A new segment on In My Ear! On the occasional-to-maybe-regular Thursday, I’ll be digging into my archive and featuring tracks that were in my ear (and on my annual playlist) a decade ago. First up, the year was 2010…..
This remains one of my favorite Gorillaz tracks and near the top of any road trip playlist I’m libel to make. I mean, really. One of the best driving songs ever.
Stylo was the lead single off British virtual band Gorillaz third album Plastic Beach— and for me the real standout highlight of the record. The bass line is so pulsing and hooky and the guest turns from Mos Def and Bobby Womack are so tight; it all just hangs together really well.
This track introduced me to Bobby Womack, who I knew by name but not by his music or his catalogue. He absolutely crushes his verses and adds some soulful grit to the otherwise polished funk and electronic sound of the song.
This one feels dated to me…but just in my memory of it, not the sound itself. Gorillaz has always been (and remains) remarkably able to adapt their sound to stay current.
Given the overwhelming amount of content being put out into the world, I discover just asmuch new-to-me music from the past year as I do from the current year in the first quarter of any given year — normally culminating (except in 2020) with the glorious, chaotic, indie-artist fire hose that is SXSW. So, I hold off making my version of this particular list until about now; after the dust has settled a bit in Q1 and I’ve pulled out my own highlights from SXSW (even the festival that wasn’t this year), but before the traditional flood of spring/summer releases starts.
Preamble over. Here is Part 1 of a list of a handful of artists who released new music in 2019 and didn’t make it onto my radar screen until this year:
Born in Greece to parents of Nigerian descent, Abraham Alexander moved to Texas with his family at age 11, determined to escape the racial tensions they faced in Athens. With a voice of similar tone, texture, and emotive weight of John Legend, Leslie Odom Jr., and fellow Texan Leon Bridges, Alexander’s personal biography is fertile ground for his rich blend of soul, blues, R&B, and folk. He released his self-titled debut EP last year in September 2019, which includes the gorgeous single Stay.
I really was not familiar at all with the music and career of Amanda Palmer until I heard this 10+ minute epochal track. Known equally for her music and her Pateon-based, crowd-funded business model, The Ride song drew me with it’s simple piano melody and because it is visceral and raw and strong and delicate and bold and frightened — all at once. It feels so timely; a sense of utter resignation in the face of painful realities, but tinged with traces of the courage that will see us through to the other side. This is journalism, not editorial. Capturing what is for so many, offering no quarter but, equally, no excuses.
Fresh and edgy and genre-defiant (on Apple Music alone, her singles are variously coded as electronic, R&B/soul, pop, and hip-hop/rap), Korean American artist Audrey released a fantastic set of singles in 2019 that flipped easily between gorgeous, soulful, effortlessly soaring vocals (on Paper) and quick-fire raps over warped beats (on Comic Sans). She is set to release a debut EP sometime this year and we can. not. wait.
Indie-folk/rock powerhouses Big Thief had a big 2019, releasing two albums five months apart: U.F.O.F in May and Two Hands in October. These are records that didn’t really land with me at the time, but that I expect to continually rediscover the rest of this year. The track Not is just one example of that: for all of the quietude of so much of Big Thief’s catalogue, it’s good to be reminded that they can rock really, really hard (wait for it at 3:22).
Cimafunk is a Cuban singer, songwriter and producer who, on the 2019 single El Potaje track, features some legends Cuban music to sonically and physically together traditional Afro-Cuban roots music with the funk group’ s modern sound and pulsating groove. Put it all together, and your body can’t help but move and you can’t help but joyful and more free in the moment than you did before you hit play.
What. A. Voice. The single Blue Blooded is a smart pop banger with flourishes that I tend to like: heavy, throbbing bass, mixed tempos with great swells and drops, and a clean melody line. But, really, there is magic in Conrad’s voice. Reminiscent to me of Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie, Conrad instantly commands attention with his vocal strength, range, and the purity of his tone. You listen to this track primarily to hear that voice and experience what it does with each new verse and measure.
A total discovery for me and another example of the incredible talent, innovation, and depth of the U.K. modern soul music scene. A British-Jamaican artist, Denai Moore mixes soul and R&B influences with folk and electronic elements in intentionally genre-bending/genre-breaking ways. To the Brink is her first new music in two years, ahead of a new album — her third — due out in July.
A Philadelphia native, Dot Cromwell resides now in Brooklyn and makes music that makes you think. Makes you pay attention. It’s introspective, intelligent rap set over richly produced beats and lush synths. His easy flow — sometimes cutting and hard, sometimes laconic and woozy — is a clear trademark, as are the many influences (brooding trap beats; auto-tuned sing-song raps) running throughout his debut EP, Full of Sin, released last summer 2019.
Another voice that just slays me. But, unlike the above-mentioned Conrad’s straight-ahead power, Elizabeth Moen’s voice shape-shifts and amazes with its easy movement from hushed whisper, to smokey and sultry, to looping falsettos, and up to a snarling wail. Moen is an indie-rock/folk/alt-folk artist in the vein of Lake Street Dive and Margaret Glaspy, both groups that she’s toured with. There is also a lot of Brittany Howard/Alabama Shakes in her sound, especially in the single Headgear that pairs Moen’s vocals with crunchy guitars and a super-soulful groove. I can’t stop listening to this track.
To be fair to myself, super-producer Kaytranda’s latest record Bubba came out in mid-December, 2019 and so it was easy to “miss” last year. Chock-a-block full of guest appearances (including from In My Ear favorites SiR, Mick Jenkins, and Masego), there are beats and vibes and joints for days on this record. So many good sounds, but the earworm award for me goes to 10%, featuring another In My Ear favorite Kali Uchis.
I’ve been a fan of Alina Baraz’s ever since her 2015 debut EP Urban Flora, a project created in partnership with Danish producer Galimatias. I come back to this record over and over again. It’s absolutely hypnotic, with Baraz’s breathy vocals draped over beats that, in her hands, all seem to burn hot and slow like embers. She stands out among other pop R&B artists — and draws me in, helplessly — because of that combination of gauzy vocals and atmospheric production.
Since Urban Flora, she’s released a handful of singles and a second EP (2018’s The Color of You) building up to the release yesterday of her gorgeous debut full-length record It Was Divine. This is a record for after hours; one to sink into late at night. It is starkly intimate and hazily ethereal in equal measure, which matches perfectly with the album’s subject of love in all its forms (timeless and breathless all the way to painful and confusing). The songs lean less on electronica and more on 90s era melodic R&B, but the result is the same: a quiet-storm sensuality and a decidedly aching quality that makes for a captivating listen. A guest appearance by Nas doesn’t hurt either.
It was Divine is also is an album that has the quality of an album; more than a collection of tracks, but songs planned to fit together in a certain way. Straight away, however, I was taken with More Than Enough because it is the song that reminds me most of her earliest EP and what I felt hearing Baraz for the first time — utterly entranced, sexy as hell, and transported somewhere else to just drift along.