Signal Boost: 15 Tracks from November & December 2021 You Should Know
The months’ 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.
Bane Capital, Koncept Jack$on, & M.E.D., “New Skeezer (Hot Sauce)”
I wonder if a rapper’s ever had a stress dream about having to follow up a Koncept Jack$on verse with one of their own that matches Jack$on’s breathless delivery, deadpan inflection, and sharp wit. Madlib and Blu collaborator M.E.D. manages to do just fine on this cut that precedes a full EP of collaborations between Koncept and producer Bane Capital, who mostly stays out of the way of these two emcees with a smooth, looping beat soundtracking their two straight minutes of Sorkin-paced monologues.
Corrina Repp, “I Luv the Valley OH!”
Xiu Xiu’s original version of this song will forever have a special place in my heart if only for the fact that it was the first objectively, um, strange song I can remember falling in love with during a period of being convinced that I was supposed to like any band a guy who wears a saddle bag in the mid-’00s should like. Yet Corrina Repp’s take on the track—which, with the mid-’00s in mind, isn’t dissimilar to Art in Manila’s wispy cover of Les Savy Fav’s “The Sweat Descends”—succeeds in stripping it from the otherworldly mania the original exists in and turns it into a fairly straightforward (and chillingly pleasant) song about living with depression. Not sure the dramatic stylization of “OH!” is warranted with this version, but we’ll take it.
Five Pebbles, “Down Softly”
It’s inevitable: Every year we silly little journalists publish our silly little lists of our silly little favorite albums, and then another LP (or EP, in this case) drops in late December that’s basically guaranteed a spot on next year’s list, should we remember to include it. Five Pebbles is a new project from Weatherday—a songwriter who fits within a camp of artists whose existence is meant to reward those of us who spend way too much time digging for new music online—that sees the artist warping their sound into blown-out instrumental noise pop. Well, at least that descriptor fits the opening track. To be quite honest I haven’t made it past “Down Softly,” I keep smashing that replay button.
I don’t think there are a whole lot of rappers who can boast robust collaborative discographies with both Drake and Lil Ugly Mane. Yet Nickelus F manages to squeeze himself into the tight space where the Venn diagram of Drake’s laidback flow and fellow Richmonder Ugly Mane’s cult status surrounding his overly anxious raps overlap. The latest Nickelus sighting came at the end of November when the rapper guested on the recently prolific Fly Anakin’s “Ghost,” which saw that rapper’s harrowing Fruitvale Station–referencing verse complemented by a very, uh, Nickelus F verse from Nickelus F (“Wash my face with the same towel I wash my dick with,” he brags at one point after proclaiming that he “could bite and eat a cactus”) all over a thumping, entrancing beat courtesy of PacDiv’s Like.
Hymie’s Basement, “Phantom Throb”
I feel like in 2003, Hymie’s Basement—and the Yoni Wolf catalog more broadly, if not the whole Anticon roster—was very much an acquired taste. The duo of Wolf and Andrew Broder’s sole release under the moniker was an intentionally weird lo-fi record that skirted the line of hip-hop and misguided projection of what the 21st century would have in store for us pop-wise. Yet surprisingly “Phantom Throb,” the group’s first release since then, manages to fit the HB trajectory while also incorporating both factions of the groups’ experiences working with a wide range of collaborators who’ve helped to shape the future of music (mostly looking at Broder’s ties with Justin Vernon here, not to mention Wolf teaming up with the equally amorphous yet not as ubiquitous Lala Lala on a few projects). No disrespect to “21st Century Pop Song,” but this feels like a much better candidate for that title.
Just Mustard, “I Am You”
There aren’t many things more unsettling than hearing the phrase “I am you,” a jarring assertion you might expect the Mystery Man from Lost Highway to utter through a truly terrifying smile (or worse: as he calls you from your own home while staring at you in someone else’s). But one thing that is more unsettling is Just Mustard’s song that takes that phrase as its title, slowly building layer upon layer of spooky sounds both ambient and distantly familiar to the genre of rock music. The track’s lyrics even feel a bit like they were penned by David Lynch with a bit of Vertigo-inspired existential confusion tied in—the repeated refrain of “I am you with the red” somehow incorporating Lynchian tropes of overlapping identities and there randomly being some character named, like, “The Man with the Red Hat.”
Kirby Grip, “Armstrong”
I feel a little guilty every time I hear people talking about rock being dead. As someone who writes about rock music, isn’t it up to me to keep up with writers whose beats are rap and the ever-complex realm of electronic music when it comes to categorizing new sounds? Like, Hum released “Stars” over a quarter of a century ago and it feels like that song alone launched an entire new genre, but all we’ve given bands like Kirby Grip to list in their tags on Bandcamp are “alternative” and “rock.” And now I’m stuck comparing these two fairly disparate bands—Hum and fellow Illinoisans KG—when the latter’s really got their own thing going on, such as the call-and-response-vocals on “Armstrong” and a faint pop-punk influence. I guess pop-pHumk doesn’t really have a ring to it.
La Armada, “Checkmate Humanity”
I’d say At the Drive-In exist in a specific category of music that similar groups like Rage Against the Machine inhabit: “Bands That Launched in the ’90s That Ruled but Whose Formulas No One Else Was Ever Able to Successfully Replicate.” Seems like the harder a vocalist tries to copy Zack de la Rocha’s fury, for example, the faker it sounds. La Armada are probably the first group I’ve heard who’ve succeeded at channeling what ATDI did, though this reverence for classic post-hardcore feels peripheral for the Chicago-via-Dominican Republic group whose primary focus is dismantling colonialist thought. “Checkmate Humanity” does just that with riffs more powerful (and lyrics less inscrutable) than what their predecessors achieved.
Here in this moment, where I am, it’s in the single digits outside, the COVID numbers are at an all-time high, and I’m struggling to navigate a social life with both indoor and outdoor get-togethers essentially out of the question. The irony isn’t missed on me that I’m taking refuge in the chillwave-tier relaxed beats of a song about learning to enjoy living in the moment with someone knowing full well that things won’t remain this good forever with them as I once again switch tabs to check the seven-day forecast. It’s hard to bottle a feeling like this—the hardly comparable sensation of a spontaneous night out in climes that are at the very least tolerable—and yet “HITEM” instantly takes me back to that, like, one week pre-Delta when all was good.
Myles Bullen, “I’m No Meteorologist”
I noticed last month that our colleagues at Brooklyn Vegan described the artist Ceschi as a “hip-hop adjacent folk punk musician” while covering a single I also wrote about on FLOOD, only my context for Ceschi is that he resides in the world of hip-hop while occasionally dipping his toes in the pools of folky pop-punk. I’m not sure which descriptor he identifies with more, but that specific intersection appears to largely be the focus of his label Fake Four, with artists like Myles Bullen constantly blurring that line with twee verses rapped over twinkling beats that probably couldn’t have existed without the influence of Alopecia (not a Fake Four release, but close). I’m no meteorologist, but Mourning Travels seems like a release worth anticipating.
Gotta confess that I’d somehow managed to live through the early 2000s without ever having heard the original version of this song, and listening to it now it feels pretty made up—it’s like someone on the internet took every trope of turn-of-the-millennium rock, threw it in a blender, and provided jokey vocals over it. Having a general idea of which specific subcultures seemed to benefit from the track, though, I was surprised to learn Queen of Jeans and Gladie’s song of the same name was, in fact, a cover—and not just because of the anachronistic mention of Juuls (in place of what I can only assume was an extremely controversial line about bringing a gun to school immediately post-Columbine?). This version not only reclaims the track as a dream-pop jam but makes a convincing case for its surprising malleability.
SB the Moor, “Babylon: The Tower”
It’s hard to remember a time pre-“Happy” when Pharrell-type beats were not only impossibly minimal but nearly ubiquitous as he and Timbaland managed to share a monopoly on the hip-hop charts. Things have obviously only gotten more out of control in hip-hop since Pharrell teamed up with Daft Punk and bought a weird hat, but the recent SB the Moor single makes a compelling case for returning to the neat simplicity of “Grindin’” as the rapper details an American psyche way more damaged than the one we experienced immediately post-9/11. From the capitalistic paper chase to a certain doom at the hands of white boys with guns constantly spelled out for us in the news, the less-is-more beat “Babylon” cruises on leaves plenty of room for lyrics that cover more pressing issues than those of, uh, a mind-numbing song literally suggesting you remain blissfully ignorant of all bad news.
Swarrrm, “The Answer”
Now that the no-such-thing-as-over-the-top-core boundary-pushers in The Armed have infiltrated the mainstream, I have a little more hope for the reach of bands like Japan’s Swarrrm, whose sonic palette is much less chaotic than HYPERPOP yet who produce songs that start off equally intensely and manage to crank up the grindy, borderline-goofy intensity as they plow through. “The Answer” is seemingly one of only two streamable tracks on an LP I believe is called I Dreamed… in English (which actually dropped at the beginning of 2021 in Japan, though the UK-based Dog Knights Productions re-released it back in November), and as the opening track it introduces the record in a manner that’s equally unforgiving as “WITNESS” was on The Armed’s last record. Wonder if they got yolked for this album.
Ustalost, “Stinging Stone”
In the brief window we had where it kind of felt like a good idea to experience live music in a crowded venue I was only able to catch a handful of shows, but of that handful, unsurprisingly, Yellow Eyes was the group that provided me with the long anticipated sensation of transcending at the gig. Though the backwoods metal group hasn’t shared any new music since 2019, it was a welcome surprise when their woozy offshoot Ustalost dropped a fairly experimental LP in the aftermath of that tour. Carrying over the familiar icy guitars from YE, just about everything else on Before the Glinting Spell Unvests is pretty unexpected—not least of which being the brief choral bridge on “Stinging Stone” and the wild bass riffing that closes out the song before sci-fi synths take over.
Back in September, 03CAS closed out the season with what was probably the least summer-y song called “Summer” released all summer. Maybe my opinion of it is shaded by its lyrics and music video, but the track feels fit for hopping on the bus and watching the blackened snow pass by outside your window as the sky quickly darkens at, like, 3 p.m. (oh, and somehow your socks are wet). While Chris Laufman’s remix doesn’t sound any summer-ier, it at least conjures a more compelling mental image of the bleak months ahead—one of opting never to leave your warm apartment on a mid-winter day in the first place, snuggly in bed while your radiator makes all kinds of unexpected noises. Maybe one of those noises also sounds a lot like a Notwist song.