With his latest release, Heterosexuality, pop renaissance man Shamir channels trauma, rage, and feelings of angst, and in response to our troubled times, he’s released an album of uncommon beauty. Employing sharp, pointed lyrics and applying his gorgeous, androgynous vocals to a dark, lush industrial synthpop, Shamir’s album makes a significant musical contribution to the ongoing debates over identity, queerness, and sexuality. Looking to musical cues of the 1990s, Heterosexuality feels bracing, fresh, and ingenious.
Working with producer Hollow Comet, Shamir returns with a record that explores development and growth in his sound. His LP debut, 2015’s Ratchet, was a burst of electronic-laced pop and dance music. The album was a critical success, but his subsequent releases were thoughtful indie-pop records that were intimate. But on Heterosexuality, the singer embraces a bigger, more expansive, almost cinematic sound that echoes shades of Trent Reznor, Trevor Horn, and 1990s-era Prince. — Peter Piatkowski
En Är För Mycket och Tusen Aldrig Nog
On their first new standard studio album in six years, Stockholm’s Dungen returns with a renewed psychedelic spirit. En Är För Mycket och Tusen Aldrig Nog is brighter and bolder than the group’s past works, a kaleidoscopic transformation of pastoral folk impressions into explorations of fuzzy, feedback-heavy brilliance. It’s a multi-dimensional album, alternately wild and pensive but always thoughtful. Frontman Gustav Ejstes takes great care in planning out a scintillating variety of rock riffs and breakbeats, all of which his band executes with passionate precision.
This is vibrant music, hypnotic, atmospheric, intergalactic. Dungen reemerges as a band with clarity of sound and purpose, whether wistful as on “Skövde” or “Om Natten” or exuberant as on “Nattens Sista Strimma Ljus” and “Möbler”. Dungen plays with space and gravity; volume and motion; synths, piano, guitar, and voice alike. This is psych rock at its most progressive, foregoing the easy appeal of retro sounds in favor of moving in truly novel directions. – Adriane Pontecorvo
Like its title, Warm Chris is one part welcoming indie-pop and one part inscrutable motley of disparate parts. It’s not as if Aldous Harding couldn’t play it straight if she wanted. On singles “Tick Tock” and “Lawn”, she tries on the breathy childlike tones of bedroom pop. On other songs, indelible hooks and haunting choruses catch you by surprise just when you’re getting settled into something else. “Fever” would be the torch song its title promises if Harding really put her voice and heart fully into that loaded first word. But her heart is elsewhere, and, strangely, that’s what makes this album so great. Her voice on “Fever” refuses to let us decide if she’s really singing about a torrid 11-day love affair or just moaning about eleven days holed up in a hotel with an exhausting fever.
In the video for “Lawn“, for no apparent reason, Harding cavorts with a partner in lizard prosthetics. But it’s not about the lizards, she explains: “I wanted people to think we were models who were asked to be lizards.” Her lyrics are full of extraordinary images, but not, she stresses, images that mean anything. They’re “phonics, pure phonics. Letting sounds stand alone as poetry against their background, just the sound of the word”. Sparse piano notes often feel more percussive than melodic. There are more bass lines than lead guitars.
Harding seems more at home in her voice when it sounds like it’s being rolled through a mangle, as on the title song, where she’s mostly accompanying herself solo on acoustic guitar, or the elegiac piano-based “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain”, which unfolds like nothing more than an outtake of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”, sung several octaves higher than Neil’s quavery falsetto. Impossibly satisfying, Warm Chris is by turns playful and melancholy, shot through with authentic conviction—about what is anyone’s guess. – David Pike
I Love You Jennifer B
Comprised of the duo Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye, two former students of the renowned Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, Jockstrap, like their namesake, are hard-working, classic, and a bit sweaty. They’re also dazzlingly attuned to what makes for intricate, surprising indie pop music. On their debut LP, I Love You Jennifer B, they marry Ellery’s background in classical violin with Skye’s penchant for zippy electronic beats, creating a record that’s daring and inventive without ever feeling inaccessible.
“Glasgow” plays like a folksy road trip anthem, while “Debra” and “Concrete Over Water” crackle and soar, scrapbooking a flair for Symbolist orchestration a la Claude Debussy with the bass-in-your-sternum razor pop of early Sleigh Bells. It’s hard to imagine another record that could contain a seemingly arbitrary aside from an unknown tobacco-spitting cowboy (“Shifting about in her goddamn crochet pants staring at God knows what”) followed a few tracks later by “Grief is just love with nowhere to go”, a line of sneaking profundity. Get ready to hoist Jockstrap up to your hips, because they’re built to last. – Michael Savio
Angelique Kidjo and Ibrahim Malouf
Queen of Sheba
Queen of Sheba, a seven-part suite composed by the Lebanese-French trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf and sung by the Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo, reinvents the Solomon and Sheba legend as an encounter between Africa and the white, Judeo-Christian world. Maalouf composed and arranged the music, which he and Kidjo, the lyricist, perform with a small group (guitar, bass, drums, electric piano) and a full orchestra. His trumpet style blends jazz, European classical music, and Arab maqam. Kidjo, a premier exponent of West African music since the early 1990s, draws on traditional Beninese folk music, Congolese rumba, Cameroonian makossa, soul, jazz, and funk influences. She boasts a powerful, flexible voice with a clear tone and deploys it superbly throughout Queen of Sheba.
The album’s Arab-African fusion succeeds despite significant differences between West African and Arab music, particularly rhythmic. Polyrhythms, two or more different rhythms played simultaneously, are a hallmark of West African music. Arab music is not polyrhythmic; its rhythms are organized around cycles of beats and pauses. Instead of merging different beats and tones, each instrument ornaments the melody or melodies. Maalouf’s writing and arranging on Queen of Sheba deftly bridge West Africa and the Middle East, with some orchestral pop and rock in the mix. The fusion of cultures and styles comes off as organic, balanced, and captivating. – George De Stefano
Maggie Rogers’ second album Surrender is composed of songs written entirely between April 2020 and November 2021, a time she described as intense both professionally and personally. “It felt really empowering to tell the truth in that way and to acknowledge the fact that I’ve grown up, and I’m going to talk about exactly what my life looks like,” she said in an interview.
That’s what Surrender sounds like and what some of the strongest pop albums end up being: whoever and whatever the artist is into at that moment. Even with a wide range of influences from Shania Twain to Alanis Morissette, the record sounds so distinctly Maggie Rogers in a way that separates her from the pressure of being the student who had her song called flawless by Pharrell. “Sick of the sound of self-importance / I fucked off for a month or two,” she proclaims. For an album that can’t help but be influenced by a particularly difficult period, Surrender sounds like the kind of authenticity we searched for on those quarantine walks. – Jeffrey Davies
Out of Heart
Flohio’s debut has been gestating for several years. Given the relentless volume of tracks that the London MC has released in that time, her 12-track debut full-length, Out of Heart, almost feels like an anomaly. Despite this, it’s more of a complete collection than her 2020 mixtape No Panic No Pain, organized intuitively and featuring a broad tonal synergy that makes for a compelling listen. There’s a level of emotional resonance to this collection that strikes in surprising ways, highlighted by the giddy “SPF,” effervescent “2 Hours”, and resplendent “Feel Alive”. More proof was hardly needed, but on the resonant strength of this release, Flohio has a bright future ahead of her. – Tom Morgan
Ugly Season is an ugly album, at least, by pop music’s standards. Overwrought and devoid of a sonically cohesive genre, it is also gorgeous, haunting, and just a little campy—a trip through a crooked carnival funhouse in which there is no one path to go down, and maybe no exit either. We’ve never heard a range of instrumentation quite like this on a Perfume Genius record, nor have we ever heard Michael Hadreas, the frontman behind the Perfume Genius’s eclectic indie pop, so subsumed by his experimental proclivities.
However, this mad scientist at the center of the record has something to say. Between enigmatic musings on grief and uncanny arrangements stitched together in a Frankensteinian patchwork of phantasmagorical harmonies, a connective tissue of emotional excess juxtaposed against a rigid, bodily restraint ties the record together. It’s an album that writhes in shame of our most hideous moments as much as it in turn celebrates those same defects. Because ugliness is unavoidable. Better to dive into it, redefine what it means for ourselves, and give the world one hell of a show. – Michael Savio
The latest mixtape from London’s versatile Greentea Peng, Greenzone 108 is another laidback, eclectic triumph oozing with compelling personality. Peng’s fusion of hip-hop, jazz, neo-soul, and reggae is brought together in a wholly effortless collision. The instrumentation is surprisingly full-bodied for a mixtape, featuring string flourishes (“Stuck In The Middle”), guitar riffs (“Your Mind”), and visceral bass (“Bun Tough”). Greentea Peng herself is the glue that holds it together, guiding the vibrant music via her unique rap singing, with “Lose My Mind” an especially commanding example of her skills. – Tom Morgan
Expert in a Dying Field
The Beths hoped their second record would build on the positive attention of their 2018 debut, Future Me Hates Me, but nothing was certain in 2020. Jump Rope Gazers received some acclaim, though, like other albums released in 2020, it was mostly buried under the weight of everything else happening in the world.
Soon after, singer-songwriter Liz Stokes began work on what would become their third album, Expert in a Dying Field. While the record finds the New Zealand band still offering their distinct take on power-pop, they’ve continued to push themselves sonically with their latest, striking the perfect balance between the introspection of Jump Rope Gazers and the high-octane buzz of Future Me Hates Me. More than anything, Expert‘s production, handled by guitarist Jonathan Pearce, is leaps and bounds beyond anything else in their catalog, featuring quaking walls of sound (“Silence Is Golden”) to legitimately anthemic stadium rock (“Best Left”). — Kevin Kearney