Songs of the Month: January 2020
Author: Sam Seliger
2020 got off to a great start musically with a number of excellent new albums from independent artists.
Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller tragically died back in September 2018 while recording the follow-up to his critically acclaimed album “Swimming.” Producer Jon Brion completed the unfinished album, entitled “Circles,” and it may be Miller’s most fully realized artistic work to date, even though he did not live to see it completed.
Miller relies on his raspy singing voice across the album, especially on “Complicated,” and “Good News,” the two songs included here. The first is a chill, synth-driven introspection with stuttering drums, where Miller expresses his desire to keep moving forward and taking his life day-by-day.
On the second, Miller sounds cautiously comfortable with his situation, deciding to be honest about his struggles, and his successes, regardless of what the public wants to hear. “No, they don't like it when I'm down. But when I'm flying, oh, it makes 'em so uncomfortable. So different, what's the difference?” he croons, over a warm electric piano, while he acknowledges trouble, but resolves that his situation could be worse. The song, and much of the album, is made bittersweet by Miller’s untimely passing at the hands of the substance abuse that he struggled to overcome.
Elsewhere, bedroom-pop singer-songwriter Okay Kaya released her second album, “Watch This Liquid Pour Itself,” a somewhat eclectic journey across the spectrum of pop music with her unique blend of bizarreness and honesty. Two of the strongest songs, “Insert Generic Name,” and “Psych Ward,” both fall somewhere on the folk-rock spectrum, with acoustic guitars building up until they are joined by gentle rhythm sections and swooning backing vocals. The former explores feelings of inadequacy in relationships with an off-the-cuff style, its obtuse lyrics channel confusion and frustration as the song struggles to build into something worthy of its catchy melody.
The second has an even more appealing melody, creating a sense of discomfort between the subject matter—Okay Kaya sings about what she and her peers are doing while in a mental care unit—and the undeniably joyful arrangement.
Neo-soul vocalist Celeste started the year off by winning the BBC’s Sound of 2020 poll, and dropping her new single “Stop This Flame” to lead up to the release of her debut album later this year. With her signature smoky voice —somewhat reminiscent of Amy Winehouse, Celeste rides a jazz piano vamp singing of a love that cannot be tamed, as a driving rhythm section falls into place behind her. The song builds into a powerful chorus with the aid of violin swells, as she switches into her higher register, singing “You'll never stop this flame, I will never let you go.”
Acclaimed jazz guitarist Jeff Parker created his latest album, “Suite for Max Brown,” largely on his own, using studio techniques to sample and layer himself playing a number of different instruments. The result is a grand and diverse work that seamlessly blends jazz’s legendary past with its thrilling future. “Go Away,” the album’s penultimate track, opens with a complex drum pattern and intoxicating layers of looped guitar lines that fade out into synthesizer swells. These loops form the background for a lengthy guitar solo by Parker, where he shows great restraint as he pokes and prods at the vaguely atonal rhythm section.
All those songs, and more are included on this month’s playlist, which you can listen to below.