10 Songs on Repeat:
1. You Can Have It All by Yo La Tengo (2000)- This classic from American alternative rockers Yo La Tengo is a simple, hypnotic and sweet song, dominated by the catchy, panning vocal harmony, giving the song an incredibly intimate atmosphere.
2. Model Village by IDLES (2020)- Based off the singles, the upcoming LP from IDLES is shaping itself to be another modern classic from the politically driven band. What I am loving most about the songs so far is how each seems to be a little different from the one before, with Model Village taking an almost early Arctic Monkeys vibe, complete with lyrics that attack ignorance and bigotry (in other words, IDLES and their best).
3. Lipslap by Kero Kero Bonito (2016)- This British trio rose to unexpected prominence due to their simple, almost-childlike brand of super-sweet and super-catchy pop jams. They’re a band that thrives on simply being fun, as evident on the hip-hop infused dance-pop Lipslap, an addictive banger complete with the charming vocals of frontwoman Sarah Bonito.
4. A Boat to Drown In by METZ (2020)- The Canadian noise-rockers are returning this year with another LP titled Atlas Vending, with two singles out in the world already. The highlight for me so far has got to be A Boat to Drown In, an usually long song by METZ standards and one that leans more into the band’s post-punk tendencies but still retains their trademark chaos and noise.
5. IPHONE by Rico Nasty (2020)- Teaming up with Dylan Brady of 100 gecs, rapper Rico Nasty’s latest single is a loud, chaotic trap-meets-EDM banger and a song that should fit nicely into the current obsession with bass-boosted hyper-pop.
6. Amor Fati by Washed Out (2011)- Washed Out is the perfect name for this chillwave artist, with the combination of dreamy synths, 80s-inspired drums and breathy vocals creating that sensation of being swept around by gentle waves on the beach. A staple of the chillwave movement, Amor Fati is a profoundly romantic song packed with plenty of emotion and held together by a wonderfully bitter-sweet tone that sits somewhere in between innocence and heartbreak.
7. Roots of Blue by Blu and Exile (2020)- This beloved underground hip-hop duo has once again got back together after a five-year hiatus, producing so far this year’s best rap album in Miles. This nine-minute standout is a celebration of African culture and its influence on world history as well as a perfect demonstration on what makes this duo work so well together: great bars from rapper Blu and smooth, sophisticated beats from producer Exile.
8. If You Know You Know by Pusha T (2018)- The opener to the Kanye West-produced Daytona, If You Know You Know is a ruthless rap banger, with Pusha T flexing his lyrical talent over a fast and furious Kanye West beat.
9. Dynamite! by The Roots (1999)- After the recent passing of Roots co-founding member Malik B, I think it is only appropriate to include one of the legendary group’s tracks in a roundup. My choice is the jazzy, confident Dynamite!, found on their classic record Things Fall Apart.
10. Pyramids by Frank Ocean (2012)- This sprawling alternative RnB epic almost feels like the moment Frank Ocean proved to the world he had more going for him than the average pop song-writer. Ambitious, psychedelic and sophisticated in a way that doesn’t isolate the listener, Pyramids is considered by many, to be Frank’s growing achievement.
You can listen to this week’s tracks here- https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7tzd9Fe1XBzUU8ESSAROdi?si=twBeMwz2Q-6UbXVLhooOkg.
Dreamland by Glass Animals- 6.3/10:
Zaba and How To Be a Human Being, in my opinion, were two of the best psychedelic pop records of the 2010s, both packed with smooth, tropical capers and executed with (especially in the case of Zaba) an experimentally unconventional tinge. So, four years after their last record, how are Glass Animals fairing? Honestly, not too bad, but not great either. Whilst Dreamland still contains that lush, summery vibe the Brits have made themselves a name for, its foot just doesn’t feel like it is totally on the pedal. Credit is due where it is deserved, however, and this album still has some great moments throughout and sees the band take an exciting step toward a hip-hop-inspired sound (with lead singer Dave Bayley even trying his hand at some rapping). However, something just felt missing throughout the entirety of the LP. I can’t say if it was the album’s strong pandering to a more mainstream market or some of Bayley’s fake-deep observations about the mainstream they are obviously trying to appeal to, but it feels like Glass Animals are holding themselves back. There are flashes of their old sound and moments where it seems they may return to the mysteriousness of Zaba or the adventurousness of How To Be a Human Being, but they never quite pull-through, leaving me with what I thought was a good but sadly watered-down experience.
Best track: Your Love (Dèjà Vu)
Limbo by Amine- 5.6/10:
Limbo gets off to a pretty strong start I will say. The songs are well-produced, witty, carefree yet not without some sincerity. Whilst I wasn’t totally in love with what Amine was doing, I still thought it solid enough to maybe even contend for a lower rank in my top 50. However, after about 8 or 9 tracks, things did take a very sudden nosedive in quality. Limbo goes from cheeky pop-rap to generic alt-RnB incredibly quickly, with the run of tracks from Riri to Becky being genuinely poor, in my opinion. It’s a shame really, it seems that Amine’s desire to write a radio hit ultimately sees him sacrifice some of the more unique and interesting ideas he flaunted in the first half of the album in favour for a totally risk-free snore-fest. This is an album of two halves, and I am at least glad that I found the first half appealing enough to save it from being an overall negative experience. It’s a shame really, as Amine has a lot of obvious potential in my opinion to do something great; however, his unwillingness to commit to something unique is significantly holding him back.
Best track: Fetus
Miles by Blu and Exile- 9.5/10:
Effortless, equally inward and outward-looking, expertly produced and deeply honest, Blu and Exile’s Miles is a modern hip-hop masterpiece. There is just simply too much detail to unpack from this massive record. First and foremost, Miles contains some of the best jazz-rap production I have heard in a while. Harking back to the boom-bap and jazz rap icons of the past without being derivative and remaining contemporary, Exile’s beats, samples and instrumentals are diverse, detailed and crafted with an extreme attention to detail rarely heard. To top this is, of course, is rapper Blu’s technically and lyrically brilliant rapping. His flow is buttery smooth, gliding over the various instrumentals with ease and refinement. Lyrically, Blu touches on issues of inspiration, race, history and politics. One of my favourite themes he touches on this highly conceptual LP is the confessional exposure of his own personal poverty self-imposed by his career as a rapper, a refreshing contrast to bragging and materialistic archetype often (and at times unfairly) placed upon modern hip-hop. There is just so much I could praise about this massive LP (including the fact that it never seems to tire despite its hour and a half runtime), so all I can simply say is that is an experience any fan of jazz rap and underground hip hop, in general, should put themselves through as they will be rewarded with one of the most delicately crafted rap albums this year.
Best track: Roots Of Blue
This Week’s Feature: Urban Hymns- The Album That Made Me Fall in Love with Music
At age 13, I stood at about 5 foot, still thought the Justin Bieber bowl cut looked good and had a voice that squeaked like a dog-toy whenever it was placed within a public speaking context. It was also the age I started raiding my father’s CD collection for new and exciting stuff, having made the decision at the commencement of high school that I was going to be the music guy. I had already developed a strong curiosity the year before, with my first CD purchase being a four LP collection of Coldplay. However, the record I can confidently point to and say, “that’s the one that made me fall in love with music”. That record is the 1997 album Urban Hymns by British rock band The Verve.
Most would know this group for their iconic hit off said album, the orchestral and catchy Bitter-sweet Symphony. However, The Verve are a band that had an enduring presence throughout the alternative music scene in the 90s, seamlessly morphing from a shoegaze band to a brit-pop band to a neo-psychedelia band in the span of ten years. They have a substantial discography; however, many would consider Urban Hymns to be their crowning achievement, thirteen-year-old me especially.
So, what was so special about this particular record? Well, it’s actually incredibly hard to say, thirteen-year-old Alex had not yet developed his habit of writing down his thoughts on the music he listens to, so I will try my best.
I still to this day love Urban Hymns. It serves as the perfect encapsulation of British rock and alternative music throughout the 90s. Superhits such as Bittersweet Symphony (and more minor ones such as Sonnet and The Drugs Don’t Work) are radio-friendly brit-pop through and through. Whereas rumbling, dense tracks such as The Rolling People and Come On lean heavily into shoegaze and neo-psychedelia. Yet everything is seemingly held together by several factors. The most obvious is the presence of front-man Richard Ashcroft both vocally and lyrically. Ashcroft’s voice throughout the LP is weary yet reassured and in possession of a surprising variety, punctuated by his ever-present Manchester accent and darting between polar opposite emotions such as love-sick and anger with ease. Lyrically, Urban Hymns can be a sombre affair, with its central theme being the lives of those in the inner-city (hence the title) and the struggles they face (depression, crime, addiction, loneliness). However, Ashcroft never crushes the listener under the weight of sadness this record has, leaving room for some happiness in the grey concrete-jungle that dominates this album (however, Weeping Willow is a particularly crushing moment, and in my opinion is one of the most depressing songs ever written).
Another element that holds this album together is the mesmerizing guitar playing of Nick McCabe. A notoriously tricky musician, producer Owen Morris claimed he often refused to play the same thing twice. This is evident in Urban Hymns, with McCabe’s swirling, dreamy and utterly gorgeous guitar lines holding together just about every song on this record. In many ways, McCabe seems to want to hold onto the band’s shoegaze roots, and it works perfectly for them, adding a layer of mystery and whimsical, reverb-drenched dread that pulls the album’s tone together expertly.
Lastly, this album just flows from one track to another immaculately. It knows when to slow down and speed up. It knows when to smother you in darkness and when to provide you with that little bit of light. No track is out of place on this record, and whilst there are some that you might not listen to much individually, they do not drag the record down in any way.
So, why exactly did this album help me fall in love with music? I’ve given all these descriptions of what makes the music so good, but why is it so significant to me? Well, I guess Urban Hymns was the first record to properly show me what music the potential has to do. It showed me the emotional weight that can come with the right guitar tone as well as the narrative fulfilment that can be provided by deft and focused songwriting. It showed me that music can not only be entertainment but a full-on experience that demands your attention. I already knew music was cool at age thirteen, but Urban Hymns proved that music was really, really cool. As I said, I still love this album, and it remains one of few pieces of music from that period of my listening career that I still regularly revisit, so do yourself a favour and check it out yourself, and maybe you’ll get a good idea why Urban Hymns made me fall in love with music.