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. Listen to What’s Good on Spotify and Apple Music— and don’t forget to subscribe. (It’s free!)
Arca lols at your double album. When she announced KICK ii back in October, it was anticipated as a companion to last year’s first entry in the series, the title of which had hinted at a sequel. But then, she announced the existence of a third LP, then a fourth, and on release day, a fifth. 2.5 hours, 47 tracks. This may strike some as daunting, but it’s a matter of perspective: Most of us regularly carve out similar blocks of time for film and television. Absent plot, but not narrative, KICK has graciously been split into five acts. Only the material demands the same attention we casually offer other disciplines; we’re rewarded in spades.
Reckoning with the project’s scope is as much about taking in the broader vision as finding favorite moments to repeat. In the run-up to these new releases, Arca teased a series of singles providing multiple points of entry, and three of those appeared here on What’s Good: “Rakata” from KICK ii, and “Incendio” and “Electra Rex” from KicK iii. The more contemplative kick iiii features standouts “Xenomorphgirl” and “Lost Woman Found,” and the entirety of kiCK iiiii builds to an extraordinary climax and release with its closers, “Fireprayer” and “Crown.” But taken as a whole, the project conveys so much more than these striking takeaways alone.
Each KICK follows a distinct theme. ii builds on the deconstructed reggaeton and experimental pop of i, while iii returns to the metallic, grinding effects that first set Arca apart in her early career. It’s a spiritual sibling of Mutant and Arca, employing meticulously sculpted sound design as a songwriting tool. iiii is the outlier here, an ambient pop excursion containing some of the most accessible work in Arca's discography; and the series concludes with iiiii, a left-turn into deep ambient meditations and minimal electronic compositions with a delightful spoken-word performance by Ryuichi Sakamoto as its centerpiece.
In a series of tweets revealing the inspiration behind this most ambitious work of her career to date, Arca observed, “a prenatal KiCk is the first undeniable evidence that there exists an individual with an expression distinct from one’s mother and father. through this KiCk, this gesture of will, emerges proof of the individual spirit. each genome DNA a mutation of an imprint of the cosmos moving as a unique expression of an interconnected whole.” In this sense, the KICK series is a birth cycle, if less a unique set of individual parts than iterations of a common theme: being very much alive.
Mach-Hommy’s Pray for Haiti was already one of rap’s best records of the year back in May, but he's gone ahead and topped it anyway. On Balens Cho (Hot Candles), he leans into this thing he’s always done where he slips into a half-rapped, lilting melodic voice, a little reminiscent of Mos Def. But now, the affectation appears more effortless and often, and it helps him maneuver between playful modes and a deadly seriousness.
“Remember lessons taught by my grandfather/ How he helped people out and was a martyr/ And when he died those people couldn’t stand to be bothered/ Wonder why my heart is colder than Antarctica,” Mach spits on the Sam Gendel-assisted “WOODEN NICKELS,” one of the album’s most brilliant tracks. It’s one of seemingly a thousand quotable bars on the project, and one that reveals a side of Mach he doesn’t often share: Balens Cho finds him emerging from his usual mercuriality and diving into his ancestry, studying his forebears and the broader toll taken on them by the colonization of their native Haiti.
Montreal producer Nicholas Craven produced the bulk of these tracks, and even takes a writing credit on “LAJAN SAL” (‘dirty money’ in Haitian creole), featuring a delightful harpsichord sample and one simple, victorious hook: “I haven’t seen my P.O. in a while.” Nearly everything about Balens Cho is a celebration of Mach’s incredible recent run, making its moments of historical reckoning— and its revelatory autobiographical details— all the more rewarding.
Sewing together strands of indie, soul, and gospel, no one is making music quite like Gabriels right now, and few possess a vocal as commanding, nuanced, and masterful as Jacob Lusk. The former American Idol contestant shifts on a dime from sweeping bel canto to ‘60s soul croon, occasionally lifting to falsetto to lend a spectral shimmer to their new four-song EP, Bloodline.
Producer Ryan Hope and multi-instrumentalist Ari Balouzian craft lush, inventive arrangements that compliment Lusk’s sorrows and exultations; their ornate backdrops are as ear-catching as that voice, dovetailing in elegance with Lusk’s beguiling presence. On “Stranger,” they create a small orchestra of buzzing, tension-laced strings and subterranean bass as Lusk sings, “All I ever wanted was a second glance from the one in the flame on the photograph.” On “Blame,” covered here in September, Lusk delivers a few lines that read like lost proverbs: “Not a slave if I’m already free/ Not a captive if it’s where I want to be.” Backed by a sighing chorus, but still suffering, he wonders, “Who’s gonna catch me when I fall down?”
Coldwave duo Boy Harsher went full-on witch house back in October, on their Halloween-ready single “Tower.” The track crept along on a minimal, John Carpenter-esque synth line before blasting wide open in a mess of pummeling drum pads and shrieking, distorted vocals. This turned out to be our first taste of the upcoming soundtrack to the duo’s self-directed debut horror film, The Runner, which is due out in January. “Give Me a Reason,” its second single, extends the 80s slasher flick vibe as singer Jae Matthews conjures demonic shit over icy synth-pop hooks: “Speak of the devil and she will appear.”
Beach House have released four more songs from their upcoming double album, Once Twice Melody, and the best of the batch is “New Romance,” a track that sounds like nothing so much as the glossed-out, 80s-referencing dream-pop of Saturdays = Youth-era M83. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally trade echoing vocals that shimmer against a cinematic melody, chiming synth glissandos, and a chorus that apexes with an acronym: “ILYSFM.”
I don’t know what I was expecting. Aeon Station is not the Wrens, but I ought to have guessed that the best of two decades' worth of material from one of them would prove this boundlessly satisfying. Shattering expectations has always been the Wrens' calling card, and four singles in, Kevin Whelan’s new project extends that streak. “Alpine Drive” arrives just in time for the holidays; its descending melodies ring out like Christmas bells while massive timpani accents lend a stirring, anticipatory feel. A gorgeous love song about returning home to a partner after time away, the song evokes a renewed sense of appreciation and ambition to seize the day: “Where are the memories to the plans that we made?” wonders Whelan, with a slight sense of urgency. “Why do I feel like I still have more time?” It’s the first song from Observatory that sounds nothing like the Wrens at all, but rather, marks a clear evolution, informed equally by classic heartland rock and vintage Zeppelin ballads.
SZA’s “I Hate U” is a brutally visceral, unrestrained breakup song, the kind you need on repeat when you’ve been well and truly wronged. It’s far from her most inventive melody; the elusive, glassy beat functions mainly as window dressing for and the pain in her plaintive alto when she snaps, “And if you wondered if I hate you, I do/ Shitty of you to make me feel just like this, what I would do to make you feel just like this.”
On “Satellite,” Thundercat makes a welcome return to a sound he hasn’t revisited in a while: It would slot nicely into his languid, dreamlike 2015 EP, The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam, or on the flipside of his cosmic 2014 George Duke cover, “For Love I Come.” He’s joined by the hyperactive L.A. duo KNOWER (credited individually), but their own sound is largely undetectable, apart from a gorgeous verse contributed by Genevieve Artadi. Instead, they lend themselves wholly to the larger ambiance, creating a space-like space for Thundercat to imagine “endless planets, distant galaxies, no stress, no strife, just peace of mind.”
Another week, another experimental/ambient post-jazz excursion from the relentlessly prolific Sam Gendel, and it’s hard to be mad. Purely by the data, Gendel is my most listened-to artist of 2021; that’s partly due to the staggering quantity of material he’s flooded into the market this year, but it’s hard to deny the consistent heights he reaches at least once per project. This time, he’s splitting a release with Japanese guitarist Shin Sasakubo, but sure enough, tucked into the middle of the record is the excellent “COPYEXERCISE,” one of two collaborations between them on this LP. Gendel’s signature woody, looped horn lines find new dimensions amongst Sasakubo’s inventive, looped acoustic playing. It’s the sort of song that invites you to live in it, offering a new, subtle, gorgeous detail with each listen.
Oli XL is a perfect fit for Warp Records. The Swedish producer grabs distorted vocals, techno percussion, and one offbeat sense of humor, and blends them into a delightfully mischievous concoction on “Go Oli Go!,” the a-side of his latest single. The cut cycles through an assortment of styles during its shape-shifting four minutes, starting as a traditional UK club jam, then toying with juke, making a leap to orchestral strings, and closing on some subtle jazz piano flourishes. Who said you can’t have it all?
On “Corn,” Nils Frahm wrings his piano of everything it can offer. This solo piece from the German composer’s new album, Old Friends New Friends, is built on quiet, restrained moves, and glacial transitions from one chord to the next. Frahm is a pro at tension-building and capturing the beauty between notes; here, a brooding arpeggio cascade serves as his starting line.
The new eight-and-a-half minute song from Neil Young & Crazy Horse, titled “Welcome Back,” can serve as one hell of a re-introduction. Though the group has collaborated often over the years— including on the entirety of Young’s last album, Colorado— their mileage together varies greatly these days. Yet, when they revisit familiar themes, the results can still, very occasionally, send fans reeling. “Welcome Back” is an overt retread of the desolate, darkened mood of 1974’s On the Beach, and Young’s lyrics are disarmingly self-aware as he drawls, “Gonna sing an old song to you right now, one that you've heard before/ Might be a window to your soul I can open slowly, I’ve been singing this way for so long.” Bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina tiptoe around his delicate delivery with light strokes and gentle brush work, while guitarist Nils Lofgren— who, until rejoining in 2018, hadn’t been a formal member of Crazy Horse since ‘73— contributes meditative, western-skied guitar lines. This is a wandering daydream of classic rock, the sort of unanchored vessel drifting out to sea that Young perfected during his heyday, and it’s a treat to hear him and his longtime collaborators lock back into that zone.
Black Country, New Road have hardly turned pop, but all three singles from their forthcoming second album, Ants From Up There, suggest a subtle centering away from the angular post-rock influences of their debut. Isaac Wood’s voice glimmers with the same cracked tone on “Concorde,” but the band trades in coiling, tight grooves for a sound more indebted to the orchestral pop side of mid-aughts indie. It’s a more contemplative style, less assertive; knotty woodwinds and a marching drum groove highlight the slow pace of Wood’s unfurling couplets. He sings, “Concorde, I miss you, don’t text me ‘til winter/ I can hardly afford a second summer of splinters/ This staircase, it leads only to some old pictures of you, through a thousand mile-long tube.
It would be actual sacrilege to press play on a Nina Simone song and ignore her vocals, so it’s nice to hear an early instrumental showcase of her extraordinary dexterity on piano. “African Mailman” was released in 1959 on an odd compilation titled Nina Simone and Her Friends, featuring three unreleased songs from Little Girl Blue, her first and only recording for Bethlehem Records, along with four more each by two of the label’s other former acts, Chris Connor and Carmen McRae. Although she’s just 24 here, Simone’s piano prowess is already staggering, and backed by the rhythm section of drummer Al “Tootie” Heath and bassist Jimmy Bond, the tune truly swings— a sultry samba running wild on the keys.
Earlier this year, Virginia-born MC and Mutant Academy leader Fly Anakin celebrated his signing to Lex Records with “Sean Price,” an ode to the late Duck Down legend. He’s now returned with “Ghost,” featuring fellow Richmond rapper Nickelus F. Anakin gravitates towards internal rhyme schemes, with a preternatural skill for stringing quotables together: “Nobody in this world is thug enough to hold a secret/ My sole ponder today, how real can I keep it?/ Watch n****s throw on they costumes, watch y’all believe it.”
For nearly a quarter-century, Kompakt Records co-founder Wolfgang Voigt has released stunning ambient work under the moniker GAS. His most acclaimed release, 2000’s Pop, was, like much of his music, inspired by the dense forests of his native Germany. While arbored imagery has long persisted as a motif in his album art, none of his record covers— or records themselves— call back to that 2000 masterpiece as overtly as Der Lange Marsch, his last album under this moniker. A sort of creative retrospective, it samples material from every GAS LP, mirroring and distorting their familiar elements: pneumatic drones, bristling field recordings, and a steady kick echoing the one that entered midway through Pop, unrelenting and steady as a world of sound drifts by.
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