Songs I Want to Talk About
“Since You Been Gone” by Rainbow (1979)
The first half of January had me in a pretty intense ’70s rock phase. The song I played the most in this phase (and maybe all of January) might’ve been “Since You Been Gone” by Rainbow. This was a legitimate hit in its day, but I didn’t learn of it until around New Years when my dad and brother mentioned it. I love it. I am obsessed with it. I will never get tired of it. From my understanding, it’s on the poppier side of Rainbow’s work, but I think it does walk the line between pop and rock quite beautifully. It exemplifies its era, but it’s altogether timeless.
“Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo (2021)
This is one of those magical cases where a song that 100% deserved to take the world by storm actually did. A vocal like this at 17 years old floors me. There’s soft high vocals, there’s lower power vocals, there’s moments of layered harmonies, all carefully orchestrated for maximum emotional impact. That vocal control, paired with good intuition of how to use it to convey the right mood doesn’t usually exist in artists this young. (Okay, that Dan Nigro production deserves some credit too.)
All the modern pop trends are here. There are glimpses of Lorde, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey, and Halsey scattered throughout this song, yet it still feels like something that only Olivia Rodrigo could’ve made. I’m hella pumped to see what else she comes out with later this year.
“All My Favorite Songs” by Weezer (2021)
Take the grandiose, orchestral arrangements of a post Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles track and marry that with mid-90s nonchalance a la Green Day’s “When I Come Around.” That’s this song, and I’m here for it. For some reason, I’m a sucker for songs where the lyrics don’t match the music in a delightfully ironic way, and Weezer pulls it off brilliantly here. The lyrics explore general disillusionment with life and an inability to make sense of your own behavior. That feeling is amplified by the arrangement. It’s like the music is trying to make Rivers Cuomo feel better, but he just can’t. I took it as a metaphor for how when you’re in one of the moods he’s singing about, it exists completely independent of your surroundings. Reasons you theoretically should be happier don’t matter.
“Came In Close” by Pale Waves (2018)
This is the kind of song that almost defies analysis because everything that’s great about it is so immediately obvious. The drums that give it perpetual momentum. The melody you can’t get out of your head. The way it so perfectly captures excitement at the possibility of a new relationship, yet still makes room for the anxiety of not knowing what will happen next. Fun fact: I looked up the credits and it was produced by the same guy who did a lot of my favorite songs on the Rina Sawayama album. Is Jonathan Gilmore the next Dan Nigro? Maybe.
“Listen!!!” by Aly & A.j. (2021)
I was just the right age to enjoy Aly & A.j.’s Disney heyday, and my love for them never faded. The music they’ve put out over the last several years doesn’t sound the same, but it’s still pretty great. “Listen!!!” somehow feels like the best of both worlds. The more rock ‘n roll sounds I remember from the mid ’00s are here (maybe it’s because there’s real drums?), but so are those ’80s synthpop influences of their more recent releases. The resulting track verges on a Coldplay vibe that suits the duo’s vocals better than I thought a Coldplay vibe would.
Albums I want to talk about
Sing to Me Instead by Ben Platt (2019)
This is one of my best new finds of 2021 despite the fact that it came out in 2019. It has me falling in love with a guy I don’t even know. I knew of Ben Platt, but until a week or two ago, I didn’t realize he had a proper music career outside of his tv and theater projects. Sing to Me Instead explores a man’s undying loyalty to someone who doesn’t want him. It constantly revisits the tension between a couple where one member believes in together forever no matter what, while the other fears commitment and longs for freedom. There’s some absolutely gorgeous love songs on here that feel like romance novel wish fulfillment, but with enough specific details to feel grounded. The result is music that manages to be relatable and aspirational at the same time.
Platt draws on his theater background without ever using it as a crutch. The heightened emotion of Broadway is here, from the over-the-top peppy “Share Your Address” to the angst of “Better” to the heartbreaking “Hurt Me Once.” Hell, some of the ballads wade into Adele territory. Yet despite that theatric sheen, there isn’t a second on here that feels fake or forced. It’s just a guy singing about his relationship. The fact that he can sing the happy songs with such ecstatic enthusiasm makes the sad songs that much more earth-shattering.
You Are Someone Else by Fickle Friends (2018)
This is just a really, really, REALLY well-produced pop album. Nothing more, nothing less. If you stan Carly Rae Jepsen or Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, you need this album in your life. I also get some MisterWives vibes on some tracks too. No, it’s not really bringing anything particularly original to the table. One could argue it’s a little too long for its own good. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of THE most consistently great collections of pop music I’ve ever heard. I’d actually argue it’s more consistent than Future Nostalgia or CRJ’s Emotion.
Never Will by Ashley McBryde (2020)
I remember liking Ashley McBryde’s last album Girl Going Nowhere, but it was nothing that really stuck with me or demanded to be played over and over again. It was enough to make me take note of subsequent releases and I’m so glad I did. I love my country with a bit of a rock edge, and Never Will strikes just the right balance, particularly with songs like “Voodoo Doll” and “Martha Devine”. There’s a sort of effortless sass to this record too. Ashley drinks, has one night stands, and is altogether unrefined and unapologetic. Yet she never feels like she’s going out of her way to make that “her brand.” She doesn’t cross that line into the more annoying, devoid-of-nuance “I ain’t like dem city folks!” side of country music.
Never Will knows its way around a ballad too. I remember this for its more rollicking anthems, but when you get to songs like “Sparrow” and “Stone” that switch up the pace, they’re just as effective. At the end we even get a song that’s literally about styrofoam. In this way Never Will really feels like a full portrait of a real human. It’s silly at times, angry at other times, sad on even more other times. Great music, and I think it would be palatable to a wide array of country fans.
Artists I Want to Talk About
I discovered Adrian Chalifour while building a playlist for a friend and “Open Heart” was one of the suggested songs. I fell in love almost immediately. This song, along with his others, is a great balance of vintage rock sounds with a modern feel. He has a raspy, yet melodic vocal, and a lot of his guitar also emphasizes guitar without being overbearing. His stuff sounds live in a way a lot of contemporary artists don’t, yes even artists labeled “rock”. Think Springsteen with cleaner production.
Technically Mickey Guyton is a “country” artist because she’s signed to a Nashville label, but the actual countriness of her sound varies quite a bit. It’s more pronounced on some tracks, not so much on others. That is to say, if you don’t typically go for country, don’t let that label put you off Guyton. Some of her best work doesn’t sound particularly “country” at all.
Guyton is an immensely talented vocalist and she’s also not scared to use her music to confront serious issues. My introduction to her came through “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and I got goosebumps the first time I heard it. While I would debate whether or not “Black Like Me” sounds like a “country” song, I’m also happy that there’s someone with enough chutzpah to sing “If you think we live in the land of the free, you should try being black like me” to a country audience.
Even though the marketing person in me questions some of the branding decisions that her team is making behind the scenes, I would hate to see someone with this much talent go unnoticed just because too many people stigmatize any artist labeled “country.” Her music is great. She has a message the world should hear. I want good things for her.
Lyn Lapid only has two songs on Spotify, the second of which was just added in January. In those two tracks, she manages to be more interesting than many artists do in 4+ albums. She takes music that might otherwise be chill and relaxing R&B, and makes it eerily sinister with her lyrics. In the case of “Producer Man” she sings about a music producer preying on a young musician thirsting for fame (shoutout to even more Dan Nigro production!). It’s hard to remember the last time a debut single so clearly established an artistic identity, much less one that had my dying to hear more.
BONUS: Some Cool Covers I Want to Talk About
For whatever reasons, January 2021 brought the world several covers that don’t exactly make sense, yet are quite profound. Great covers can make you stop and pay attention to a song after you’ve heard the original so many times you’re numb to it. That’s what happened in these instances. They’re all great songs covered by artists who are not known for music that sounds like the original. Each is respectful of the original, while also making just enough creative choices to justify its existence. Check these out:
“Waterfalls” originally by TLC, covered by Death Cab for Cutie
Obviously the original is great, and no, we didn’t need a cover of it, but sometimes this song’s ubiquity keeps it from really hitting as hard as it should. The signature somberness of Death Cab was just the ticket to restore some of the painful melancholy to this song.
“Black Hole Sun” and “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”
originally by Soundgarden, covered by Brandi Carlile
It comes as a surprise to no one that Brandi Carlile can really freaking sing, but I had never imagined how her vocal chops might sound on a rock song. Of the covers on this list, these are probably the most loyal to their original counterparts, but Brandi’s voice as well as some of the guitar work is enough to make me glad both of these covers exits.
“No One Knows” originally by Queens of the Stone Age, covered by The Vaccines
I’d heard the original plenty of times on alternative radio, but had never cared enough to learn the lyrics. The Vaccines version is far more restrained, turning explosive aggression into haunting reflection. Both versions are good, and because they set entirely diferent moods, it’s impossible to pick a favorite.