll start, with the standard edition of the newsletter beginning next Wednesday, September 15.
The Year's Best Music, Part I: Dance & Rock
While genre may seem like a meaningless construct in 2021, longtime followers of my What’s Good playlist might notice that I still often sequence and compartmentalize this way. So, rather than riding countdown-style, with disparate-sounding tracks clashing against each other, I’ve structured this feature in that more approachable style. It’s also easier to break up over three days, which I’ll be doing, because it's simply too much reading and listening to throw at people all at once. You should be aware that the genres are just blanket terms that broadly encompass a number of styles and should not be taken too seriously. Also, there will be no particular order to how and when the genres are presented. To wit: It’s club and rock music today; rap and pop tomorrow; and Friday, experimental and R&B.
Anyway, don’t forget to SMASH that subscribe button to stay apprised, because new music is a joy, and honestly, you need more of it in your life.
The Year's Best Dance Music
Given our universal deprivation of clubs and parties, house music kicked off the year in a bittersweet mood, and few club producers made an art of that malaise like London upstart Fred Again… His music played on our collective desperation for communal euphoria with gorgeous, piano-led dance cuts that sampled intimate messages, voicemails, and well-wishes from friends. That lent his debut album, Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020), a sense of the kind of community we ached for, as voices come and go through the mix, checking in on us, sending encouragement and positive reinforcement.
Dublin-based For Those I Love took a strikingly similar route— albeit musically more in line with the nostalgia of Balearic house and late-aughts chillwave— to build out an album-long, grief-stricken eulogy for his childhood best friend. His self-titled debut deployed sampled recordings and videos of their time together to heartbreaking effect, and “I Have a Love” represents the record in capsule— a strong recommendation for folks who miss the heyday of the Streets’ Mike Skinner.
Meanwhile, Dawn Richard dove headfirst into future house and electro sounds while constructing an album-length narrative around the ‘second line’ footwork scene of her native New Orleans. Her track, “Bussifame”— the word itself a fast-talking, Big Easy-styled portmanteau of the dancefloor command “bust it for me”— morphs above bubbling bass, glowing synths, and a halting, shaker-centered house rhythm. “We don’t hear New Orleans in this kind of sound,” she told Apple Music, “and that was the fun part— to create something that doesn’t exist yet.”
UK producer Vegyn seemed to ride the verge of a bigger breakout this year, especially on the partnerships front, as he produced one of the most exciting records of the year for trans rapper John Glacier, not to mention his own Like a Good Friend EP. (Its expectation-shattering opener, "I See You Sometimes," features a blistering rap by Jeshi.) He even issued a whole Bleep-exclusive cassette comp for his PLZ Make It Ruins label— and all of this came on the heels of his co-hosting Frank Ocean’s Blonded Radio show.
CFCF’s Mike Silver made his most immersive and perhaps most conceptual release with memoryland, a record his own Bandcamp page describes as a “hyperactive Y2K period-piece.” Aptly, that album bounces wildly between dance/electronic subgenres, weaving in contemporary elements along the way, with the 8½-minute “Night/Day/Work/Home” playing centerpiece.
SHERELLE, emerging now as one of the most sought-after DJs in London, blended maniacally fast footwork grooves with playful synths and rigorously experimental percussive exercises on her knockout single, “160 Down the A406.” Speaking to FADER, she called the song “a product of wondering what the next stage of my life will be during 2020”— a way of working through the emotional toll of lockdown and the ensuing loss of income and identity— but she also accurately described the result as “full and fuzzy... [it’s] supposed to make you happy.” It thrillingly succeeds.
On the opposite end of the footwork spectrum, Chicago legend DJ Manny opened his album, Signals in My Head— the strongest and most inventive of the genre since DJ Rashad’s pioneering Double Cup— with “Never Was Ah Hoe,” setting the table with a gorgeously somber, melancholy vibe. Fellow Chicagoan Honey Dijon brought the heat, too, with UK soul singer Annette Bowen and Moodymann collaborator Nikki-O on the absolute stomper, “Downtown.”
Elsewhere, Shygirl was anything but on her deconstructed club shredder “BDE” (featuring counterpoint from slowthai, another act who shows up on this playlist); Koreless threw back to early future-garage traditions with heavily chopped vocals on the winning “Joy Squad;” and Burial revisited the richly evocative terrain of his 2013 masterpiece, Rival Dealer, on the stratospheric “Space Cadet.”
The Year's Best Rock Music
Rock, or whatever guitar-centric music with traditional rock rhythms can be called anymore, continued its unexpected resurgence in 2021. Vocal melodies grew increasingly rare, though, as more singers in this genre (and others) opted for spoken or shouted lyrics. (I covered this trend in more detail on Twitter early in the year.)
Among the highlights of this new spoken word era: Cassandra Jenkins’ transcendent “Hard Drive” channeled vintage Laurie Anderson through a scenic backdrop of phenomenal nature, recalling experiences traversing time and coasts— from the Seventh Ray in Topanga, CA to Manhattan’s West Side Highway. Breaking in January, the song touched a nerve with nearly everyone I know who heard it. Its final verse is especially potent, evoking a chance encounter with a mysterious character named Perry, who, setting up the song’s outro with a breathing exercise that listeners can’t help but join in, suggests: “Oh dear, I can see you’ve had a rough few months, but this year— it’s gonna be a good one.... we’re gonna put your heart back together.”
While there’s a universal relatability to that line that’ll strike at anyone’s emotional center, Jenkins did, in fact, have a rough few months, beginning in August 2019 when she was set to hit the road with Purple Mountains— just before its frontman David Berman tragically passed away. Her album obsesses over details and disregarded people in a way that sometimes reminds me of his work. “I have a vulnerability and an approachability about me that will put me into a lot of strange situations, for better or for worse,” she told Pitchfork. “I get to meet a lot of strangers, and often have really wonderful encounters, but I sometimes have a negative interaction and it takes me a day to recover from it.”
Michelle Zauner made a similarly powerful statement as Japanese Breakfast with her album, Jubilee. While her music has always had an unusual spark, it never quite suggested she was poised for this kind of arrival. The release followed her equally crushing and uplifting memoir, Crying in H Mart— itself a breakout and New York Times bestseller— and it shares those traits in spades, especially its aching closer, “Posing for Cars.”
If you had Low putting out what is ostensibly a hyperpop song on your bingo card, you might look into buying a lotto ticket; the rest of us were properly shocked when the Duluth natives dropped “Days Like These.” The duo recruited BJ Burton to produce this track and his pop influence is clear: He’s worked with Bon Iver, Francis and the Lights, Mike Will Made It, Charli XCX, Banks, Miley Cyrus, and more, but Low have never aimed for the charts. Instead, with the debut single from their first project since 2018’s Double Negative, they’ve crafted a distorted and demented remix of bubblegum melodies and “tonight is the only night we have” aphorisms.
Liars remain the black sheep of Mute Records’ electronic roster, but their vision is still in lockstep with the label’s emphasis on progressive experimentation. Their 2021 effort, The Apple Drop, is alternately ecstatic and grim, like Nick Cave charging a Bushwick rave on bad acid. Jonathan Schenke lent production, and his work with other Brooklyn luminaries, Parquet Courts and Liturgy, shines through on the record’s strongest ideas, which are knotty and complex, yet crisp and refreshing, as the title suggests.
Yves Tumor typically obliterates the line between any and all genres by drawing a bit from each, but “Jackie,” the leadoff cut from new EP, The Asymptotical World, is perhaps their most clearly definable cut— it’s rock music with a retro-futurist tilt, with guitars strutting up against a muscled, Kevin Parker-esque drum kit, and a touch of 70s glam.
A former member of the hypnagogic duo Hype Williams and lord of numerous mercurial, loosely defined side projects, England-based Roy Nnawuchui is best known as Dean Blunt, and his latest album, Black Metal 2 is another strange, folk-pop masterpiece. While co-produced by Blunt with Sampha’s musical director, Kwake Bass, one of its secret weapons is singer/songwriter Joanne Robertson. Blunt often cedes control to close collaborators, and on Black Metal 2, he invites Robertson to bring her vocals to six of the album’s tracks, building on the palpable chemistry they established on their 2017 collaboration, Wahalla.
It warmed my heart to see the old, reliable Scottish band Mogwai kick off the year with the truly wonderful, blissed-out pop single, “Ritchie Sacramento.” Named for a friend’s mangling of avant-pop god Ryuichi Sakamoto’s name, the band dedicated the song to “all the musician friends we’ve lost over the years.” Top of mind was aforementioned saint and Silver Jew, David Berman, who inspired the lyrics. The song wound up on the band’s 2021 full-length, As the Love Continues, which was produced by veteran boardmaster Dave Fridmann (the founding member of Mercury Rev who helmed most of the Flaming Lips’ imperial phase). He honored the band’s signature sound as they experimented with dissonant drum machines and screaming guitar solos, while helping them accomplish their goal of always exploring new worlds.
Also worth checking out: The latest from Baltimore post-hardcore brawlers Turnstile, the 19-year-old Michigander Michigander, the wonderful "White Sands" by veteran dream-pop duo Still Corners— a kind of indie rock spin on "Blinding Lights" for the open road— and "Angeles" by Southern California's Cory Hanson, which pays tribute to Elliott Smith with more than just its title.
Want to know about the rest of the year’s best music? Subscribe to this newsletter and tune in tomorrow for my entry on rap and pop— then do it again Friday for R&B and experimental. And don’t forget to come back Wednesday, September 15 for the proper launch of the standard edition of What’s Good: The Weekly New Music Newsletter.