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!)
Moses Sumney’s outstanding new concert film, BLACKALACHIA, is among the most thoughtful, considered, and riveting recent entries in the genre. Shot live in the Blue Ridge Mountains, its cinematography, vivid color grading, and exquisite costuming underscore the intense commitment to craft that's required to elevate this format above the shared space of traditional live sets. Sumney is a dynamic performer in any venue but backed by a full band whose individual presences feel equally integral to the production, his delivery is positively electric. That energy carries through to the LP as these new arrangements achieve heightened momentum. “Virile,” from last year’s grae, isolates the stark, brooding piano note at the song’s opening and pits it against Sumney’s wandering vocal as the rest of the band slowly joins in, building to a supercharged chorus and spectacular conclusion.
FKA twigs’ first-ever collaboration with The Weeknd marks a turning point: The two artists most associated with the “alternative R&B” wave of the ‘10s (a neologism the formerfirmly rejected) are now both full-on pop artists. Anyone feeling left out in the cold by 2019’s beautiful but abstruse Magdalene (couldn't be me) will love the airtight structure of “Tears In the Club,” with twigs’ vocal acrobatics channeled into hook after hook. Production-wise, the track is a refined, uptempo take on the haunting, spectral vibe of her earlier material. twigs is evolving, andshe knows it: “i am leveling up to my best self, cause my best healthy self is my competition always.” Here for it.
Earl Sweatshirt keeps his collaborators on lock. He’s close with MIKE, was early on Mach-Hommy, and retweets tracks from Stove God Cooks— so it’s fitting that he’s linked with rap’s tightest underground duo, Armand Hammer, on “Tabula Rasa.” Talent breeds ingenuity, and each verse here is better than the last. I’m especially partial to this midsection bar from Armand Hammer’s billy woods: “Kofi Annan in the booth/ Soyinka in the stu’/ Sese Seko Mobutu if the DJ play something smooth.”
Little Dragon's new single, “Drifting Out,” takes a welcome shift away from their long-established electronic underpinnings. Backed only by piano, the sole focus turns to Yukimi Nagano’s soulful alto, which absolutely shines here. The result is, by some distance, their best song in more than a decade, returning to the stripped-back sound that's marked some of their most potent work, including their gorgeous debut single, “Twice.“ In a sharp twist, the group issued a remix that's even sparer, pairing Nagano with two of the world’s most celebrated solo cellists, Jakob Koranyi and Yo-Yo Ma. This version retains all of the original's emotion, even as it trades out that rich piano work for fragile, interweaving strings that, in style and production, recall Arthur Russell’s delicate approach to the instrument.
serpentwithfeet closes out his year with a gorgeous cover of “Bless the Telephone,” a heartfelt composition by British artist and poet Labi Siffre. Originally recorded for a one-off video last year, the new studio version accentuates the powerful qualities of Josiah Wise’s unique voice, oozing traditional R&B warmth in one moment and melismatic falsetto in the next.
With Chromatics disbanding and new questions swirling around their ill-fated album Dear Tommy, the band’s charismatic ex-vocalist, Ruth Radelet, has issued her first solo recording: a cover of Elliott Smith’s “Twilight” featuring on the forthcoming 55-track Kill Rock Stars covers compilation, Stars Rock Kill. Her rendition of this essential Smith heartbreaker marks a firm break with the past, as the brooding retro-noir vibe of her former band is traded for glowing piano chords, blinking synth accents, and air-light vocals shimmering above it all.
Jean Dawson is determined, relentlessly creative, and refuses to be bound by any one sound. “MENTHOL*,” his new DIY pop-punk jam featuring Mac DeMarco, is propelled by a rapid vocal delivery, as he packs more words into a three-minute runtime than anyone not named Busdriver: “Fuck up out my face/ I don't smile no more but we all great/ Now we fuckin' pray/ I don't hold my tongue, I bite the grain/ Say my fuckin' name, boy, don't say my motherfuckin' name.” DeMarco, meanwhile, contributes a loping guitar line and a voicemail dropping words of encouragement in his typically lasseiz-faire style.
Boldy James and The Alchemist have dropped their second joint album of 2021 with Super Tecmo Bo, and it comes with a heads up that they’ll be joining Earl Sweatshirt and Action Bronson on tour in the new year. Album opener “Level Tipping Scales” hardly cracks 90 seconds, but Boldy’s evocative drug raps and Alchemist’s arpeggiated textures will stay on loop in your head all day.
Tierra Whack’s recent string of genre-themed EPs haven’t quite landed for me. It may be partly that she’s not quite ready to take on rap or pop; she sounds most natural and at home on her latest, titled R&B?. Not to pigeonhole, but “Heaven” comes closest to the style of her stellar debut, Whack World, which remains such an inventive and singular sound that to simply call it “R&B”— even if followed by a question mark— sells it short.
Though credited to the full band, the Fleet Foxes live album, A Very Lonely Solstice, is mostly a solo affair. Recorded in Brooklyn at the end of last year, as New York declared a state of emergency following a spike in COVID-19 cases, the record finds frontman Robin Pecknold performing with rarely more than his acoustic guitar. In contrast to the lush, layered harmonies of the originals, Pecknold’s arrangements lend new intimacy to material that often focuses on loss and isolation. “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” one of the most enduring songs from the band’s 2008 debut, exemplifies this, as Pecknold delivers the stark, haunting lines, “Dear shadow, alive and well, how can the body die?"
“film festival” is ambient/electronic composer Isik Kural’s first release for the vanguard RVNG label, and it feels right at home on a roster featuring Julia Holter, Bing & Ruth, and the late Pauline Anna Strom. The Glasgow-based artist imbues warm piano chords with a sense of melancholy and tentative hopefulness, surrounding his voice with lightly chopped samples as he purrs impressionistic lyrics evoking the delicate nature of a winter’s first snow— a poem disguised as electro-acoustic meditation.
Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto share a decades-long collaborative history, often convening to create free-flowing ambient records. Their latest release, “Monomom,” is an updated version of a piece last heard in their 2018 Sydney Opera House performance, with Noto’s hissing digital textures swelling to meet Sakamoto’s looping, contemplative piano chords.
Ryuichi Sakamoto appears elsewhere on this week's playlist with a cut from last year's live-streamed solo piano concert. A sort of follow-up to his similarly titled 2009 album, Playing the Piano 12122020 finds the composer/producer covering many of his most famous works. Among those signature compositions, of course, is the gorgeous title theme of Nagisa Ōshima’s 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, featuring here in a particularly graceful rendition.
German electronic duo Modeselektor link with rising British firestarter FLOHIO for “MAD,” a collab that leans heavy on scuzzed-out bass, synth squeals, and bar after unstoppable bar. This is just the latest banger to emerge from this fruitful team-up, following “Social Distancing” and 2018’s bouncy “Wealth.” Safe to say: A full album from this trio would be a dream.
El Drágon Criollo is the debut project of the multi-hyphenate Columbian artist born Paulo Olarte Toro. Inspired by cumbia and ‘80s South American music, the album, Pase lo Que Pase, is so dappled by sunlight, you can almost feel the glow. Album opener “La Número Uno” is especially playful with its frolicking champeta rhythm, circular guitar chords, and the cheerful interjections of a Casio-sounding preset that falls somewhere between a vinyl record scratch and a lo-fi dog bark. Just a wonderfully uplifting vibe.
Chant Amazigh by Majid Soula is another fine release from reissue label Habibi Funk. Album opener “Algerie Maroc” begins as a highlife-inspired cut with groovy synths and handclaps on the off-beat giving the track a wobbly edge. As it progresses, the track halts and accelerates, shapeshifting into a double-timed, funhouse-mirror remix of itself.
Originating with Fela Kuti in 1970s Nigeria, highlife music has long been a favorite sound among crate diggers, spawning countless compilations and box sets of rare, mind-blowing funk. During that same period, Ghana-based producer Dick Essilfie-Bondzie was issuing material on his own labels— Dix and Essiebons— featuring artists who took those rhythms and incorporated touches of U.S. funk and soul. Now, Analog Africa documents that output with Essiebons Special 1973-1984: Ghana Music Power House, exploring ultra-rare discs by such “funky highlife” acts as Seaboy, Ernest Hommy, Santrofi-Ansa, and C.K. Mann & His Carousel 7, who score one of its tightest contributions: Propelled by a loose, polyrhythmic groove, “Yeaba” gleams with organ swells and emphatic call-and-response vocals.
The essential Awesome Tapes From Africa label has signed Pretorian artist Lutendo Raduvha, producing as Teno Afrika. His debut LP, Amapiano Selections, draws its title from the South African house genre of the same name, a blend of jazzy electronica and kwaito. On the first single, “Where You Are,” he’s joined by vocalist Leyla for a near-Balearic take on amapiano that’s utterly intoxicating. It’s music for long nights by the ocean when the only thing louder than crashing waves is the bass thumping from your chest to your toes.
In 2020, Kazakhstani violinist Galya Bisengalieva stepped down from her position leading the London Contemporary Orchestra to embrace a burgeoning solo career. Her debut album explored one of the great climate change disasters of the modern era: the rapid shrinking of the Aral Sea. Titled Aralkum after the desert region that’s gradually replacing the sea, the album was among last year’s most celebrated modern classical works. This year, she recruited other prominent composers to recontextualize the material, including Moor Mother, Jlin, and Actress, whose “Barsa-Kelmes” remix processes the original’s course, futuristic synths and skittering strings into an ominous, toxic glow.