Songs I Want to Talk About
“My Play” by AJR (2021)
I love AJR and have even seen them live twice (it would be three times but COVID canceled their 2020 tour). While the production on this song is pretty standard AJR, the lyrics are what propelled it into a monthly roundup post. “My Play” is about watching your parents’ marriage dissolve. The framing device of a child performing a play for mom and dad does a fantastic job of conveying that childlike perspective. Even as other lyrics explore the anxiety of entering into your own romantic relationships as an adult, there’s still this unbreakable bond to that child that just wanted to put on a play for mom and dad. Because it flawlessly captures the naïveté of youth, it’s able to to deliver an all-the-more-crushing blow as that naïveté is replaced by jaded cynicism.
“What You Want to Hear” by Sub-Radio (2021)
I’ve loved Sub-Radio for a couple years now. I saw them live at local venue and they stole my hearts. Walk the Moon is probably the closest big-name act I could compare them to. Their new song, “What You Want to Hear” doesn’t exactly reinvent the Sub-Radio wheel but it doesn’t have to. Sure, it came out at the tail end of February, but from the moment I heard it I thought “welp, guess I gotta put this in the monthly music roundup. It’s only fair.” It’s a great song that exquisitely balances rock and pop. It’s full of energy and a great example of how songs can be most empowering when they acknowledge the hardships you’re trying to overcome. Think the sort of cheesy feel-good bops of the Disney Channel but written for adults.
“What Other People Say” by Demi Lovato and Sam Fischer (2021)
This is one of the most gripping songs I’ve heard in a while. Its ability to be both grandiose yet intimate at the same time is impressive. I love when artists outside the typical Christian music scene sing about their faith, largely because I think spirituality is an incredibly interesting topic when it’s not oversimplified into “just love Jesus and everything will be okay.” The church music influences are obvious, and perhaps would cross the line into gimmicky for some, but I think they work. It creates this tension between the ethereal production and the lyrics about being hopelessly broken, so far away from the path our protagonist thought they’d be on. It’s that tension between lyrics and production that takes what could’ve been a paint-by-numbers ballad and turns it into something special.
“I Hate Running” by Number One Popstar (2021)
I have a friend who works at H&M and she introduced me to “I Hate Running,” a song that would make any reasonable person say “oh, this sounds like a song they’d play in an H&M.” The first time I heard this song, I was also watching the video with it. At first, I was horrified. I was laughing at how ridiculous it is. That was eventually replaced by “Wait… am I supposed to be laughing at this?” which was THEN replaced by “I don’t know if I’m supposed to be laughing at this…” which eventually gave way to “I love how I can’t figure out of I’m supposed to laugh at this. That’s the beauty of it.” This entire journey happened within the video’s 3-minute-40-second runtime.
“I Hate Running” exploits my soft spot for songs that initially seem like well-executed but fairly predictable versions of their genre, yet the lyrics are so bonkers they treat the listener to an entirely different roller coaster ride upon closer inspection. It’s a song about getting job… but also not liking working out. What is this “brand new way” she works on her fitness? Is it sex? Is it cocaine? I don’t know and I don’t care. Then she hits you with the nihilism of “Up, down, side to side, nothing matters, we’re all gonna die.” All of this in a song that is still catchy as hell and checks all the other boxes a pop song is supposed to check.
Albums I Want to Talk About
Super Monster (2021) by Claud
Super Monster is the kind of music that would soundtrack an indie teen romcom that takes place near the beach. It explores themes of love and heartbreak… but yet there’s a soothing, hypnotic quality in spite of those themes. There’s songs for the slow dance scene, (“Overnight” or maybe “Soft Spot”), the crying-over-a-breakup scene (“Jordan”), and that smooth guitar lick on “Cuff Your Jeans” could easily be the recurring motif that works across all your B-roll. “That’s Mr. Bitch to You” should also be in there somewhere just because it’s a great title. Maybe the fun shopping-for-prom-dresses-at-the-mall montage.
I guess technically the album would be considered “pop” in today’s music landscape, but it’s so organic that it almost feels wrong to call it pop. Yes, there are hooks that might get stuck in your head. Yes, there’s a healthy balance between synths and real instruments, another common characteristic of pop. But it’s also artist-centric to the Nth degree. By that, I mean it feels like music the artist made it because they had something to process rather than music made for an audience to listen to. We just get to be flies on the wall looking into Claud’s intimate thoughts and feelings, without them even being aware we’re listening. That emotional intimacy paired with zen-like production makes Super Monster the kind of album that transports you out of your own head and into its own little world.
Artists I want to talk about:
I’ve beens saying for months now that I want the sounds of the ’70s to get the same kind of resurgence that ’80s synthpop has had over the last few years. I don’t know that I can think of a better artist to spearhead such a renaissance than Ellie Bleach. The aforementioned friend who works at H&M introduced me to her via the sing “I Thought I Saw You Last Night.” There’s hints of Carole King and a rather hefty dose of ABBA here, with just the right touch of disco. Yet on another track called “Jackie O” she seems to be drawing more inspiration from new wave. She seamlessly wades into sad ballad territory with “Leave Me Alone.” There’s only five songs on Spotify right now, but they’re all great and they’re different enough to make me think Ellie Bleach could take her career in a variety of vintage-inspired directions.
I also want to mention that Bleach has the perfect voice for the style of music she makes. It’s clear and classic, but with a vaguely seductive quality. It’s like she was born to sing jazzier piano songs. At the same time, she can do a song like “Jackie O” which is slightly more synth heavy and her voice helps make this song stand out from every other ’80s synthpop song contemporary artists are putting out.
Rebecca Levy has a gift for making music that is fun and playful without quite crossing the line into shallow or bubblegum-y. Part of that is because most of Levy’s songs thus far are actually quite angry. It’s just that she wraps her anger up in a flirty, bubbly package with a bright pink bow rather than the darker, angsty sounds we usually associate with “angry music.” That’s in sharp contrast to most of the songs that epitomize bubblegum pop which are usually about crushing on someone or lusting after someone. If they do go the breakup route, it’s the “I’m sad, I miss you” route rather than the “fuck off, I hate you” route.
Another big difference is that Levy is actually a classically trained singer with a formal education in musical theater. That really shows as she makes forays into jazzy, cabaret mood of “Corrupted” or the sad piano balladry of “2:51.” But unlike some singers with theater backgrounds*, Levy also carries the technical precision of her theater vocals into her poppier stuff like “Tell Your Girlfriend” and “2/10 Would Not Recommend.” Sidenote: “2/10 Would Not Recommend” is a fantastic, quintessentially millenial name for a breakup song, but I digress. A lot of Levy’s stuff probably would work well enough with a just-okay vocal, but that’s what makes her special. Because we’re not used to hearing this level of technicality on these kinds of pop songs, Levy’s stuff feel like a style that’s all her own. I’m definitely excited to watch her continue fleshing out her wonderful world of cotton candy-flavored go-fuck-yourself songs.
*Okay fine. It’s Ariana Grande. I’m thinking about Ariana Grande.