Signal Boost: 15 Tracks from January 2021 You Should Know
The month’s most discourse-worthy singles, according to our Senior Editor.
There’s enough highly publicized new music released every day now to keep you busy for at least a year. Chances are you haven’t heard all of it—and if by some miracle of temporal tampering or unemployment you have, chances are you haven’t retained too much of it.
That’s why every month, our Senior Editor Mike LeSuer rounds up fifteen tracks to reiterate their importance in an unending stream of musical content. Comprised of pre-released singles, album deep cuts, and tracks by unfairly obscure artists, he thinks these guys could all use a little Signal Boost.
From the opening seconds of “VALE,” the track’s droning guitar can easily be identified as that of Madeline Johnston by anyone who spent months meditating to Midwife’s dirgey Forever last year. The debut solo single of School Dance’s Allison Lorenzen actually fits pretty comfortable within that groggy, morning-after shoegaze record aesthetically, with Lorenzen’s floaty vocals matching Johnston’s own—though the rousing repetition of the song’s sparse mantra and ominous piano render it unique. While it’s composed with dark textures, I think it’s safe to say this is the lightest piece of work inspired by Cormac McCarthy.
Clever Girls, “Baby Blue”
Every time “Baby Blue” comes on I’m convinced it’s a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” and every time it progresses from its ambient interlude to its closing lo-fi take on the wall of sound (RIP Arlen or whatever Ronnie Spector’s husband’s name was) I need to be reminded again of what it is I’m listening to. That said, Clever Girls cover plenty of ground on the first single from their new album Constellations, climaxing with an endearingly minimalist reworking of the sudsy sounds of Merriweather Post Pavilion—where guitar, drums, and other familiar rock instruments indecipherably tumble over each other and coalesce into the perfect haze to zone out to.
Divide and Dissolve, “Prove It”
There are bands that make you miss experiencing live music, and then there are bands that make you miss experiencing live music. Divide and Dissolve fall into the latter category—“Prove It” is the precise soundtrack to me standing in a silly little room with my silly little beer, completely forgetting the tremendously stupid responsibilities I have waiting for me tomorrow which, at their root, all stem from the blanket terms like “capitalism” which have shaded our society an unfortunate shade of oppressive. D&D were formed with the express intent of dismantling systems like these, though I imagine this isn’t exactly the way in which they’d intended to go about it.
“Sayaka” may not be the first song written “literally about a fucking anime,” but it’s quite possibly the most dramatic—intense hardcore instrumentation competes with existential and spiritual crises over the song’s four-plus minutes. The track opens with the sounds of instruments tripping over themselves and never quite manages to catch its footing, slowing down only for a lengthy bridge that’s too dissonant and uncomfortable—predictably foreshadowing the pummeling screamo of a closing passage—to put you at ease. Vocals aside it’s weird how much mewithoutYou vibeage I get from something so chaotic.
GHLOW, “Hold On”
Imagine the meet-cute that was Sleigh Bells if instead of a child-actor-turned-pop-singer Alexis Krauss was a violin-prodigy-turned-sculpture-artist, and instead of a post-hardcore guitarist Derek Miller was a tattoo artist, and instead of happening upon each other in New York City they met in Stockholm, and instead of forging some ungodly assault on bubblegum pop they instead tried their hand at punky darkwave. Fortunately we live in a reality where both meet-cutes (meets-cute?) manifested—the extremely specific hypothetical laid out above belongs to GHLOW, whose latest single is less conventionally structured than the blown-out pop of Sleigh Bells, but it certainly matches the aggressive feedback.
For anyone who prays to the three deities of god, Goku, and JAY-Z, Bruiser Brigade feels like the perfect rap group. The crew Danny Brown came up with is still kicking despite Danny’s mingling with Q-Tip and Blood Orange and A$AP Rocky now, and J.U.S. is the sign of a forthcoming new wave of young Detroit-based emcees matching or ultimately topping the successes of the guy whose jeans were too tight for G-Unit. “Kash Doll Type Beat” is unnerving in a way that not even Kash Doll’s music is, recalling the pre-Ballard days of Danny while incorporating that emcee’s inimitable vocals. It’s one of several tracks on the rapper’s debut that stand out among this weird moment in hip-hop, providing an early left turn on an otherwise leftfield release.
I’m embarrassed to say that even to this day my familiarity with MF DOOM’s discography is largely reduced to the samples other hip-hop artists have employed in their music which I later heard DOOM rap over at some point in my life, assuming he snatched the beat up from these rappers. I recently fell in love with “Accordion” after becoming obsessed with billy woods’ “Borrowed Time” years ago, while I’m pretty sure I first heard the beat for “Poo-Putt Platter” on an old Astronautalis freestyle. That’s the backdrop Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman used for the ode to DOOM they dropped just a week after we learned of the icon’s death on New Year’s Eve, weaving in and out of the Mm…Food sound collage while reminding us just how much material DOOM left rappers to use as a playground.
Extremely different LICE here—these ones are from the U.K., a place where things have been severely black-midified in recent years. LICE’s post-punk, though, clings more to the mounting hysterics of Girl Band rather than the wonky prog of groups like Squid and Black Country, New Road, with “Imposter” displaying what that band’s songs would sound like if they kept tightly wound instead of slowly unravelling in a fit of rage. Both an early contender for best brutal-prog opera of the year and most disturbing time signature.
Major Murphy, “Access”
When I lived in California I remember someone telling me that they went to the Midwest for the first time and they couldn’t believe that the people there were generally…nice? It’s weird to think about, having lived in that area most of my life, but yeah, I guess it’s kind of unique that there’s an overwhelming sense of politeness permeating the entire ope-lemme-just-squeeze-right-pastcha region of our country. That’s entirely the vibe I get from Major Murphy (somehow I didn’t need to google them to know they were from Grand Rapids—it’s like they’re the Founders Brewery of bedroom rock) and “Access” promises a record full of gentle, comforting, saying-hello-to-everyone-you-pass-on-the-street rock.
maassai feat. Kumbaya, “to fly”
The state of hip-hop these days is like the preferred mode of presentation for harried Chopped contestants: deconstructed. But rather than snake-oiling their way into the judges’ favor after fucking up a perfectly simple egg sandwich, artists like maassai are intentional about the way they take apart hip-hop conventions, reconstructing their music with an ear for each ambient detail they’re rapping over. “to fly” proves a minimal, clanking, start-stop beat—punctuated by distant screams—is just as adequate a soundtrack to rapped verses and soulful choruses as anything that even borders on radio-friendly, a considerably more convincing case for “deconstructed” than a BLT with no bread.
Some people are suckers for songs with a good narrative, others for some god forsaken reason enjoy murder ballads—and, as we’ve recently seen, the sea shanty was briefly and inexplicably making a comeback. I, for one, am attracted to songs with lyrics transcribed from DM convos ripped from @SheRatesDogs, @downbadpatrol, or other accounts of the ilk—“Schatze” very much falling in line with the green genre. The song’s warm guitar tones and apathetic-call-and-slam-effect-response has its own appeal, while the all-too-relatable personality Ohtis embodies—you know, a guy who texts “do u liek Ariel Pink?” and shit about vaping in the middle of an argument—is the stuff of nightmares and HBO sitcoms. I think my favorite detail of the music video is that the dude is texting on an Android.
Raccoon City, “CARNATION”
It’s weird to me now that as a teenager who only listened to quote-unquote indie rock, my favorite moments in live and recorded music were also the most unhinged—the dude from The Vines completely melting down every time a late night show welcomed them to their stage, Matt Berninger loosening his tie on “Abel.” I spent about a decade of my life ignoring entire categories of music focused on adults expressing this exact same type of dramatic mental anguish, rather than just occasionally dipping their toes in it. Not sure if “CARNATION” is the emotional centerpiece to the forthcoming LP from Australia’s Raccoon City or if each song on the record will copy this La-Dispute-by-way-of-Nick Cave formula, but either way I’m sure the track will stand out.
Sole, “I’m Ridin’”
If ever there was an artist with two very distinct acts to his career, it’s Sole. His releases can be pretty clearly divided between his proto-Sole years as an existentialist emcee who came up with Anticon and his neo-Sole period in which his political radicalization has totally destabilized the first part of his career in favor of something less inspired by weird beats you find on the internet and more reliant on the infuriating wormholes lubricated by social media. “I’m Ridin’,” then, feels (relatively) angstless, with the rapper coasting over a cool, hard-hitting early Sole beat while invariably spitting anarchistic verses. “History don’t repeat, but at times it rhymes,” he muses to kick off the track—an apt observation for the pandemic, the insurgence, or even the rapper’s career.
Vaste Aire & COSMIQ, “Good Fuel”
In hip-hop years, we’re centuries away from the period when Cannibal Ox—and, coincidentally, the first iterations of Aesop Rock and Sole—moulded the underground hip-hop zeitgeist, and it’s a shame that a new Vast Aire single in 2021 generates little more than a ripple. But the rapper’s been quietly prolific in the post-Trump era, guesting on tracks from Jedi Mind Tricks’ Vinnie Paz and an early Westside Gunn tape in addition to releasing solo material. “Good Fuel” is hard to overlook, though—the burrowing beat bordering on homage to the Suspiria OST and scathing, blunt vocals (notably: “I’m ready to scalp Donald Trump”) are less a celebration of the end of an era and more an indication of the apocalyptic state our recent democratic victory arrived in the midst of.
Water From Your Eyes, “Hella Good”
Water From Your Eyes’ music is anything but aggressive. The electronic prog-pop duo is arguably the gentlest signee to the grunge-heavy Exploding in Sound Records, the pair of records they’ve released on EiS meekly ranking among the label’s best. That said, hearing the one-two punch of Rachel Brown’s reverently intense vocal performance of “Lose Yourself” and the nu-metal-guitar-effect synths on “Hella Good” leading off the duo’s new covers LP feels like seeing the shy kids from your freshman class unexpectedly wilding out at semi-formal. While the former is probably more impressive, their Gwen Stefani cover—an era-appropriate interpretation sounding like a cover of Distrurbed’s take on the track—is the record’s highlight.