J Balvin – Colores

Anyone remember the “White People Dancing” sketch from The Chappelle Show? It’s a hilarious segment around Dave Chappelle’s comic hypothesis that all people and cultures can dance, but simply respond to different musical instruments. (Comic perhaps, but he ain’t wrong IMO.) Chappelle has John Mayer slay on solo electric guitar in a corporate boardroom and a chic Manhattan restaurant. The white people go nuts and break out their name-your-mid-90s-rock-music-festival moves. He and Mayer go to a Harlem barbershop where everyone is either Black or Latino and where Mayer is told to “Shut the fuck up!” But, the Black folk go wild and start a freestyle cypher when Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson from The Roots starts drumming. The Latin people don’t move much until “Sanchez,” an electric piano players starts in, and then they immediately start dancing.

What’s my point here? I think of that sketch whenever a reggaeton beat drops because, if I were in the sketch, reggaeton (OK, and funk bass) would be my instinctual body-moving jam. You can go ahead and make the easy joke about the white guy needing a heavy downbeat to move to. But, good god, there is no denying the visceral pull of a classic reggaeton dancehall rhythm.

And, so I am 100% *here* for reggaeton royalty J Colvin’s fantastic new record Colores, starting right off the first song and lead single Amarillo (trans: Yellow).

What I like most about this record is how straight ahead, stripped down, and focused on the beat it is. With 10 songs clocking in at 29 minutes, there seems to be an intention to keep things simple. Lead with the beat, keep the rhythm gentle but still urgent, and layer Balvin’s easy, almost lazily delivered vocals on top.

This is definitely a pop-forward record; drawing from club and dance pop more than the dank hip-hop influence and genre-bending origins of early reggaeton. But, despite the trim delivery and very Latin pop-polish of the record, Balvin has enough ideas here to give each track it’s own unique vibe and identity. The sonically sunny quality of the perhaps ironically titled Gris (trans: Grey); the Drake-inspired R&B slow jam vibe of Rojo (trans: Red); the interplay between a distinct synth bass line and crisp, staccato percussion hits on Blanco (trans: White).

I’ve had this album on repeat since it dropped last week. It’s a smooth listen to vibe out with in chaotic times.

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Lianne La Havas – Bittersweet

Looking for a proverbial port in the storm that is swirling around us all right now? Look no further than Lianne La Havas’s smooth new single Bittersweet. The topic isn’t particularly cheery (personal renewal and a fresh start after a failing relationship) but the vibe is relaxed, the beat is steady, and La Havas’s trademark vocals soar. It is a song to get lost in, which feels like a particular blessing at this moment in time.

As a big, big fan of La Havas, what is more exciting perhaps than her dropping this single is the promise of a new album sometime this year, her first since she released her sophomore record Blood in 2015. That album remains in heavy rotation for me. And, having seen her tour on that record (fun fact: the cover image on In My Ear’s Facebook page is from that show!), I hope a new album also means a new tour because La Havas is one of the best, most natural live performers I’ve seen.

For now, I am more than happy to ride out to this excellent track.

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Katie Pruitt – Loving Her

With the release of her debut album, Expectations, last Friday, a well-done NPR feature interview with her on the same day, and national tour dates starting up in March, whatever secret there was about Katie Pruitt is now out.

A singer-songwriter in the the modern/alt-country vein (with plenty of folk and rock influence), Pruitt has a gorgeous voice, a gift for lyrics, and a story to tell. As written up in the NPR interview and on her website, the record documents and tells Pruitt’s coming of age story centered on the frustration and shame of growing up gay in the Christian South — and the self-acceptance, personal grit, and mix of toxic and deeply loving relationships that result from her journey to-date.

I first discovered Katie Pruitt last year when I heard the early single Expectations from the upcoming album of the same title. That song landed on the In My Ear 2019 Playlist and was a true standout song for the year for me, with a guitar line and vocal melody wonderfully reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac and straight-ahead lyrics that detail the complicated battle for self-worth and belief.

Wasn’t getting much out of life at all / Was scared to jump so I was scared to fall…./ I learned that fear is just the false belief / That there is nothing you can do

But, since the record’s release last week, I’ve been listening to Loving Her on repeat, which was another advance single. A beautifully lilting, gently picked, almost delicately sung song, it stands as one of the bravest, most quietly badass tracks I’ve heard in recent memory.

If loving her hurts, then I'll keep on hurting 
If it means staying true to who I am...
You can shake your head 
You can clench your fists 
You can judge, hold a grudge 
You can just be pissed
You can say it's wrong
You cay say a prayer
While you're doing that, I'll be over there
Loving her

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We Are the City – Killer B-Side Music

A new discovery for me this week with We Are the City, a Canadian progressive rock band from Vancouver, BC. They’ve been putting out experimental albums for over a decade, tweaking their musical form that entire time to include (according to various reviews) hooky pop-rock, jagged electronic soundscapes, and artsy prog-rock. Their newest record, RIP, follows the death of a long-time childhood friend of the band members (Kyle Tubbs) and, in their own words, marks an important moment for the group. On their Facebook page, they wrote:

RIP is our step forward, but it feels comprehensive. It does feel like a culmination. And it does feel like the next music will be the beginning of a new journey. RIP is a love letter to everyone who has shared their life with us and who has let us share our lives with them. It’s a love letter to our youth. And, most of all, it’s a love letter to Kyle Tubbs.

Being new to this band and a neophyte in prog- and art-rock, I can’t comment on We Are the City’s musical evolution or where they fit among peers and in the indie scene. But, I can say what I really like about the record — punchy lyrics; spiky punk-pop melodies; moments of raw, ragged rock; and songs that manage to sound individually unique and interesting, but that hang together as an album.

The track that first grabbed me (and continues to grab me on each listen) is Killer B-Side Music, a song that starts quiet and builds to a thunderous, shattering, fuzzed-out chorus that feels like a howl. A howl of rage, release, triumph, frustration….really, whatever it needs to be for you. The mix and production are interesting; very little bass in that big chorus, so it’s all screaming guitar in the treble register that only adds to the ragged, slightly unhinged quality. If you’re not paying attention, it will startle you for sure. My kids love that.

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Khruangbin & Leon Bridges — Texas Sun

Gah! Just because these two In My Ear favorites and Texas natives Khruangbin and Leon Bridges clearly should have gotten together to make something doesn’t mean they actually would. But, they are!

Released earlier this month, Texas Sun is the first single off an upcoming four-song EP with the same title scheduled for release February 7.

It’s meditative spaghetti western-meets-rootsy soul awesomeness, with some country twang and Khruangbin’s now classic funky bass lines and searching guitar riffs all mashed up in there.

You’re world will slow waaay down listening to this. You’re welcome.

Mac Miller – Circles

Couldn’t let this one pass without a shout out. And, a pour out. And, respect paid to a musician I was just getting to know and dig deep with when he died of an overdose in September 2018 — one month after the release of his record Swimming, which grabbed my attention something fierce and, by all accounts, saw Miller leveling up and stepping into his own emerging, unique, artistic voice and vision.

There was always a companion album planned. Circles was it; and now is it, released posthumously by his family and produced by his partner Jon Brion. So much of what could be written and said about the Miller and the record — about his evolving style; about his vision for his music; about the heft, candor, and meaning of his lyrics as they documented his battles with addition; about his outlook on life and his trajectory — are captured for me in the lead single, Good News. It’s a direct-line artistic evolution from Swimming and a heartbreaking, haunting confession from an addict who knows he’s in a doomed struggle for his life.

In My Ear – The 2019 Playlist

We back! Man, it’s been more than a hot minute since I’ve posted on this here blog. What can I say? Life got busy and there’s only so much late-night posting and content creation this body and mind can stand.

But, after putting the blog on ice for the fourth quarter of last year, I’m blowing off the cobwebs, wiping the dust from the keyboard, and playing some catch up before moving onto 2020.

First up, the annual In My Ear Playlist. Except for celebrating albums (i.e. really great albums that I listened to often and in full, versus just singles or individual tracks), I don’t do rankings or ratings. Overall, this is just a list of the songs, records, and artists who resonated with me the most over the course of 2019 and put out the best music I heard.

Apple Music subscribers can listen here.

Spotify subscribers can listen here.

In My Ear 2019-Quick-Hit Reflections and Themes

  • Hip-hop and R&B artists/communities continue to be en fuego.
  • E.g. Anderson .Paak. That dude was everyone and I rocked with everything he put out.
  • I like country music?
  • Genres don’t matter much anymore.
  • Artists are feeling very introspective…and I found myself gravitating to those who did it quietly. A safe harbor?
  • Vulnerability. There were a lot of artists who released incredibly personal records this year. It’s heartening that they felt the space and support to do so.

In My Ear 2019 Album Picks

Mahalia – Hide Out

I’m spending the next couple of posts catching up on some September releases that I’ve been spending time with. Mahalia‘s debut album Love and Compromise is at the top of the list and, in particular, the lead track Hide Out — a song swollen with swagger, defiance, and self-determination.

Mahalia’s story is worth reading up on. Signed to Atlantic at just 13, she’s steadily released stand-alone singles and a few EPs while continuing her studies (and, you know, being a teenager). Now, at the ripe-in-her-career-but-still-young age of 21, she’s released a robust, polished, dynamic pop R&B record chock full of killer songs.

The tracks are sonically and musically diverse; there’s dancehall beats, jazzy riffs, dead-on-style classic 90s R&B joints, neo-soul melodies, and on. But, in a testament to the intelligence of the record’s production, the power of Mahalia’s soulful vocals, and the firm grip she has on her own personal sound, the songs sound cohesive as an album. There’s no sense of over-reach here.

That’s evident from the first moment of the first song, Hide Out, which starts with a defiant quote from Eartha Kitt pulled from an amazing and inspiring interview segment of the 1982 documentary “All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story”). The track swells quickly on the hum of a backing gospel choir and then thrums to life with a beat drop at :24, all before Mahalia clocks in with rich, sultry vocals that take to task the poor soul stepping out on her.

The lyrics and music are fierce. A straight ahead pounding drum-kick-snare beat drives a relentless momentum, while Mahalia’s relatively flat delivery and frank lyrics lace the track with a cool, collected anger. While the song’s subject is a cheating partner, the true meaning and discovery here self-reliance and self-love. Hide Out will add steel to your spine, grit to your teeth, and a determined half-step to your gait as you walk — eyes up, ready to take on all comers. I have yet to feel anything but awesome listening to it.

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Rapsody – Eve / The Highwomen – self-titled

Released two weeks in the end of August/early September, I have fully folded myself into these two remarkable records — Rapsody‘s Eve and The Highwomen‘s self-titled deubt. They are both worthy of an individual post and many more words added to the glowing reviews and public response they’ve already received (and which are well worth your time reading).

But, I immediately and instinctively wanted to write about these records together — not just to make the sorts of connections across styles that I love to make (I love me a diverse playlist!), but to elevate their artistic similarities and the moment in time these albums occupy in their respective genres.

In the context of a music industry that remains largely a man’s world, women are killing it artistically. The vast majority of the most creative, innovative, intelligent, compelling, and stone-cold talented artists I follow are women. And, they are regularly carving out space for others to be authentic and brave and brash and truthful toward the powers that be.

All of that feels even more real with these two records because they are demanding recognition and space in the especially deeply male-dominated cultures of country and hip-hop music.

Cover art for Rapsody’s album Eve

Both Eve and The Highwomen offer expansive (vs. reductive) perspectives on feminism, female identity, sisterhood, and community, but they firmly ground those perspectives in the current cultural realities of their genres. Rapsody claims the multitudes of black womanhood while speaking frankly on her personal journey to claim her own ground as a female MC in the hip-hop community. Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris of The Highwomen speak to and for women directly, but with a vintage twang and through familiar topics that have animated country musicians for generations (love found; love lost; love scorned; love spurred; family; death; faith).

Cover art for The Highwomen’s self-titled album.

Both records match the diversity of their perspectives with a range of styles and musical influences. Diverse samples and beats (e.g. the sample of Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight in Cleo) pair with live instrumentation on Eve, while a sparkling, fresh blend of classic country, Americana, folk, and vintage rock invigorate The Highwomen.

And, both records are grounded in stories. Rapsody titled each song on her record after trailblazing black women (living, dead, or, fictional), but then plays with what each of those figures represent — metaphorically or literally.

Similarly, each song on The Highwomen is a tightly-told, beautifully narrated vignette, none more so than the opening track Highwomen. Weaving together four stories of women facing persecution in their time. The first verse talks of a Honduran asylum-seeker who died trying to cross the border; the second of a healer burned at the stake in the Salem witch trials; the third of a Freedom Rider; the fourth of a female preacher.

Easily among the best albums released in 2019, these are powerful statements from female artists determined to center and assert their personal stories and the stories of others.