Kazak’s Picks: February 2021 (Reviews)

Clockwise from top left: Hey Nari by Altın Gün (YOL album artwork), Look What You’ve Done by Zara Larsson (Poster Girl album artwork courtesy of Artist Company TEN / Epic Records), Jayu by Se So Neon (single artwork), and Oil Slick by Puma Blue (In Praise of Shadows album artwork)

These are the hottest tracks of the last month. Any track that was released as a single or as part of an album in February was eligible for inclusion (which is why you might see some tracks that first emerged last month or in 2020).

WARNING: All tracks and their accompanying videos are completely uncensored. A number of them contain explicit language that is unsuitable for children, NSFW topics and images, discussions of potentially triggering subjects, and/or political commentary that may offend.

Spotify

Youtube
Apple Music

https://embed.music.apple.com/gb/playlist/2-february-2021/pl.u-EdAVMjVsXGdEV9

Tracks Featured

Flyte Under the Skin (Indie-Pop)

Tension, build-up, release. It’s a technique probably as old as music itself, yet it never gets old if done well. In some ways Under the Skin feels like a slightly stripped-down, less orchestral relative of Arcade Fire classics such as Neighbourhood 1 (Tunnels) and We Used to Wait. For most of the song muted staccato piano and a thudding bass drum accompany a whisper of a vocal line, occasionally punctuated by bursts of acoustic guitar or a hint of melodic colour. Things all comes to a head relatively late in proceedings: having expertly built up for nearly three minutes, it hits full bloom for barely forty seconds before its abrupt end.

Allie X – GLAM! (Pop)

We’re a long way from Cape God. That album, one of last year’s most underrated, dealt in subdued, sometimes quite downbeat pop inspired by the opioid-ravaged lives found in documentary Heroin, Cape Cod USA. GLAM!, meanwhile,is a joyous, bold, slice of radio-friendly pop. Stadium-filling whoa-ohs and more than one nod to Madonna’s 80s prime are the perfect accompaniment to the narrator’s starry-eyed, perhaps even dangerously naïve, worldview (“Blood on the sidewalk, I pull up my kneesocks and I dance around”). Maybe everything isn’t as cheerful as it appears on the surface, then. But the sheer optimism of the music means that GLAM! can’t help but raise the spirits.

Victoria Monét F.U.C.K. (R&B)

F.U.C.K certainly won’t win any prizes for subtlety in the lyrics department. It’s fairly safe to say that most listeners would have gotten the acronym underpinning “Friend You Can Keep” without it being explicitly laid out in the title, the backing vocals, and the final line of the track. But I suppose there’s no harm in making absolutely sure that the recipient of Monét’s affection knows exactly where they stand, right? If anything, the music is even more seductive than the lyrics, mostly focused around a simple bassline before unleashing an utterly irresistible set of harmonised vocals. Monét arguably had the best single of 2020 and has come very close to repeating the feat here for 2021.

Ghetts No Mercy (feat. Pa Salieu & BackRoad Gee) (Grime)

No Mercy is the undoubted highlight of Ghetts’ new album Conflict of Interest (which made the top five in our albums of the month list and is well worth your time). The chorus’ simple refrain is a real earworm and adds an almost humorously childlike element in contrast to the haunted-fairground-organ sample and dark, Viola Davis-referencing lyrics. The guest spots are impeccable, too, with Pa Salieu demonstrating the skills that made Send Them to Coventry last year’s best grime album and BackRoad Gee unleashing an infectious energy in his delivery.

SG Lewis & Lucky Daye Feed the Fire (Disco/Dance)

In the lead-up to the release of times I’ve been curious to see whether SG Lewis could recreate the magic of last year’s masterpiece single Impact. Feed the Fire does a commendable job, an infectious disco groove. Musically there’s more than a passing resemblance to early-noughties guilty pleasure Starlight by The Supermen Lovers, and it generally relies on tried and tested components of classic disco. But Feed the Fire breathes new life into the formula through the genuine enthusiasm for the genre’s addictive qualities that’s evident throughout.

The Staves Best Friend (Folk/Indie-Pop)

If you’re looking for an introduction to this month’s Album of the Month Good Woman, Best Friend is the perfect candidate. It may share a title and broad subject matter with Saweetie and Doja Cat’s release from last month, but the similarities end there both musically and lyrically. Where the former was spiky and full of confidence, this is a weary-sounding plea for the kind of support that we depend on when times are tough (“You can see me, Burning in a blackout, Coming down”). The track’s soft looping piano and driving beat flows seamlessly into the angelic harmonies that make the chorus one of the month’s finest.

Rostam These Kids We Knew (Indie-Rock)

Former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij has been demonstrating his versatility as a songwriter and producer for a while now. He’s worked with a formidable roster including Charli XCX, HAIM, Carly Rae Jepsen, and ex-frontman of The Walkmen Hamilton Leithauser. Returning to his own music, These Kids We Knew is a gorgeous slice of alt-Americana that reminds us that the younger generations have a much better handle on things than we do (“These kids… don’t speak like they’ve been spoken to by governments of emperors”). Even better than the touching lyrics or the simple, perfectly judged guitar solo is the track’s masterful demonstration of the ways imaginative production techniques can not only compliment but actually elevate great songwriting. Throughout the course of the track the music moves in and out of focus, adding a layer of intrigue that simply would not exist without this inspired studio wizardry.

Django Django Right the Wrongs (Indie-Rock)

It’ll soon be a decade since Django Django released their Mercury-nominated debut, but plenty of moments on new album Glowing In The Dark show that they can still knock out a psychedelic, beach-y hit. From the stabbing guitar of its intro, Right the Wrongs is a lively jaunt, riding the wave of its up-tempo beat. The song is over far too quickly, but there’s quite a lot to be said for leaving listeners wanting more.

JID & Denzel Curry Bruuuh (Remix) (Rap)

JID and Denzel Curry are two of my absolute favourite up-and-coming rappers, so having them work together on a track had my expectations set high. A crisp, unintrusive beat and little in the way of a discernible chorus give the pair room to let their prodigious skills and contrasting styles make a lasting impression. It’s a very “styles make fights” sort of track, JID slight and agile, whilst Denzel’s rhymes are equally tongue-tying (“Odd toddler, murderer, Madara, moniker, Zeltron, slither in, python, right on, Right on queue, right Sun Tzu”), but their delivery is carried with a strength, forcefulness even, that often feels more like a bulldozer.

CHUNG HA Flying on Faith (Pop)

Flying on Faith is one of many, many pop smashes that can be found in the first half of CHUNG HA’s blockbuster album Querencia. Centred around a deft melodic guitar riff, the track achieves take-off when the juddering synths emerge in the prechorus. It’s one of about 3 different parts that would qualify as the chorus on a lesser pop song – Flying on Faith is absolutely brimming with hooks that the listener will find themselves humming long after the track has finished.

P Money & Silencer Trouble (Grime)

“One man said I swing like Ali, Ali? Nobody’s had me on the ropes” is just one of a number of memorable quips from this fantastic wrecking ball of a track (I’m also a huge fan of the line “Came through big like a twenty-team acca”). Trouble’s frantic pace and brash synth horns hark back to the heady days of grime’s “first wave” in the 2000s, so much so that the listener is dependent on the more contemporary references to the likes of Twitch and Coronavirus to place it anywhere near 2021. It’s a blast, though, and is definitely one to get the listener pumped up.

Ol’ Burger Beats & Vuyo Schengen Visa (Rap)

One of my favourite things about new music is its never-ending ability to surprise. I can’t honestly say when I started this month’s list that I predicted I’d be including jazzy rap from Norway via South Africa, but here we are. In direct contrast to the track that precedes it in this playlist, Schengen Visa is languid and entirely chilled. Ol’ Burger Beats provides the extremely laid-back tap of a beat mixed with a light guitar sample, while Vuyo is in no mood to spoil the vibe. Vuyo’s wordplay is dexterous but his delivery relaxed as he playfully eschews rap’s tendency towards competition: “Realized that I’m in a position to be, Among the top, something something, when it comes to MC’s, We humble, never brag, But the talent is clear Like the water that surrounds the Maldives”

Rakky Ripper Whatever (Pop)

Everything about Whatever screams early-noughties maximalist pop. This is a good thing. From the hyper-compressed guitars and string stabs of the chorus to the LeAnn Rimes-esque delivery in the prechorus, it’s effectively a glorious time machine back to that era, which for people of my age is prime childhood-nostalgia territory. Much like SG Lewis’ effort discussed above, Whatever succeeds as a sincere and enthusiastic attempt to recreate the magic of a near-forgotten age rather than a cynical copy, and I am all for it.

Sofia Kourtesis La Perla (Dance/Ambient)

La Perla does a lot with seemingly relatively little: its main building blocks are a simple beat that’s heavy on the kick drum, a two-note bassline, the same synth arpeggio burbling throughout, and a single line of wistful lyrics. The warmth and sense of searching that is created through these blocks, occasionally splashed with backing vocals, a whistle, or some other ingenious touch, is extraordinary – a testament to the talent of its writer.

Katy Kirby Peppermint (Indie-Rock)

On first listen Peppermint sounds like the sort of upbeat indie-rock track that the likes of Whitney excel at, but, upon closer inspection, there are a number of pleasingly unconventional touches. Jaunty major-key guitars and grooving drums fill the verses only to make way for a low-key anti-chorus of wordless backing vocals and trumpets. The lyrics that do appear are enjoyably curious too, a series of cryptic allusions that leaves the listener with far more questions than answers.

Odette Herald (Pop)

“Night is terrifying, But I’ll face my fears even if it damn near kills me” sings Australian artist Odette in this tale of fragility, separation, and breaking free that opens her new album Herald. Almost as if to highlight this feeling of separation and alienation, musically Herald is made of disparate parts: its stomping beat, handclaps, and powerful vocals suggest a danceable hit, but melodically the track is centred around an almost dirge-like organ and delicate harp arpeggios. In theory, none of it should gel together, but the reality is quite different – all the component parts fuse together perfectly to form a tragic but toe-tapping drama.

Brijean Daydreaming (Dance/Psychedelic)

Oakland-based duo Brijean released this first preview of their debut album Feelings earlier this month, and I instantly fell in love with it. It’s the kind of marriage between sunny psychedelia and club music that should work perfectly for a beach party on a tropical island.  High-energy drums and bass guitar with hazy, almost soporific synths and woozy backing vocals convey the almost idiotic bliss of new love. Of course, you don’t have to be in a similar location to enjoy this track (lord knows many of us haven’t seen a beach for nearly two years now), but if you need any help looking forward to what should hopefully be a slightly more fun summer, this will do the job very nicely.

Se So Neon Jayu (Rock)

Se So Neon first caught my attention with last year’s driving psych-rock single Midnight Train (which I’d highly recommend), but Jayu is a very different prospect. So much so, in fact, that when I first heard it I didn’t immediately realise that I was listening to the same group. In different hands this track could have simply been a pretty acoustic ballad with touches of both the Beatles and Mellon Collie-era Smashing Pumpkins. But the chorus is a thing of wonder, its spacey lead synth (or possibly vocoder?) mixed in so well with the vocals that they seem to meld together and achieve an otherworldly quality.

Noname Rainforest (Rap)

Is there a more singular voice in rap at the moment than Noname? Fresh from succinctly burying J Cole on last year’s excellent single Song 33, the Chicagoan turns her attention to racism, wealth, and environmental exploitation, among many other matters. There are few lyricists in any genre that can display such a degree of self-awareness (“How you lemonade all your sadness when you openin’ up?”) and righteous rage at justified targets (“How you make excuses for billionaires, you broke on the bus?”) in two consecutive lines. Even fewer can do so in a way that that would make the acoustic-samba backing (often extremely unfashionable) sound both danceable and revolutionary.

Altın Gün Hey Nari (Psychedelic Rock)

Based in Amsterdam but coming from a variety of backgrounds (including Turkish, Indonesian, and Dutch), Altın Gün’s “Turkish psych folk” is an amazing combination of styles that has already seen their second album Gece nominated for a Grammy in 2020. Hey Nari, taken from this year’s Yol, is filled with hip-swaying grooves, wah-wah guitars, and yacht rock synths, making for a completely irresistible experience.

Bodies of Water Never Call Me Again (Indie-Pop)

Sometimes a good thing doesn’t have to be complicated. On Never Call Me Again the Los Angeles band know that the joyous string melody they’ve concocted is sheer perfection. To add any other kind of musical passage would surely detract from the experience. So it repeats throughout, with minor flourishes being added or subtracted here and there. To make sure things don’t get overly sweet, however, the lyrics are a terse set of strong warnings against an unknown enemy (“Never call me again, Keep away from my house, Don’t get near to my kids”).

The Hold Steady The Feelers (Rock)

Whilst it’s been a little while (arguably over a decade) since The Hold Steady’s heyday, in the years since they’ve always been capable of capturing their old magic in singles if not across a whole album. This month’s album Open Door Policy is arguably their best since 2010’s Heaven is Whenever, and opener The Feelers effortlessly changes between about three different gears of lush classic rock. Frontman Craig Finn remains almost impossibly gifted at drawing out poetry from the sordid lives of adults (“On the mantle was a portrait of his father and the fortune he’d amassed from being ruthless but polite”), whilst some of the little touches, such as the slide guitar solo before the second verse and the synth organ, are simply divine.

Psymon Spine Jumprope (Indie-Pop)

Even if LCD Soundsystem had never made the wise decision to return from their premature split in 2011, we wouldn’t be lacking for great indie-dance of their ilk. Jumprope would sit perfectly on their eponymous debut album; it’s heavy on the bass guitar and a crisp indie-disco beat before erupting into a squall of a guitar solo. It’s hard to truly grasp the full meaning of the lyrics, but there are a number of enjoyably pithy turns of phrase such as “Meritocracy, Another bill to me” throughout.

Aukai Cleave (Folk/Instrumental)

There’s a sense of pastoral wonder running throughout Aukai’s wonderful Entretanto EP (which features in our EPs of the month article). Cleave is no exception, with the delicately fingerpicked charango (a small stringed instrument from South America) and rolling drums in the first half giving a sense of running downhill on a summer’s day. The introduction of the sweeping piano and bass roughly halfway through adds a layer of grandeur that transforms the mental images of hills into breath-taking mountains. This is a rich and evocative instrumental piece that should be on any folk fan’s radar.

Miss Grit Blonde (Rock)

This month’s excellent Imposter EP (also featured in our list of the best EPs released in February) heartbreakingly “addresses Miss Grit’s life-long navigation through the racial impostor syndrome she experienced as a half-Korean girl ‘trying to fit into the white space’ of the Michigan suburbs.” As a musician and as a songwriter there should be no doubt that she is already the real deal and a force to be reckoned with. Blonde is positioned in an incredible sweet spot somewhere between Nine Inch Nails and St. Vincent. After a gloomy but melodic opening, the song builds and builds, each section somehow growing more cathartic than the one that precedes it until all we’re left with is a warped, slowed-down dismantling of the main vocal refrain as a disturbing outro.

Laura Mvula Green Garden (1/f Version) (Pop/R&B)

Green Garden (1/f Version) is a stunning rework of an earlier track from Mvula’s Mercury-nominated debut and appears on a four-track EP filled with similar reimaginings. Gone are the up-tempo Motown stomp, chiming bells, and twisted vocoders of the original, replaced by four-to-the-floor drums, Prince-like guitars, and stop-start choruses to make an addictive funk strut. When the track switches to a slower tempo for the revamped middle eight, its new chord progression and focus on a previously-peripheral vocal melody takes the song to transcendent new heights.

Big Ghost Ltd., Conway the Machine & D-Styles Toast (Rap)

Another month, another excellent slice of rap from the Griselda roster. Toast is one of the highlights of Conway the Machine and Big Ghost Ltd.’s promising but flawed album If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed. The music might be sunkissed and mellow, but Conway the Machine is at pains throughout to remind his adversaries inside and outside the recording booth that he is not to be taken lightly (“I’m the new king, I’m the new terror, The hardest n****s out since the Wu era… They haven’t found a n***a better yet, They said that grimy rap was dead, I came and resurrected it”).

The Weather Station Parking Lot (Indie-Rock)

The Weather Station make the list for the second month in a row with this outstanding cut from this month’s Ignorance. Parking Lot finds Tamara Lindeman channelling her inner Christine McVie to its fullest extent, both in the upbeat piano rock of the music and her vocal delivery. If you’ve already heard last month’s Atlantic you’ll know that Lindeman has an exceptional talent for crafting hooky choruses out of emotional turmoil, and Parking Lot continues the trend. This time she puzzles over the bewildering sense of profound sadness within that can be brought to the surface by something as seemingly innocuous as watching a beautiful bird fly, pleading “Is it alright if I don’t wanna sing tonight? I know you are tired of seeing tears in my eyes, But are there not good reasons to cry?”

Puma Blue Oil Slick (Electronic)

Following an almost inaudible ambient intro this track kicks into life with what sounds like a club beat if it were played by a jazz virtuoso. The tone is exceptionally gloomy, with morose strings and guitar chords often found in the likes of Radiohead accompanying a lyrical crisis (“These bones have turned my blood black on the inside, Just like oil slick on my mind”). Gloomy doesn’t have to mean unenjoyable, however, and when the track opens up in its second half it achieves a breath-taking beauty.

Samantha Crain Bloomsday (Singer-Songwriter)

Choctaw singer, songwriter, poet, producer, and musician Samantha Crain” makes her own brand of folk music that has led to her touring with the likes of First Aid Kit, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The Mountain Goats. Built up from the featured line from gospel standard This Little Light of Mine, the track features warm acoustic guitar and hints of R.E.M.’s underrated classic single Electrolite in the slide guitar and twinkling piano. If the remainder of upcoming EP I Guess We Live Here Now matches the beauty of Bloomsday,then it’s a shoo-in to make The Baying of Kazak’s list for April.

Gojira Born For One Thing (Metal)

Any contemporary metal fans who have stumbled across The Baying of Kazak will have no doubt noticed that there has not been much representation of the genre so far. I admit, it’s not a scene I am deeply versed in. However, when I come across its more accessible offerings I often fall hard, and Born For One Thing is a great example. The verses pummel the listener with an onslaught of double-kick drum, face-melting riffs, and bellowed vocals (it is metal, after all). The chorus takes an unexpected turn, the guitars abandoning their traditional role of low-end riffs to weave an effects-laden line whilst the sung vocals are slightly warped by the production. The seamless shift to a lower tempo for the outro is a great touch too, sounding all the heavier for its slower pace – a real headbanging final third.

Zara Larsson Look What You’ve Done (Pop)

Look What You’ve Done is one of a whopping five tracks released in advance of March’s Poster Girl. The title is a pleasing piece of misdirection, as lyrically the track is actually a very positive display of self-confidence and self-love in the wake of a break-up rather than a rueful lament. These good vibes are accentuated massively by the song’s upbeat disco-pop style, all sugary chord progressions, snappy staccato bass, and melodramatic fiddle. Look What You’ve Done is by no means the first pop song that has tried to recreate that euphoric victory-lap-on-the-dancefloor style of disco perfected in Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, but it’s as enjoyable an effort as any in recent memory.

José González El Invento (Singer-Songwriter)

For better or worse, José González will forever be associated with that cover of The Knife’s Heartbeats and the advert it accompanied. The lovely El Invento achieves a substantially different mood despite sharing many similarities with that cover (for example its wistful fingerpicked guitars or González’s vocal delivery). In particular, the seemingly existential lyrics (“Y por agradecer, Lo extraño de simplemente ser… Dime por qué será, Dime por dónde vas, Dime de dónde somos, Dime, dime”) tie in very closely with the quiet resignation in the chord progressions and vocals, imparting a sense of poignancy to the track.

Cloud Nothings Nothing Without You (Rock)

Cloud Nothings are now on their seventh album (where does the time go?), but there’s little sign on The Shadow I Remember that the creative fire is burning less brightly. Nothing Without You is the type of scruffy-yet-melodic anthem that they specialise in, recalling their own past classics like Stay Useless and I’m Not Part of Me as well as greats of the genre such as Tim-era The Replacements.

Frederik Valentin Butterfly (Electronic/Ambient)

February has been a busy month for Frederik Valentin in which he’s released not one but two wonderful EPs. Butterfly is my personal favourite from either. The key is the restraint of its arrangement, which gives each instrument and melody plenty of space to shine. The isolated synth that opens the piece sounds almost comedically depressed in isolation, but it soon makes sense when joined first by emotionally-charged piano chords and then, later, some gorgeous, aching strings in the break. As that original synth fades out at the end you can hear the sound of someone moving in the studio, perhaps Valentin exiting the booth, knowing he’s made something special.

Nana Yamato Do You Wanna (Electronic)

Do You Wanna is a perfect slice of bedroom pop, disarmingly simple whilst also containing an entire world of ideas that complement each other perfectly. The old-school drum machine, the walking synth bass, and Yamato’s murmur of a delivery all interact flawlessly to carve out the desired mood. The move from the track’s muted-yet-melodic middle eight to the guitar solo via an absolutely gorgeous rolled chord is a really special moment, the sense of momentum generated continuing right to the conclusion of the track.

Alice Longyu Gao, Mura Masa & Bülow She Abunai (Pop)

Resilient DJ, songwriter, and performance art practitioner” Alice Longyu Gao has teamed up with German singer Bülow and Guernsey-born producer Mura Masa to create the bubbly She Abunai. From its bilingual lyrics and international roster of co-creators to an instrumentation and production style reminiscent of Charli XCX and former tour mates 100 Gecs, She Abunai is an exemplary twenty-first-century hit. The song fits perfectly with the avant-garde of pop that are shaping the possibilities of the genre’s future. 

Your Old Droog & Tha God Fahim Mailman (Rap)

Your Old Droog is also a busy man – this month’s Tha YOD Fahim is his third full-length album in as many months (and second with Tha God Fahim after January’s Tha Wolf of Wall Street). Lyrically it’s fairly standard, albeit expertly executed, “us-against-the-world” fare: Tha God Fahim proclaiming “We bustin’ through the doors if they don’t let us in” before a smooth hand-off to Droog. But the rebukes and put-downs would ring hollow if it weren’t for the music backing them, the tight beat and eerie samples adding a palpable tension.

Gordi & Alex Lahey Dino’s (Indie-Rock)

On their first musical collaboration Dino’s partners Gordi and Alex Lahey craft a touching ode to both young love and their favourite dive bar in Nashville. The music plays out like an exceptional lo-fi Springsteen cut and has the lyrical attention to detail to match. The romance of the protagonists (“I want to have our own vernacular… Tell you I’m lost unless I look at you”) is both contrasted by and mirrored in the beauty and sadness of the supporting cast living their everyday lives around them (“There was a greatest hits on the stereo, There was a nun drinking her doubt, There was a young boy making promises to a Dolly Parton cut-out”). The real Dino’s does have the cut-out, apparently. Sometimes real life is even better inspiration than the wildest imagination can provide.

Lizzie Reid Cubicle (Folk/Singer-Songwriter)

Rounding out this month’s picks is a perfect album closer – or at least it would be if not for the rather inconvenient fact that it closes out an EP (a fantastic effort of the same name also released this month). Over gently-strummed guitar, Glaswegian singer-songwriter Lizzie Reid proves that even the simplest of phrases has the power to floor a listener if they’re used in the right way: “Your new girl told me I’m beautiful… Maybe we could start this over, But I don’t know you anymore.” The tremendous outro seals the deal, Reid’s wordless vocals floating over scratchy guitars and tragic violins.

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