These are the hottest tracks of the last month. Any track that was released as a single or as part of an album in January was eligible for inclusion (which is why you might see some tracks that first emerged last year).
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 like domestic violence, and/or political commentary that may offend.
YOUHA – Abittipsy (K-Pop)
Abittipsy is the kind of track to put on when you’re feeling low and want to lose yourself in a moment of bliss. Alluring verses explode into euphoric choruses; melodic synth pads swell; the vocals are extemely catchy even for those who have no idea what is being said (which is harder than it sounds). Abittipsy is much closer to the sensibilities and expectations of Western-European and American pop than some K-Pop, so if you haven’t yet taken the plunge into that colourful, spellbinding world, this could be the perfect introduction.
Arlo Parks – Caroline (R&B)
A sunnier sibling to last year’s phenomenal single Eugene, Caroline is a mellow stroll of warm guitars, rolling bass, and soft backing vocals. Underneath the positive exterior, however, the words serve as witness to the heartbreak and despair of two partners very publicly falling apart. It’s a scene where you’re never quite sure who, if either, is to blame, but the unnamed man’s loss is very much the listener’s gain. His futile last efforts to convince Caroline to stay are crafted by Parks into an earworm of a chorus that I constantly find myself humming and look forward to singing horribly at a festival sometime in 2022.
Noga Erez – End of the Road (Pop)
Something magical is happening here. End of the Road has the qualities that great genre-busting hits should. It’s playful, moving between an infectious harmonised intro (which will surely be one of the best of the year), a rousing spoken-word chorus, and stylish rapping. It’s confident, both in the fearless command with which it combines the disparate musical styles described above and the overriding message of the lyrics (“I don’t know what really, really happens at the end of the road, But my trip is mad, I ain’t finished, I got loads”). Most important of all, though: it’s seriously fun.
The Weather Station – Atlantic (Indie Rock)
Hot off the heels of last year’s much touted single The Robber, Atlantic bristles with a tense, finger-tapping energy, dominated by propulsive drums and weighty piano. Intended as a treatise on “the feeling of dread, even in beautiful moments” about the fast-approaching climate catastrophe, Tamara Lindeman’s despondent yet hooky chorus is relatable to so many of us in early 2021 not only because climate politics affect almost all of us but also because the words could be applied to so many other ills currently plaguing modern life: “Thinking I should get all this dying off my mind, I should really know better than to read the headlines.”
Pom Poko – Like A Lady (Indie Rock)
It’s an observation that has very likely been made many times since this Norwegian noise pop band emerged on the scene: if you take your name from a classic Studio Ghibli film about giant raccoon-like tanuki with biology- and physics-defying scrotums, you better not be boring. Fortunately, Pom Poko are anything but, and buzz-generating single Like a Lady now takes its place as the crown jewel of this month’s excellent album Cheater. Its verses sport a bassline worthy of early Pixies/Breeders; its chorus is an invigorating mess of scuzzy guitars; singer Ragnhild Fangel Jamtveit problematises gendered expectations of behaviour in her trademark love-them-or-hate-them vocals. Like a Lady is exuberant, noisy, and every bit as quirky as you’d hope.
Saweetie – Best Friend (feat. Doja Cat) (Rap)
Both Saweeite and Doja Cat had break out years in 2020, so their decision to pair together for this single makes sense both artistically and commercially. The pair unleash a contagious (and foul-mouthed) ode to the unique bonds between them and their besties over a spiky guitar riff. I’m certainly taking note whilst listening of how to compliment my friends next time I see them.
Bicep – Sundial (Electronic/Dance)
In many ways Sundial is a perfect distillation of Bicep’s approach to their fantastic new album Isles. The hypnotic, perfectly-recorded drums are placed front and centre of the track, only slightly fleshed out by faraway vocal samples, simple synths, and a minimal bass melody. It speaks to the group’s stated aim to make more of a home listening/headphones album this time and it’ll be interesting to see what the “tougher,” “heavier,” and more “techno-focussed” live version sounds like in comparison…
Norvik – City (Modern Classical/Instrumental)
It continues to baffle me that, after centuries of the piano’s existence, humans are still able to make music as affecting as City with just that one instrument and a pair of hands (sometimes with a little help from a third hand or a loop pedal). But here we are in 2021, and Norvik is releasing a whole album’s worth of it (make sure to check out Album of the Month The Drawing Board II if you haven’t already done so). City’s achingly beautiful chords and arpeggios are a moment of very welcome tranquility in such a choatic world.
Dayglow – Close to You (Pop)
Another prime example of the power of contrast in music, with Close to You Dayglow sets a pitiable tale of failed attempts to woo someone against a joyful, confident pop strut. Its wonderfully cheesy synth keys would sound right at home on a mid-2010s Tame Impala or Metronomy album (it feels really strange to talk about that as past era now), so fans of either artist should definitely give this a spin. Maybe she’ll get the hint next time, pal. If not, another pop gem wouldn’t hurt – call it a win-win situation?
Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over the Country Club (Singer-Songwriter)
Released among yet another barrage of controversy and criticism, the moody sound of Chemtrails Over the Country Club actually seems much better suited to the maelstrom than it would a trouble-free single release. The slow piano and Del Rey’s croon make this a fine continuation of the style that made Norman Fucking Rockwell! one of the great albums of the last decade. With any other artist you might expect a song titled Chemtrails Over the Country Club to be a withering critique of those great symbols of privilege in the USA, but that wouldn’t be Lana Del Rey, would It? I certainly feel very foolish to have even entertained such an ludicrous notion. Instead, young couples fall in love, contemplate God in the country club, and somehow end up on the run, all the while looking fabulous whilst doing so. The gorgeous extended drum outro is an inspired touch, too.
Jazmine Sullivan – Pick Up Your Feelings (R&B)
Sullivan’s Heaux Tales project/EP has deservedly been touted as one of the next big things in R&B circles, drawing comparisons to Frank Ocean and SZA among others (just don’t call it an album). No pressure then. As a whole Heaux Tales more than meets the challenge, but Pick Up Your Feelings so far feels noticeably underrated compared to the other tracks making everyone’s tracks of the month/week lists. It’s a classic old-school R&B slow-jam, with the staccato bass, 6/8 beat, and strings producing a luxurious canvas for Sullivan to display her showstopping vocals over.
Ashnikko – Deal With It (feat. Kelis) (Pop)
Put it this way, I’m not sure I’d want to get on Ashnikko’s bad side. She certainly doesn’t seem afraid to burn bridges, and Deal With It provides us all with a valuable reminder that if the person standing on the other side is trash you owe it to yourself to strike the match. The music might be bouncy and catchy, but lyrically the track brutally dismisses a former lover whilst listing some gloriously petty payback measures (“I put the teddy bear you gave me in a blender, I drew a dick on all your sweatshirts”). It should definitely be part of your breakup playlist should you require one this year.
YOASOBI – Gunjo (J-Pop)
Gunjo is a 4-minute rollercoaster. Starting at a comfortably slow pace, the tempo is almost immediately whacked up to full speed after a handful of bars. It then slows down, speeds up again, slows down again, speeds up again, throws in a truck-driver key change for good measure, before riding a joyous chanted outro into the sunset. Doing all of this whilst remaining a coherent whole is impressive, as is producing something that is so melodically and vocally saccharine in a way that it remains joyful rather than irritating.
The Antlers – Solstice (Indie Rock)
After nearly seven years, battles with tinnitus, and the departure of band member Darby Cicci, The Antlers are finally making a very welcome return to our lives and headphones in March with new album Green to Gold. One of three heavenly preview singles released so far, Solistice is the delicate sound of a stunning summer evening distilled into musical form (an association that is no doubt aided by the upcoming album’s cover art and Silberman crooning about “oppressive heat” in his characteristic breathy vocals). Expectations for the album have heightened further – it’s great to have them back.
Slayyyter – Troubled Paradise (Pop)
January isn’t usually considered the most commercially effective time to unleash massive pop smashes, but that’s just what Slayyyter has delivered with Troubled Paradise. Drawing on a well-established tradition of dance-pop that includes the likes of Lady Gaga’s Stupid Love, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Now That I’ve Found You, and Robyn’s Dancing on my Own, Troubled Paradise rides dancefloor-friendly beats and chunky bass synths all the way to the promised land. Throw in its lyrics about heartbreak and betrayed love, and millions of people going through tough break-ups will drunkenly sing through their tears to it, even if for at least the next few months it’ll have to be in the living room rather than the club.
Nilotika Cultural Ensemble – Kekusimbe (Instrumental/Afrobeat)
“Consisting of seven drummers under the leadership of Jajja Kalanda” and played “on their ancestral Bugandan percussion,” Kekusimbe is part of an excellent two-track debut EP by Ugandan Nilotika Cultural Ensemble and an absolutely dazzling display of rhythmic prowess. Constantly morphing and changing gears, the whole track pulses with an irresistible momentum. Not a single beat is wasted.
Observe Since 98 – Clyde Drexler (feat. Monday Night & Ru$h) (Rap)
Saving Observe Since 98’s USP of sampling amazing old French records until the outro, the main hook to Clyde Drexler is an earworm of a soft-rock guitar sample layered over cinematic strings, stabbing piano chords, and a glacial beat. Ascending rappers Monday Night and Ru$h seem to sense they’re involved in something special and waste no time in justifying their place, the former stating “the fastest way to be great and get the cash is play, I’m on a different game mode whilst n****s is stuck on the same old.” The end product certainly sounds anything but business as usual.
Selena Gomez – De Una Vez (Reggaeton)
It’s hard to imagine 2021 blessing us with a prettier outro than the one found in De Una Vez, the kind of musical passage that instantly makes you stop what you are doing and pay attention. Before that, it’s a pleasingly subtle affair, with a wistful minor-key organ and a reggaetón beat turned down about as quiet as it could plausibly be. Gomez’s words recount the strength and wisdom she’s accrued through the pain of heartbreak, a recurring theme of her recent works.
Shame – Water in the Well (Post-Punk)
Post-punk seems to be going through a purple patch in recent years, and Shame’s Drunk Tank Pink carries that trend into January 2021 . Over stop-start verses and noisy choruses, frontman Charlie Steen puts in a charmingly lively performance, almost sounding Lydon-like at points. The high point of the track is unquestionably the colossal middle section, an avalanche of pounding drums and harmonised backing vocals bellowed at full blast.
Yubin – Perfume (K-Pop)
Perfume contains more of the hyperactivity that’s often associated with stereotypes of K-Pop with its high-drama chord progressions, numerous mid-chorus ‘drops’, glittery synths, and strange lyrics (“It doesn’t mean anything when I chose you, I just liked your scent”). Nevertheless, it’s definitely great pop music, and this should still be well within the comfort zone of most fans of the genre the world over. If you enjoy it, you should definitely check out Yubin’s previous work as a member of Wonder Girls, whose Reboot is one of the all-time great K-Pop albums.
Lost Horizons – Marie (feat. Marissa Nadler) (Alternative)
Marie is one of many previews of the upcoming, star-studded release In Quiet Moments by Lost Horizons (Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde & Richie Thomas of Dif Juz). The song sounds destined to accompany a stylish foreign-language movie set on the Adriatic coast, its splashing drums carrying the subdued, moody strings and the incomparable beauty of repeat collaborator Marissa Nadler’s voice. Its outro, whilst not quite matching the aforementioned effort by Selena Gomez, certainly runs it close.
Beach Bunny – Good Girls Don’t Get Used (Indie Rock)
Picking up where last year’s excellent debut Honeymoon left off, Good Girls Don’t Get Used is another power pop bop of the highest order. The band sounds tight, clearly confident in their signature high-energy indie, and frontwoman Lili Trifilio’s shows that her knack for telling relatable tales in insanely catchy verses and choruses remains intact. Whilst the eponymous lyric initially raised concerns about inadvertant victim-blaming, Trifilio elaborated in a press release for the song that “I wanted to create a sassy song that calls out players by talking down to them as if they were children, showing that poor communication skills and mind games are immature.” Mission accomplished.
CHAI – Action (House)
The signs were there. 2019’s debut Punk placed CHAI as one of the great new hopes for the construct of the “guitar band”, but there was plenty of electronic experimentation in there too (Great Job, This is Chai); it was just equally noisy and punk as the guitars. With Action, the guitars are gone completely, the buzzsaw synths are replaced by cleaner, funkier ones, and the crashing drums make way for tasteful house beats. Open-minded fans need not worry, though, as so far CHAI appear to excel at every genre they turn their hands to. With only one other preview single for upcoming album Wink released so far, it remains to be seen whether Action is the herald of a complete stylistic shift, or whether CHAI will once again purposefully flit between disparate genres to great effect. Whichever option turns out to be true, it’s hard not to be excited when the tracks are this fun.
Westside Gunn, Smoke DZA & Wale – The Hurt Business (Rap)
Buffalo-based label Griselda have been virtually inescapable in the rap world recently. Not that this is a bad thing – member Boldy James alone arguably put out three of the best rap albums of the year last year. This time, member Westside Gunn (hot off his own success with acclaimed album Pray for Paris) teams up with DZA Smoke and Wale for The Hurt Business, a highly enjoyable melange of wrestling references and smack talk (“You were a vegan, now you’re a vegetable”) over a beat that sounds like it came straight from the 1990s East-Coast scene.
Goat Girl – Sad Cowboy (Indie Rock)
In Sad Cowboy we find another example of a great single from last year that we’re now able to appreciate as part of a greater whole in this month’s album On All Fours. A galloping beat and spacious, minor-key guitar licks that conjure images of, well, a very sad cowboy, blend effortlessly with an array of synths. The tension rises with a stripped down prechorus before melting into a psychedelic swirl. Sad Cowboy is maybe the most natural marriage of psychedelic synth pop to a “guitar rock” band this side of Lonerism.
tUnE-YaRdS – hold yourself. (Indie Pop)
Three years have passed remarkably quickly since tUnE-YaRdS’ last album, and now they’re back to remind us that they’re one of the most under-appreciated groups in indie. Continuing a recurring theme in this playlist of climate anxiety, hold yourself. is a song “about feeling really betrayed by my parents’ generation, and, at the same time, really seeing how we are betraying the future.” With lyrics like “They held us close and dear, And told us lies that they’ve been telling themselves for years, They’ll suffocate me so I Hold myself now,” Merrill Garbus is not pulling any punches. But, crucially, she also recognises our own generations’ seeming inability (or unwillingness) to truly change the miserable course that our ancestors have set us on (“Child, I won’t have you and I’m telling you why, I cannot mend this … I can’t pretend without a break in sight”). Musically, it sounds much more like a celebration than a lament, as its chorus one of the most euphoric of this young year.
Smerz – Believer (Electronic)
Believer is a pleasingly unsettling listen, its vocals often a sinister, barely audible mutter over choppy synths and ominous strings. The Norwegian duo (currently based in Copenhagen, Denmark) definitely know how to match the mood between music and words, dispensing chilling complaints like “All my big dreams been lost for some time, And I will need some compensation for this.” I can’t say I truly belive it’s sufficent compensation but their upcoming debut album (also titled Believer) is now one of my most hotly-anticipated releases.
Kiwi Jr. – Undecided Voters (Indie Rock)
Less than a year after promising debut Football Money, lead single from Cooler Returns Undecided Voters doubles down on and develops the traits that make Kiwi Jr. so enjoyable: intriguing chord progressions, guitars tones straight out of an 80’s R.E.M record, and lyrics continuing to mine a rich seam of deadpan humour and mysterious allusions. “King Crab has four or five bank accounts. King Crab doesn’t care about time zones, Federally Funded… Glasgow’s on fire for the second time in five years.” No, I have very little idea what this all means either. But I sure want to find out.
Run The Jewels – ooh la la (Mexican Institute of Sound Remix feat. Santa Fe Klan) (Rap)
Camilo Lara (Instituto Mexicano del Sonido) takes what was arguably the least inspired track on last year’s phenomenal RTJ4 and breathes new life into it, reimagining it as a vibrant cumbia jam. All that’s left of the original are the enjoyably lewd raps and the eponymous sample (the latter mercifully used much more sparingly on this occasion). Its skewed piano loop and almost militaristic beat are replaced by a much more colourful blend including Caribbean drums, blaring horns, and an extra verse in Spanish from Mexico’s talented young rapper Santa Fe Klan.
Half Waif – Orange Blossoms (Alternative)
“Somebody hold me hostage, Somebody make me feel like I’m worth something” Nandi Rose Plunkett pleads over a mesmerizing synth line and haunting choir chants that wouldn’t sound incongruous in a particularly malevolent Legend of Zelda dungeon level (and that is intended as the highest of compliments). The whole set of lyrics are a disturbing, engrossing plea for freedom from isolation and imprisonment, and as somebody living in early 2021 England it’s incredibly difficult to not associate them with the tribulations of another lockdown. However, as Plunkett has explained, they in fact detail “taking care of someone close to me who was struggling with addiction, and as a caretaker often does, I internalized that immense pain and took it on as my own.” About half-way through, much of the instrumentation drops out, leaving just Plunkett, a desolate piano melody, and the sparsest of percussion to add another layer of extraordinary, dispirited beauty to this beguiling journey.
Molly Burch – Emotion (feat. Wild Nothing) (Pop)
2021 is going to have to go some way if it wants to top last year’s stellar haul in the disco-inspired pop revival, with albums from Dua Lipa, Jessie Ware, and Róisín Murphy among others getting us dancing through the first two lockdowns. With Emotion, however, the year is at least off to a strong start on the singles front. Perhaps slightly more muted than the examples listed above, nevertheless its stabbing basslines, woozy synths and gorgeous guitar solo form a heady concoction which serves as the perfect foil for Burch’s vocals. Go get those rollerskates out of the cupboard.
Kessler – Moonlight Branches (IDM/Electronic)
This one’s all about the drums. Energetic and heavy, on first listen they appear to just repeat and repeat relentlessly for the entirety of the track’s five minutes. But upon closer inspection Kessler is continually reimagining them as a fascinating series of subtle variations around a similar theme. Ghostly, mostly wordless vocals and a sparse synth line weave in and out of the groove, adding just enough colour to an otherwise austere and imposing bludgeoning. Accompanying EP Ambivalent is well worth your time if you enjoy this type of music.
Cassandra Jenkins – Hard Drive (Singer-Songwriter)
Hard Drive feels like a song that’s very much “of this moment,” four minutes of semi-deconstructed easy-listening music gliding by in a blissful haze. A warm two-chord piano refrain and loosely marching drums tie everything together whilst twinkling guitars softly chime and jazzy saxophones noodle in the distance. Its spoken-word verses appear at first to unfold almost in a stream of consciousness but are actually meticulously planned out conversations showcasing the enlightening encounters which occur in even the most mundane of situations.
Cheekface – Original Composition (Indie Rock)
Propelled by a bassline and beat that would be worthy of one of LCD Soundsystem’s more goofy moments, Original Composition finds frontman Greg Katz wielding his resigned, deadpan humour as a coping mechanism for the inevitability of the impending heat death. “Remember when you thought the whole world would collapse at your feet? Well, it turns out the whole world will collapse…” Catchy, sarcastic tracks may ultimately have little impact in saving our burning world, but they do go some way to provide consolation for our feelings of futility as we watch those in power intentionally worsen matters.
BAEKHYUN – Get You Alone (K-Pop)
The first single from EXO and, confusingly, EXO-K sub-group member BAEKHYUN’s debut Japanese EP is a highly entertaining solo effort. At the very least, its slinky disco groove and harmonised backing vocals (imagine a less annoying version of Pharrell Williams’ Happy) surely ought to guarantee him success where Dayglow failed in their stated aim to seduce. I suspect it would be an inescapable chart-topper here if there weren’t the language barriers, which is more a reflection on the stubborn refusal by many mainstream Western tastemakers and audiences to embrace foreign-language efforts than on the song itself. However, it does seem to be making headway in the USA, having reached fourteen in the Billboard World singles chart.
Th1rt3en & Pharoahe Monch – 666 (Three Six Word Stories) (Rap)
More than 30 years into his legendary rap career, Pharoahe Monch has formed the group Th1rt3en and released the divisive but excellently-titled rap-rock album A Magnificent Day for an Exorcism. An early highlight of the release, 666 (Three Six Word Stories)’s verses feature a menacing bassline and tapping snare rims whilst the track doesn’t exactly have a chorus as much as it occasionally explodes into a wonderful jazzy cacophony. Critics seem to be divided on the wisdom and taste (or lack of it) in releasing a rap-rock album in 2021, but in my mind there’s no doubt that when this project succeeds the results are exhilarating.
Yu Su – Melaleuca (Electronic)
Kraftwerk’s Computer World was a pivotal gateway album in the development of my musical tastes, opening my eyes to the melodic and songwriting possibilities that electronic and dance music could hold. Yu Su’s Melaleuca, then, is right up my street, its drum and synth timbres strongly resembling that groundbreaking album (whether intentionally or by happy coincidence). However, far from making a derivative facismile of a forty-year-old record, the Vancouver-based artist creates an enchanting world of her own through the inclusion of other musical elements inspired by the 2019 tour of her native China and “the explosive leftfield electronic scene” she encountered there.
Julien Baker – Hardline (Singer-Songwriter)
Baker’s 2017 album Turn Out the Lights was a stunning mix of melancholy singer-songwriter tunes and devastating moments of raw emotion that stopped you in your tracks (and if you haven’t heard it before, I’d strongly recommend you check it out). The opening track to upcoming album Little Oblivions, Hardline is cut from a similar cloth. An intro of clipped, jagged organ and mournful strings gives way to way to a more sonically expansive band setup than previous albums, but that beautiful, haunting voice is still there delivering crushing gut punches (“Knocked out on a weekend, Would you hit me this hard if I were a boy?“). 2020 saw boygenius bandmate Phoebe Bridgers ascend to the indie big leagues, crowned by fans and reviewers as the queen of sadness much needed in these troubling times. If Little Oblivions is all of a similar standard to Hardline, I wouldn’t bet against Baker joining her at the summit in 2021.
serpentwithfeet – Fellowship (feat. Sampha & Lil Silva) (Electronic)
A tender reflection perfectly suited to close out upcoming album DEACON, serpentwithfeet spends Fellowship surveying where he’s at and recognising some of the important lessons that time and experience have taught him (“Maybe it’s the blessing of my thirties, I’m spending less time worrying and more time recounting the love”). Above an intoxicating mix of electronic drums, percussion, and Sampha’s divine backing vocals, he delivers a chorus that’s as profound as it is catchy: “I’m thankful for the love I share with my friends.” Amen to that.
Adult Mom – Sober (Alternative)
Alfa Mist – Run Outs (Jazz)
Alostmen – Do Good (feat. Medikal) (Akan Music/Modern Roots)
Aly & AJ – Listen!!! (Pop)
The Anchoress – The Art of Losing (Rock)
Beautify Junkyards – Reverie (Indie Pop)
Billie Marten – Garden of Eden (Singer-Songwriter)
Billy Nomates – Heels (Electro-pop)
Django Django – Glowing in the Dark (Electronic/Dance)
Emeka Ogboh – Danfo Mellow (Electronic)
FKA Twigs, Headie One, Fred again.. – Don’t Judge Me (Electronic)
Grandbrothers – Unrest (Electronic/Instrumental)
Haru Nemuri – Bang (Rock)
IAN SWEET – Drink the Lake (Indie Rock)
Insides – It Was Like This Once, It Will Be Like This Again (Ambient)
Juice WRLD & Young Thug – Bad Boy (Rap)
Kirin J Callinan – Dumb Enough (Indie Rock)
Lancey Foux – Steelo Flow (Rap)
Madlib – Hopprock (Rap/Instrumental)
Madeline Kenney – Truth (Dream-Pop/Indie)
Nasty Cherry – Lucky (Pop)
New Pagans – Christian Boys (Rock)
R.A.P Ferreira – Diogenes On the Auction Block (Rap)
Renée Reed – Fast One (Folk)
Squid – Narrator (Rock)
Sweet Trip – Walkers Beware! We Drive into the Sun (Dream Pop)
Tamar Aphek – Crossbow (Alternative)
Trztn & Karen O – Hieroglyphs (Electronic)
N.B. Come in Closer by Rhye has been temporarily removed from this list following accusations of sexual assault, domestic violence, and grooming a minor (https://pitchfork.com/news/rhye-michael-milosh-accused-of-sexual-and-physical-abuse-by-ex-wife-issues-denial/)
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