Albums of the Month: July 2021

Clockwise from top left: Sgt. Culpepper by Joel Culpepper, Mythopoetics by Half Waif (artwork by Ali Cherkis, Nandi Rose, and Nick Levine), We’re OK. But We’re Lost Anyway. by Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp (artwork by Brian Case), Sling by Clairo, Life, And Another by Mega Bog, and Drama by Rodrigo Amarante

It’s true that every Album of the Month competition here at The Baying of Kazak is fiercely contested, but July was something else. There is such a small distance separating the top seven releases featured below that on any given day they could have plausibly ended up in just about any order. The albums just behind them were not far off, either. Hopefully there is much for you to enjoy here – good luck picking your own favourite!

WARNING: All albums and their accompanying videos are completely uncensored. A number of them contain bad language that is unsuitable for children, NSFW topics and images, and/or political commentary that may offend or disturb some.

Please follow the following links if you wish to skip to The Contenders (2-10) and Further Recommendations (11-12)

Album of the Month

1. Mega Bog – Life, And Another (Indie Rock, Paradise of Bachelors)

The Skinny: The fifth album under the Mega Bog moniker Life, And Another was recorded by “song-animator” Erin Birgy in an isolated cabin in New Mexico with long-time collaborator and Big Thief member James Krivchenia. To some degree, it is fair to say that this album would appeal to many fans of that wonderful band, but at the same time Life, And Another possesses its own unique composition style that often goes beyond the traditional indie rock template. Subtly expanding on the songwriting approach established on 2019’s acclaimed Dolphine, here Birgy incorporates a wide range of unexpected styles and reference points that ought to be contradictory, including Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), icy 1980s synthscapes, Joni Mitchell’s jazzier work, chamber pop, and psych-folk. Somehow the resulting melting pot is all made to coexist beautifully, forming a foundation for Birgy’s dense lyrical world-building.

The separation of Life, And Another into two distinct, yet complementary, halves also adds to the electrifying experience. The first is a collection of more fully-formed songs, including highlights like the majestic lead single Station to Station and the tropical-tinged scurry of The Weight of the Earth, on Paper. The second half, meanwhile, settles into a run of short, often instrumental tracks, covering an even wider terrain. Darmok soundtracks a desolate alien landscape; Bull of Heaven briefly induces a menacingly industrial clatter; and Before a Black Tea even recollects Milton Nascimento & Lô Borges’ 1970s classic Clube Da Esquina. It all moves from scene to scene with very little room to breathe between. Life, And Another is an unexpected and utterly fascinating ride that is, most important of all, stuffed full of great tunes.

Standout tracks: Station to Station, Weight of the Earth, on Paper

For fans of: Big Thief, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, David Bowie

The Contenders

2. Half Waif – Mythopoetics (Electronic/Singer-Songwriter, Anti)

The Skinny: Half Waif is the “musical home” of super-talented singer, songwriter, and producer Nandi Rose, who is clearly going through a highly productive spell. Mythopoetics is her second full-length album in just over a year, offering listeners alluringly dark electronic pop and often bruising lyrics (“Now I’ve taken up cigarettes and I hate what’s it made me, Lit up like a target outside the apartment”). At the centre of it all is Rose’s tremendous voice, its dynamic range and distinctly despairing tone often emphasising the magnificence of Mythopoetics’ arrangements and the emotional heft of its words. There also won’t be many, if any, better three-track runs on an album this year than Party’s Over, Horse Racing, and Orange Blossoms. Mythopoetics offers compelling proof that sometimes embracing the darkness can provide listeners with its own form of comfort.

Standout tracks: Orange Blossoms, Party’s Over

For fans of: Weyes Blood, Perfume Genius

3. Joel Culpepper – Sgt Culpepper (Soul/Funk, Pepper Records)

The Skinny: It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to make the title of your debut album a knowing play on one of the most famous albums of all time. If the accompanying product doesn’t match the bravado then you open yourself up to potential ridicule. Thankfully, then, Sgt Culpepper is a brilliant slice of modern soul and funk, one that draws from the example of past greats whilst also retaining the unmistakeable vibrancy of youth. It covers an impressive range of ground, too, from the luxurious soul of the opening two tracks to the high-tempo, James-Brown-meets-Prince funk of W.A.R, the psychedelic chords of Poetic Justice, the P-funk strut of Remember, and more. With a few breaks in the right direction, Sgt Culpepper has the sound and the songs to become a hugely successful release.

Standout tracks: Tears of a Crown, Remember

For fans of: D’Angelo, Prince, Arlo Parks

4. Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel DuchampWe’re OK. But We’re Lost Anyway. (Art Rock, Bongo Joe)

The Skinny: The excellently-named Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp (which translates as All-Powerful Marcel Duchamp Orchestra) are a twelve-piece “tropical postpunk / afro avantpop” ensemble from Geneva, Switzerland. What that means, in practice, is a formidable clash of “free jazz, post punk, high life, brass band, symphonic mixtures, and kraut rock.” It’s a combination which might be difficult to get one’s head around on paper. If you’ll forgive a slightly preposterous comparison, musically We’re OK. But We’re Lost Anyway sounds a bit like I imagine early Arcade Fire might have if they had abandoned Neon Bible‘s anthemic orchestration and opted instead to channel Sons of Kemet’s malevolent jazz, world music, and the first two Preoccupations albums. This would mostly be chronologically impossible, of course, but hopefully it might start to give you an idea of the fantastic musical concoction that awaits listeners. Make sure that you are one of them!

Standout tracks: Empty Skies, Flux

For fans of: Sons of Kemet, Arcade Fire, Preoccupations

5. Clairo – Sling (Singer-Songwriter/Chamber-Pop, Clairo Records, LLC. under exclusive license to Fader Label)

The Skinny: Sling is a marvellous record with a palpable intimacy and warmth that consciously taps into much of the cherished histories of folk, singer-songwriter, and chamber-pop music. Its composition, instrumentation, and production all fruitfully recall obvious 1970s reference points like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon as well as more recent legends such as Elliot Smith and Sufjan Stevens. At the same time, Sling is not an entirely backward-looking affair: at various points listeners can hear flashes of contemporaries such as Weyes Blood, HAIM, and Billie Eilish, whilst a great deal of the lyrical content situates the album firmly in the anxieties of the present day. For a highly-anticipated release from a popular artist, Sling’s charms are considerably more subtle and subdued than one might expect. During my first few listens I wondered whether maybe it was so slight that it bordered on being insubstantial. But persevere: your efforts will be richly rewarded with many special melodies and lines that dig their way into the brain, never to leave.

Standout tracks: Amoeba, Zinnias

For fans of: Weyes Blood, Simon & Garfunkel

6. Rodrigo Amarante – Drama (MPB/Singer-Songwriter, Polyvinyl Record Co.)

The Skinny: The second solo album from Brazilian songwriter Rodrigo Amarante (now located in Los Angeles, CA) is a sumptuous record perfectly suited to the last weeks of summer. Fans of the hit Netflix series Narcos might recognise Amarante’s languid voice – which at points takes on a tone not dissimilar to The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser – as he wrote and performed the show’s theme song Tuyo. In slightly less threatening terrain, Drama’s early four-track run from Maré to Tanto is a masterclass in classic, sun-kissed MPB. Its breezy grooves, fingerpicked guitars, and rich vocal harmonies sound blissful and entirely effortless, belying a recording process that sounds protracted and potentially frustrating.

The dazzling sun that is Drama’s first half begins to set from the mysterious twinkle of I Can’t Wait onwards, making way for a sweltering dusk in its second. The colourful blues rock guitar and swampy groove of highlight Tao would have equalled their counterparts in even The Rolling Stones’ best records. Even better yet, its chorus’ soulful backing harmonies transport the track to a state of delight. The graceful pairing of tropical rhythms with melancholic instrumentation continues throughout Sky Beneath, Eu Com Você, and Um Milhão, before the classy piano ballad The End closes proceedings on a poignantly forlorn note. Drama is stunningly beautiful and suggests that wherever Amarante decides to go next, I want to follow.

Standout tracks: Maré, Tao

For fans of: Marissa Monte, Lisbon-era The Walkmen or Hamilton Leithauser’s solo work, Caetano Veloso

7. TORRES – Thirstier (Rock, Merge Records)

The Skinny: Last year’s excellent album Silver Tongue found Floridian guitar hero Mackenzie Scott (a.k.a. TORRES) in a relatively subdued, at times dark mood. Thirstier is a surprising release, then, not just because it comes so soon after Silver Tongue but also because of its break-neck U-turn in mood and content. The complicated relationship that appeared to torture Scott throughout much of the former (“Does she also call you baby? You should know she calls me baby, What was it that made her think she could have two of everything?”) appears to have turned into – or has been replaced by – something much more hopeful and healthy (“If we’re calling off the funeral, Then I’m calling for a hitching”).

Even more noticeable, somewhere in between the two albums Scott evidently decided to eschew Silver Tongue’s subtle, even understated, songwriting in favour of bringing back out the instant hooks and more straightforward thrills from her earlier discography. The majority of the tracks here sound like her most immediate since 2015’s breakout single Sprinter, but in a way that feels entirely invigorating rather than cynical. Thirstier is a perfect example that sometimes music can be more fun without necessarily being less substantial.

Standout tracks: Don’t Go Puttin Wishes in My Head, Hand in the Air

For fans of: Wolf Alice, Du Blonde, Jeff Rosenstock

8. Laura Mvula – Pink Noise (Pop/R&B, Atlantic Records UK)

The Skinny: In February Laura Mvula released an intriguing EP featuring three of her own songs and Diana Ross’ I’m Still Waiting reworked into new shapes inspired by 1980s synthpop and funk. Her first new full-length in five years, Pink Noise, mines this evidently rich seam to even further lengths: you’d certainly struggle to find an album more indebted to the music of that inspiring, puzzling decade. This is not necessarily a flaw, however. Mvula clearly holds a genuine affection for that era and an intimate knowledge of the magic behind some of its most enduring works. All of which gives singles like Got Me and Church Girl an exuberance that has rarely been matched this year. The likes of Conditional, Remedy, and the title track all pulse with an uncontainable groove. Even though a slight dip during Golden Ashes and What Matters (which features an ill-fitting cameo from Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil) puts a dampener on proceedings a little, Pink Noise is one of the best all-round pop albums of the year.

Standout tracks: Got Me, Conditional

For fans of: Prince, Janet Jackson

9. Dave – We’re All Alone in this Together (Rap, Dave / Neighbourhood Recordings)

The Skinny: British rapper Dave set himself a difficult feat to replicate with his debut album Psychodrama. It was a near-perfect work that was artistically lauded, commercially successful, and influential in popularising a highly-polished strand of UK rap (for example see this year’s mammoth success Conflict of Interest by Ghetts). If second album We’re All Alone in this Together was made under extreme pressure it doesn’t show. The stories of an aspiring young rapper’s struggles with mental health that made Psychodrama so compelling are expertly revisited and updated to match the author’s current state on the likes of the opening title track. In place of the emotional and psychological strain encountered whilst trying to make it big, Dave’s thoughtful lyricism now dissects fame and its pitfalls (Verdansk, Clash), collapsing romances (Both Sides of a Smile), and state-of-the-nation addresses (Three Rivers and Heart Attack).

It’s true that the more upbeat, Afropop-influenced tracks here don’t work as effectively as their equivalents on Psychodrama. It’s a flaw made worse by the inclusion of three of them in a row between System to Laws of Attraction, when one would have been more than enough. There are also a few lyrical clangers (“A good girl like Pokémon, Easy to see but hard to catch”). But much more often than not We’re All Alone in this Together has even more displays of jaw-dropping technical prowess and profound insight than its predecessor, all set to some immaculate beats. Some commentators think it has the appeal to become the first UK Rap album to be nominated for a GRAMMY in 2022. From where I’m standing, that prediction doesn’t seem as outrageous as it would have been in years gone by, nor would it be an undeserved achievement.

Standout tracks: Example One, Example 2

For fans of: Ghetts, Little Simz, Kendrick Lamar

10. Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever (Electropop/Alternative R&B, Darkroom / Interscope Records)

The Skinny: Billie Eilish is another artist who set an extremely high bar with her debut, causing a seismic shift in mainstream pop in 2019 by showing her peers that darker music could still dominate charts worldwide. On Happier Than Ever she appears completely undaunted by the imposing task of replicating When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go?’s immense success, producing an album that has a distinct identity from its predecessor. When it pops (as it does on the likes of I Didn’t Change My Number and Oxytocin) Eilish continues to sounds like she’s still setting the agenda for new popular music. Many of the softer moments like My Future and Your Power also succeed, though ultimately some momentum is lost through the inclusion of two or three slower tracks too many in the middle. At sixteen tracks and fifty-six minutes total, Happier Than Ever could definitely have cut them without becoming too slight. But as a young artist Eilish still has plenty of time to perfect the craft of creating flab-free albums. The numerous dazzling moments on Happier Than Ever serve as a potent demonstration that, if she does, she will become truly unstoppable.

Standout tracks: Oxytocin, Your Power

For fans of: Lorde, The Weeknd, The XX

Further Recommendations

11. Mariah the Scientist – RY RY WORLD (R&B, RCA Records)

12. Molly Burch – Romantic Images (Indie Pop/Singer-Songwriter, Captured Tracks)

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