Dawn Richard – Second Line
Since 2011, Dawn Richard has followed her own idiosyncratic music, putting out a series of brilliant albums, mixtapes, and EPs that sought to explore and expand on the boundaries of pop, soul, and dance music. With her latest, Second Line, Richard continues to thrill listeners with some beautiful, fascinating music. Working with various producers, including Joe Beats, Kaveh Rastegar, J-Rick, Sam O.B., and Ila Orbis, Second Line is a gorgeous record that has some fantastic, strange, esoteric sounds that play with house and club conventions. It’s a pioneering record and easily one of the best of the year.
There’s a concept or theme laced throughout Second Line; Richard pays tribute to New Orleans, her birthplace. The title refers to the traditional parades of New Orleans, hosted by the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. “Second Line” refers specifically to the group of people who follow the first line, reveling in the music and fellowship. For much of New Orleans culture and lore, music is an integral part of the narrative, and so it makes sense that in her homage to such a rich tradition, Richard creates a whirl of an album with a dizzying array of sounds. — Peter Piatkowski
Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
Arlo Parks’ debut album is a quiet, emotional collection of songs. She sings catchy melodies over R&B, soul, and hip-hop grooves. Often there’s a guitar riff or a piano line or even a drumbeat to give a track a strong hook. Even the most head-bobbing songs on Collapsed in Sunbeams come off as supporting elements to Parks‘ vocals and lyrics, however. Parks is an excellent storyteller and each track on the record functions as its own tale. Sometimes she acts as an observer, as on “Caroline”, where she witnesses a couple arguing at the moment of their breakup. “Hurt” offers advice to a friend who just got dumped.
Mostly, though, her songs are presented as first-person accounts. “Eugene” describes her complicated feelings of jealousy, attraction, and emotional support as her best friend dates and breaks up with Eugene while Parks is dealing with her own romantic feelings towards her friend. “Green Eyes” recounts a relationship cut short due to her partner’s history of being emotionally abused. “Too Good”, on the other hand, is about self-sabotaging a good thing because neither person can quite believe it’s going so well.
This may be heavy stuff, but those beats and riffs, despite being secondary elements, keep the tracks engaging and fun regardless of the subject matter. With songs this good, it’s no wonder that Collapsed in Sunbeams became the first album by someone born in the 21st century to win the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. – Chris Conaton
Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under
[Polydor / Interscope]
One of the oldest tropes in the pop-rock playbook is the desire to get out of town and head for something bigger. So why does it sound so fresh and inspiring when the 27-year-old Sam Fender does it in 2021? It’s partly due to Fender’s unselfish motives. When he was 17, his mother lost her job as a nurse because of a health condition, and after considering “shifting gear”, he instead set course on becoming a rockstar. With Seventeen Going Under, there’s no doubt that he’s achieved his aim.
Fender weaves together political disillusionment and personal insights on his sophomore album: childhood alienation and struggles with parents, fist-fights and cheap drinks, penniless heroes, and cold Septembers. It sounds clichéd but it’s somehow not. Instead, the middle Englander’s music is so stirring that the rusty howls of Johnny “Blue Hat” Davis’ saxophone could engender a steel mill strike. The sustained guitar chords shimmer with the excitement of unlimited potential waiting to be seized. It is undoubtedly Fender’s most cohesive collection of songs, working-class woes set to sparkly, uplifting pop-rock. Like Springsteen before him, Fender provides other 17-year-olds on their way under with the soundtrack to hope for something bigger. – Hayden Merrick
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
Space is the place on Promises, a sublime collaboration between producer Sam Shepherd, known as Floating Points, and tenor sax legend and Coltrane collaborator Pharoah Sanders. Featuring exquisite work by the London Symphony Orchestra, the continuous nine-movement suite is a testament to the power of sonic subtlety and negative space. Sanders plays a truly cosmic horn, beaming through the electronic galaxy Shepherd crafts with such delicacy.
The piece morphs over time in astounding ways, a starry synth motif the backbone holding languid, open moments together with heated string sections and layers of keys. Sanders’s breath and vocables are warm and human; Shepherd and the Orchestra create a cool galaxy dotted with white-hot twinkling. Adding to the sense of space, each member of the Orchestra was recorded with strict social distancing protocols, individual microphones picking up each musician. Intimate and expansive, Promises is a new world of sound at once personal and transcendent. – Adriane Pontecorvo
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
[Age 101 / AWAL]
On her 2020 EP Drop 6, Little Simz rhymed, “You ain’t seen no one like me / since Lauryn Hill in the ’90s.” She was probably right. As an emcee, Little Simz bears an uncanny resemblance to L Boogie, especially in her command of vocabulary and her dexterous flow. Little Simz regularly constructs rhymes with high replay value and quotable content.
Nevertheless, 2021’s Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, the follow-up to Little Simz’s excellent 2019 long player Grey Area, seems cut from the same royal cloth as Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen and Roxanne Shante’s Bad Sister. Like those hip-hop titans, Little Simz is sweeping in the cinematic scope of her vision and musical backdrops. Like Latifah’s “Ladies First” and Shante’s “Independent Woman”, Little Simz celebrates the majesty of womanhood in “Woman”. Imagine LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl” with a global point of view.
Also like Latifah and Shante, Little Simz likes to diversify her rhythms, whether she’s riding slinky boom bap on “Introvert”, digging into classic soul vibes to explore her father-daughter struggles (“I Love You, I Hate You”), crooning like the R&B diva Cherrelle joining the S.O.S Band on “Protect My Energy”, or swooning to Afrobeat à la Fela Kuti (“Point and Kill” and “Fear No Man”).
Amid her triumph, there’s a twinge of sadness, wherein Little Simz finds solace in silence and in a desire to be alone. Bridging the gap between public and personal personas is a major theme here, as the album title itself is an acronym for the artist’s nickname: “Simbi” is short for Simbiatu.
“The kingdom’s on fire,” she begins the album, but it was most likely set ablaze by an artist covering so much musical ground while managing to stay grounded. With so many references to DNA, pressure, and resilience, Little Simz wears a heavy crown. Royalty, as she says, is in her blood. She was born great. – Quentin Huff