Across the Margin takes stock of the status of music in 2021, stopping at the midway point to offer its picks for the best songs of the year (so far)…
Note: All album links found in this article will take you to Bandcamp, our favored website for procuring music. The reason: Bandcamp supports the artist they feature, and now more than ever. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, on every Friday Bandcamp has waived their revenue share for all sales, meaning all proceeds go directly to the artist.
Wild Pink — “Family Friends”
To say that Wild Pink wowed us with their recent album, A Billion Little Lights, would be a massive understatement. The third album from the New York City based rock band is absolutely loaded, a ten song journey that incorporates fiddles, violins, wurlitzers, saxophones, accordions, pedal steel guitars, and a variety of richly textured synths and keyboards. Where should you start with this outstanding album? At its top of course, and then simply let it ride. However, the apple of our eyes among this stellar batch of songs is, “Family Friends,” a song that the band describes as “musings on day-to-day stasis.” It’s a delightful tune whose dreamy feel and uplifting chorus of “Hold on tight, Stay right here, Blood sisters, Dazed and pure, Lights spin around, Like stars that fall down, Come back home, Dream all night,” is all-encompassing and wholly invigorating.
Danielle Durack — “Broken Wings”
Danielle Durack’s latest album, No Place, is a candid and forthright breakup album, one that takes listeners on a journey through heartache unto its other side, to a hopeful place, free from the aches and bonds of what came before. The Phoenix, Arizona based singer-songwriter’s songs have a potency to them, a hard-earned edge born of the bruises we accumulate in life, and this power is exhibited with zest in “Broken Wings,” a deeply affecting song which speaks to a yearning to fix others you care about, even when that desire invites toxicity into one’s life. It’s a relatable song to those who feel “a special kind of damaged, always craving what (they) can’t have,” and one that emphatically exhibits the talents of the pop singer.
Japanese Breakfast — “Be Sweet”
It has been a remarkable 2021 for Michelle Zauner, known to music fans as Japanese Breakfast. Not only did the multi-talented artist and writer release a widely-praised, deeply moving memoir entitled Crying in H Mart, but on June 4th she released her third album, a tremendous work of art entitled Jubilee. The album signals a shift in focus for Zauner while staying true to her well-crafted indie aesthetic. In contrast to the tone and overall feel of her previous two albums, ones crafted through hardship and loss, there is joy bursting forth on Jubilee. It’s an exaltation that is exhibited whole-heartedly in the ultra funky song “Be Sweet,” a bass driven, synth heavy, emphatically danceable song. “Be Sweet,” written with Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing, is a taste of the hard-earned optimism found throughout Jubilee, and a crafty, well maneuvered shift in tone for an artist whose creative possibilities continue to appear limitless.
Rose City Band — “Lonely Places”
Rose City Band’s latest offering, an album called Earth Trip, is arriving at the most ideal of times: Summer. The soothing, melodic songs of a band as talented and grounded as Rose City Band craft meander with the patience and carefree ease of an inviting Midsummer day. The first single off the Ripley Johnson (Wooden Shjips, Moo Duo) fronted band, “Lonely Places,” is a perfect example of the sampling of cathartic songs to be found on Earth Trip, a delight which finds an acoustic guitar dancing harmoniously with a pedal steel guitar as Johnson’s weightless voice mingles in and drifts above.
Matt Sweeney & Bonnie “Prince” Billy — “Make Me Worry For Me”
The long awaited sequel, sixteen years in the making, to esteemed singer-songwriter Will Oldam (a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Billy) and guitar virtuoso Mathew Sweeney’s outstanding album Superwolf finally came to fruition this year in the form of a sprawling, lush, and gorgeous album entitled Superwolves. Everything you’d expected from the talented pairing is on display on Superwolves — the intricate guitar arrangement, thought provoking and unparagoned lyrical stylings, profound emotional affectivity — yet this time around a few of the tracks feature Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar (more on him later!). The addition of Moctar and his band’s unique sound adds a pleasing West African element to the album’s already rich sonic tapestry. While Superwolves ideally should be absorbed in consummate, one of of our favorite tracks, “Make Me Worry For Me,” which fittingly leads off the album, is dark and menacing, confident on the verge of cocky, and a song that marks a biting return for a beloved indie rock project that his been profoundly missed.
Valerie June — ”You and I”
Memphis-based singer/songwriter Valerie June’s latest album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, is a melodious adventure through the lessons of love and loss, and the most impressive release yet from an extremely talented songstress. June’s ability to seamlessly blend a mélange of blues, gospel, African rhythms, folk, delicate soul, and country, is awe-inspiring. Co-producer Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys) has helped June craft The Moon and Stars into an album that is conceptually deep, where a tapestry of compelling songs is weaved together with strings, flutes, and chimes while a well-crafted narrative promotes perseverance and believing in oneself. A great place to immerse yourself in this album is the bewitching track “You and I,” an alluring, and outright uplifting song that soars on the wings of June’s divine vocals.
Julien Baker – “Hardline”
On her song “Hardline,” the first track off of her latest, intoxicatingly beautiful album Little Oblivions, multi-instrumentalist Julien Baker sings “I can see where I am going / But I can’t find the brakes.” The song is lofty in its unfolding, powerful in its delivery and filled with observational dualities like this. “Hardline” is tense, emotional and farsighted, its lyrics speaking of the coming “crash” while being fully aware that one is powerless to stop its arrival. The song, and the greater album, is quintessential Baker, that genius amalgam of happiness and sadness, beautiful urgency and fearful insignificance, all experienced concurrently, and illustrative of the truly epic levels of passion and emotion that she pours into her music. The songs on her latest album have a larger, full-band sound compared to her previous offerings and that just serves to make their emotional delivery all that more powerful. If you are looking for a doorway into Baker’s bigger and bolder sound, and all the vehemence that comes with it, then “Hardline” is the one to open.
Aaron Frazer — “Bad News”
Aaron Frazer, the Brooklyn-based, Baltimore-raised songwriter made his name during his days holding down the beat as a multi-instrumentalist and co-lead singer for Durand Jones & The Indications. This year Frazer released his first solo effort Introducing…, and it is masterfully produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who “called on a crew of heavy session players — including members of the Memphis Boys, symphony percussionist Sam Bacco, and members of the Daptone-Big Crown Records universe — to record over six days.” From this star-studded recording marathon came an album born of a myriad of genres and influences, and the lead single “Bad News” is a perfect example of the soulful, funky songs currently orbiting Frazer’s creative mindset. The song is a feelgood anthem spilling over with vibes of Marvin Gaye in his heyday, and featuring Frazer’s smooth falsetto gliding over a sprightly, infectious rhythm.
Fruit Bats – “Eagles Below Us”
The Pet Parade, the ninth full-length album release for Eric Johnson’s indie-folk project Fruit Bats, gets better with every listen. As you take in the album, new portals of musical impressiveness are opened, and additional avenues of appreciation are unlocked. One song in particular, “Eagles Below Us,” has stuck in our mindseye and aroused us again and again with its magic. With a pleasing composition moving the listener forward through its gossamer lands, an effortlessness to its delivery and a warm and inviting overall feeling, it is a song best enjoyed on a sultry summer day, relaxing on backyard porches, watching as orbs of condensation on a cool drink shimmer in the dancing sunlight. That’s the kind cure for the greyness of the past years struggles we can get behind and “Eagles Below Us” is an apt window into the sort of enchantment this latest offering from Fruit Bats entails.
Lana Del Rey – “White Dress”
Singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey is a consummate collector of all things Americana. She has a unique way of painting cinematic pictures through her songs and lyrics of idyllic scenes of American life, with a particular fancy for the bygone eras of the 50s and 60s. A talented singer who effortlessly channels pop culture through a lens of melancholia, romance and glamour, Del Rey has released her seventh studio album, entitled Chemtrials Over the Country Club. The album’s opening song, “White Dress,” where Del Rey narrates her life in Orlando as a young waitress, and channels a nostalgia for her personal experiences, is a suburb blueprint for the intimate and stripped down songs on the album to follow. The song is devastating with its delicacy, her voice almost whispering and sung in a manner that is breathlessly charmed, as she recounts her struggles, her dreams and her desire to be anywhere else but where she is. As the song winds down, and Del Rey’s inner dance with the past comes to an end, the listener is reminded of the song’s opening lyrics: “Sun stare, don’t care / with my head in my hands / Thinking of a simpler time” and it all becomes clear that “White Dress” is Del Rey reflecting on her life before fame, and her pondering of if it would be best if she never had achieved her success in the first place.
St. Vincent — “Down”
St. Vincent’s (Annie Clark) latest album, Daddy’s Home, is an expressive triumph. The sixth full-length release for Clark, Daddy’s Home is an album inspired by her father’s 1970’s record collection, hence the name, and is co-produced by producer Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey). There is a broadness of depth across the album, finding Clark exploring her past in a deeply personal and emotional way. The musical soundscapes, nuanced and potent, and the mere power and emotion present in Daddy’s Home make it clear that St. Vincent has fully arrived as one of this generation’s most extraordinary acts. There isn’t a song on the album that doesn’t touch us in one way or another. They are all impactful in their own way. One of our favorites, “Down,” is a thick and funky, yet sexy stunner — and that will get you started, but don’t stop there. We highly recommend you circle back to the top of the album where the equally sultry, Prince (or Bowie?)-inspired funk fest that is “Pay Your Way in Pain” resides. After that we suggest you just sit back, dive deep and let what remains of Daddy’s Home wash over you.
Mdou Moctar — “Chismiten”
Mdou Moctar, for those unindoctrinated, is a Tuareg songwriter and musician, one of the first musicians to perform modern electronic adaptations of Tuareg guitar music. His rise to fame is a fascinating story, as he was raised in a family disapproving of electronic music, yet this didn’t hold Moctar back from chasing his passion. He began to concoct makeshift guitars using strings made from bicycle wires. In time, as his talents blossomed and his equipment modernized, he recorded songs on mobile phones and memory cards to be distributed throughout West Africa, and he was finally discovered by Sahel Sounds label founder Chris Kirkley. Years later, we find a fully formed, awesomely talented Moctar releasing one of 2021’s most impressive albums, Afrique Victime, one you have to hear firsthand to understand Moctar’s gift. The opening track, “Chismiten,” is the perfect introduction to Moctar’s jaw-dropping talents, a song that starts out in fifth gear, and never lets up.
Black Midi — “Chondromalacia Patella”
We are increasingly coming upon comparisons of Black Midi, an experimental English rock band (the name is derived from the Japanese music genre black MIDI) to the gods of funk-metal, Primus, a resemblance that makes a great deal of sense when you give over to the offerings on Black Midi’s latest, extremely spirited and innovative album, Cavalcade. For a taste of Black Midi’s sophomore album, we would like to point you to a funky, gyrating and ultimately dreamlike ditty curiously entitled “Chondromalacia Patella. According to the band’s press kit, “Chondromalacia Patella,” is a song about convalescence and, if curious (as we sure were), the name refers to a type of knee injury that reportedly one of the band members suffered while running.So yeah, Black Midi, like Primus, is a weird band, and like Primus, tremendously talented. Their latest album is chock full of songs that are equally jarring, seductive, and energetic AF. “John L” kicks off the impressive album and we advise you to buckle up for the wild, and entirely gratifying, ride.
Brockhampton — “WINDOWS”
There is no better song, in our humble but emphatic opinion, that represents who Brockhampton is, and what they are capable of, than “WINDOWS,” an album off their sixth studio album Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine. The reason being is “WINDOWS” is the only track on the album to feature contributions from all seven of the famed hip-hop collective’s main vocalists, as well as uncredited vocals from frequent Brockhampton-collaborator Ryan Beatty. The song is produced by all three of the groups’ main producers, Romil Hemnani, Jabari Manwa, and Kiko Merley. Add to that mix, “WINDOWS” marks the band’s first collaboration with SoGone SoFlexy, who is signed to Brockhampton members’ Kevin Abstract & Romil Hemnani’s record label VIDEOSTORE. Yup, the whole team is in the mix, and the results are phenomenal.
Talib Kweli, Diamond D — “On Mamas”
It’s wonderful to see legendary hip-hop emcee, Brooklyn’s own, Talib Kweli, getting so much shine so late in his career. From his extremely popular podcast The People’s Party, to his work with Dave Chappelle and Yasiin Bey on Midnight Miracle, and beyond. The best part is, Kweli is still releasing music at a prolific rate, and he sounds as good as ever. His most recent project is a team up with legendary producer Diamond D for a hard-hitting album entitled Gotham. The lead single of the album, “On Mamas” makes it clear how well this super-duo worked together, crafting a track with a funky bassline, string-like synths, and featuring a nostalgia-filled, lyrical ode to their hometown of New York City.
JID, Denzel Curry — “Bruuuh” (remix)
Rapper and member of the musical collective Spillage Village, JID is easily one of the most consistent emcees in hip-hop at the moment. Every bar he spits or track he jumps is consistently fire. This is decidedly the case when the Dreamville-signed phenom paired with the Florida born, freakishly talented rapper Denzel Curry to craft a remix of the JID song “Bruuuh.” This is the first time the two rappers have joined forces since Curry’s 2018 song “SIRENS | Z1RENZ,” and it’s clear the world would be a much better place if this duo worked together more frequently. JID’s verse on “Bruuuh” is insane, and Denzel’s follow up is equally stunning, manifesting an instant classic hip-hop remix.
Masego, JID, Rapsody — “Somethin’ Ain’t Right”
Judas and The Black Messiah is one hell of a film, an enthralling look at the betrayal of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, in late-1960s Chicago, by William O’Neal, an FBI informant. This important and illuminating biopic is bolstered by an epic soundtrack, featuring heavyweights such as H.E.R., Nas, Jay-Z, Hit-Boy, A$AP Rocky, and Rakim, just to name a few. One of the tracks we continually return to from the star-studded release is “Something Ain’t Right” which features tremendous verses by two of the best rappers in the game, JID and Rapsody, and an accompaniment by Jamaican-American musician and singer Masego.
Darkside — “The Limit”
After a six year hiatus Darkside, the super-duo of Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington, are set to return with a new album, Spiral, on July 23rd. Word is, Harrington and Jaar wrote and recorded six of the nine songs for the album across a one-week period in 2018 while renting a house together in Flemington, New Jersey, and then it took another year and a half to complete Spiral. The imminent news of more work from Darkside is reason enough to celebrate, but throughout the last few months they have been periodically releasing songs, giving fans a taste of what is to come from their sophomore album. The most recent to drop is an atmospheric, moody and ultimately danceable song called “The Limit,” which curiously manifests itself as more engaging and sophisticated each and every listen.
King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard — “Honey”
The prolific assemblage of prog rock geniuses from Down Under are at it again, and doing what they do tremendously best — releasing outstanding albums at a mind boggling rate. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard dropped a mammoth double album entitled K.G. and L.G across 2020 and 2021, their sixteenth and seventeenth respectively, and the band have already announced another to be released this summer. The dual albums K.G. and L.G. incorporate Anatlian, Egyptian, and Indian rock to the Australian band’s already ornate brand of garage and psychedelic rock. A great place to experience the new, Western-lean to King Gizzard is the song “Honey,” a track written by the band’s frontman, Stu Mackenzie, years earlier. The song, featuring Mackenzie playing a microtonal guitar and featuring a light and folksy vibe, had been put on the back burner but has now seen the light of day. With sitar vibes, an enchanting vocal melody and a calming, dream-like effect, this always evolving band has struck musical gold…again.
Daniel Norgren — “Howling Around My Happy Home”
Daniel Norgren is a Swedish singer-songwriter from, as he puts it, “the tall woods of the north.” We are not going to front, we don’t know that much about Norgren, and that gap in our musical education is something we aim to fix immediately. Once we stumbled upon his imaginative and alluring work, we were instantly hooked. If there is a song that acts as a perfect example of Norgren’s talents it’s “Howling Around My Happy Home,” a ten minute journey that draws you in deeply, its subtle opening guitar riffs taking hold and the song doesn’t let you go for the remainder of the formidable piece of work.