As autumn rolls on, make sure you’re taking breaks from your depressive black metal to enjoy a nice hot cup of [insert beverage of choice here] and consume something a little less abrasive. Here are some gems October brought us. Enjoy, friends.
Top of the Pops
CL – ALPHA (k-pop, hip hop)
If you consume western entertainment media, it’s very likely you’ve come into contact with the legendary CL recently. Supporting roles in films, cameos on TV, and a recent Hot Ones interview to support her debut full-length ALPHA have put the former girl group member in the whole world’s spotlight. While the other big Korean labels vie for western attention, CL is by far the best ambassador for the culture, playing up her naturally bold, western persona with a traditional k-pop background. With a career as the leader of seminal bad girl group 2NE1 on legacy label YG Entertainment (BLACKPINK, Big Bang, iKon, and upcoming global sensation Jeon Somi) behind her, CL is finally in the driver’s seat of her own legacy, and ALPHA is a hell of a statement.
Opening with an improvised monologue cut from audio snippets sent to her by longtime friend John Malkovich (yes, really, the one and only, and PLEASE check the music video below for a cameo), lead single “SPICY” sets the tone for the whole record. It is immediately apparent how her background in hip hop has shaped her sound and image. “SPICY” is a big bass bop with CL totally in her element, dropping aggressive bars around Malkovich’s refrain of “ENERGY, POWER, CHEMISTRY”. The lyrics skew a little cringy in an effort to establish herself in western minds as THE eastern urban representative, but it’s a forgivable occurrence given how much of a banger the track is. Follow up “Lover Like Me” feels the most radio-ready; a mid-tempo, mostly English language, scorned lover pop-house dance ballad you’d have easily heard sandwiched between Alessia Cara and Halsey a few years back. Before you slip and forget she was raised on rap and r&b, “Chuck” rolls in like a long-lost 2NE1 B-side to remind you of that pedigree.
The rest of the record, especially showy trap-boomers “Paradise” and “My Way”, lay CL’s range bare. Spanning several genres, CL proves she’s a jack of all trades — and despite not being a master of any, leaves each song with a memorable performance through sheer confidence and charisma. Especially in context with her other career pursuits, CL feels like she’s matured into a true well rounded entertainer more than simply a k-pop rapper. The real selling point of ALPHA is that its B-sides are just as good as the well-performing singles, cultivating a staggering replayability factor that’s rare in the k-pop industry. If you’re looking for an in to the world of k-pop but can’t get a foothold through the language barrier, ALPHA features as much fluent English as Korean, and it’s absolutely impossible to sit still through. It’s time to rock with the “most fly Asians”, starting right here.
Best of the Rest
illuminati hotties – Let Me Do One More (indie rock, power pop)
PUP’s Morbid Stuff, Paramore’s After Laughter, even Olivia Rodrigo’s summer smash SOUR; all these records make light of dour life events, making colourful music about circumstances or topics that are pretty monochromatic. It’s not a new idea in music or even way of navigating the world, but illuminati hotties make it more unwaveringly wacky and infectious, and—crucially—just as emotionally resonant as the previously mentioned (very good) records. Led by Sarah Tudzin, formerly a recording engineer for the likes of Weyes Blood, Logic, and Slowdive, the project was initially an outlet for Tudzin’s production work, however it soon became a genuine artistic endeavour.
What can we call Let Me Do One More, Hotties’ second record? Slacker rock? Power pop? Just indie rock? Emo even? Well it’s all of the above really. Tudzin helps us out a little here and labels the project the quaint title of “tenderpunk”, which fits the bill remarkably well for what I think are possibly some of the most weirdly feel-good songs of the year, and a few of the saddest. The record moves through quirky punk ragers—the “punk” of the “tenderpunk”—but also somewhat lo-fi confessionals—the “tender”—whilst mostly avoiding feeling disjointed or ham-fisted for the sake of variety. Instead, LMDOM feels almost akin to a short coming-of-age film, with all the despondent dips and exultant peaks of the central protagonist. So the record can move from “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA” and its breaking-free of nonsensical punk furore, to the more moody “Knead” and make total sense, like the arc of a flawed character. The bangers on the album are exactly that and a little bit more. “u v v p” is a high point in this department, bringing its jubilant Beatles melodies and blending them with surf rock, before a crowded, noisy outro sees it out. It is bliss.
The record enters dream grunge territory with “Protector” and the aforementioned “Knead”, some of the more understated tracks, giving off shades of Beabadoobee or a cleaner Bitch Falcon, as much oversized flannel shirts as it is flower crowns. Tudzin occasionally flexes her lower register here with some gloomy melodies, which actually brought to mind Chris Cornell at his doomiest with a distinctly emo twang.
Tudzin’s lyrical style is a strange but alluring one. One moment her idiosyncratic lines make me feel like an extra in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, with the aloofness they exude and the couplets that make you quiver slightly (“the corner store is selling spit/bottled up for profit”) in their awkward physicality; the other moment they’re despondent and always grasping for something, in a similar vein to Phoebe Bridgers. Album closer “Growth” is a surprisingly devastating example of this, Tudzin mulls on the loneliness of being with a romantic partner who doesn’t see you but who is, well, just existing at the same time as you. Backed by downbeat but gorgeous acoustic guitar, and with church hall-esque reverb, Tudzin sings:
‘I guess being an adult is just being alone
I’ll go back to the couch, let you stare at your phone
We’ll pretend this is normal
We’ll pretend this is growth’
It’s a peculiar, yet no-less captivating ending. It’s refreshing and all the more impactful after a record of lyrical themes predominantly veiled in zany references and characters. Not only that, but it’s cohesive and shows Tudzin can put her hand to more things than might let-on on initial impressions.
Japanese Breakfast – Sable OST
Michelle Zauner’s Japanese Breakfast are certainly no strangers to cross-media collaborations, turning their music into backdrops for all sorts of things, from video games to late night talk shows. But Sable’s OST, an indie game focused on exploration and the wonder inherent in the world, is perhaps their most ambitious and fully realized. It channels the more chill vibes of the game into this tripped out, laid back, and lush version of synth-pop that is joy on the ears. Whether relishing in redolent synth tones, upbeat drums beat, gentle wind instruments that reminded me of nothing else but Devin Townsend’s Ghost (high praise indeed), the album feels way more than “just” a soundtrack. Further down, there are also gently strummed guitars working with more ambient backdrops to draw you into an inky soundscape that’s a joy to get lost in. And there are even fully ambient passages, drawing on a meditative sort of state to get their sound across.
As I said, it is rather a fully fleshed out artistic vision that draws on, and expands on, the aesthetic and ideas nascent in the game itself. Therefore, it ends up being more than “just” an OST but rather an aesthetic extension of the game. Whether you’ve played Sable or not (you should), Japanese Breakfast’s OST is definitely worth checking out, as a companion piece to the game or a fully fledged work in its own right.