Mark: Last year, I posted Part 1 of a series reviewing the songs on my friend Mike’s 2020 Listens playlist. It was kind of a joke post, spurred on by a joke-threat that I made on Facebook at the time, but I found that most of the songs on his playlist were irritatingly high quality and sophisticated.
This was threatening to me. I am painfully aware of my musical blind spots, and there are entire genres that I rarely gravitate toward, largely because I don’t know where to find the good stuff and because the grooves worn into my brain by my established listening habits run deep. So I basically spend all year seeking out punk, metal and sad folk songs and then I actually usually rely on multiple year-end lists to fill in some gaps.
So, you can see how someone who had “No Bakeries In Highland Park” by ASS LIFE on his 2018 fave songs list might feel like kind of a dumdum next to someone who, like, collects high quality vinyl copies of the kinds of R&B gems that would be playing at some coffee lounge for geniuses. Most of what I listen to sounds like it’s blasting from some PBR-soaked hole in the ground.
This is just a long preamble to say: I’m going to put some time and attention into listening to Mike’s 2021 list of songs and give it the thought that it deserves. And I have invited him along to make fun of me while I do it. Hi Mike.
Mike: Hi Mark. I have to admit, when you made that post last year I got a real thrill out of it, so I’m excited to hear your thoughts on this year’s crop. There’s no punk or metal, I’m afraid. I do share a love of folky singer-songwriters, but I’m usually a year or two behind on discovering those albums when they come out. When I made this mix one thing I noticed is that it’s a lot more unified in style than previous years. So brace yourself–and I hope you brought your headphones.
One quick note before we get started: I don’t drink coffee, and the vinyl buying doesn’t stem so much from a brush with genius as it does an undiagnosed mental disorder.
Curtis Harding – “I Won’t Let You Down”
Mark: Ten seconds in and I already feel cooler than I was before.
This is a great soul throwback. Assuming this is new? Wait, it’s on Mike’s 2021 songs list, it has to be. This production does a great job emulating the sound of a bygone era. I’m loving the way that everything is recorded. The horns and backing vocals go a long way to pump this number up. The electric guitar is just drowning in reverb and sounds terrific.
I think that this song is perhaps most memorable for the way that it sounds more than for the tune itself. A total pleasure to listen to, but now that it is over, the melodies are already starting to fade from memory a bit. Still, though. I like it.
I do wonder, though.. is this song a case where I could have successfully used the word “pastiche” and subsequently leveled up as a “music writer”? The more I think about it, the more I think that maybe the word “pastiche” applies here.
Mike: This track was a late addition to the mix. It feels embarrassing to admit this, but I put a lot of thought and take a lot of pride in the sequencing of these year-end playlists. So when I caught wind of this album, which had been released just a week or two earlier, days after I’d finished the sequence of the playlist it posed quite a dilemma. Quite. Luckily, I felt this track worked as an opener to set the mood. It’s a closer on the actual album, which maybe says a bit about where my energy is focused this year.
I’d agree that “cool” is definitely front and centre here. I’m a big fan of the whole arrangement, and his voice is great. The melody may not be the star here, and I think that may be an effect of the song coming out of the blues tradition. I love where this song lives harmonically, though–as much as I understand such things.
Helado Negro – “Wake Up Tomorrow”
Mark: Great chord progression and a smooth vibe off the top. So far this playlist sounds like a lazy sunny day. The song lands on a “verse”, with a nicely unvarnished vocal performance carrying the tune. Lots of character, here. No real chorus or hook to speak of. I’m sure that wasn’t what they were going for.
Another track that is heaviest on mood and sound, and less concerned with “songwriter-y” trappings. Super pleasant to have on. Would probably put me in a great frame of mind if I had it on around the house. Lots of great-sounding instrumentation and a laid-back approach.
Can’t complain about it! But now I don’t remember much about it outside of the chord progression, which – as I mentioned – is very nice indeed.
Mike: You could remember the string arrangement perfectly accenting that chord progression? His voice reminds me of Lambchop on this one.
L’Rain – “Blame Me”
Mark: The production on this track is really something! The warbling guitar loop sounds like it’s going to fall apart from the get-go and when it gets devoured by the spiraling, swelling strings, it’s difficult not to feel swept up in it.
The song evades conventional classification, and I’m not even sure what to call this. It’s built around more of a slightly shifting refrain that becomes more hypnotic as it carries on. The very compelling vocal performance is complimented well by the layered production. This track is a real journey, what can I tell ya?
I enjoyed this.
Mike: I’ve listened to this album a lot since it came out in the spring, and it still gives me a thrill every time I hear it. You’re bang-on that it is hard to classify, but it’s a little bit of many of the things I love the most in music: experimental, lush, emotional, varied, with lots of interesting sonics in the production. All hail L’Rain.
Melanie Charles – “God Bless The Child”
Mark: I wasn’t sold on this off the top, because the vocal approach was a little too brassy for me, but the song arrangement is winning me over. The vocals make more sense as the punchy rhythm section and soaring accent flutes provide more of a bed for them to lay in.
This song sounds like it was recorded in a cavern. Reverb is thick!
I think the chorus works better than the rest of the song, but the heroically held vocal note near the song’s conclusion winds up being a pretty great moment. Do the slightly distorted guitar hits really work in this song? I’m not sure…
This was okay.
Mike: Mark, I just need to check in at this point to understand if you’re aware this is one of the most interpreted jazz standards ever. No judgement either way, but just, if I may borrow a phrase from my work life, to level set.
Those guitar hits get me super pumped.
Emma Jean Thackray – “Venus”
Mark: Mike, most of this music sounds like it was designed to be best enjoyed while high on the weed.
Is this psychedelic soul music? The big opening of this song doesn’t actually do much for me, but when the song settles in to an electric piano groove, I like it a lot more. Very cool drum shuffle going on all over the place here. Even though there are bongos, which are like… the anti-drum.
This song has some great dynamic shifts that work well for me. I like the way that they’re stripping things back only to dump the whole pile on at once without foreshadowing the build too heavily.
The instrumental sections sound great. The vocals are just fine, but this song is another vibe-heavy number with a lot of repeated lines and lead hooks that sort of melt into the overall movement of the piece. The chanted part in the back half is lots of fun.
As it the cool-down instrumental outro.
Lots of fun stuff here. I’ll never listen to this again.
Mike: I do call a lot of the stuff I’ve been listening to the last few years psychedelic R&B, though I don’t think it’s a commonly used term. I find “alternative R&B” to be too condescending, and implies a white lens assuming that the music is trying to be apart from the long history of R&B similar to how the alternative rock acts of the 90s were. But I don’t think that’s the case with these contemporary left-field R&B acts.
None of that is relevant here, though, cuz Emma-Jean Thackray is white, and this is jazz. To provide some context, this is coming from two places as far as my ears can tell. The first is a legacy of British funk-jazz, which had a heyday in the 70s into the 80s and is having a resurgence now. The second is what’s called spiritual jazz, which is a jazz movement primarily from the 70s, inspired by civil rights and black liberation movements. Thackray is taking that sound as inspiration and adopting it to a contemporary feminist view.
Agreed there’s lots of fun stuff here. I listen to it all the time.
Scrimshire (ft Cleveland Watkiss) – “The Pile”
Mark: Ah fuck, more bongos?
Ah fuck, this song is eight minutes long?
You can’t tell me that this isn’t designed to be enjoyed while on the weed. This track practically sounds like it has its own strain of weed named after it. That being said, this is tremendously well done and pleasant sounding instrumental mood music. I could definitely put this on while cooking dinner or something.
There’s a moment about a minute and a half in where the string section sort of decays into discordance and it starts sounding like a classic horror movie score. Give me more of that energy!
The vocals are totally satisfying and solid. It all works in service of this tune, which almost winds up sounding like a really earthy James Bond theme or something. There really isn’t much to critique about the arrangement, because all of the instruments sound great and all of the parts sound appropriately weighty and tightly played. The piano strikes that drive the back half of the song provide a surprising amount of push, which is a relief because this song – as I have mentioned – is eight minutes long.
For an eight minute long song that has bongos in it, this is surprisingly good. I hope they release a radio edit of it that is 3 minutes long and has no bongos.
Mike: Just sitting here listening to this trying to imagine what it would sound like with the 90s FM alt-rock toms you surely desire in place of the bongos and . . . wow, Mark, really?
(Keeping my comments here brief to balance out the length of the track).
Charlotte Day Wilson – “If I Could”
Mark: Two minutes and twenty-six seconds? That’s more like it!
Also, the song doesn’t start until thirty seconds into this video, so this track is even shorter! Great!
The melodic vocals in this song are very nice, but there’s not much to speak of in the way of musical accompaniment off the top. The very subtle and quite nice production bed creeps in during a spoken-word section that I understand is well-written, but ultimately holds nothing for me. Some neat synth stuff going on in the background, though.
The song concludes with a return to vocal melody, featuring heavily layered harmonies and, I believe, some pitch-adjusted vocodor-y voices. I totally get what this song is going for, but I’m not sure that it’s for me.
Mike: I know we don’t have a tonne of overlap in our musical loves, but going into this crop of songs I thought this would be the one most likely to win you over with its strong songwriting, beautiful production, and powerful vocal performance.
Then I sat here listening to the song on repeat, searching desperately for what you were calling a spoken word part. And wondering why you couldn’t hear the guitar, bass, drums, synths in the first half of the song, no matter how vocal-forward the mix is.
Then just as I was about to write something snippy about it, I thought maybe, just maybe…and I hit play on the embedded video.
Then I heard a completely different mix of the song than is on the album and my playlist.
By the way, I think the poet on your mix of the track is Mustafa from a couple songs down from here.
Mark: I just listened to the album version on your playlist and I like it about a billion times more. Oh God it, it’s true. I really DO only like things if they have a guitar on them.
This is a great song!
Jazmine Sullivan – “On It”
Mark: The guitar work off the top here is *chef’s kiss*.
Oh, I think that this song is about sexy topics! Unless I’m completely misreading it. What’s the “it”? “It” is a dingdong, no?
Anyway, this is the first song on this list where I might actually think it’s a stinker. The guitar line is nice. Actually, the loop itself is fine. But this seems like kind of a nothing little romp, doesn’t it? There’s not much going on here. Vocals are okay, but it doesn’t catch me.
Maybe I’m just shy about the dingdong talk and it’s making me embarrassed.
Mike: “It” is a dingdong, yes.
When I posted my playlist for consumption, one friend who loves this album commented shock that this was the song I picked from it. What I said then is what I’ll say now: “Lol. I dunno? It grabbed me. Great vocal performance. Makes me laugh.”
SPELLLING – “Turning Wheel”
Mark: Aggressive art-school attitude barreling out of the gate here. Aesthetically, I hate this. Haha.
Musically, there are a few nice chord movements (particularly the… ‘chorus’?), and the production sounds pretty well done. I really don’t love the song, though. Yeah, this really wasn’t for me. Hard pass!
Mike: Look. I hear you. I. Hear. You. The theatre-kid of it all is really what kept me from really diving into this album more than I did last year, but there are a few songs on it I just really like. But when the chips are down I’ve always been more comfortable with my art-rock in the B-52’s vein.
If it’s not clear by now, I’ll say it plainly: production is important to me, and I’m a sucker for a big arrangement and/or sweeping strings. This has all of that in spades, and it reminds me of what I like about songs in musicals in my darkest moments.
Mustafa – “What About Heaven”
Mark: Holy shit, this guitar part/loop is tremendous. Gorgeous little hypno-melancholy guitar line. Great, evocative vocal. The distant-sounding gang vocal (sounds like children?) is creepy and compelling. The production is overall super appealing and understated.
I love this one, actually. Heading to Spotify to fave it.
Mike: Yeah. It’s a perfect song from a special album.
END OF ROUND ONE
Mark: I will admit – this is roughly what I was expecting. The quality bar here is pretty high, and it’s tough to find things that I can out-and-out slag. A few of these tracks are things that I plan to return to (as were a few things from last year’s list). A few of these were tracks that I saw immense value in, but didn’t click with to the extent that I would revisit. And then a handful of these I think are completely not my thing.
Disappointing to find so little to mock here, but we’ve got another three or four batches of songs to get through. I might yet get my chance to write hurtful things about my friend Mike’s musical taste.
Mike: Isn’t the fact that there’s three or four more batches of songs, on top of what we’ve already done, enough to mock? Buckle up, there’s one more 8 minute song, and one that is 10 minutes. Don’t worry, they’re great . . . to me.