What’s Good: The Weekly New Music Newsletter is a new publication by Pitchfork’s founder and former Editor-in-Chief, Ryan Schreiber. Launched in September 2021 as a companion to Schreiber’s long-running weekly playlist of the same name, What’s Good outlines the week’s most essential tracks and albums, with a special focus on new and emerging artists.
Welcome to the third installment of What’s Good: The Weekly New Music Playlist— and the first official week of autumn. In the past seven days, we were given the bittersweet news that ‘00s indie darlings the Wrens have parted ways, leaving us with a new album from co-frontman Kevin Whelan featuring several songs that might once have featured on their never-completed follow-up to 2003’s outstanding The Meadowlands. We’ll dive into that project’s first offering, as well as new works from King Krule, The War on Drugs, and Snail Mail.
There’s new hip-hop from Injury Reserve, Open Mike Eagle featuring Armand Hammer, RXK Nephew, and Little Simz— plus a revived 2014 track from Mac Miller. In the jazz world, harpist Nala Sinephro has issued a true stunner with her Warp Records debut, Space 1.8, while Makaya McCraven has given new life to a nearly 100-year-old standard timed just right for the incoming season. And speaking of fall, there’s a new cut from Grouper’s latest, a haunted folk number by Lafayette, LA’s Renée Reed, wintry new dream-pop from Hatchie, and so much more…
Nala Sinephro – “Space 1”
Harpist Nala Sinephro emerged from the London jazz scene in 2018– around the same time she began assembling the pieces of her striking Warp Records debut, Space 1.8. First garnering attention at Deptford’s celebrated jazz night, Steam Down, Sinephro has since collaborated with several London-scene luminaries, including Rosie Turton, Robert Ames, and the highly decorated saxophonist Nubya Garcia (who also appears on the album).
Space 1” sets the mood much like the opener of Midori Takada’s 1983 ambient masterpiece Through the Looking Glass, transporting the listener, almost physically, into a natural setting with slight fantastical elements. The control of depth and space is immediately apparent: Birdsong twitters in stereo against floating synths and the glissando of Sinephro’s harp as she works her way across the instrument, projection-mapping her soundworld onto yours. Although the album shifts between ethereal jazz modes after this four-minute tone-setter and quickly reveals itself as one of the year’s most transcendent ambient works, it’s nonetheless tempting to loop this opening gift and spend hours here, among the crickets and the cool breeze.
Makaya McCraven – “Autumn in New York”
Since his breakout 2015 LP, In the Moment, Makaya McCraven has been bringing session players together to lay down live experimentation in the studio, then chopping it all up in post to create a cohesive whole. (The process recalls a radicalized version of Teo Macero’s production work with Miles Davis.) In that time, the drummer, bandleader, and self-described beat scientist has become to Chicago jazz what Kamasi Washington became to the L.A. scene, invigorating its players with his novel approach to composition and improvisation.
Last year, McCraven gave an earthy makeover to Gil-Scott Heron’s inexhaustible final album, I’m New Here, reimagining a record which he told The New York Times “sounds like it’s already been remixed.” (He was referring to the original, produced by XL Recordings founder Richard Russell, not the Jamie xx club version.) Now, he’s taking on the Blue Note discography with Deciphering the Message. “Autumn in New York” reworks Kenny Burrell’s gorgeous 1958 rendition of the jazz standard, remaining faithful to the source while planting it firmly in a contemporary context. McCraven has said he hopes this album will encourage fans to seek out the original works; between this and first single “Frank’s Tune,” a new spin on fellow Chicagoan Jack Wilson’s breezy closer from 1967’s Easterly Winds, Deciphering the Message is certainly on track to double as an essential Blue Note primer.
Mac Miller – “Colors and Shapes”
The opening fragment from Mac Miller’s “Colors and Shapes” is taken from Timothy Leary’s 1966 documentary, How to Go Out of Your Mind: The LSD Crisis, in which he discusses LSD and the self. He asks, “Have I answered the question, 'Who am I?’” before concluding: "Mm-hmm." This theme of self-discovery ran deep through Miller’s music, and here, he examines the vulnerable and exhausting process of putting his art and emotions on public display.
The song is drawn from a forthcoming digital and vinyl reissue of Mac’s 2014 mixtape, Faces. The tape has long been a fan favorite, and it marked a turning point in Mac’s legacy: It was here that he shook off the white-boy rapper stigma and established himself as an ardent experimentalist who blurred the lines of rap as often as he colored inside them. Co-produced with Thundercat, who would ultimately become a trusted collaborator (and even closer friend), “Colors and Shapes” examines the spiritual awakening often described by LSD users, viewing self-reflection through the drug’s kaleidoscopic lens.
Injury Reserve – “Knees”
“Knees” was the first song released by Injury Reserve following the sudden and untimely death of band member Stepa J. Groggs in June 2020. Groggs was one of the group’s two rappers, alongside Ritchie With a T, and at the time of his passing, the group was deep into recording their new album, By the Time I Get to Phoenix. Groggs’ voice is all over it.
It’s easy to paste this narrative onto “Knees,” but the track— which features Groggs on verse three— doesn’t address the tragedy. “While there are some tones of foreshadowing on the project, it’s not a reaction to what happened with Groggs at all. It’s about other stuff we were experiencing before that,” Ritchie told Acclaim. Produced by bandmate/producer Parker Corey, the track is built around sparse drum hits and scattered percussion, while Groggs and Ritchie rail against the daily pressures of a society obsessed with personal and professional betterment. Groggs’ verse is especially potent, addressing his weight issues: “I seen my aunt the other day, she started roastin’ me/ Like, ‘Baby, how come every time I see you, you gettin’ pound in the face?’/ Had some rude l shit I’d want to write her, then I thought about it/ I should probably take this booze off my rider.”
Dijon – “Many Times”
Dijon’s 2020 EP, How Do You Feel About Getting Married, found the L.A.-based singer/songwriter exploring guitar-oriented alt-R&B and neo-soul sounds that, while promising, still mostly evoked the Frank Ocean school of songwriting. He comes into his own, though, on “Many Times,” an impassioned condemnation of an ex-lover that finds him exorcizing his suffering over an instrumental propelled by a jungle-like rhythm whose snares sound like blows landing against a gymnasium punching bag.
Grouper – “Ode to the blue”
It’s officially autumn, which means it’s almost winter, and that means it’s time to cozy up by the fire-light and listen to Grouper— perhaps only Grouper— for the next several months. Teasing a new album for October release, the ethereal singer/songwriter (otherwise known as Liz Harris) presents “Ode to the blue,” a typically quiet and patient offering layered with tape hiss and backed by intimate acoustic guitar. The squeak of her fingers ascending the fretboard, and the hushed vocals you’ll strain to hear, once again manage her unique feat of transporting the listener to a space where the song is all that exists. Harris sent the song to director and experimental filmmaker Dicky Bahto during the height of the pandemic, and the two agreed on a simple yet affecting visual premise: a grainy, grayscale montage of couples kissing in a cemetery. Shot at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, the video evokes our shared longing for connection during that long stretch of isolation, and still resonates sharply.
King Krule – “Easy Easy (Live)"
King Krule just dropped a live album, You Heat Me Up, You Cool Me Down, which culls material from a series of live shows Archy Marshall and his band played just before the pandemic hit. The tour was to be in support of his thrilling 2020 album of post-jazz and art-punk, Man Alive!, but lasted only a few weeks before being cut short. The closing track, in particular, offers a glimpse into what we missed. “Easy Easy,” in its original form, consisted mostly of howled vocals and bludgeoned guitar, but here, it becomes a billowing, tension-filled, alt-rock monster. Marshall lets the song build to a crescendo before inviting his band for an unexpected finale, replete with a ferocious drum groove that propels it beyond the stratosphere.
Aeon Station — “Queens”
The Wrens remain one of the great “what-ifs” in rock history. Following their second album, 1996’s cult hit Secaucus, the New Jersey group took a seven-year leave of absence from music. When they finally returned with their 2003 stunner, The Meadowlands— one of the finest straight-ahead indie rock records of that decade— it seemed the creative derailment had just been a bump in the road. Over the next 18 years, though, it became clear through a string of premature album announcements followed by awkward, interminable silences that, perhaps, we might never hear the results of that work.
On Monday, Wrens bassist and co-vocalist Kevin Whelan announced in The New York Times that, after all, he would be releasing a solo record as Aeon Station, with contributions from the other two Wrens: guitarist Greg Whelan and drummer Jerry MacDonald. According to the Times, guitarist/singer Charles Bissell had balked at a 2019 record contract with Sub Pop; allegedly, he didn’t think the songs were ready. The others felt differently. Some of those songs— presumably, the ones written by Whelan— will now appear instead on Aeon Station’s record.
As you might expect, the first single, “Queens,” sounds a lot like The Wrens. The guitars scream and wail beneath Whelan’s voice, the drums thrash, and the final chorus— featuring Whelan’s wife on backup vocals— whelps, “You said it was all in.” A pointed lyric, perhaps. But, disappointingly putting Charles’ involvement aside, it does partially answer the question of what that lost Wrens album might have sounded like. Band drama aside, it doesn’t disappoint.
Snail Mail — “Valentine”
Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan was 19 when she released her debut album, Lush, and if the word “precocious” was too often thrown her way, it’s only because her music was unusually sagacious and self-assured. Jordan was an open book in those songs, and that lack of a filter helped her songs hit that much closer to home. But the weight of growing up in the public eye took its toll, as it does, and after touring Lush, Jordan decamped to a rehab clinic in Arizona. There, song sketches began to take form, ultimately resulting in her new album, Valentine. Its title track openly reckons with some of those struggles: “Careful in that room/ Those parasitic cameras, don't they stop to stare at you?” she asks. Then, the chorus explodes in a burst of alt-rock glory, her voice more powerful— and confident— than ever.
The War on Drugs — “I Don’t Live Here Anymore (Feat. Lucius)
Every War on Drugs album has found frontman Adam Granduciel moving closer to Platonic rock glory, built on yearnings for former romances and unknown highways. The songs, filled with shredding guitar, snapping drums, and a cruising, rhythmic propulsion, seem to get bigger, too. From the first note, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”— the second single and title track from the band’s latest— shoots off at full throttle, then somehow accelerates past all known limits.
Hatchie – “This Enchanted”
Australian indie-pop artist Hatchie inked a Secretly Canadian record deal, and as we’ve come to expect from new signings to the label, her latest single suggests a big step up from past work. “This Enchanted” remains squarely in the dream-pop firmament suggested by 2019’s Keepsake, but brings her own signature to mainstay influences like the Sundays, Cranberries, and Cocteau Twins. With an assist from co-producer and co-songwriter Jorge Elbrecht, Hatchie builds the tracks around shoegaze guitars, delayed piano-house synths, and percussion straight out of the early 90s British neo-psych revival, when groups like the Happy Mondays, Charlatans, and Primal Scream mashed together alt-rock and rave influences. Here, her glowing vocals collide with the icy mix, hanging like a cloud of condensation in cold, morning air.
Haich Ber Na — “The Last Time I Saw You”
Haich Ber Na has been honing his club-ready R&B since he was a teenager. In a Q&A with Metal, he explains, “I was making grime, rap and R&B instrumentals from like 13-18... From ages 19 to 22, I spent a lot of time developing a sound that felt more like the broad range of music I was listening to.” These days, the former graphic design student sounds like a natural composer: “The Last Time I Saw You” features a delicate build that eventually resolves in a break that explodes with church bells, elaborate polyrhythms, and glossy synth stabs, with a floating falsetto reminiscent of Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes. Much like “87 Days,” which made this playlist earlier in the year, it’s an idiosyncratic party starter that establishes Ber Na as a certifiable rising star.
Moor Mother is a radical multi-hyphenate, crisscrossing disciplines and blending mediums from hip-hop and sound collage to noise and spoken word, with activism as the cornerstone of her creativity. Her work— which explores themes of social injustice, patriarchal oppression, and Afrofuturism, among others— is constantly shapeshifting and always surprising, which explains how she and collaborator Rasheedah Phillips landed a residency at CERN, the particle accelerator that’s at the heart of quantum physics studies..
In an interview with Pitchfork regarding her new album, Black Encyclopedia of the Air, the Philly-based visionary said, “As musicians, we are conductors of human emotion, and the more tuned in you are, you can really pull this out of people. It’s about understanding the different ways that I have to go with such a radical message. My music is tied to a future and a history.” On “Made a Circle,” she recruits Oakland-raised MC Nappy Nina and an eclectic guest roster to flesh out the track, taking turns over a dusty jazz groove to sketch out an equitable Black future.
Open Mike Eagle – “Burner Account (feat. Armand Hammer)"
When Open Mike Eagle and Armand Hammer last linked up in 2013, Mike was still a member of the short-lived L.A. rap crew Hellfyre Club (with Busdriver, Nocando, and milo); billy woods and ELUCID of Armand Hammer had just released their debut, Race Music; and Eagle + Busdriver had just dropped “New Museum,” a track that sampled perhaps the last great rallying cry of the indie-pop era: “Go Outside” by Cults. Lord, how times have changed.
Open Mike Eagle parlayed albums like the Paul White-produced Hella Personal Film Festival (2016) and Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (2017) into a show on Comedy Central; billy woods built Backwoodz Studioz into a certifiable hip-hop destination in New York’s bubbling underground; and Armand Hammer cut their breakout record, Haram, with The Alchemist. “Burner Account,” is in one sense, a victory lap, but almost all of the societal challenges from that earlier era remain. Mike raps, “Project buildings built me/And I done felt everything except free,” a callback to his breakthrough album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. Over a Quelle Chris beat, Eagle, woods, and ELUCID trade one-liners, once again proving they’re some of the best writers in rap, as illustrated by woods slaying lines like, “In the studio, talkin' crazy for a check/ Stephen A. Smith, brother said he gotta get it while it's there to get.”
RXK Nephew – “The One”
It’s impossible to predict what Rochester-based RXK Nephew is going to rap over— or about— but considering how the beat grooves with the low-end rumble of UGK’s grittier moments, it’s probably not a coincidence that one of the first lines on “The One” (a highlight from his new project, Crack Dreams 2), opens with the words, “Play your part:” It’s a likely allusion to the Houston duo’s Outkast-featuring classic, “Int’l Players Anthem.” The lyrics here are uncharacteristically upbeat for Nephew, as he recounts his come-up: “All the times I stayed down and stood tall for this/ They know me ‘round my way, got a gorgeous wrist.” It’s yet another winner from the outrageously prolific rising rap star— one of underground hip-hop’s most compelling new names in 2021.
Little Simz – “How Did You Get Here”
“How Did You Get Here,” one of many standout cuts from Little Simz’s incredible new album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, is a coming of age story and a personal philosophy tightly knit into a thrilling narrative. Over production by SAULT affiliate Inflo (who’s been all over R&B and hip-hop in 2021), Simz recounts her childhood as a Black girl in Britain, ignoring everyone who tried to steer her away from rap while rewarding friends who believed in her vision. Detailing that persistence, Simz raps: “Nothing in life comes easy and you work twice as hard 'cause you Black/ Used to think mum exaggerated 'til the world showed me it's fact.” That hunger clearly endures today: It’s audible in every syllable of Introvert.
Cleo Sol — “Promises”
Cleo Sol’s Mother is an ode to newfound parenthood, full of light, joy, and affection, but one of its most profound moments deals with the collapse of a relationship. On “Promises,” Sol croons over an Inflo beat, revisiting signs she overlooked or willfully ignored. “You was the one who said, ‘believe in love’/ We get closer, but not close enough,” she sings. “Things are changing, but I’m still here.”
Renée Reed - “Tonnerre mes chiens”
Renée Reed makes hushed folk songs inspired by her family’s history in Lafayette, Louisiana. Her great-uncle, Revon J. Reed, was a Cajun folklorist, radio host, and musician, while her parents owned a convenience store where she learned to play guitar during regular jam sessions with locals. Much of Reed’s music, like her 2021 self-titled debut, deals with fate and loss, and the ways our personal pasts can dictate our future. Her second project of 2021, a four-song EP titled J’ai rêvé, is due in November on the Austin label Keeled Scales (now a partner of Polyvinyl). Its opening track, “Tonnerre mes chiens,” built solely around voice and guitar, conjures misery and withdrawal: “I’ve been through hell 1,000 times so don’t tell me of your sorrow.”
Visible Cloaks - “Arcoíris”
Portland, Oregon experimental duo Visible Cloaks have been making highly textural, ambient/electronic works for several years with the NYC label RVNG. On projects like 2017’s Assemblage, or 2019’s serenitatem (the latter made with Japanese avant-garde legends Yoshio Ojima and Satsuki Shibano), the group combined pre-written music notation and software-influenced improvisation. But “Arcoíris,” from RVNG’s new compilation Salutations (co-released by Adult Swim) breaks with this tradition: The piece was written for string quartet. Here, any notions of chance are quelled by the lush arrangements, which rise and fall in a pattern that resembles the meditative pacing of 1960s minimalism and the ambient vision of Brian Eno— an early adopter of stratagem-based composition himself.