Reflections on the joys of discovering new music
023 :: FOUNTAIN
Fountain Baby by Amaarae, released by Interscope Records in 2023. Listen / Buy direct
"All My Love" "Angels in Tibet" "Co-Star"
I loved this music from the moment I heard it, from the very first notes of its opening melody, with its haunting oscillation between dominant and tonic, and this ghostly choir of distant voices gradually surfacing amid a groundswell of strings. And I'll admit, I can't quite say what it is about this music that enthralled me so immediately, or what strange magic flows within these sounds, but I knew, instinctively, from the moment I heard it, that this would be music like nothing I'd ever heard before.
This song throws so much at you all at once, it's hard to know where to begin, but let's start with the rhythm. The beat is all syncopation, hitting hard on the one and then subdividing the rest of each measure in a mix of threes and fours. It's urgent and aggressive and unrelenting, like waves crashing down on you while you try to gasp for air.
Then there's the percussion, which forgoes the typical pop and sizzle of snares and hi-hats in favour of an ensemble of pitched drums and rimshots, lending an acoustic warmth and energy to a song that is otherwise a club banger.
But what we really need to talk about is this voice: this whispery soprano that, for all its delicacy, stands toe to toe with the drumline and somehow commands the whole performance. It's not at all what you'd expect, especially for a song that's so raw and raunchy, with such memorable lines as "I want to fuck a puddle" and "I'll Lindsay a Lohan".
But that's the beauty and the genius of this song. It's absolutely singular in its sound, and it all works because it says it works, because it fully commits to being fully itself, and because it knows that it's an unstoppable force of nature.
And like nature itself, it can change in a flash, turning from a downpour into a drizzle, as light as raindrops bouncing off your skin. Now, everything feels playful and buoyant, as bouncy as the bass synth and as feathery as the harp's arpeggios. The music has metamorphosed from a heavy rain into a misty vapour, while somehow remaining, in its essence, the same. This is a multitudinous music – music that can, at one moment, inundate and overpower, and then, in the next, refresh and rejuvenate.
And that's why it's so fitting that the overarching metaphor of this record is water, in all its elemental guises. It floods and it cools. It drowns and it hydrates. It makes waves and cuts canyons. It gives life and brings death. It's the sweat on your chest and the shower on your face. It's a symbol of tranquility and a symbol of devastation. It's a symbol of arousal and a symbol of rebirth. And all the same could be said about this music. It overwhelms, it revitalizes, it makes us wet. It's an unending stream of musical styles and ideas, cycling between countless different forms and textures, swelling and receding, ebbing and flowing, spilling over in abundance, and ultimately leaving us to float on its endless fathomless sea.
022 :: MAPS
Maps by billy woods and Kenny Segal, released by Backwoodz Studioz in 2023. Listen / Buy direct
"Soft Landing""The Layover""FaceTime""NYC Tapwater"
Here's a little secret: When I listen to music, the lyrics are typically what I hear last. I am drawn to the sounds and harmonies and rhythms; but the words often pass me by. Which may make a lyrical genre like hip-hop seem like it'd be a nonstarter for me. But of course it isn't; for how could you pass up music like this?
Though actually, maybe hip-hop is an easy sell for a listener like me, because hip-hop is about so much more than the literal words. Even before you can make out a single lyric, you can feel what this music is expressing. It's in the MC's voice, with its sure-footed delivery and breathless flow. It's in the DJ's production, with its languid boom-bap and far-off horns like sirens. It's tuned every aspect of its sound to create a feeling that is at once laid-back and confident and filled with a sense of underlying dread. And what could be more musical than that?
But this isn't just music that you can vibe to. This is lyrical music at the end of the day, and it's in its words that it truly distinguishes itself. Its verses are densely packed poetry, and even before you can start parsing their content, you can luxuriate in the pure sound of the language – the effortless flurry of assonant syllables ricocheting off each other in syncopated slant rhymes and the way each phrase seems to fall out in a natural rhythm as it rolls off the tongue. The words just sound good, independent of what they mean or what they're being used to say, showcasing the musicality that's always there in language, just waiting for someone to coax it out.
Or maybe this is just me, continuing to avoid actually hearing the lyrics, and picking up on every other musical element instead. Not that the MC makes it easy to follow along. Even with a lyric sheet out in front of you, it can be hard to decipher what's being said. Lines shift between perspectives and timeframes and locales, feeling less like a sequential narrative and more like a stream of consciousness, a pastiche of vivid images flashing before the mind's eye:
The sunset in the desert...
I sip Mexico's best slow...
Unbroken wild ponies...
Only the lonely big tree like a sundial
But the fragmentary quality of the lyrics is by design. Because if this record is about anything, it's about being on the road – and not just in the sense of living an itinerant lifestyle, but more deeply in the sense of the state of mind that that life puts you in: how the continuous bombardment of unfamiliar sights and sounds can make you turn inward and how the constant movement from one place to another can end up grounding you in where you're from. That's why we find the MC, in the middle of a crowded party...
Smoking alone in a cardigan
Thinking of home
It's that feeling of double consciousness, of being physically in one place while being mentally in another, of being uncommonly receptive to the world around you while being trapped in your own thoughts and interiority, of being on the road while...
021 :: NYMPH
Nymph by Shygirl, released by Because Music in 2022. Listen / Buy direct
"Woe""Wildfire""Firefly""Coochie (a bedtime story)"
The music starts, and we are immediately surrounded by voices: oohs and aahs and scrambled chatter. It's like we've stepped inside the artist's mind and are about to discover what's there.
And when we arrive we are greeted by even more voices: a cooing baby, a smoky alto, a menacing guttural rattle. Then the voices start to swirl together, coalescing into an uneasy unison. The reverb feels endless, as the voices envelop us in their echoing chorus.
It's a sound that's like a dream, or rather, like the liminal space between sleep and waking, or the hazy hours at the end of a long night, those times when our thoughts begin to flicker in and out of consciousness and our sense of self starts to dissolve into the world around us.
If we've stepped inside the artist's mind, that mind has thus far only proven to be elusive, and we still have no idea of who this artist is.
And in case there were any question, this next song will not make the matter any clearer. Now the vocals themselves are warped and twisted, transformed into an unsteady warble. Instead of a kaleidoscopic medley of different voices, we have a single voice that's been splintered and shattered – like a broken mirror, providing only glimpses of the singer looking back at us. The singer even shifts between different kinds of vocal delivery, leaving us guessing as to whether they are singing or rapping or just whispering in our ear. Or maybe the point is that, with this artist, it's always all of the above.
What all this creates is a portrait of the artist that is, in effect, a blurry image – which is the perfect, and perhaps the only, way to portray an artist who is constantly shape-shifting and who has no single, stable identity to present.
And the music isn't always this same dark tone, either. If only to offer up more complexities and contradictions, the singer shows us that they can also go full-on pop. Here is a melody that is infectiously catchy, bouncy, and upbeat – but to keep us on our toes, it's laid on top of a beat that is punchy, glitchy, and frenetic. And to keep us even more on our toes, the song then turns on a dime, jettisoning everything but the low-end and letting the singer's voice reverberate in the newly open space. But before long, we're glitching back into the matrix, returning to the song's hyperpop chorus yet again. And even though the main vocal is now front and centre and crisp and clear, it is still surrounded by a whirlwind of other voices: high-pitched harmonizations, down-pitched repetitions, chopped up moans and exhalations – little reminders that, even at their poppiest, this singer is never just one thing.
And as if to prove the point, the singer shows us that they can also go full-on bubblegum. But of course, the singer is going to subvert these expectations, too, presenting us with a sugary sweet song about, well...
Leave it to this artist to take the most carnal of desires and turn it into something that could reasonably pass for a preschool sing-a-long. Leave it to this artist to compose an ode to the female body that is neither lewd nor...
020 :: POSSIBLE
"Pretty in Possible" by Caroline Polachek, from Desire, I Want To Turn Into You, released by Sony Music in 2023. Listen / Buy direct
You'd never guess it, but this is a song that defies all expectations of what a pop song must be. There's no chorus, or verses really; there's barely any chord changes. But for all that, it's still a bop.
We begin a cappella, nothing more than a thumping kick drum, a twitchy hi-hat, and a shimmering, diaphanous voice. And because there's so little else here, we might easily miss that that voice is all over the place. This is no typical melody it's singing; each phrase is different from the last. Musically, this "verse" is more like a jazz solo, a cadenza of virtuosity and melodic inventiveness. And remarkably, this is how the song welcomes us, throwing us head first into its singular, dizzying world.
And then, just as quickly, we're thrown back into the conventional world of pop music, back into the easy comfort of a singsong melody, back into the doot-doot-doot of it all. But not for long.
For here's yet another variation on our original theme, now adding harmony into the mix. But after a couple of bars that's already enough of that, and we're off to the next variation. For if melody is a series of phrases, which together form the contours of a thought, this melody is a stream of consciousness, jumping from one idea to another, but somehow never losing the conversational thread, and always holding our attention and keeping it rapt.
And here now is the closest the song comes to a refrain. And all it is is a single melismatic syllable, followed by a single enigmatic lyric. This isn't the climax you'd expect from a pop song. Which makes it the perfect climax for a song that is never what you expect it to be.
Yet for all its unconventionality, this song is still eminently listenable. And for all its melodic gymnastics, it's still melodious and catchy and even, at moments, singable. It truly is a song about possibility: about what it is possible for a pop song to be, and the freedom and the wonder and, indeed, the prettiness that lies in that possibility.
019 :: SELF HELP
Self Help by Future Teens, released by Triple Crown Records in 2022. Listen / Buy direct
"Well Enough""Doorknob Confessional"
Sometimes music helps us realize something about ourselves. And what this music made me realize is that I'm still a sucker for emo pop.
We all have our nostalgias, and I guess this is mine. I don't know if this music has universal appeal. I don't know if any music has universal appeal. But for me, this music immediately brings me back to the music of my youth, to those formative works that, for better or worse, first shaped my taste.
All the essential elements are here: the hooky melodies, the narrative lyricism, the yearning vocals, the distorted power chords, and an absolute headbanger of a chorus. This just does it for me. I feel like I'm sixteen again, and loving it.
And the funny thing is, I didn't even think I liked emo pop anymore. For years I've been thinking of it as a genre I had grown out of: once important, but since surpassed; a guilty pleasure if there ever was one. I don't even much go back to those favourite records of my teenage years, and when I have they've landed differently.
Because here's the thing about the emo pop of the late 90s and early 2000s: it's kind of cringe. And that's what I really love about this record: it doesn't just take me back to the glory days of emo pop; it takes what was best about the genre and leaves behind what was worst. It's emo decoupled from the male gaze, from the whiny entitlement, from all the melodrama. But it's still emo through and through: raw but melodic, confessional but anthemic, a cathartic soundtrack to outsize feelings of longing and melancholy.
But this music is more than just a throwback. Its version of emo pop is not just more palatable than the emo pop of the past, but also more mature and contemporary. It wasn't just a coincidence that emo pop's original fanbase was awkward teenagers like me. Its emotional preoccupations were those quintessential teenage feelings of unbelonging and unrequited infatuation. And so, what I feel like I've outgrown is not so much emo's musical stylings as its lyrical concerns. The music still speaks to me, but I can no longer relate. And I feel like this band somehow recognized this, and found a way to age emo up by ten or fifteen years, transposing its emotional contours into a more adult, and more millennial, key.
Here the emo pop sound is used to chronicle the malaise of early adulthood and its ever-present ennui. Gone are the high dramatics of failed romances and relationships, and in their place are the quotidian struggles of just getting through another day. The tone is still emotional, but the stakes feel more real. These are songs about the hollow allure of self-medication, and the self-destructive tendencies that so often stand in the way of our own mental well-being. These are songs built around lines like "I did nothing but skip another meal and walk around a Target" – because these songs recognize that, at a certain stage of life, this may very well be the most you can say about your day.
And the funny thing is, I don't presently relate to these concerns, either. But I can recognize their veracity. What I hear in these songs is that feeling of disillusion that comes with growing up and seeing that this is what adult life looks like. And what I love about these songs is that they serve as a...
017 :: HYSTERIC
Premonition by White Lung, released by Domino in 2022. Listen / Buy direct
Some music grabs you from the moment you hear it, and some music grabs you by the throat, doesn't let go, and drags you along with it as it drives itself into the ground.
This music is pure energy, blistering intensity, breathless velocity, an unrelenting wall of sound. It exists at just one volume and just one speed; but what it lacks in dynamic contrast it makes up for with its total commitment. This music leaves no doubt as to where it stands or how it wants us to feel. It's a soundtrack to the extremities of emotion, the severity of living, those moments when everything around us seems to be spiralling out of control.
It'd be natural to describe this music as "heavy", with all its thrashing and pounding and wailing. But what I'm most struck by in this music is just how weightless it all feels. Everything seems to be floating on air: the effortlessly breakneck drumbeat, the bright and soaring guitar riffs, and the measured vocal melodies that drift and hover above all the chaos below.
I'll admit, I don't listen to a lot of punk these days, and I never really did, and perhaps what makes this music land with me is precisely how it veers away from the stereotypical punk sound, offering something more melodic and less abrasive. But in its essence and its ethos, it's as punk as they come. What this music really is is an attitude: the refusal to shy away from your fiercest emotions; the confidence to express them without hesitation or restraint; and the rejection of everything that stands in your way.
But if sonically this music is punk without its rougher edges, lyrically it's punk without its headline emotion: it's punk divorced from anger. This music recognizes that the power of this sound needn't only be used as an expression of our rage. Punk music can be used to represent so much more of what we feel, because anger is far from the only emotion that overpowers us, overwhelms us, and makes us want to scream. And what I love about this music is that it takes the punk sound, with all its clamouring intensity, and uses it to channel feelings of maternal love.
Because honestly, what could be more terrifying, more maddening, and more world-upending than newfound motherhood? If any experience is inherently worthy of the punk treatment, this is it. Because at bottom, punk is for those emotions that can't be contained, and there's no greater cascade of emotions than a parent's feelings towards their newborn child.
What this music shows is that punk, though it may seem like such a youthful genre, isn't a music you age out of. Life will always find ways to make us feel outsize emotions, and we will always need music to give those emotions voice.
Fittingly for a song this powerful, it ends with the singer laying down their strongest fears and convictions:
One day, we won't be here...
You'll hate me, you'll move on...
But I won't unlove you...
Music may never be able to express these feelings fully, but it can make clear how fully they are felt.