With luck and care, 2021 can be a year where we dig ourselves out of the fear and cocoonlike reflection that characterized much of 2020, conditions reflected in the music that followed, however intentional or not. The year that brought us the dark meditations of the Weeknd’s After Hours, the apocalyptic observations of Run the Jewels’ RTJ4, the rustic entrenchment of Taylor Swift’s folklore and evermore, and the winsome sadness of Adrianne Lenker’s Songs is over. If we play it right, this year can be a time for recovery and reconnection. These themes are bleeding into the music of the year already; everyone is anxious to get out of their shells, leave old habits and ways of thinking behind, and dive headlong into something new.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises
Legendary jazz saxophonist and sometime John Coltrane sideman Pharoah Sanders met the Manchester electronic producer Floating Points on a lark; having heard the younger musician’s debut album Elaenia in 2015, Sanders reached out, and the duo struck up an easy friendship commiserating over a shared love of improvisational music. Promises, the inaugural collaboration between the two and the first album from Sanders since 2003’s With a Heartbeat, is a work of true compromise. Gone for the most part are the hail of hurried notes that characterize landmark Sanders releases like 1968’s Karma and 1971’s Black Unity, the “sheets of sound” inspired by Coltrane; if you come looking for the spirited, exploratory noodling of a Floating Points album, you’ll also come up short. Instead, Promises is a meditative, almost ambient work. It envelops you slowly, like a storm rolling over vast plains, a tickled harpsichord here, a mournful sax line there, and lithe, delicate accompaniment from the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s the stuff of dreams.
Lana Del Rey, Chemtrails Over the Country Club
On 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, Lana Del Rey finally achieved a sound that was as glamorous and fully formed as her image, not by dressing her songs in production hip to the sound of the radio, but by peeling back layers to foreground core wants and needs, like her desire to find peace out in the California hills beyond the lure of Los Angeles and the dreamers therein. This year, Chemtrails Over the Country Club picks up where Norman left off. It’s quieter, almost unnervingly skeletal sometimes, a folk album that covers Joni Mitchell and mentions Tammy Wynette but takes more from the stark chamber music of Nick Drake. Chemtrails finds the singer experiencing more of America, visiting the coasts and the Midwest and finding that there’s just as much terror and intrigue outside, but more than anything, it’s an ode to resilient women of the past and present, of Lana coming to terms with the unforeseen side effects of her own trip from waitressing to fame but also looking in on the lives of her friends and heroes. The theme is women doing whatever it takes to maintain happiness; Chemtrails seeks joy and also offers it to the listener.
Julien Baker, Little Oblivions
Until recently, Nashville singer-songwriter Julien Baker was known for the stark sadness of her music. On 2015’s Sprained Ankle and 2017’s Turn Out the Lights, the prevailing sounds were gently plucked guitars, soft piano notes, and unnerving emotional earnestness. Those hallmarks remain on her third album, Little Oblivions, but from the opener “Hardline,” which explodes with euphoric shoegaze-indebted noise at its chorus, it’s clear that we’re cooking with different ingredients. On Oblivions, Baker remains a one-woman band (and a writer informed by the difficult intersections of queerness, addiction, faith, and expectations, both from others and for yourself) who writes all of the songs and plays most instruments. But now, she’s showing how versatile the arrangement can be, piling on keys, guitars, and drums that add emotional complexity. “Crying Wolf,” a song about getting free of the lure of partying, comes couched in triumphant, rushing, swirling synth and guitar sounds. “Faith Healer,” which calls out the false comforts of using substances to mask inner pain, seems shockingly upbeat. As Baker examines the dizzying ins and outs of recovery, Little Oblivions feels like a reintroduction, the first salvo of a profoundly changed artist.
Foo Fighters, Medicine at Midnight
Being something of a drummer’s band, launched via a stash of songs Dave Grohl stockpiled during his stint behind the kit in Nirvana, Foo Fighters is an outfit whose winning quality is a brutal precision. The greatest Foo tracks — “Best of You,” “My Poor Brain,” “Good Grief,” “The Pretender” — all exemplify alternative rock’s seamless meld of the speed of punk and the weight of metal. There are dyed-in-the-wool rock historians if you peer deeper into the catalogue (or catch the theatrics of the arena show), although the playful, bluesy stuff rarely makes the proper studio albums. On Medicine at Midnight, the band figures out how to keep the crunch and momentum of its sound intact in a collection that gestures to titans of rock history like ZZ Top, Motörhead, Heart, and the Beatles, serving a wider array of grooves and entertaining production flourishes like choirs, synths, and string sections while maintaining the signature heft, even as it goes out on a limb dabbling in folk and funk. The result is the band’s best work in at least a decade.
Madlib, Sound Ancestors
Madlib is an enigma, a master crate-digger and producer with classics in multiple decades, a formidable jazz musician in his own right, a sharp-witted rapper when he wants, a recluse you can only find when he wants to be found. There have been few easy points of entry into the vastness of his capabilities; when he announces new music, you never know whether you’re getting the maestro of indie-rap brilliance like Madvillainy and the Freddie Gibbs collaborations Bandana and Piñata or the many-faced instrumentalist of 2010’s High Jazz. On this year’s Sound Ancestors, arranged and edited by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, Madlib finally ties his disparate interests and talents together. The genius sample manipulation of the Beat Konducta series shows face on cuts like “The Call” and “Dirtknock,” the latter transforming post-punk trio Young Marble Giants’ minimalist “Searching for Mr. Right” into bubbly boom bap. The title track is a free-jazz break; “One for Quartabê / Right Now” is part hip-hop sound collage and part jazz-fusion odyssey. Sound Ancestors’ restless trek through the far-flung worlds of punk, rock, rap, R&B, reggae, and Latin and American jazz is as unpredictable as it is both effortless and excellent. That’s Madlib in a nutshell.
Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
Jazmine Sullivan is one of the greatest R&B vocalists working today (or any other day), but she’s also one of our sharpest writers. She creates characters you feel for and worry about. Her latest, Heaux Tales, is a work of fictive brilliance and relatability. You want the woman lying in her bedroom plotting out a better life in “The Other Side” to finesse her way into the heart of the man of her dreams; for the party animal from “Bodies” having second thoughts about promiscuity to take less chances; for the inconsiderate ex in “Pick Up Your Feelings” to stay gone. These songs (and lively between-song anecdotes) poke at the vastness of modern women’s lifestyles and experiences but also the enduring versatility of modern R&B. On “Put It Down,” Sullivan skips across a trap beat with the effortlessness of Drake, then “On It” corrals Ari Lennox for a perfect slow jam. “Price Tags,” with Anderson .Paak, touches on ’90s hip-hop soul; “Lost One” revisits the psychedelic heights of Frank Ocean’s Endless (whose “Wither,” “Rushes,” and “Hublots” featured her vocals). “The Other Side” suggests Sullivan could totally make a killer shoegaze record if she wanted to. At eight proper songs in just over half an hour, Heaux Tales honors the GZA rule: half short, twice strong.
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