Despite all that has happened this year, music has continued to deliver. Like everyone else, artists had to change their plans dramatically but it’s been interesting to see how they have used this time that has been carved out of their usual touring schedules and album cycles. Some artists returned to classic records to learn from their predecessors while others have retreated inwards and focused on storytelling through their songwriting. It is completely understandable for musicians to decide not to release music this year. We should have no expectation of them to deliver new music, however we appreciate and embrace it when they do share their creations. This week’s selections include examples of artists reinterpreting some of their favourite records and others exploring thought-provoking themes through their songwriting. Enjoy and Happy Christmas!
James Blake | ‘when the party’s over’
James Blake found himself in a very creatively fertile place this year, and this has manifested itself in two very contrasting EPs released in the last few months. Blake released Before in October, a very tasteful collection of four tracks, focused on his roots on the dancefloor. But this EP, called Covers, finds him back at the piano, reinterpreting some of his favourite records.
This is a cover of the Billie Eilish track and Blake manages to stay faithful to the original while also completely making it his own. It is a beautifully slowed-down rendition of the song. The EP also features covers of Beyoncé and Roberta Flack, but a real highlight is his cover of Frank Ocean’s ‘Godspeed’, which Blake actually helped to create with Ocean. James Blake is clearly finding inspiration everywhere he looks and the output so far has been incredible over such a short span of time. It will be fascinating to see what comes next.
Kid Cudi | ‘Tequila Shots’
A generation of music fans fell in love with the music of Kid Cudi ten years ago with the first two installments of the Man on the Moon series. This song finds Cudi back at his confessional and psychedelic best. The up-tempo beat provided by frequent collaborators Dot Da Genius and Take a Daytrip provides a canvas for Cudi to bring the listener on a trip through his mental state, delivered with an effortless flow to create infectious melodies.
While the song hints at Cudi finding peace in his lifestyle there are moments of reflection. As he sings, “tell my mom I’m sorry”, Cudi admits that his mom would be disappointed to see that he has allowed himself to go back to a place of anxiety and depression. On the surface this song will remind listeners why they love Cudi and the groove is intoxicating. But as always, Cudi’s lyrics are layered with complexity and nuance.
Biig Piig | ‘Feels Right’
Like so many others in the middle of a global pandemic, Cork native Jess Smyth yearns for the communal experience of a night out. Smyth described the writing of this song as the closest thing she could get to the feeling of the energy of a night out that she could get right now. This track pulses with that energy, from the funky bass line, to the hypnotic Spanish-influenced riff, to the euphoric synths in the chorus. All while Smyth details a late-night adventure. This song will only add to the justifiably high anticipation for her new album in 2021. For now, she invites us to join her in mourning the sesh.
Tash Sultana | ‘Greed’
Australian singer-songwriter Tash Sultana toured solo for years before deciding to recruit a full band and this change has clearly permeated through to their recording process. The groove and hypnotic riff will grab your attention immediately and pull you into the song. Lyrically, the track acts as an evocative commentary on society, and particularly the music industry. They address the detrimental effect money can have on relationships and the danger of engaging with self-interested parties. Their real talent is showcased in how effortless the whole arrangement appears, the laid-back delivery and infectious groove is the result of a meticulous composer connecting with a talented live band.
Rostam | ‘Under Control’
Rostam Batmanglij left Vampire Weekend in 2016 and has had a successful career as a solo artist. Well known as a generous collaborator, he was involved in the writing process for Frank Ocean’s Blonde, where he later explained that the chords used in the song ‘Ivy’ were inspired by The Strokes song ‘Under Control’ from 2003. Now he returns with a beautiful, slow rendition of the same Strokes song. Originally recorded for media website Stereogum, this version is very different from the original, shining a spotlight on those chords that inspired his work alongside Frank Ocean with woozy piano and low-key vocals. It’s a fascinating insight into the elements of the original song that Rostam admired and is a beautiful standalone track.
Arlo Parks | ‘Caroline’
A common trait of great songwriters is the ability to take the mundane and make it exceptional. This is a talent that Arlo Parks showcases on this track. Parks observes a random couple fighting from afar and imagines the story behind this scene. This exercise in people watching is something that we all partake in, there is something intriguing about watching situations unfold without any context. But Parks manages to relay their presumed story in such a beautiful way that it is both personal and universally relatable. The backdrop of the muted guitar is sublime and the story unfolds in between a chorus that explodes into HD colour every time it is delivered. Parks is an extremely talented songwriter and her album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, is going to be a real highlight next year.
Taylor Swift | ”tis the damn season’
This break in the touring and album cycles has clearly had a massive impact on Taylor Swift. It has given her the opportunity to stop competing with herself and dive deep into the character-driven narratives that make her such an accomplished songwriter. Aaron Dessner creates the perfect backdrop for this rambling storytelling. The electric guitar and momentary silences allow Swift to almost whisper the story about her home-for-the-holidays fling.
The song is full of nostalgia, focusing on a fleeting romance, and is packed with the emotional resonance you would expect. Swift’s expressive lyrics detail the fog on the windshield, the mud on the tyres and the parking spot at the old school, vividly creating these images for the listener, transporting them to her world. This is the evocative songwriting Swift has always been capable of, and she has executed it perfectly on her two albums in 2020.
The Avalanches | ‘The Divine Chord (ft. MGMT & Johnny Marr)’
These Australian DJs have achieved a reputation as masters of the art of sampling. For them, every sound on a track is a treasured memory. Johnny Marr provides the infectious guitar riff throughout the song, while MGMT ride the dreamlike wave created by the producers. The stunning chorus is delivered by a local children’s choir from Melbourne called The Yarra Voices Choir. Clearly inspired by the sixties, this song invites the listener to lose themselves in the ambience created by the rich tones and vivid textures pieced together by the producers. Their cosmic-themed album We Will Always Love You is a series of beautifully constructed songs that blend seamlessly like a daydream, and this track encapsulates their ambition.