Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
How does an artist follow When We All Fall Sleep, Where Do We Go, Billie Eilish‘s bona fide smash debut? It skyrocketed Ms. Eilish into the stratosphere, such that she only had two choices for a sequel. One, she could repeat the formula of her first album, with subversively moody lyrics in ballads and alt-pop soundscapes. Or, two, she could take a sharp left turn to an unexpected destination.
Cleverly, she and brother/producer/co-writer Finneas chose a third option. They leaned into her mood swings, dug deeper into her whispery and ethereal vocals, but then they dressed the songwriting in jazz stylings (“my future”), bossa nova (“Billie Bossa Nova”), electropop (“GOLDWING”, “OverHeated”, and rock (the title track). Those who achieve fame tend to produce records that unpack the criticism, insecurity, and loss of privacy that accompanies the achiever’s ascent. Eilish does exactly that here, relaying her experiences with the public (and often male) gaze (“Not My Responsibility”), with the changes in her relationship to music and herself (“Older”), and with her evolving understanding of personal and systemic power dynamics (“Your Power”).
Eilish continues to be a quiet singer with loud lyrics. What’s on display now is her mastery of letting her lyrics breathe so that she never crowds the rhythm. Happier Than Ever is likely a sarcastic title, given the world’s struggle with the pandemic and Eilish’s individual growth. But the lessons she’s learning are genuine, fashioned into vignettes that do more than capture the moment. Rather, she has infused these tracks that bump, pulse, and groove with a demonstration of how much distance she can cover through only the tiny steps mega-fame will afford. Fortunately, that means Billie Eilish is still on the move. – Quentin Huff
Yola – Stand For Myself
[Easy Eye Sound]
It takes an artist of considerable talent to create their own world through their sound, and Yola fully and confidently occupies that rarified air. Genre restrictions melt away as R&B, country, pop, gospel, and rock all intermingle and make something wholly her own. Constructed like a journey of self-empowerment, Yolanda Quartey’s sophomore LP begins with the need-to-be-heard-and-accepted anthem “Barely Alive”, and ends with the determination of the hypnotically powerful title track.
In between, we’re treated to the otherworldly disco beauty of “Dancing Away in Tears” (co-written with Dan Auerbach – who returns to the producer’s chair – and Natalie Hemby), the joyous resilience against the odds of “Diamond Studded Shoes”, the seductive soulful sway of “Starlight”, and the roof-raising Stax/Volt drive of “Break the Bough”. Brandi Carlile joins on the remarkable “Be My Friend”, a song that makes one think of early ’70s Free (not only because it shares the same title as one of their classics). It just solidifies Yola‘s genre-be-damned ambitions and ability to walk through fire to bring them to fruition. – Mike Elliott
Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
Rebecca Lucy Taylor, aka Self Esteem, has created something messy, loud, angry, and above all glorious in her second album, Prioritise Pleasure, having emerged from the band Slow Club a glittering pop queen. Lead track “I Do This All The Time” – a part spoken-word, part gospel song of extraordinary power and warmth – is surely a contender for Single of the Year. But beyond that, the album is fabulous and funny, without being frivolous. It’s a way, as Taylor puts it, “to be defiant and euphoric in response to trauma”.
From the magnificently subversive “Moody” (a song celebrating being a “moody cow”), the irresistibly lusty title track with its call to “prioritize pleasuring me”, to the empowered, barking rage of “I’m Fine”, the album offers unashamed power tunes. At any given moment it can surprise, contradict, shock, comfort, delight, and enrage. It’s uniquely Taylor’s voice, in that sense, but, refreshingly (bearing in mind the insular pop that currently dominates the charts), she’s generous. She wants us with her. She wants to make us laugh, reassure us, and inspire us. She wants us to answer her call to arms. And, of course, she wants us to put on our brashest outfit and dance up a storm with her. – Adam Mason
Lucy Dacus – Home Video
Lucy Dacus is a gifted storyteller, and 2021’s Home Video is a profound meditation grounded in memory and the potent cocktail of awakening desire, ecstasy, and heartbreak that inevitably marks each of our journeys in myriad ways. Home Video represents a lyrical, symbolic exploration of whether and in what way one can go home again. Released into a cultural timeline still impacted by repressive and authoritarian manifestations of Christianity, Dacus‘ vulnerable confessions of coming of age as a queer teen in Southern evangelical culture are essential precisely because of her unapologetic, matter of fact delivery.
By revisiting her adolescent memories over against her maturing perspective, Dacus has woven a tapestry of musical vignettes that suggest the power of vulnerability. Her narrative gifts make a strong case for inclusion among the great Southern writers. Her writing is delivered in her soft alto through imaginative indie rock arrangements alternately stripped back and driving but never muting the intensity of emotion. “All I need for you to admit is that you never knew me like you thought you did,” she sings. It’s a caution to those our lives intersect in temporal moments. It may also be a caution she gives herself in this exercise and one she admonishes us, her listeners, as we assess and categorize art in ways it can’t be grasped. Home Video is a potent offering of memory and self-expression. – Rick Quinn
Backxwash – I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses
With her third album, I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses, hip-hop artist Ashanti Mutinta, aka Backxwash, offers a relentless evisceration of Western heteronormativity and longstanding biases regarding mental illness. “Wail of the Banshee” features belches of distortion and a hellish manifesto (“My mind’s stuck in a torture chamber”). The title track, with its trashy, b-horror-flick sound effects and a rivetingly sinister guest appearance by Ada Rook, shows the Zambian-born provocateur lamenting colonialism and Euro-Christian orthodoxy (“Lost in addiction … / the colonies and their vision / robbing me of my diction”).
The project progresses with Mutinta reveling in disturbing narratives while commenting on various political and cultural factors that contribute to violence and suicide. However, while Mutinta’s lyrics are engaging, it’s the unadornedly feral tone and timbre of her voice that distinguish her work. Whether her verbal content is decipherable or not, a listener is mesmerized by Mutinta’s demonic snarls, shrieks, and hisses, her malefic rapture, and unabashed catharsis. I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses, despite its thematic cogency, is ultimately trans-verbal, an id-driven transmission that leaves a listener devastated, demolished, enlightened. – John Amen
Sierra Ferrell – Long Time Coming
This West Virginia-born artist has deep roots in western swing and old-time country music seasoned with a modern, global sensibility. Ferrell’s music takes one on a journey where Tammy Wynette meets David Bowie, and they travel to the stars without having to leave the barn door open. The 12 songs here showcase the depth of her talents as a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter.
Ferrell’s self-penned material ranges from haunting sea ballads and slow waltzes to fast-paced mariachi and bluegrass romps that seem to come from a timeless and diverse place where love and dancing rule the kingdom. Long Time Coming seems so unfashionable and out of date that it’s hip instead of retro due to Ferrell’s charisma and devil-may-care attitude. She’s the girl at the playground who invents her own games rather than join in the team sports with the crowd, and everyone wishes they were playing with her. – Steve Horowitz
Helado Negro – Far In
Helado Negro’s Far In is a celebration by choice. Its warmth and joy could be perceived as shallow, compared to his recent efforts, but such feelings are anything but and there are still cracks of depth underneath here. It’s danceable and wide-grinned, like imagining yourself at a backyard barbeque filled with the best of friends and close family. The mood flows and ebbs naturally.
The drumming is striking and persistent throughout the album. Keeping time and keeping a pulse. The drumming essentially keeps the album, and Lange, afloat. The Texan sun may keep you stocked up on healthy vitamins, but Brooklyn melancholy still seeps in here and there. Naturally. Far In doesn’t sound or feel escapist. You’d feel it if it was. Don’t overthink it. Take it in and soak it up. Then repeat the procedure. Far in presents a recipe worth saving. – Jesper Nøddeskov
Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
Unsparing. As an artistic expression, albums can function as instruments of contemplation and confession and can vary from indulgent and self-serious to raw and honest. Julien Baker’s slowcore/indie rock explorations on her third studio album Little Oblivions are unsparing without being self-flagellating. Listening to Little Oblivions is a profoundly spiritual experience as Baker invites us into her raw lament, confession, and vulnerability. The album begins with an accounting of relapse and moves through explorations of grief, the inevitable pain we cause and bear in relationships, and the power of naming and questioning the structures of meaning imposed on us that break under the weight of lived experience. As such, it is an artifact of our times.
The acute heft of Baker’s poetry emerges here through a dramatically expanded sound palette that evolves from reliance on mostly spare arrangements on piano or guitar on her earlier albums. This self-produced album includes drums, organ, bass, and synth—all played by Baker— along with backing vocals from Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, her collaborators in boygenius, for an expansive sound without distracting from the album’s poetic intensity. It is almost as if this sonic and lyrical combo gesture at the artist’s expanding sense of self in art’s ambiguous but real healing power. Little Oblivions is one of the most profound albums of the year. – Rick Quinn
Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange
Amythyst Kiah boldly wears her heart on her sleeve in Wary + Strange. She interweaves blues, rock, folk, and R&B elements to make a musically multi-sided, deeply personal affair. Kiah’s cool musical savvy makes for a scorching album, honing in on heart-rending tales of her upbringing and identity. As a queer Southern Black woman, she climbs an uphill battle against systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia.
In Wary + Strange, she tackles these topics with commanding defiance—like in the album’s new version of her previous Our Native Daughters hit, “Black Myself”. Looking inward, Kiah is honest about some of her most deeply personal traumas on “Wild Turkey”, discusses religious oppression on “Firewater”, and bookends the album with a strong sense of identity with two versions of her self-assured anthem, “Soapbox”. Throughout, Kiah’s work is as musically diverse as it is an honest reflection of her life. – Jonathan Frahm
Rhiannon Giddens – They’re Calling Me Home (with Francesco Turrisi)
The second album with Rhiannon Giddens‘ multi-instrumentalist partner, Francesco Turrisi, credited in the title, They’re Calling Me Home is another gorgeous collection of folk songs from the couple. Rounding out their ensemble are Emer Mayock (flute, whistle, pipes) and Niwel Tsumbu (guitar), who lend their talents to this sonic exploration of Giddens’ concept of “home”. It’s been a while since she and Turrisi moved to Ireland, and the songs peppered throughout They’re Calling Me Home pay homage to their new home, as well as their hometowns.
The arrangements are decidedly traditional, with earthen, organic, sinewy instrumentation paving the way. The album is bold, despite wearing its old-school roots on its sleeves with interpretations of tunes like “Waterbound” and “Nenna Nenna”, an Italian folk song that calls back to Turrisi’s youth. How do they innovate a song as beloved and well-known as “Amazing Grace”? Strip the lyrics from the arrangement, then focus on its melancholic, meditative underbelly. Of course, there’s plenty of room for Giddens’ resonant vocals to soar—like on the haunting “O Death” or powerful “I Shall Not Be Moved”. – Jonathan Frahm