Black Pumas – Fast Car

Today’s post….just a sweet, plaintive cover of Tracy Chapman’s classic song from In My Ear favorites, Black Pumas.

I heard this and it felt like a balm on my mind and my heart.

For the many of you who read this blog and are pressing for needed change — within yourself, your families, your community, and this world we all share — hear this and rest.

Rest, even if just for a few minutes. Restore. And, then ready yourself to go again. And, again. And, again.

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Some Things I Missed in 2019 (Part 2)

Given the overwhelming amount of content being put out into the world, I discover just as much 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. Part 1 was last week. Here is Part 2 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, along with a full playlist of Parts 1 and 2.

Some Things I Missed in 2019 Playlist (Apple Music)

Some Things I Missed in 2019 Playlist (Spotify)

Kwesi

An Ohio-raised singer and songwriter of Ghanaian descent living in Los Angeles, Kwesi has a beautiful, distinctive voice (traces of John Legend) and a great talent for blending elements of soul, R&B, folk, pop, and electronic music into soulful, catchy, honest, searching songs. I’ve been following Kwesi (formerly Kwesi K) for years. He released two fantastic EPs in 2013 and 2014 (Pronouns and Lovely, respectively) and, since then, has written/produced songs with others and personally released a series of singles — including Neck Tattoo, which slipped by me last year but is a (typically, for Kwesi) beautifully wrought song with heart and humor in equal measure.

Lambert

Credit to NPR Music’s Tom Huizenga for this one. He featured Lambert and his 2019 record True in some year-end retrospective or another and I immediately sought out the album. It is magical. Lambert is a contemporary classical/classical crossover pianist and composer from Hamburg, Germany. He has a clear gift for melody and a seemingly effortless ability to construct modern melodic lines and rhythms on a classical piano framework. True is a spare record with more solo piano and trio work than orchestration, but the songs still manage to sound grand and, often, cinematic. I love the track Vienna; a mysterious-sounding song with a whiff of venom (absolutely perfect for a spy thriller soundtrack) that pairs Lambert’s deft, nimble piano playing with a hypnotic beat and scratchy percussive elements. It just sounds so fresh.

Lettuce

Man, Lettuce have been doin’ it for almost 30 years! Crazy. A funk band formed in the early 90s by Berklee College of Music undergrads, Lettuce has been holding it down since then with a potent and lasting blend of funk, soul, jazz, electronica, hip-hop beats, and jam band chops. Having personally seem them perform (mostly in their early years), they are a true force live and their musicianship is off the charts. They released Elevate in 2019, their seventh studio album, and are quickly following that with a new record Resonate, dropping this Friday, May 8. Elevate has a spacey vibe to it, including on their cover of one of my favorite songs, Tear for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World.

Roy Kinsey

Anyone who follows me here or on Where the Music Meets knows I am a big, big Roy Kinsey fan. To learn more about Kinsey — for my money, one of the most interesting, innovative, authentic, and talented voices in hip-hop right now — start by checking out my two-part interview with him for WtMM from earlier this year and then dig into his two most recent records — Blackie (2018) and Kinsey: A Memoir (2020). Each of them are absolute fire….as is this single She/Her that Kinsey released in 2019 , spitting his trademark smart, bracing raps over a stripped-down looped piano riff and synth bass line.

Seratones

Coming loud and hard out of Shreveport, LA, Seratones offer a potent blend of rock, gritty soul, funk, and R&B that — similar to The Black Keys — sounds thoroughly modern, even as it draws straight from classic 1960s/1970s sounds. Frontwoman AJ Haynes seems borne from Stax Records’ stable of artists, even as she wails over modern synth arrangements. A band that I am desperate to see live, Seratones is totally addictive. 

Wiki

A new discovery for me, Wiki is straight NYC hip-hop. A grizzled veteran at the age of 26, Wiki (the stage name of Patrick Morales) fronted a famed NYC underground rap trip Ratking before moving on as a solo artist. His 2019 release Oofie is his second full-length solo record. Wiki sounds like a brash rapper and he is; quick-witted and quick-tongued, nimble with a verse and a confident boast. But, lyrically, this record strikes a rueful, disillusioned, often bitter tone. It’s a cutting, visceral critique of self and of his career in the churn of the music business. Still, Wiki’s talent and skill shines through the record’s sense of resignation, like on the excellent, woozy track Grim and also on Promises (featuring In My Ear favorite duendita).

Winnie Raeder

Another discovery for me and another vocalist who utterly transfixed me from the moment I heard her. UK singer-songwriter Winnie Raeder’s voice arcs and lilts and aches with grace and a burning intensity. She released her debut EP in 2019, From Here, as well as the gorgeous single She — one of the more touching, quietly brutal, and haunting songs of love lost that I’ve heard.

Now she says / All she wants is / All that I'm not 
Now she says / She don't need it / Or feel it enough /
It's not what she wants

Vampire Weekend

I’ll admit that I’ve totally slept on Vampire Weekend in recent years. I loved their first record and than mellowed on them a bit. I always appreciated how distinct their brand of indie pop sounded even as they absolutely blew up and I admired their musicianship and ideas. But, their ensuing records just never grabbed me. Not surprising, then, that their 2019 release Father of the Bride (their first without founding member and talented songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij) passed by me without much attention — until I heard the sweet lil’ song Stranger that brought me back to all that I like about this band. Undeniably catchy; sonically sunny, but lyrically/emotionally complex; genre-bending with those core Afro-pop influences; and just a really great, fun, unique sound.

Your Old Droog

Again, like with the Kaytranda record I featured in Part 1, Your Old Droog dropped his new record Jewelry in late December, so it’s been a feature for me more in early 2020 than the last weeks of 2019. Remarkably, Jewelry was Your Old Droog’s *third* release in 2019! Man put out three of his five full length-records last year alone! The Ukrainian American, Brooklyn born-and-raised rapper (the name “Droog” comes from a Ukrainian word meaning “friend”) has a voice and flow often compared (sometimes confused) with Nas. He’s also a frequent collaborator with, among others, the previously mentioned Wiki and underground rap royalty MF DOOM. A private artist (following in the footsteps of DOOM), Droog has said that Jewelry elevates and celebrates his Jewish heritage. Setting aside that interesting theme for the record, I’m just totally hooked on his flow and the flute loop on the first single from the album, BDE.

Some Things I Missed in 2019 (Part 1)

Given the overwhelming amount of content being put out into the world, I discover just as much 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:

Abraham Alexander

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.

Amanda Palmer

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.

Audrey

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.

Big Thief

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

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.

Conrad

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.

Denai Moore

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.

Dot Cromwell

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.

Elizabeth Moen

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.

Kaytranda

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.

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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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.