Music I Want to Talk About: Fall 2021

Note: I used to make a point of doing these on the first of every month. However, life is weird sometime. I really didn’t have a TON of great new finds in September to talk about, so then I said I would combine September and October into one month, and then a lot of other stuff happened around the last weekend of October so this got pushed to mid November rather than November 1. The music is still great though, and I hope you enjoy it.

Songs I Want to Talk About

“Beautiful” by Lana Del Rey (2021)

This fall, we got the second Lana Del Rey album of the year, Blue Bannisters. The entire album is good, one of the more impressive Lana albums of more recent memory. I want to focus on one specific song from it that has captured me since I first listened, especially since it’s a song that could be somewhat forgettable amongst the whole album. That song is “Beautiful.”

I’ve grown to like Lana a lot more than I did this time last year, but I can’t say “authenticity” was ever one of her strong points, and that was fine. I didn’t seek out Lana because I wanted to hear Lana the Human, I went to her for the carefully crafted artifice of Lana the Artist. “Beautiful” is special in how it unites those two sides on one track. It’s a song about embracing sadness and channeling it into your art. It feels raw in a way Lana often doesn’t, and yet that sort of delicate fragility that you do expect from a Lana track is still front and center. It’s like I get the artifice I’m used to, yet there’s cracks in the surface that let me see a deeper level that’s usually hidden.

Even for people who aren’t super familiar with Lana’s other work, “Beautiful” is still worth listening to. Everyone’s been sad before. I like to think most of us have cases of being sad at one point, but coming out stronger on the other side. By exploring feelings of sadness and vulnerability, the song manages to be distinctly empowering in a way a lot of more deliberate “empowerment anthems” aren’t. The piano paired with reverb makes Lana sound lonely and sad, yet by insisting she is content with that feeling, we get this really interesting juxtaposition of emotions that make for a captivating song.

“Girlfriend Song” by Juice (2021)

Juice is a great band I discovered a year or two ago and I think they deserve to hit it really big. Their newest track, “Girlfriend Song” exemplifies all the things I love about them: ’00s nostalgia that feels comfortable and familiar, yet never feels like a straight copycat of any particular act from that era. This song isn’t quite pop punk, but you can tell it was made by people who grew up listening to pop punk. It’s not synthpop, but you can still hear synths in the mix. You have a melodic vocal that could’ve worked just fine on a more R&B-type jam (and some of Juice’s other work does lean more in an R&B direction compared to this song).

“Girlfriend Song” is just a fun earworm that cherrypicks the best parts of other genres and turns it into something else. However, it still breaks just enough rules to not feel predictable and formulaic.

Albums I Want to Talk About

Liberté by The Doobie Brothers (2021)

I always love when older bands that we don’t necessarily expect to put out new stuff… well… put out new stuff. Liberté is an album that reminds you why Doobie Brothers music is so timeless in the first place. It’s a rock album that also borrows a bit from folk music, and I find those folksier moments tend to be some of the best parts, with “Cannonball” being one of the top examples of that. I love how it feels like an album that you just wouldn’t hear from a younger person. It explores themes of trying to find yourself, how other people fit into that journey, and just generally figuring your shit out. Anyone of any generation can relate to that, but those messages just resonate differently when they come from someone with more life experience. Liberté feels like gathering around a campfire to listen to the sage wisdom of a grandfatherly type figure who’s also not afraid to be vulnerable and honest about the stuff he still doesn’t know. And on top of that, there are still all the great hooks, vocals, guitars, etc. that just make the music straight up fun to listen to.

Dawn by The Yebba (2021)

Apparently Yebba has been in the game for a few years now, but I only just discovered her this fall with the arrival of her debut album, Dawn. Yebba has a rich, soulful voice, the kind that could sing the phonebook and you’d still love hearing it. However, a great voice alone isn’t always enough to make a compelling record. Yebba has made a compelling record.

At a cursory glance, Dawn kinda feels like a throwback cabaret record in the same vein as Adele or Amy Winehouse. Yet… there’s something deeper here too. There’s still moments of more modern indie pop flair on songs like “Love Came Down” or the more percussive, almost hip hop-esque collaboration with Smino, “Louie Bag” or the chill R&B of “Distance.” My personal favorite is the breathtaking folksy ballad “October Sky” which is melodic in a way a lot of modern music isn’t.

I think Yebba actually pulls influence from a lot of different places, but she does it so effortlessly that it’s not immediately obvious. It’s still a cohesive record, yet I don’t worry that Yebba is a one trick pony, which can sometimes happen when artists try too hard to be cohesive. It’s a debut that’s absolutely great as is, but it also feels like it’s full of unrealized potential at the same time. I’m excited to see what kind of artist Yebba grows into, because Dawn feels like it’s only the beginning of a long career filled with mesmerizing music.

Optimist by FINNEAS (2021)

At this point, FINNEAS (henceforth just Finneas because all caps is annoying) is probably best known for being the brother/frequent collaborator of Billie Eilish. However, he’s ventured out with his own proper album Optimist and I for one, have been vibing. This is similar enough to Billie’s stuff that I feel like most people who like her music will like this as well. Yet… there’s still something that feels different. Both siblings seem to take a fairly introspective approach towards songwriting, so the simple fact that you’re getting someone else’s introspections is enough to make this feel like a Finneas record rather than Billie’s b-sides.

The opening track, “A Concert Six Months From Now” is one of those songs where the specificity of the lyrics make it hurt all the more, and it really drew me into the album as a whole. Throughout its runtime, Finneas takes a relatively cynical approach towards both interpersonal struggles and larger struggles happening on a macro level, so these brief glimpses into his eponymous optimism end up super powerful and heartbreaking at the same time.

Outside of the lyricism, I think Finneas has great instincts about when to use his talents in more experimental, maximalist production and when to use a more stripped back approach (a strength we see on Billie’s Happier Than Ever album too). Both those sides make an appearance on “A Concert Six Months From Now” but then we also have tracks at either end of the spectrum. “Only a Lifetime” is one of my favorites on the more stripped back side. Another album highlight for me is “Medieval” which is catchy AF in all the ways great pop music is, but then it’s still dark and sinister in ways that Finneas/Billie do better than anyone else. The variety here both lyrically and musically is made all the more impressive when you consider Finneas is credited as the sole songwriter and sole producer on every track, which is still somewhat rare even after an influx of quarantine albums into the market.

All in all, I loved seeing what Finneas is like as a lead artist, and I hope he continues making his own records as well as his production work for Billie and others.

The Yearbook by Baby Queen

If you follow this blog regularly, you might’ve figured out by now that I enjoy catchy pop songs filled with existential dread. I’m not 100% sure why, but I’ve accepted that about myself. This fall I discovered Baby Queen, who seems to excel at it. Her album, The Yearbook, is filled with hook on top of hook on top of hook. It’s the style I typically call “retail pop” meaning it’s what would play in a Forever 21. Yet buried beneath that seemingly shallow pop exterior is a lot of confessional songwriting. Baby Queen sings about insecurities; fears for the future; wanting to change but not knowing how. There’s a level of relatability here that oftentimes doesn’t exist in pop music because too many of the people making pop music are too famous to be relatable.

The Yearbook won’t be for everyone because it is very much an album where you have to like that retail pop sound to get anything out of it. But in spite of it being as generic as it is, I’ve found myself going back to it over and over, and it still holds up. If this sound is your cup of tea, it’s definitely worth a listen.

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