Is it just me, or is 2021 already amazing for music? While 2020 was filled with surprise records that came out of nowhere often to the delight (and just as often disappointment) of listeners, 2021 so far seems to be kicking itself off with a less erratic bang. Bands that decided to take their time writing and recording their records seem to be taking center stage, and it’s been a long time since I’ve heard this many records early on in a year that I genuinely felt I would see on my year-end list. And relatively high on it to boot. While the pains and trevails that made 2020 such an awful year continue to bleed into 2021, we can at least take solace in the fact that art is in fine form. Praise be.
I wish I had enough time to write about every record I’ve found incredible over the last few months, but alas and alack, time is ever against me in my writing. Below are a few particularly enjoyable and strong records that I would encourage you to give a fair shake. The fringes of rock music are having a field day in 2021, and if this trend continues we could be looking at an all-time year. So feast on the good stuff and as always feel free to sound off with your favorites on our social media and elsewhere.
Glad you’re still with us, friends. Here’s to a more prosperous year!
Records we loved in January/February
Black Country, New Road – For the First Time
Noisy avant-rock has had a bit of a Renaissance over the past few years. Girl Band, black midi, Lightning Bolt, Tropical Fuck Storm, and Daughters have all unleashed fresh hell over the past few years, while weird staples like Man Man and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah keep on chugging, dropping periodic new albums that reward as deeply as they divide. But none of the above bands’ signature sounds can quite capture what’s going on in For the First Time, the stunning debut record from Black Country, New Road. Reviewing a record this unique sometimes feels like a pointless endeavor given how deeply the experience is tied to the element of total bamboozlement one feels while listening to the music, and replicating or explaining that experience is always a particular challenge. But we’re Heavy Blog, dammit. Wouldn’t be us if we didn’t try.
If you’re a fan of Eastern European carnival sounds, dirge-filled post-punk vocals, Daughters-esque slow builds, infrequent manic vocal gyrations, groovy bass lines, jazzy percussion, and posh/off-kilter lyrical components, you may either love or hate For the First Time. Call it many things, but generic should not be one of them. There are so many musical ideas contained in this record that it almost boggles the mind, but the most shocking attribute it contains is that almost all of them work. This record is teeming with life and sonic vibrancy, galloping confidently between wildly disparate songs and sections with a confidence that few modern bands in this space can match. “Athens, France” is perfectly emblematic of the above, gliding brazenly between styles and tempos with a resolve that’s enviable. And it’s not even the best track on the record.
For my money, “Science Fair” and “Track X” steal the show, but there isn’t a dud on the record, so mileage may vary. But these two tracks to me represent the extreme sonic poles Black Country, New Road are able to traverse in the span of mere minutes. The latter gives an unusually harrowing account of obsession and awkwardness that is a repetitious slow build that smacks of Daughters blended with La Dispute, but with an odd edge of aggression and paranoia that feels distinct and unique. The track ebbs and flows in its build up, eventually exploding into a free jazz freak out that stands as one of the highlights of the record. But it’s in “Track X” where the band unfurl a sound that feels completely unexpected and even more richly rewarding. It’s a repetitive, cyclical, simple track that allows the general insanity of precious tracks to roll into a gentle, warm stream of effective musical ideas and relatable lyrics that feel almost like an entirely different band wrote and played them. If variety is the spice of life, Black Country, New Road are a premium, boiling lava hot sauce.
But that’s just the thing. In all of these disparate, wildly different sounds there’s an undercurrent of consistency that always feels exactly like Black Country, New Road and no one else. In an absolutely saturated musical landscape, that balance of uniqueness, recognizability, and cohesion is incredibly unusual, and makes For the First Time both a narrative pushing anomaly and one of the best records of the year. If you are in the mood for some truly strange and enticing music that you can simultaneously scratch and bob your head to, look no further. A delightful, beguiling release.
Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
I tend not to cover records that I’ve only been able to give a limited amount of time to. Mostly because I know that my perception may change one way or another, and due to the fact that I know I’m surely missing something in my analysis due to limited exposure. Regardless of these misgivings, it’s impossible for me not to write about a new Julien Baker record. Especially when on first blush the music is as good as that contained on Little Oblivions.
As part of the boygenius supergroup (comprised of fellow female folk rock superstars Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus), Baker became a bit more of a household name in the folk/indie rock community. But she’s been making incredible music for nearly a decade now, and one can only hope that the excellence of Little Oblivions further drives that point home. This is a sweet, deep, lyrically honest record that paints Baker’s thoughts with a particularly lush musical brush. Flirting with stadium-sized compositions and post-rock inclinations, this is the most rich and full sounding Julien Baker record by a long stretch. But the real magic of her music lies in its lyrical content, and as usual it’s here where Baker truly shines.
While the expanded sonic palette may be off-putting to longtime fans, the intimacy of Baker’s musings always pull listeners back to the core of her music. An internally explorative and confessional lyricist, there are few writing music today that have reached her bracing levels of honesty and forthrightness. “Crying Wolf” is a particularly stark example of how good Baker is at telling her own story, and making it feel somehow simultaneously isolating and relatable in its authenticity. There are lyrical highlights that could be pulled from every track, but I’d rather you just discover those vast riches for yourself.
If you’ve enjoyed any of Baker’s previous releases, the core of what makes her such a special songwriter is here in spades. Blanketed in a richer, more vibrant sonic template, Little Oblivions most certainly adds fresh juice to her already tried and true formula, making for a record that feels vibrant and new without ever turning its back on the good stuff. I look forward to continuing to dive into the deep wells contained in this record, and if my first few listens are any indication, you may be reading a lot more about this record from me come December.
Weezer – OK Human
Weezer and I, like Weezer and most folks, have a fairly contentious relationship. In one hand sits a stack of records that I listen to regularly and consider classics (or at bare minimum very good examples) of modern rock music. Think The Blue Album, Pinkerton, Everything Will Be Alright In the End, and The White Album. The rest on the other hand, well… they’re not good. Definitively not good. I haven’t revisited a single record outside of those mentioned more than once. So strangely Weezer has struck a balance that few bands in modern music have: All of their releases are either great or terrible. So where does Ok Human fall? The good news is it’s great.
Baroque pop, Beatles-esque to the core, is never a sound that I would have anticipated Weezer mining. But here it is, in all its string-filled glory. Who would have thought that Rivers and gang had this type of record in them? Though I guess when you consider that the band’s best work has mixed sad sack lyrics with some type of rock-heavy power pop, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. This sound fits the band’s aesthetic like a glove, and some of the best tracks they’ve written in at least a decade skip through our unsuspecting brains with absolute glee throughout OK Human’s runtime. The studied high school lit class goofiness of “Grapes of Wrath”, the “it’ll all be alright” good intentions and lush instrumentation of “Numbers”, and the propulsive get-up of “Screens” are as adorable and catchy as they are awkward and brazenly straightforward. It’s all the things Weezer do well and then some.
I was blown away by how much I have continued to enjoy OK Human. Not just because it’s another unexpectedly quality Weezer record, but just a great record in general. It’s kitschy, corny, goofy, and incredibly well made and brilliantly executed in a way that only a veteran rock act can deliver. I’ll take this kind of Weezer all day, though I fully anticipate their next release to be a total dud given their track record. Let’s hope I’m proven wrong again and again.
White Suns – the lower way
Almost no one talks about White Suns, and it boggles the mind. Totem and Sinews are among the best experimental noise rock records to be released over the past two decades, and their relative anonymity to those outside of the scene is a travesty. While Psychic Drift proves to be their most divisive record to date, the lower way presents a return to form that is as enigmatic as it is punishing. This is noise rock in its purest element. Unfettered, unpredictable, beguiling, and thoroughly excellent.
More so than most of the rest of their catalog, the lower way is an oddly understated buzzsaw of a record, letting its brashness unfold in an off-kilter fashion than usual. Opener “——-“ is a jittery, paranoid composition that only gets louder and more aggressive in “The Wreck”, which takes the motifs presented in the first track and builds them into something more titanic in scope. For me, the record really starts to uncurl during “Thin Air”, which melds the sonic depth and ambience of Psychic Drift with the band’s more guitar-centric approach, leading to an isolated, submarine-esque sequence of disjointed guitar work and thrumming bellows that boil over into the excessively noisy and erratic “Ordinance”. It’s a record that’s very hard to get a firm grasp on, but very easy to get completely absorbed by and lost in. This is the beauty of White Suns on full display. It may take you a year to parse out what exactly the band are trying to accomplish, but only a few minutes to realize you love it, whatever “it” is.
It will take more time to determine where exactly the lower way fits into the band’s larger catalog, but it can most surely be stated that it’s very far from a disappointment. It’s an excellent record that belongs squarely among the best in its chosen sonic space this year, and I look forward to many more hours of befuddled, completely surrendered listening. If you’re a fan of gazing into the fringes of rock music, you’ve found a stalwart companion for your musings in the lower way. A delightfully erratic and intense return to form.