I’m catching Aimee Vant at a good time – the night before, she performed a backyard concert where the intimate setting allowed for casual conversation during the set. It’s her favorite type of show to play, and the support from those in the audience feels more meaningful to Vant now more than ever: today she releases her first song as an independent artist in some time. Early returns are good for Vant on the new track: “A lot of people were coming up after and saying they were excited for it, which felt really good,” she tells me over Zoom, her excitement palpable yet disguised by a calm, focused demeanor.
New music and fan support aside, it’s not always a good time for Aimee Vant. This is abundantly clear if you’ve ever come across one of her pain-tinged, blue-hued recordings (“I feel ten out of ten / Like zero percent of the time,” she muses on previous single “Trash”), but even more obvious when you consider her precarious position as it relates to her age. “Everything feels a little too precious and a little too high stakes when you're in your mid-20’s,” she explains, trying to answer to the dread and self-deprecation that can often take center stage in her songs. “It's just such an uncertain time where some people are doing really well and some people are on the opposite end of the spectrum where everything's unknown. You don't have your roots anywhere. And I think it just makes it so every decision you make feels like life or death and I carry a lot of stress in the fact that every day feels like a ticking time clock to reach my goals faster. I feel like things have to be better by next year or tomorrow.”
Vant’s sentiment about her place in life is shared across her generation, an anxiety that is compounded by the still-rippling effects of a pandemic. The timing was doubly troublesome for Vant, as she was still in the midst of identifying herself as an artist when things slowed down and got lonely. For as stagnating or regressive as the pandemic was for most artists, the time in isolation was somewhat revelatory for Vant. “It kind of honed something that I didn't realize I was digging into, which is that a lot of my favorite artists, the music they make is very, very personal and it almost sounds like they're making it just for themselves,” she shares. “Like they're just in their bedroom making it…basically, it's just like saying their problems away.” Spending so much time within four walls funneled Vant to do the same, therapizing through her writings and suddenly finding herself headed in the right direction.
Though confident she was on the right path as an artist, Vant has had to navigate the winding roads music often leads us down, listeners and performers alike. While at her core she is a singer-songwriter who could find her way through any stripped, acoustic setting, Vant has wandered from her indie instincts in favor of the allure presented by explosive, dramatic pop music. This sound can be more about balance than utility, as she’s aware of how melancholy her lyrics can come across and sees this brand of production as a way to make amends for the “lyrical uncertainty” common in her songs. As far as which sound she gravitates to more, it’s less of a science to Vant as it is a natural pull to one or the other: “Especially lately, I’ve been making peace with the fact that I can let the tides take me in either direction at any time.”
No matter the sound of Vant’s music, the tone of the music is typically consistent – that being self-critical, insecure, overwhelmed and generally disappointed. When I pushed on why she gravitates so much towards these themes, I was relieved to learn that there isn’t a dark cloud perpetually following Vant in her journeys. Her mentor Kara Dioguardi tells Vant often how positive of a person she is, making the helplessness heard in her music difficult to comprehend at times. “But I said to her, that's the part that I have to get out when I write,” Vant says of the negativity in her work. “So that's the part that ends up getting funneled into my music. I think the most therapeutic part of songwriting is taking an ugly feeling and making it a piece of work that you're proud of.” When she stumbles upon happiness, she doesn’t have the desire to write about it – she’d rather live in the moment, acutely aware of the fleeting nature of life’s pleasures. Writing about her problems is a way to “get them out” of her consciousness, a practice that provides instant relief and clears the way for the better days to come.
“Life or Death,” Vant’s new song set to arrive on November 17th, is in no way a departure from Vant’s core musical principles. The track wouldn’t sound out of place on her latest EP, Trash, but also feels like a natural evolution, the next logical step for Vant to take towards realizing her artistic vision. “Life or Death” isn’t as crunchy as 2022’s “SAFEWORD” or as echoing as prior single “Voicemail,” but encompasses elements of seemingly every release she’s shared to this point. Assuredly sincere and boldly vulnerable, the writing on “Life or Death” mirrors the all-cards-on-the-table approach Vant has endeared herself to. Strains of her idols are recognizable in the lyrics; while she’s noted Gracie Abrams and Holly Humberstone as inspirations of hers due to their willingness to say the private things on record, Vant packs more of a punch in her delivery and production, far less apologetic for any of the sentiments she shares in her songs.
While the direction of “Life or Death” may have been fairly logical, the intimidating aspect of this release for Vant may come in the fact that it is her first independent release in some time. While grateful for the team and supporters who have contributed to her success to this point, it was time for Vant to prioritize her own ideas for how her music should sound, look, and feel. Her focus before was on pleasing those around her; now, the only one left to impress is herself. “I think I wasn't able to focus on what I want to do and what I want to sound like and what I want my career to look like,” she says of the experience of working with a team. “So I think now I've gotten to this point that I feel really good about the only voice I'm really following is the one in my head. I feel really excited to put music out, more than I have in a while, so it feels really, really good.” While she’s quick to share her satisfaction with me, I’ve learned not to expect to be hearing about it in a song anytime soon.
This isn’t to say we’ll never hear a raucous, rapturous anthem from Vant – we may in fact get a high-spirited song from her, but it may not be her voice featured on such a track. She’s been donating a lot of lyrics to other artists, collaborating in writing sessions with artists that embrace her as she is. When she found herself in rooms trying to write pop songs, Vant often felt those around her were trying to “kind of wash away all the quirkiness of my writing.” With a central feature to any Vant song being the “cheeky” lyricism and delivery on behalf of Vant herself, she looked towards other artists who were encouraging Vant to use her voice as she knows best. This includes leaning into specifics in some aspects of her writing, which she says has broken down some emotional barriers she was otherwise hesitant to approach. “The songs that you're most afraid to write are the songs that you have to write the most,” Vant says, quoting a philosophy she often reminds herself of. “I think in that sense that's what has led me to still just be brutally honest, and I think that's the music I hold closest to me, even though it's scary.”
The release of “Life or Death” is just the beginning of what Vant has planned for herself. Her next goal is to hit the road on a tour, either opening or headlining some gigs beyond her preferred backyard sessions. And an impromptu announcement: she’s looking to release an album soon. “I just decided last week, I was just looking through my catalog,” she tells me, the surprise on my face mirrored on hers. Mainly produced and written by Vant, there’s no question listeners will get her in full-form whenever the LP arrives. That likely means she’ll be diving into specifics, which Vant has never shied away from in the past. When I ask if she thinks any of the song’s subjects know they are a target within a track, she considers it for a moment. “That's a really good question,” she tells me, a compliment I’m glad to receive from a question so invasive. “They probably know,” she concedes, a look of apathy resting on her face. “As long as I'm not name dropping or anything, I feel like I am able to do it…I don't know if they're listening, but they probably would know if they listened.” If they’re not tuned into the vindicating, cathartic, sheepishly melancholy, sing-slash-scream-along’s of Aimee Vant, they likely ought to be, just as is true for the rest of us.
For the chronically online, the bored-scrollers, and the sporadic users alike, an unofficial community guideline for TikTok is that judgment be suspended when you open the app. In a place with unpredictable content and an untrustworthy algorithm, one’s feed is not a fair representation of their character. And before you hold content creators to a different standard, please take into account those who live on the apps out of necessity. Specifically keep in mindPIAO, who’s posts on these platforms are meant for a specific audience. “I'm constantly telling my friends or the people that know me personally: no, don't look at my TikTok!” she pleads with me over Zoom, jetlagged yet persevering to assure she gets her message across. “Like, TikTok is for people who don't know me. Do not go on my TikTok!”
As much as she begs for those close to her to stay away, social media has been one of the only places to keep up with PIAO in the past year since the release of her debut EP, Tissues. The project was a landmark moment for the Shanghai-born, Canada-raised artist who made a strong impression in the 5 songs comprising the EP. Whether it was soaring vocals, snappy melodies, or heartfelt ballads, PIAO proved to be a talent that belonged in the pop space. After publishing the songs that encapsulated her experience throughout COVID and being a young songwriter, she deservedly took a break, and kindly kept fans in the loop with occasional posts to her social accounts. It’s still a work in progress, she admits, as the act of self-promotion doesn’t seem to hit the right note for the always-on-key singer. “You know how people recreate scenes (on TikTok) where it's like, they bump into a stranger, and then, ‘Oh my god, I think I listened to your music!’ I could not get myself to do that,” PIAO says, second-hand embarrassedly. Instead, her posts are candid looks into her personal interests, capsules from a time in her life, and kind reminders that, yes, new music is coming soon.
In a time where it has become popular and convenient to categorize periods of our lives as eras, PIAO is beginning a new one with her most recent releases. Returning in September with the raucous single “Cardcaptor,” she’s doubling-down on her new sound with “Neopet,” out today. The bombastic and brash production of “Neopet” sets the tone for the state of mind PIAO finds herself in creatively, to which she applies a very inconspicuous adjective. “After 'Tissues,' we were like, ‘what do we want to do next?’” she tells me. “I was like, I definitely don’t want to be in the Tissues era. I remember just saying, ‘I think I wanna make cursed music,’” she says with a laugh. What is cursed music, asked her team, preempting my curiosity as well. “I don’t know, just music that sounds kind of cursed,” PIAO answers, vaguely but acutely defined in the resulting music. “I’m feeling like fuck it, let’s just go.”
The genesis of these songs as cursed isn’t meant to imply they’re inherently evil; in fact, much of the inspiration for both “Cardcaptor” and “Neopet” come from a source of joy and innocence for PIAO. Following the release of Tissues, she was left to reflect on her life, on not only how far she had come but what had gotten her to this place. “I was thinking about the stuff that makes me really, truly happy. And Neopets was one of the things that made me truly happy. Watching Cardcaptor (Sakura, a Japanese manga series), I was so happy doing that as a child,” she reminisces, ripe with sentiment. But when you’re making cursed music, you inevitably end up asking yourself the ultimate question: “We were like, ‘how can we make this more cursed than it is?’” After some pitched vocals and production tricks, “Neopet” arrives fully-formed, not quite defining but solidifying an era PIAO is ready to embrace.
No matter how PIAO chooses to describe her music, “cursed” isn’t a satisfactory label for music to be released through. So, for both “Cardcaptor” and “Neopet,” PIAO chose to classify them as K-Pop, a genre she never thought she would have entertained. “I used to be a K-pop hater in high school,” she shares. “Probably because I wanted to be different, not because I actually hated it, I think. I must have had a phase.” As far as teenage rebellions go, PIAO’s was pretty mild, and certainly not irreversible. Growing her affinity for the genre as a fan of BLACKPINK, she suddenly felt entrenched in the “big world” of K-Pop, the “earcandy and eye candy” that fuels the music, which coincidentally became a muse for her own recordings. “I let myself fall into it and let it influence me creatively,” she says, as is evidenced by how free and comfortable she sounds in her recent contributions to the genre. But in the end, she tells me, the music is all the same, no matter whatever label is conveniently placed on a song’s packaging. Rather than being restrained to one genre, PIAO thinks of her songs as nondescript reflections of herself: “I think my music reflects how I am in real life, which is indecisive,” she laughs. There’s little intention when it comes to a song’s structure, instead placing priority on the emotion she’s trying to convey. One day, she hopes, she’ll be able to write for other artists. But for now, she’s finding her place in her own shoes, while making sarcastic promises that she’ll “have a normal song one day.”
While the allure of K-Pop didn’t fit her social status in high school, there was a budding sensation she couldn’t help but feel inspired by. “Somebody showed me a video of Rich Brian and I was just like, ‘what in the world is this Asian boy doing?’” she recalls, instantly curious and transfixed by the artist’s momentum. Further investigation unearthed the existence of 88rising, a hybrid management, record label, and marketing company that was showcasing the talent of Asian-Americans and Asian artists working in Western industries. Aside from her initial interest, PIAO didn’t invest much attention into the collective. She had other priorities – “I was actually a full-on business nerd in high school” – and had plans to attend a dream school of hers to study finance. In a moment of inspiration and with nothing to lose, she signed up for an audition at Berklee College of Music. Aside from her childhood dream of being a musician, there was one other clear draw for PIAO to attend Berklee: “they didn’t require an SAT score, and I’m Canadian and we don’t do SAT’s,” she admits. Fatefully enough, PIAO was offered a full-ride to attend Berklee, throwing a wrench into her plans to attend business school. Ultimately, it was an anecdote from her mother, who is also a singer, that pushed her towards attending Berklee. Since she was as young as seven years old, PIAO would sing in her room and dream of being an artist. Try as her mother could to temper PIAO’s expectations, often reminding her of the lack of Asian stars in music, PIAO couldn’t resist the allure of being an artist. “I’m not a religious person, but I feel like there was a big universal push for me (to pursue music). Literally everything in its power and its matter is pushing me to do this thing which I think I was just scared to do,” she says, recalling what compelled her to pursue music.
A few weeks after “Cardcaptor’s" release this year, PIAO signed a publishing deal with 88rising, a moment that feels as full-circle for PIAO as it does validating. “(When) I first heard about 88rising, (I was) almost fearful of how courageous their initial ambition was because I didn’t have that ambition myself. I was like, ‘Oh my God, how are they so certain that this will work?’...It feels like I’ve been accepted into this little community…It's been a long time coming.”
Near the end of our conversation, PIAO must apologize: her alarm just went off, one she set to wake her up from her aforementioned jetlagged haze. She’s just returned a few days ago from a month long trip to China and a stint in Japan, and is still trying to get back up to speed. “I definitely am experiencing, like, post-vacation sadness,” she confesses, longing for the place she just left and mournful of the rest she cannot get. She can appreciate the perspective gained from the trip, a pivotal experience for PIAO to reconnect with her community, culture, and family. “It definitely was not just like a woo-hoo trip, but I think it was needed,” she concludes. And it's not as if PIAO had nothing to return to: upon the week of her return to the States, “Neopet” is officially out today and she is scheduled to play her very own showcase at the Winston House in Los Angeles. While her performance at KCon in LA earlier in the year has her primed for her big night, she most looks forward to relishing the simple tenants of live music: “I’m looking forward to seeing people, taking my time, and having fun,” she says, as energized talking about the show as she has been in our entire meeting. After a month away and a showcase to return to, along with new music in tow, it must feel good to be back. Fans of PIAO can likely relate, as their anticipation is just as intense and even longer awaited. As if she ever could, PIAO surely won’t disappoint.
This year was a doozy. In the end, I take away what it took to get through it. From the angry to the soothing to the crushing to the comforting, here's the sounds that carried me through.
PinkPantheress, Heaven knows - A riveting album where each song possesses moments that can feel cinematic or evolutionary, with incredible highs and lows that don't lag too far behind (or for very long).
Earl Sweatshirt & The Alchemist, VOIR DIRE - One of rap's most in-shape and rigorous rhymers is in the zone, and knows just who to call to bring out his best.
Feist, Multitudes - In a state of meditation, Feist pens some of the most complex and forth-right writing you could find this year.
Veeze, Ganger - I will point you to "Rich No Duh" and forfeit the rest of my words here, thanks.
Alan Palomo, World Of Hassle - A three-dimensional soundscape that brings a different but equally interesting thrill with each song.
Olivia Rodrigo, GUTS - A real good laugh at the idea of a sophomore slump from one of the more impressive pop songwriters in recent memory.
Ragz Originale, BARE SUGAR - A sonic flood of confidence and personality, BARE SUGAR was neglected as one of the year’s most cohesive listens in the hip-hop/R&B arena.
The Japanese House, In The End It Always Does - A very considered songwriter and musician, Amber Bain is quietly observant with moments of overwhelming earnestness.
Anna St. Louis, In The Air - I wish I could feel the way this album sounds all the time - an eternal state of "Trace" would do me well.
Larry June & The Alchemist, The Great Escape - Between the two, being supremely cool and talented never sounded so easy.
The title of Olivia Dean's debut LP is deceiving to how pristine all aspects of the album are presented. She endears herself to the listener with each track on Messy: her careful writing, pull-you-in-a-little-closer voice, the frequent flares that compliment the moments of contemplative narrative. And it bears repeating, her voice - it's a voice that is hard to imagine feeling out of place anywhere, though it's best suited around pianos and live instrumentation; it's not fragile, it's gentle; it's not strong, it's alluring. She has the kind of voice (and personality to boot) that is deserving of a Boiler Room residency. It's evident that Dean finds great joy and pride in her music, determined to make the most of her talent with every performance. While a more straight-forward pop approach was likely in the cards, Messy feels like a pure-hearted attempt to continue to curate Dean's artistic repertoire. Unrestricted, it feels like she has room to breathe throughout the record; she takes ownership of each track in a way uncommon of most pop artists today. All of these ideals come to a head on the celebratory "Carmen" - while not quite a victory lap for herself, Dean's joyous recognition of where she's come from and where she's headed inspires even the most passive ears. It's nothing short of a pleasure to see her work unfold on Messy.
An odds-friendly favorite for Rookie of the Year, St Louis's Jordan Ward rose to fan-favorite status by making no compromises. Not conventional but also not necessarily innovative, Ward seems to have created a new variant of modern hip-hop/R&B artists. While genre classification is an argument to be had, I side with Ward as a hip-hop voice, not with the motive of diminishing the breadth of R&B but rather as a boast of rap's ability to leak and find itself puddled in a way that reflects other genres as much as itself. Brimming with charisma and a well-to-do approach, moreward (FORWARD) is light on its feet, moving at Ward's gliding pace without missing a beat. This particular title serves as the deluxe to initial release FORWARD, including bonus tracks from 6lack and Easton Fitz that continue to propel Ward's momentum. Soulful and grounded, moreward (FORWARD) has an elastic quality to not only its sound but its identity, practically ensuring the album to withstand the shape-shifting trends of the genre. In a year where rap lost some of its luster near the top, moreward (FORWARD) slots in as one of the year's premier rap albums.
At once contemplative and immediate, Tomorrow's Fire is as definitive of an album as you could find this year. Ella Williams has a firm grip on each track on the record, never deviating or losing focus in what plays as an utterly immersive 10-track collection. "Alley Light" holds an air of romance that is overshadowed by the stark darkness heard in the guitars echoing throughout; "Canyon" feels as vast as its title suggests, with Williams emphatically poetic in her performance; finale "Finally Rain" is off-handedly tender, similar in ilk to prior tracks but with a lifting of a weight otherwise present throughout. The writing and sound of Tomorrow's Fire is an incredible snapshot into the position Squirrel Flower finds herself now - potential be damned, she exists most prominently in the present.
Sabrina Teitelbaum, the 26-year-old artist native to LA, has a great voice. In the past, it has lent itself towards more pop-focused recordings, throwing its weight around with more vibrancy and enthusiasm. Her voice as Blondshell is even better - though her voice, in this instance, is in reference to her writing style rather than her performance. It's her dry, self-effacing sense of humor, sarcasm, turning of a phrase, and nail-on-the-head descriptors that establish Blondshell as a character and a vessel. In the doom and gloom of tracks like "Olympus" and "It Wasn't Love," you can almost hear the bags under her eyes, the chip on her shoulder, the dark cloud looming over her head.
When I wrote about this album at the halfway point of the year, I called Blondshell more of a cautionary tale for those in their 20's than a scared-straight testimony. The bonus tracks that arrived with the deluxe release of the album in July serve as an epilogue of sorts: "It Wasn't Love" is a mostly-sober reflection of a relationship that could have easily served as inspiration for original releases "Joiner" or "Kiss City"; "Street Rat" and "Cartoon Earthquake" mimic the beyond-self awareness that plagues the writing of earlier songs; "Tarmac 2" and "Kiss City (home demo)" re-frame the album in a way that plainly reveals Blondshell's insecurities - with no guitars or drums to mask emotions, it's as bare as we've seen her so far. While her vulnerability persists throughout the record, it's on these two re-imagined versions where Blondshell lets her guard down for good. To hear her sing the chorus of "Tarmac" - "Everything revolves around kissing and / When he's here / I'm alone" - in this bare-bones setting makes you painfully conscious of her feeling, as if you can feel the delicate gravitational pull of this orbit she's fallen victim to. Whether it's the devastating, knock-out punch one-liners littered throughout the tracklist or the nostalgically-appropriate grunge influences, Blondshell delivers some of the most exhilarating musical moments of the year on her not soon to be forgotten debut.
The chief critique (at least personally) surrounding Del Water Gap, the solo project of Samuel Holden Jaffe, as an artist is fair - he is derivative of his influences to a fault. I have framed him privately as a sort of toothless-The 1975: not quite as daring as lead man Matty Healy but just as self-serious. A quality the two share that makes them both successful in their varying degrees of ego is a commitment to the bit, so to say. There's few instances of Jaffe putting himself in the other's shoes on this album, and while centering one's self isn't necessarily a sin, it opposes Jaffe's perception of himself. This flaw is certainly not fatal to his craft, as the songs on I Miss You Already + I Haven't Left Yet (I mean, the title pretty much makes my point for me!) are overwhelmingly beguiling, with Jaffe's character casted as dangerous enough to be advised against but innocent enough to insinuate you won't be hurt too bad. For the track's of IMYA+IHLY to persevere through Jaffe's character flaws is a feat of itself, and makes it one of the more curiously satisfying albums of the year.
On their first album in 9 years, Blonde Redhead mesmerizes more than anything on their transcendent release Sit Down For Dinner. Keeping in tradition with their shoegaze roots, the atmosphere of the record can envelop you to a point you neglect the poignant writing scattered throughout. "Have you seen, have you heard of a love that has no crime?" goes the final words of lead track "Snowman," properly setting the table for the emotional demolition in tow. The effective climax of the album comes in it's two-part title track, drawn from a phrase authored by Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking. "I know you're tired of living / But the dying is not so easy," begins vocalist Kazu Makino, but the real blow is yet to come: "But for some, it comes in an instant / You sit down for dinner / And the life as you know it ends / No pity," the final words a devastating gut punch given all the track's circumstances. Though serviceable as ambiance music, Sit Down For Dinner transforms when given the proper investment; you'd be hard-pressed to find many more albums that are harder to swallow emotionally than Blonde Redhead's latest.
Throughout Calico, Ryan Beatty meets you at your most intimate moments, memories, and thoughts. From the curious weight of the piano that introduces “Ribbons” to the hollow guitar of “Little Faith,” Beatty meets the music with all he has. His incessant pleas to “have a little faith” on the album’s closing track only reinforce the painful memories recounted on those that came before, the cruel savior that is hope blossoming before him. Swallow your pride as you dutifully serve your fate, he seems to be saying. Elsewhere, he is overwhelmingly endearing in his songwriting - single "White Teeth" pierces the skin with its pointed sensibility. Across the record, Beatty is fragile but not brittle; there are moments where the song takes the form of a hymn, not necessarily in structure but in religious divinity. Listen, if you will, to the character of the guitar strings of "Bruises Off The Peach," or the rich textures in Beatty's voice on "Cinnamon Bread." Calico sounds like the best kind of friend, the one you share the longest history and most sincere bond with. A shoulder to lean on and a hand to hold, Beatty’s third album reminds us why we listen in the first place.
Likely the top contributor to curbing my cynicism around country music, Time Ain't Accidental is eye-opening on a couple fronts. For its author, its an unashamedly personal account of love and self-discovery, not claiming to be anything more than Williamson's heartfelt tragedies she's come to accept as treasures. There's an absurd amount of faith baked into the album - as is suggested in its title - that is truly contagious, whether that be a symptom of Williamson's transparent lyrics and vocals or the banjo that treads optimistically throughout. "The difference between us is when I sing it, I really mean it," she spews at a past love on "Chasing Spirits," her words delivered bravely and with contempt. It's a beautiful trick that Williamson is able to pull off in making the personal feel universal, telling her own stories for the listener to hear them as their own. You get the feeling that while singing her heart out, Williamson is staring into the horizon beyond, the sun certainly rising rather than setting.
“I have this weird fear of like, if I don’t put this music out, someone 20 years from now isn’t going to be able to hear it," Zach Bryan told the New York Times in 2022, attempting to explain the sheer volume of music he's released in recent years, best encapsulated by the 34-track album American Heartbreak. "If some kid needs this in 40 years and he’s 16, he’s sitting in his room, what if I didn’t put out ‘Quiet, Heavy Dreams’? What if that’s his favorite song of all time?” From this quote grew a share of understanding between myself and Bryan, who I was actively disinterested in prior to reading the profile. It was more arrogance than ignorance that encouraged me to deflect his work, but in finally giving him a prejudice-free listen with the release of his self-titled album this year, I was able to appreciate his inherent emotionality, and dedication to the craft. His insecurities may have gotten the best of him again, as the album is perhaps bloated in some aspects, but his intentions are true. It's hard to walk away from tracks like "Ticking" and "Jake's Piano - Long Island" and not feel more attached to Bryan. Maybe the biggest compliment you can give to an artist is to admit their audience is well-earned; Zach Bryan survives on its merit, deserving of every listen.
A curious case given his sudden and somewhat odd rise to notoriety, Bakar writes off the "one hit wonder" title with Halo. There are ceremonious highs on the album, as Bakar's simple but effective writing is bolstered by his uncanny knack for melody. After catching ears with "Hell N Back," he became an artist who burrows, further ingraining his voice and off-kilter alt-pop with the likes of "Facts_Situations," "Right Here, For Now," and "I'm Done," among others. On the topic of "Hell N Back," which peaked at number 1 on several international charts, Bakar reinforces the track with a Summer Walker feature on the album, an equally surprising and effective choice that proves Bakar's eptitude when it comes to finding the right fit for him. When it mattered the most, Bakar stuck to his guns, and he's rewarded with one of the year's most inspiring albums.
I went into this Mitski album blind, ashamedly oblivious to her past work, mostly on account of my own negligence. Still, in this unfamiliarity, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We felt like being held by a familiar silhouette. Her embrace is empathetic, snug and welcomed, measured and natural. Belying the virality of "My Love Mine All Mine" are equally delicate tracks that revel in the burden of herself, namely "I Don't Like My Mind," "When Memories Snow," and "The Deal." Yet still there are moments that rest adjacently to the affairs of "My Love Mine All Mine": the metaphor that drives "I'm Your Man" sits comfortably among some of Mitski's most devastating writing to date, while the light pours in on the helplessly romantic "Heaven." While it's 32 minute runtime may feel brisk, TLIIASAW is damp with the condensation of Mitski's vulnerabilities, an exhaustive listen that continues to insist upon it's listener to press play once more and feel it all again, at full force.
The way Indigo De Souza captures the human condition is apparent in the title of her standout album from April of this year: she approaches the topic with candor, oscillating fluidly in her attitude towards her surroundings. Her voice creates an ambiguity that is enthralling - her quick-draw breaths and liberated expression leave room for interpretation. It's often difficult to decipher if she is on the brink of laughing or crying. The best example of this dichotomy comes on "You Can Be Mean," where Indigo gives permission for her object of affection to mistreat her: "You can be a dick to me / It's what I'm used to," she bellows, drawing out the final lyric and releasing it wildly. While her voice is seemingly tinged with humor, you wonder if she's in on the joke only for the added benefit of self-depreciation. At other times, her anxieties are presented genuinely: "Parking Lot" is an enlivened account of enduring a crisis at the grocery store, while "Younger and Dumber" closes the album on the note of a ballad, stripping away all facades and room for interpretation as Indigo shares clear-eyed reflections without reaching answers indicative of closure. This is life as we know it, as Indigo is supremely aware: "I don't have answers, no one does / I've been finding comfort in that."
Let's hear it for the outsiders! The Asheville, North Carolina outfit reaps praise on their most expansive, deliberate statement yet in Rat Saw God. The raucous electricity of the album left me paralyzed upon early listens, head spinning and internal compass gone awry. Once I got my wits about me, there was little I could do to shake it - the gothic pageantry of the music measures in at epic, perhaps no more evident than on the rustic "Bull Believer," with a finish you have to hear to believe. And still there are moments that verge on tender, namely "Formula One" and "Chosen to Deserve," the latter so genuine in its intent you may not realize the horrors at play. And these horrors are hard to ignore - or, rather, resist, given how compellingly they're delivered. Across Rat Saw God, Karly Hartzman and the crew give their all to prove their lyrics true: "Nothing will ever be as vivid as the darkest time of my life," the lead singer drawls on "What's So Funny," continuing, "Suddenly it's a tragic story / But that's what's so funny." Holding together the whole of the album is a sense of serenity, as is captured in the record's final scene: a TV in the gas pump, blaring into the dark, not giving a damn who is there to listen.
For my money the most fully-formed album of the year, Caroline Polachek's magnum opus is pedal-to-the-metal from its opening moments. Her howling to open Desire, I Want To Turn Into You boldly announces her presence, and she is only more firmly imprinted on the tracks to come. To commentate on this album is mostly about how it makes the listener feel: it feels victorious, rapturous, awakened, alive. Polachek shape-shifts, metamorphosizes, and all-around dazzles with each passing second - for all there seems there is to say about Desire, words cannot do the justice afforded by a listen. To list the collection of genres at play seems obsolete considering their application; genre is at Polachek's discretion to fit into her style, not the other way around. An absolute apex of an album, Desire and all of its forms transcend the here and now.
In an interview earlier this year, friend and admirer Blondshell offered a quote on what she appreciates most about Samia's music: "In (Samia's) writing, she sees a lot of beauty around her and she writes about it so specifically." It's a pointed compliment that is well-paid, a truth that speaks best to the most redeeming qualities of Samia's work. Honey almost plays more like a novel than an album, weaving a narrative together somewhat disjointedly but to profound results. The album is unpredictably fun at times, namely on tracks "Charm You" and "Honey," which also sets the listener up for quite the whiplash in transitioning musically and emotionally from "Breathing Song" to the aforementioned titular track. A whole-hearted exploration of Samia's conscience, its appropriate to feel invasive as a listener at times. In the end, it's for everyone's benefit to have been on this journey Samia calls Honey; after getting past these insecurities, we hope to take Samia at her own words, "To me, it was a good time."
It's hard to know where to begin with feeble little horse. From track one on, the Pittsburgh band maintains a nonchalant ease that somehow finds its way to charisma. "I know you want me, freak," goes the opening line of the album; "Your smile's like lines in the concrete," vocalist Lydia Slocum deadpans later on, in her monotonous delivery that is her standard. A notable exception to Slocum's indifferent tone comes on the twiddle-y "Heaven," who's sudden turn to guitar uprising midway through the song hits a nerve for Slocum that provides Girl with Fish's most dynamic moment - if you weren't listening closely enough before, she's demanding you hear her now. Don't let her seemingly unenthusiastic approach fool you, as the writing is on par with the year's best and sustained across all tracks. The album is lean but muscular when it comes down to it - the band isn't afraid to flex and get gritty if need be. Despite rumors of contentions amid members, the group has uncanny chemistry and complimentary visions that make Girl with Fish hard to take off repeat.
I wrote about MJ Lenderman's Boat Songs on last year's music list, and while most of the tracks on that album appear again on his live recording And The Wind (Live and Loose!), the songs in this context usurp their prior release. The live album as a whole arrives as the perfect medium for Lenderman's traits as an artist to shine through: his rugged voice has an anatomy to it, and you can hear how pointed his elbows and joints are; his voice is lanky and his writing is wiry. It's incredible to me how much more I have to say about this music that I've been listening to for over a year, but in this instance, I'll take advice from Lenderman himself: “The less people hear me talk, the more they can project on me or think I’m a smart guy.”
The passion project of producer and professional entertainer Rory proves worth the wait - the cast of voices and personalities on his debut album are the product of well-considered curation, a steadfast belief in concept that pays dividends. Whether unheralded talent like Aáyanna and Hablot Brown or proven commodities the likes of James Fauntleroy and Ari Lennox, Rory knows just the right setting to facilitate excellence. I Thought It'd Be Different is much more than the sum of it's plentiful, complimentary parts, a cozy album that leaves more proven than doubted. For any that know Rory's story, you wouldn't envision it being any different.
A bit overwhelmed with the amount of coverage boygenius collected around their release and perhaps more intimidated by the comprehensive criticism around the music, I chose a more unconventional medium to review the record earlier this year. Revisiting months later, their star rising even more than it had during their avalanche in March, it's hard to mention the year in music and omit boygenius. Their prominence is merit-based as much as it is idea-based - sure, a supergroup of trend-bucking singer-songwriters firm in their sense of group sounds cool, but it's another thing for the music to serve as proof of concept. There's strength, there's range, there's solemn devastation, and there's unconditional commitment embedded into the record; even in it's widespread acclaim, there doesn't seem enough words to express the album's brilliance.
Contrary to popular belief among unsuspecting patrons I've shared the work of 100 gecs with, this is not a bit - I am an agent of chaos in only the spirit of 100 gecs. The hyper-pop duo of Dylan Brady and Laura Les provide what is likely the most outrageous listen you'll have this...year? Decade? Lifetime? They are the sonic representation of anarchy, and it's impossible not to crack a smile or let out a laugh when experiencing the album existentially. The same formula that produced 2020's 1,000 gecs is at play here, scaled 10 fold: you’re sure to register a visceral reaction of some sort upon pressing play. Perhaps the best summation of 100 gecs as a band worth listening to comes from NYT critic Lindsay Zoladz, who professes that 100 gecs gives smart people the license to be stupid. Outrageous, mind-numbing, sensational, and epiphanous, to embrace the madness is the biggest favor you can do for yourself.
Queuing up Girl In The Half Pearl leads to losing sense of time and place - "I'm too young for the world's big problems / Just let me be free," she pleads to end the opening track. She takes full advantage of this freedom in the tracks to come, asking rhetorical questions with no intent of answering them herself, psychedelically moving through the free-flowing scenes of her mind, perfectly comfortable in the echo chamber of her imagination. Lush and sensual, her flavor of R&B is tart: biting yet surfaceless, cutting-edge ("HowTheyLikeMe!") and slightly jaded ("Wild Animals"). In 17 songs across 41 minutes, Liv.e is exactly what you'd hope: expansive, compelling, and at times daring, a breath of helium-polluted air to a genre ripe with innovation.
Perhaps the unsung pop album of the year, Troye Sivan's Something To Give Each Other boasts a welcome dimensionality, surprisingly as deep as it is wide. The album's pulse certainly suggests life, and Sivan is living it to the fullest - unconstrained euphoria on "Rush," desperation for refunded emotionality on "Still Got It," the unapologetic lust that populates "Got Me Started." The imagery of the album is in it's sound - it's easy to imagine the settings these songs take place in, and where they lead to afterwards. STGEO feels crafted in a way that Sivan's peers wouldn't bother to put in the effort for. A statement piece for Sivan as an artist, it's hard to turn your back on him with how much he has to offer.
Not all albums necessitate context, but in the case of Javelin, it is essential. Dedicated to his partner who passed away in April 2023, there's an emotional weight bearing on each lyric and breath Stevens offers. With this perspective, your heart breaks a million times over across the record, though no moment is quite as shattering as the devastating "Will Anybody Ever Love Me?" One final blow comes in Stevens' cover of "There's A World" to end the album not with a bang but a whimper - an exhausted, sympathetic sigh is the only way to leave in the wake of Javelin. The juxtaposition of strength and weakness is jarring, with Stevens not convinced of security in these songs but wearily searching.
And for my last trick, I leave you with the review at The Line of Best Fit, for which Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love was recognized as the number one album of the year. My words and perspective would only echo those of writer Sophie Leight Walker's, or so I can only hope.
For most artists, seeing their name on global playlists and their face on a billboard is part of the dream. It's almost as if none of it is possible unless first imagining these accomplishments as a distant fantasy. But this was never part of the plan for dee holt, the 19-year-old Quebec-born pop darling whose face illuminated a Spotify ad in her hometown after the release of her debut EP last year, with songs from the project finding their way onto the most popularly curated playlists across the globe. Never did she imagine such a spotlight for herself, she tells me over Zoom, just under 12 hours away from the release of her follow-up EP i’ll be there. “Never,” she repeats whenever reflecting on the position she finds herself in today, incessantly adding a supplementary “ever” to drive home how far-fetched this life seems from the one she had imagined for herself. “I didn't initially want to start doing music. Like it was never, ever in the plans,” holt says. “I never was like, ‘I'm gonna write songs, I'm gonna be an artist.’ It kind of just fell in my lap,” she says with a smile, more of astonishment than of satisfaction. The more we talk, the more it all seems so coincidental to holt, the idea of her having a voice that people actually listen to. “For the past two and a half years, I've still been warming up to the idea that I am like an actual artist,” she offers with a chuckle, tinged with a sense of disbelief that can only be described as genuine.
Being an artist was never fully a foreign concept for holt, who was raised by a mother who is a painter and a father who played several instruments, filling the house with music and introducing holt to all kinds of sounds at a young age. She would often sing (but can’t dance, she freely admits), but became more secluded with her voice as she grew older. Where before she would sing for grandparents, holt had become reserved to the point where she would only sing in the shower. No matter how much she was encouraged by those around her (“Of course your mom’s going to tell you you can sing, right?”), holt bottled up her talents. And when you hide something for so long, it tends to reveal itself in the worst moments. While maybe not the worst scenario imaginable, holt’s moment of truth came when her boyfriend’s family united with her own for the first time, and her mom urged her to perform for the group. “I was like, ‘ah!’” she says with an exclamation that’s almost entirely facial, dropping her jaw nearly out of her Zoom frame and raising her eyebrows almost to the ceiling of the studio she joins me from. After “a lot of convincing,” they came to a compromise: “I sang facing the wall. I sang facing the wall because I couldn't face them.” When she turned around, she was met with teary eyes pasted on stunned faces.
After provoking that type of reaction from those who supported her most, holt felt enabled to imagine what a career as an artist might look like. Still, there were no fantasies of billboards and streams far surpassing 7 figures. Everything seemed immediate, and all too convenient. After the intimate performance in front of her boyfriend’s family, her new biggest fans introduced holt to family friend Benjamin Nadeau, a local producer who holt refers to affectionately as Benji. All of a sudden, things were falling into place in a way that was so convenient it couldn’t be coincidence. Still, holt was skeptical of it all. “It's so strange because as I said before, I never wanted to (pursue music),” she says of the early success she found with her songs. “It was never a plan to release and to try to make my name in music. Like never ever. So the fact that it's kind of happening just while, like…I'm working for it, but in a sense, I'm kind of just laying back and seeing what happens. It makes no sense,” her confusion born out of self-consciousness. It’s as if holt was the last one to be convinced of her merit as an artist. After only her second single, the slinky-sounding “Olivia,” labels were calling. “I think it took me like six months to finally say, ‘okay, yes, let's do this.’ That's how unsure I was,” holt testifies, scrunching her face during conversation as she recalls her thought process while offering complimentary explanations with frenetic hand motions. “But I was like, I'm gonna regret it my entire life if I say no and if I don't go with it, and I'm so, so, so, so, so happy that I did. I love it so much.”
Nowadays, holt undergoes routine reality checks as a product of her seemingly natural-born humility. Not once in our conversation do I get the impression that she’s taking her success for granted, nor does she feel it’s normal. “It's so, so strange to me still,” she says of fans messaging her from China and Europe. When she opens up a playlist to find her name next to Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish, she’ll reflexively think to herself, “what the fuck? How does that make any sense?” Aside from her natural case of imposter syndrome, her family has kept her grounded as her name grows with each release. “I'm not getting used to it at all, but I'm happy that I'm not. I don't ever want to get used to the awe of it and like the ‘oh my God, this is crazy,’ because it's just so surreal. I don't know how else to explain it,” holt says, with an honesty that is unprovoked but much appreciated. After just a short talk with holt, it is clear that the heart she wears on her sleeve when recording extends past the studio.
Every shade of dee holt is on display on her newest EP, i’ll be there, a six-song collection of minimalistic pop poetries. While minimalistic is the correct adjective to describe the project, it is not to be interpreted by its connotations: minimal does not mean simple, it does not mean devoid of intention. It in fact represents the opposite, with holt routinely doing more with less in what serves as a period piece of sorts for the young artist. The themes that populate the album are often delivered simply but hold an underlying complexity; “dishes” comes off as a plucky ear-worm but comments markedly on releasing toxic energy; “better” is a self-sabotage confessional that sneakily searches for answers; she goes soul-searching on “bird fly” but goes blind before finding what she was looking for. When I mention that my personal favorite track is “fell in love,” the EP’s finale, holt is overjoyed to discuss the experiment-gone-right behind the song. When I describe the song as feeling “doomed” and “traumatized”, she laughs with what I hope is glee in having achieved her vision for the song. “That's like my favorite track,” she confesses, going on to reveal that it wasn’t originally a part of the project. “fell in love” was written for another artist, but after repeated listens and a shared obsession with the song, holt and her trusted producer Benji decided it was too good to give away. “We were trying these new styles, these new sounds, and it turned out really, really good,” she says of the track’s origins. “And then as we were going, we kept adding and we kept going, ‘oh, oh, that's good. This keeps getting better and better.’”
While it may be a standout, “fell in love” is not unique in its creative arc. holt experimented with several new techniques when writing for the EP, including taking on fictional characters and projecting emotions onto them as a new kind of exercise. The results are apparent upon listening to i’ll be there, a project that wouldn’t have been possible 2 years ago. “The first time that I came into the studio, I think it took us about three sessions to come up with like the entire song; like a writing session, the whole thing,” explains holt. “And now, me and Benji, will sit in the studio and we'll come up with a song in like three hours: written, everything produced. I feel like I've developed so much. My writing, I feel like I'm becoming more comfortable with trying new things. I would be sitting in the studio on the couch, afraid to do ad libs because I was scared to sing a wrong note in front of Benji. Now it's like I'll try anything and if it sounds like shit, then it sounds like shit. And that's okay.” Everything comes with time, and the time is now for dee holt to take control of her artistic journey. What before was a whirlwind for her has now become a steady process of self-exploration. Her grip on the reins of her music have tightened, and holt sees more of herself in her artistry than she ever could have thought. “I feel that this is the project that I'm most proud of and that I feel represents me most as an artist so far,” she reveals, sharing that she’s more excited about her follow-up EP than she was for her debut. “Like a lot, a lot, a lot more,” she emphasizes, adding that it isn’t out of disdain for her first release but rather that she feels more connected to i’ll be there. “I feel that this EP specifically is a bigger milestone than the last one was…I definitely am very, very proud of this one. I feel so confident releasing it, which is really, really cool.”
Despite the immense amount of pride she holds in the project, dee holt won’t be celebrating the release of i’ll be there until the moment has passed. She has just wrapped a studio session before joining me in the virtual meeting room, preferring to focus on what’s next so as to not inflate expectations of what’s happening in the present. To be fair, there’s plenty for holt to set her sights on: she’s currently studying art and animation in school, a passion that comes out in the artwork that holt personally designs for her releases. She self-directs her own music videos as well, with a visual for “fell in love” releasing in correspondence with the EP (“I've always said if I could film myself, that would be ideal because I could have full control. That would be great.”). She’s still working on becoming more comfortable on stage, having recently performed a show in Toronto that served as only her second live experience so far. Unfortunately, she can’t turn around and play to the wall at these venues. “I was so nervous,” the anxiety palpable in her voice, “I did not eat all day. I did not talk to anyone. But I feel like once you're on the stage it just kind of goes away. I'm terrified of going on stage, but once I'm on, it's fine. But I do need to start learning how to get over those pre-show nerves because, oh my God.” She’s hoping to travel more in the next year, potentially in conjunction with a tour, if the opportunity presents itself. She’s open to working with new collaborators, venturing from her deep-seated roots with Benji but almost definitely coming back to him for validation: “I will always go back to Benji and ask what he thinks about it. Benji is like my big brother in music.” Last holiday season, holt put out a Christmas song inspired by Billie Eilish’s “come out and play,” an all-seasons tune that happens to sound better around the holidays. She hasn’t ruled out releasing a more traditional carol, and may continue to record songs in French. Not too long ago, even dee holt’s wildest dreams never included music. Now she’s opened Pandora’s box, opportunities jumping at her before they even enter her line of sight. We are often warned to be careful what we wish for, as we just might get it. What are we to do when we get what we never asked for, and it's greater than we ever imagined? If you’re dee holt, you pinch yourself to make sure you aren’t dreaming, and then do it all again the next day.
Music’s evolution has brought us to a place of ubiquity, to the point where it is often described nowadays with vague terms: music is genreless, music is fluid, music has no bounds. Genres are less categories than they are archetypes, segments of sound whose influence is meant to inform its subjects and not classify them. In this unruly landscape, there is one commonality that unites all musicians - they all want to sing. Rockstars, rappers, influencers-turned-pop stars, they all want the same thing. For Mexico-born, Miami-based singer-songwriter Andrea Bejar, singing is not as much a desire as it is a compulsion. She needs to sing, perhaps at the risk of spontaneous combustion if restrained. One scroll through her social media accounts help tell this story: there’s Andrea applying make-up, casually imitating Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?” to near flawless execution; maybe she’s rubbing foreheads with her cat, nailing an acapella of “Understand” by Keshi; or, if you prefer, a soothing rendition of “Moon River” while she lays leisurely on the couch. The unconventional settings and scenes of these videos displaying her voice serve the point that as instinctual as it is for Bejar to break into song, it seems just as effortless for her to produce the cloud-9 vocals that have entranced millions of listeners. It’s almost as if she is naive to the fact that this kind of talent is unreachable for most others, her nonchalant performance taunting us listeners with how simply she is able to astound.
Radiating with energy as she joins me for a video call, Bejar has to think hard about her first memory of singing. “Honestly, ever since I was…” she begins before trailing off. She settles on a safe but practical answer: “I can’t remember not singing,” she says with a laugh and a big shrug. Singing was usually part of a larger show, she tells me, that Bejar’s friends and siblings would put on for her parents. Dancing was usually part of the routine as well, but the songs began to take precedence over choreography. Her early affinity for music placed Bejar in piano lessons, but Bejar soon discovered that playing instruments was just a means to an obsessive end. “I quickly realized I didn’t really care for piano and I more so just wanted to use piano as an accompaniment to sing,” she says, with little remorse for her abandoned lessons. “I guess that’s when it started,” she concludes. “Ever since then I’ve just been trying to find songs to cover.”
And cover songs she did, from top 40 radio hits to singer/songwriter deep cuts, Mexican folk songs from the likes of Natalie Lafourcade she grew up listening to, and anything in between. Not too long after discovering her passion for music, Bejar developed a desire to create her own. Doing so, however, involved writing her own lyrics, a part of the process she initially resented. “Every time I would get to the writing process, I would be like, ‘Ugh! I don’t want to do this anymore!’” recalls Bejar, throwing her body around her Zoom square in disgust. Singing was her priority, and she approached the writing aspect of her music with a level of disregard for intentionality. “I would go on Rhyme Zone and find words that rhyme and I would be like, ‘ok, whatever, I’m done.’” It wasn’t until Bejar began work on her single “Despierto” that she felt attached to the words she was writing on the page. For Bejar, even the simple act of physically writing was a step forward. “If something doesn’t sound right in my head, I didn’t used to put it down on paper. I would just stop the idea before even continuing it,” she says of her past approach. Now things are more free-flowing, and Bejar is willing to work with raw material to formulate a fully-realized final product.
This does, of course, depend on the context. As a bilingual artist, Bejar records her music in her native Spanish as well as her learned English, at times flowing between languages in the same song. The dynamic that has developed between the two languages directly informs Bejar’s music, and has changed with her bilingual perspective. “I think it’s mostly something I flow through naturally with,” she says of her choice of which language to deliver lyrics through. “I’m perfectly fluent in Spanish, but I think in English now. I guess I had less judgment towards myself when writing in Spanish. I was like, ‘I’m writing, who cares? No one’s gonna see this anyway.’ In Spanish I judge myself less with whatever I was writing which made it way easier to write and actually get ideas out. Now, writing is like a huge part of the process and it's like my favorite part about making music. I guess it just depends on the song; if I’m writing about family or stuff like that, I’ll lean towards writing in Spanish a little more. More internal feelings and ideas, I’ll lean towards writing in English because I think in English, and it makes it easier to put down exactly what I’m thinking.”
Following the release of her serene single “Despierto,” Bejar has continued to display her ethereal vocal talent through varied deliveries. “Quien Tengo Que Ser” boasted naturalistic production in support of explorative lyrics, and most recent release “Mexico” is a jubilant ode to her home country. While she is sure to bring her soul to every song, “Mexico” sounds representative of a specific artery in her heart. This artery was beginning to bleed dry with Bejar having not visited the country for a while, and the song was a way for her to reconnect to those roots. The height of her withdrawal was nothing short of homesickness: “I was like, ‘all I wanna do is go back to Mexico,’” she tells me with a big sigh, dropping her shoulders to symbolize the physical grief she was experiencing at the time. “‘I don’t wanna be in Miami anymore, I hate it here. I just wanna go to Mexico, I miss the feeling of being home.’” While Miami has been Bejar’s base for years now, it will never fill her Mexico-shaped void. “It's the only place that’s ever felt like a home to me,” she says, swelled with sentiment.
“Mexico” came together naturally, and rightfully so. As her producer Diàgo introduced Bejar to the riffs that populate the track, she couldn’t help but feel transported to the place she was missing the most. Describing the process as therapeutic, Bejar’s writing broke through. “I didn’t even think about what I was writing, it was just coming out of me,” says Bejar, and victoriously at that. As she wrote about the rain and thunderstorms that used to put her to sleep in her house in the mountains, Bejar felt at peace. Of the song, Bejar says she “just tried to remember everything I love about Mexico and all the things that take me back to it…it truly captures what it is to be home.”
Bejar was able to satisfy her craving of a return to Mexico earlier this year, with the trip’s footage ultimately serving as the source of “Mexico”’s music video. Through the camera’s lens, there is a tangible nostalgia at hand, with the present joyfully merging with the past in a true realization of belonging. While not the focus of her homecoming, Bejar was in the midst of a creative lull when arriving in Mexico. Her past methodologies were proving unreliable: “If I get inspired, I get inspired, and if I don’t I’ll just have to wait for the inspiration to come,” she reflected, laughing at her prior artistic innocence. Returning to her roots proved to be the solution, along with working more collaboratively with others. In a week’s time, Bejar wrote 4 songs, a pace she had never accomplished before. Even more importantly, she gained clarity on how to approach songwriting moving forward: “The process now is just starting with an idea and making sure the concept is really strong and cool and something I can resonate with and write about, and then just putting that in my notes tab (laughs) and then coming back to it when I have someone that I can work with and fully write a song.”
This improved way of working isn’t fool-proof just yet. Bejar shares with me a recent anecdote about how she wrote a melody she saw as “really cool and really different. And then I showed it to (my friend) and he was like, ‘this is so cool.’ Then I showed it to my other friend and he was like, ‘I don’t love this.’ I was like, ‘ugh, damn it, I can’t write it anymore because someone didn’t like it!’” For Bejar, music is all about making a connection. That’s the primary goal of every song she makes, and for it to fall short for even one listener is disappointing. But that only serves to make the successes that much sweeter. “If even just one person really connects to a song, whether they ended up liking it or not, just being able to say ‘I was able to connect to even just one line’ makes me want to continue writing deeper songs about all of my fears, because I have a lot of fears,” says Bejar, with a nervous chuckle to close. Through songwriting, she’s learned to be less judgemental of herself as she’s now aware of the closure available to her by being open in her music. Self-identifying as “a very emotional person” (“I’m always the first one to cry”), Bejar’s found solace in writing her own ending to chapters of her life through her lyrics.
While she works through the intricacies that inform her character, Bejar continues to reflect on her soulful beginnings: in recognition of Mexican Independence Day, Bejar shares an acoustic rendition of “Mexico.” You can hear the stripped-down track now, on YouTube
In accompaniment with new music, Bejar’s voice is readily-available across her social media platforms: you can hear her live performance of an unreleased track, “Rosas,” on her YouTube page, along with as many covers as your heart desires - or can take in one sitting. In her cover of SZA’s “Kill Bill,” all anguish evaporates from the track but the song sounds more sinister than ever in her calmly-chilling register. Alternatively, Bejar has posted a cover of Declan McKenna’s “Brazil,” which she claims to be her favorite song to cover. When asked to elaborate on her reasoning, Bejar obliged: “In a lot of my songs I sing very softly, it's more of a breathy-whisper type of singing. And with “Brazil” I feel like I can just, like, sing and belt and it feels really good to belt it out…I can just let loose and let the words flow out of my mouth. I also really like how he says a lot of the lyrics; he doesn’t sing them, he just says them. It's really fun to play around with the dynamics of saying this word faster or giving this word the accent that he gave it. It's really fun to perform, obviously it's an upbeat song so you can move around and it's really fun.” Enlivened by her live performance, it’s hard not to feel as passionate about the cover as Bejar does.
To close, I ask Bejar to consider what she would be doing if not for music. I give her the floor and she declares it’s “story time,” and she tells me about her decision to study music in school, her sudden change of heart from wanting to be an entrepreneur, her passion for art that extends to painting and make-up, a fleeting dream of being a runway make-up artist discouraged by the challenges of finding opportunity. After being ushered away from Berklee in part because she knew no music theory, she attended school for a few more years while maintaining her focus on music. Now it’s become her priority, and she hopes she never has to look towards another profession again. While her story was thoroughly enjoyable and full of twists and turns, it seemed as though there was only ever one answer. If not obvious enough from her current position as one of music’s most captivating voices, it was clear from the reflexive look of panic that flashed across Bejar’s face when I first prompted her to consider a life that exists outside of music. It's been her life for as long as she can remember, and seemingly every available moment has been filled with the enchanting presence of her singing voice. After hearing Bejar’s voice even once, it’s just as hard for fans to imagine a life without Bejar’s mesmerizing music.
To be a person of faith is to go through life looking for signs. The direction these signs suggest is negotiable, likely depending on your chosen perspective and favored outcome. A sign I learned early in my consumer development was that if you were in a store and came across a pair of shoes that caught your eye, you ask an employee if your size is available. If yes, you are meant to buy the shoes; if not, you move on. There are thousands of parallels, all sparkling with a little bit of optimism that things are meant to work out as you desire them to. You aren't exactly willing these signs into reality, but you certainly aren't ignoring them.
This principle has only become more layered as algorithms are introduced, intentionally tempting us with calculated signs. Its no longer a delightful coincidence if that pair of shoes is stocked in your size - if you choose to forgo them in that instant despite the positive omen, you'll only see targeted ads for the same sneakers conveniently sprinkled into your social media feeds, email promotions, and search browser recommendations. It's becoming harder to trust the spontaneous affirmations from the universe. Now, it seems like everything is an excuse to indulge.
So, indulge I do. Through tedious internal debates and months of passive plotting, I decided to buy tickets to my first festival earlier this month. So much weighed into the decision - the opportunity to reunite with friends, end my drought of seeing live music, a bargain price weighted against the experience, an escape from my claustrophobic reality, an impulsive late-night purchase the night before the weekend kicked off. Above all these reasonable and even logical motivations, I was (perhaps foolishly) following a sign.
Among the names listed on the bill for the festival - Zach Bryan, Maggie Rogers, Alex G, Del Water Gap, Angel Olsen, and more - there was one who's font stood a little pronounced in the lineup poster. A name who stood as the main attraction since the list of acts was announced over 8 months prior. I was a nonchalant Faye Webster fanatic since I was christened with her i know i'm funny haha LP in 2021, an album I both adored and took for granted. There were times in the 2 years following I would have a revelation and play her music as ambiance, subtly soundtracking the mundanities of my daily routine that Webster embellishes wonderfully in her own right. However, in the weeks leading up to her festival appearance, I was enjoying a renaissance of sorts about her music. Transparently and with a tint of shame, this is most attributed to her viral sound on TikTok, which stems from a song from her self-titled EP, "I Know You." Her devastatingly cool and melodramatic, almost disassociated delivery sparked an unexpected trend, and the more I engaged with it, the more Faye I was fed. It is in the midst of receiving all of these "signs" that I pulled the trigger and signed up for the weekend, pulled most forcibly by the gravity of Faye Webster.
And when the weekend was over, and I was no longer interested in whatever direction Webster's music was trying to lure me in, her songs still appeared on my feed, though in the spirit of a new trend. No longer was she trying to encourage me to indulge in my desires - her music led me to something I had no idea I ever wanted.
To watch sports as a child is to watch your superheros every night. Adorned in their uniforms, they fly, they flash, they perform acts of super strength. Remarkably, some even manage to save lives, all under the guise of your friendly neighborhood millionaire basketball celebrity. As a fan at such a young age, it's a wonder that these figures even exist - the athletes that make up the NBA seem just as fantastical as the characters that populate the DC Universe.
Across all multiverses prevails one universal truth: every superhero needs his theme music, and in the highlight culture of the 2000's/2010's, NBA stars were awarded just that. As the remarkable feats of a player played onscreen, likely the result of a YouTube search, they were always soundtracked by an appropriate song of the time. The song choice was more than an auditory filler - in many cases, it said as much about the player as his highlights. The chosen track was meant to reflect the player's tempo, his aura, his attitude, his reputation. Though a mostly dated practice, this can easily be done with today's stars of the league. For example, pair any NBA Youngboy song with Ja Morant and you'll get the same effect, or reference the self-produced mixtape of Bones Hyland, where he partners his smooth bucket-getting with the sultry tunes of Marvin Gaye. Nothing has ever looked more like jazz than Kyrie Irving's salacious dribbling and finishing displays. Still, perhaps this is best illustrated by the material: take into account Allen Iverson's mixtape, soundtracked by "Gangsta's Paradise," entirely reflective of AI's persona and street-culture swagger; a Derrick Rose reel from 2012, perfectly capturing the excitement that surrounded his relentless energy, effortless excitability, and undeniable charisma by Lupe Fiasco's "The Show Goes On"; Jamie Foxx's "Winner" is entirely representative of Dwayne Wade's collection of big-time plays. There are countless compilation videos made of Kobe Bryant, one's I indulged for hours as a young admirer of his work, but a forever iconic highlight tape has to include his signature fadeaways and footwork fueled by a song of his name, performed by Lil Wayne. These were the songs you wanted to have playing in your headphones as you headed to a court, hoping they would inspire you to perform in the spirit of the athletes you could watch but not quite believe. Play their theme music and they just might appear.
A new collection of trends has overtaken this nostalgic piece of my basketball fandom, all in compounding and utterly satisfying ways. As most trends tend to do these days, they exist in their most realized forms on TikTok. Of all there is to criticize the app for, only thanks will be offered to the algorithm for assembling a truly full-circle array of videos for me to appreciate.
The first of these trends, which has been ongoing for awhile but only recently made its way to prominence in my media, is a parody of the very idea expressed above. This includes highlights of NBA players, in the same structure and narrative, but differing in stature. No longer is it required a player be a star or household name - now, all it takes is a couple eyebrow-raising flashes from a player to assemble a 1-2 minute montage of convincing work, supported by the same intense theme songs you'd expect to hear coupled with the NBA's most prominent players. While some are certainly more obscure than others, they all succeed in bringing a twisted smile to my face.
Building on this concept is the music choice for these particular videos, which introduces the parody label to this brand of content. For as much as these videos mock the art I hold so dear, they do still provide quite a sense of pleasure to me. A non-comprehensive list of player highlights-soundtracks that I frequently revisit: John Wall mixing fools to Outkast's "Hey Ya!"; Russell Westbrook tearing the rim off as "Rock Your Body" by Justin Timberlake plays; Kyle Korver raining threes to Twista's "Wetter"; of all the fouls Ben Wallace has ever committed, the most flagrant of his career is layering his highlights on top of Sade's "Kiss Of Life"; even with his comedic prowess, there's nothing funnier about Steven Adams than watching him play basketball as "Birthday Sex" plays. While mostly fun and games, my blood pressure did spike when I came across a similar video of Robert "Bane of My Existence" Sacre repeatedly embarrassing himself to the tune of Meek Mill's "I'm A Boss." It was at this point things had gone too far.
In the casualness of this trend and its accompanying videos, the creator's of these mash-ups would occasionally hit the mark, I presume unintentionally. Re-introduce Faye Webster, who, among all the chaos and foolishness associated with this brand of parody, finds a way to turn the trend on itself in a way that is wholly and genuinely beautiful. By the means of which can only be explained by fate (read: an invasive algorithm), I found myself in the most self-fitting niche on the entire app. Time was no concern as I scrolled through these assorted videos, most of which can be attributed to creator CalmNBA, a pioneer of the art. Among his masterpieces: Josh Giddey's pretty-boy persona paired with Taylor Swift's "Style"; Giannis Antetokounmpo punishing anyone in his path to "Kyoto" by Phoebe Bridgers; Khris Middleton somehow managing to be rigid and smooth at the same time as Soccer Mommy's "Circle The Drain" plays. The creator's eye-ear coordination is top-notch, but where they really earn their applause is in their most unjustified selections.
In the examples already mentioned, there was some redeeming quality to each song that made it suitable for the respective player - whether that be the melody, the tempo, the artist's vocal delivery, there's always a fitting descriptor somewhere in the music. Faye Webster makes no sense with these movements. Nothing of her music resonates with the exclamation of a slam dunk. Her melodies are often herky-jerky, not fluid like the well-practiced aesthetics of an NBA player. Of all the compliments to bestow upon her, "charismatic" is not the first that comes to mind. (As I said before, she is cool, but almost in a reluctant way. One that prevents her from being openly charismatic.) Her tone and cadence and tempo don't lend themselves to the explosiveness or speed of these players. Categorically, any Faye Webster track is a disaster paired with any respectable athlete's highlights.
But then there's the evidence. Andrei "AK47" Kirilenko running up and down the court, blocking shots and dishing behind his back to the elegantly romantic "Kingston"? Checks out. The supremely suave Brandon Roy going to work as "I Know You" plays? A fitting air of melancholy, if you ask me. Yao Ming being tall soundtracked by "Right Side of My Neck"? Looks and sounds good. And then, the magnum opus of the genre: Trae Young stepping back for a three, the ball sinking in just as the instrumentation of "Kingston" begins and Webster holds on to the word "dreaminggg." If nowhere else, in this space it is obvious that the alchemy of basketball mixtapes is not a science but an art.
Even in its mystical formula, there must be some component that is comprehendable. Perhaps the most explainable characteristic that unites Webster's music and these athletic compilations is the sense of freedom shared between the two. When a basketball player is at his best and most pure, it is when he is free, acting on instinct. Many times in Webster's music, it feels as if she is acting on instinct; when listening to her unorthodox melodies or line readings, you get the impression that she is an actress performing a script for the first time and with no rehearsal - she seems to be trying to find her place in the scene in real time, figuring where to take pauses or draw out syllables, filling the space in the best way she knows how. Her melodies come off as improvisational. Even in her off-beat delivery, you feel its a product of her freedom, her feeling confident enough to finesse her way around her lyrics. Through this liberal reading of the text, the weird fit between Webster and NBA players oddly makes sense, seeing that Faye often feels disjointed even in her own music.
Sports can be likened to music in that they are the performer's expression of self. When so much of one's life is dedicated to an activity, it feels suitable to see their body of work as a reflection of the person at hand. So much of Kawhi Leonard's stoic personality is on display when you watch him play basketball, his stone-faced expression unchanged no matter how miraculous a play he's accomplished. The opposite can be said for Draymond Green, who is as demonstrative and confrontational a player as you'll find. His on-court reputation is reinforced by his media appearances, where he will occasionally attack or insult other players. In judging both of these men based on how they express themselves in their sport, it would be fair to be intimidated by them, if even for different reasons.
There's no intimidation when it comes to Faye Webster. She sings in a hushed tone with the temperament of the kid in class who was called on while not paying attention, stumbling to find an answer and piece together the context. The sentiments in her song support this idea, as she will regularly circle an idea or emotion with intentionality but little closure. Her character in her music presents as awkward, like strangers sharing an armrest on an airplane: anxious with an air of romantics to it. And among all of these dynamics, she manages to be cool in the most out of pocket way imaginable. Take, for example, the second verse of "Kingston" as evidence of her inherent charm: "He said, 'Baby,'" she begins, before breaking the fourth wall in a manner not so dissimilar to Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag to offer a disclaimer - "That's what he called me," Webster says, stepping out of the song for a moment before immediately coaxing her way back into her character and finish the scene - "'I love you.'" It's here Webster uniquely captures the out-of-body experience of intimacy, of being loved, of being told you are loved, in a way that is totally authentic to her music. Though some may seem the contrary, all of the above was meant as a compliment to the truly inimitable nature of Faye Webster's songwriting.
When two people come together who are meant for each other, they both bring their own individual histories, their own stories. To other people they mean different things, but together they share a familiarity that's uncommon, perhaps even against logic. These love stories are the most inspirational: when the two people who never knew they needed each other come to realize they're perfect for one another. Well, in this story, there are no people - just songs from an off-kilter songwriter and basketball highlights from some of the sport's best, while an algorithm plays Cupid.
At every turn, Josef Lamercier has been guided by his faith. Growing up in a religious family on the east side of New Orleans, son to a pair of ministers, Lamercier inevitably fell into the “mystic” draw of the church. It was here he would discover his love for music, singing faithfully in the choir as a child, a product of his environment. As comforting as this environment – New Orleans, spirituality, community, faith – made him feel, it wasn’t safe from disruption. First it was Hurricane Katrina that displaced Lamercier and his family, only for natural disaster to follow them after they had relocated to Texas, this time in the form of Hurricane Rita.
“I don't think people understand how natural disasters can affect people,” Lamercier tells me over Zoom, talking reflectively but with an in-the-moment consternation about him.“Especially when you see it on TV. You're literally watching your shit being destroyed. And you a kid too, so you just like, ‘okay, I got three days of clothes, and we're all here (but) I don't know where my other family's at.' For like a week, trying to call people up. That's the type of shit that never left." Materially and emotionally, little remained for Lamercier to lay claim to. But still lit inside him was a burgeoning flame, surviving in part due to the shelter provided by the faith instilled in him from a young age.
Later, this faith evolved into a more existential approach Lamercier used to direct himself in coordination with his purpose. At first, he thought the church would remain his focus. After graduating from college, Lamercier returned to New Orleans after a 10 year absence and reaffirmed his place in the church, a role that included guiding prisoners through worship services. During this time, he still looked for opportunities to indulge his inner musician. His desire to be an artist had not subsided.
Securing a spot at New Orleans’ Jazz Fest is grounds for celebration for most artists. But for Lamercier, the moment was the intersection of his life’s crossroads. “I remember after doing Jazz Fest sitting in my car and getting super overwhelmed cause I'm just like, ‘man, this is what I'm really supposed to be doing.’ You know?” He takes a pause, then offsets this moment of anxiety with an offering of perspective only available to those when far enough removed from the situation by time: “But you know, shit takes time to develop.”
“I take this very seriously,” Lamercier says of his art. “I don't just look at music like, ‘yeah, it's fun, you know?’ I enjoy it, but I know how powerful music is and I know like frequencies and shit is very powerful…I saw a video, Fela Kuti was talking like, ‘you can't really play with music like that cause it'll kind of kill you.’ I know it's extreme, but it's real though. It really is.” There’s a hard-earned understanding of this sentiment behind Lamercier’s voice when he delivers it to me, a seriousness that is not to be doubted. When he made the decision to commit himself to music, a leap-of-faith may not do his decision justice. He battled homelessness when he first arrived in Los Angeles, at times sleeping in his car or driving four hours to an ex-partner’s house for a few days of comfort. From there he would head back into the city, hit about four or five sessions, and find his way back when the work was done. Lamercier was ready to head back to New Orleans and potentially settle into a more comfortable life.
Before he had the chance to retreat, Lamercier was reaffirmed by faith. Not his own faith in a higher power, not through faith in himself, but faith invested in him from those that surrounded him. The names he shared formed a tight-knit collective: a girl he was once with, who “fucked with me when I ain't really have shit;” frequent collaborator Reuben Vincent and New Orleans producer Malik Ninety Five; he mentions Gage Brown, who offered him an air mattress and endless support. As Lamercier details the experiences that formed these bonds, he makes a point to say that his friends who have outgrown that title. When I mention him and fellow artist Barney Bones’ relationship and qualify it as a friendship, he is almost offended. He interrupts me, correcting me: “My brother, you know what I'm saying? Like, it's not even a friendship. These people, I actually really do life with. It's not a game.” His seriousness shifts the conversation tone once again, undercutting the otherwise candid back-and-forth we had established. The intensity fades a bit when he begins to discuss the true influence these people had on him at the time. “I didn't realize I had a lot of fear in me. But they was all just super encouraging and just like, ‘nah, you need to poke your chest out a little bit and just step into what you're supposed to step into…just be you.’”
Missing from this ensemble of motivators is the catalyst for Lamercier’s musical ambition. When I mention the name Channel Tres, Josef lights up, a smile painted on his face as he delights in the topic. It’s always good to have connections in the industry, and those ties can run deep. But no, Josef was adamant: this isn’t an industry relationship. “That’s been my brother,” he says of their connection. “Like, literally,” he emphasizes, trying to convince me as if I had a reason to doubt him. The two met when they were in college. Excuse me, I meant to say, the two met as soon as they got to college. “My parents dropped me off, I walked through the door and there's Channel and he's like, ‘what you here for?’ I was like, I think I'm here for music. And he was like, ‘Me too. I think I'm here for music too.’” The whole story, as well as Lamercier’s attitude in describing their first impressions, has the childish benevolence of a coming-of-age movie. Using the microphone on Channel’s MacBook, the two experimented with their shared interest, Lamercier distinctly recalling them recording over a J Dilla sample. When Channel made the move to LA after graduation, he pushed Lamercier to join him. When he finally arrived, Lamercier struggled in silence, with those close to him unaware of his homelessness and insecurity. Channel often let Lamercier stay in his studio, but it wasn’t a long-term solution. For Lamercier, it was all part of the process: “I was putting myself through that even though I didn't have to. I could have easily went back home or did some other shit, but it was just like, I had to do it, you know? It's like the rite of passage in most cases.”
Only faith can make sense of Lamercier’s path. A week before he was supposed to leave for Los Angeles, the transmission in his car broke down. This easily could have been taken as a bad omen, akin to seeing a black bird perched in your window. These kinds of detractors rarely affect Lamercier; when a force bigger than yourself is driving you, a faulty transmission is the least of your worries. After contributing to music for the likes of Tyler, The Creator, Kyle Dion, Lucky Daye, and Tkay Maidza, Lamercier had a realization born out of unfortunate circumstances. After returning to New Orleans to visit his ill grandmother, he was able to affirm his identity in the reflection of his grandmother. “I would sit with her in the hospital and I was sitting there just thinking, man. I was just like, ‘she didn't really get to see me.’ She saw me (perform) once; she actually was the only one that came to Jazz Fest from my family. I could only get one ticket and she did it. She used to always call me Lil Marvin.” She had given Josef some songs she had written decades ago, along with a note that sparked a flame. “In that moment I was like, ‘alright, I have to do this for her. (My grandparents) invested so much into me. Me stepping into being an artist wasn't really about me. I don't think anything I've really done was more so about my selfish intentions.” For all he’s been through, it’d be easy (and acceptable) to give himself some credit. As our conversation took shape, it became clear to me that it was not in the outline of Josef Lamercier but instead a mirage of others, all of those who have made him into who he is today.
Who he is today is a solo artist, for the first time in his life. The release of “Figure It Out”, featuring additional brothers-not-friends Huey Briss and Niko Oroc, made this designation official. Though, “solo artist” seems an ironic title given the amount of contribution responsible for Lamercier’s current standing. He has reason to wear it with pride, knowing it was earned. And it fits him well: “Figure It Out” is a song that moves at an inherently contradictory pace, like watching a character in a movie run in slow motion. Built on a foundation of the same brand of faith that delivered results for Lamercier, the track is as soulful as his roots would suggest. Enveloped in the hypnotizing loops and lyrics is a paradox indicative of Lamercier’s state of affairs. “It's almost like the crying clown…a smile on his face, but he’s crying on the inside. That's the visual that I wanted people to get from (“Figure It Out”), sonically,” comments Lamercier. Billed as “a marriage between Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation and André 3000’s The Love Below,” there was an intentional effort to accomplish a playful way of saying, “this hurts me, without being too forward about the feeling.” The harmonies on the track are born out of Lamercier’s gospel background, characterizing his vocals just as he enjoyed hearing in the music of Parliament and Sly and the Family Stone as a child. (“I remember Niko, I was like, ‘Ni–, put some auto-tune on my voice.’ He was like, ‘oh, okay bro.’ There's no auto-tune on my voice. I was like, ‘what the fuck?’” he shares with a laugh.) Lamercier hits the mark on all fronts, later revealing that “Figure It Out” is the first piece of music shared from an upcoming album in spring 2023. Having just stepped into the solo career outfit, Lamercier is already filling out his threads nicely.
In only his first release, Lamercier has established a very conscious relationship with art that was impressioned onto him from a young age. His mother was an art dealer in New Orleans, displaying pieces within the home and setting the standard for how works should be treated. The hallways of Lamercier’s childhood home were decorated with paintings from Clementine Hunter, a self-taught artist who painted as a slave. “I remember seeing those (paintings) and I’m like, ‘man, this feels like where I live,’” recalls Lamercier fondly. When his mother would bring artwork home, she would store paintings under beds to protect them from humidity. When I mention that perhaps his mother’s relationship with art has affected how he creates, so personally and intentionally, he acknowledges the parallel. “A lot of that time was erased from my memory or her memory, so whenever we talked about it, it was like we started remembering it. When she told me she used to store the art underneath the bed, I would try to go underneath the bed and she'd be like, ‘get away from that, get away from that.’ And now I understand why. I felt like I was throwing art underneath the bed for a long time, you know? So I'm able to pull the shit out and start doing it.”
We close our Zoom call with a few quick-hitters, me questioning Josef and him relaying answers back to me. On what working behind-the-scenes with other artists has taught him: “Art imitates life. And I wasn't really living my life to imitate the art. I was just kind of living my life to live my life.” I ask him if there is anything we should know or expect when it comes to his debut album. “Come to it with open ears,” he answers plainly, and we share a laugh at his simplicity and unintentional cliché. Who is he listening to nowadays? “I always listen to oldies and listen to some new shit. I listen to Sly Stone and Playboi Carti, that type of shit. Sly is such a crazy, crazy artist, crazy writer. They definitely play a huge impact on what I do. I want longevity in my records.” What words is he living by this year? “Take care of the art and the art take care of you.” I reference a previous interview, one of his only pieces of press to date, where he says that the biggest sacrifice he made was “sacrificing comfort.” And now, through all the growth and accomplishments he’s seen come his direction, has he found any comfort in the position he finds himself in now?
“No,” he replies immediately, with a bit of a chuckle.
“No…I’m happy, I’m grateful. But I don’t think this is it. I know there’s a lot more.”
Photo Cred: Slater Goodson
Last Friday, Bailey Bryan celebrated a birthday. Not really, but at this point, who’s to say? “I just woke up and I'm like, ‘oh shit, it's release day,’” she tells me over Zoom, just over 12 hours removed from sharing her newest collection of music, Sensitive Bad Bitch Music Vol. 1. “Release days, especially for a project since the whole EP is out today, feel kind of like my birthday. I never know what to do on my birthday either. It's like, ‘oh, I guess I should post about it.’ I don't know.” For Bryan, release day and her birthday have become nearly interchangeable: to celebrate turning 25, she released a single, played a show, and reveled in the multiplicity of the event. Today, she’s taking pleasure in fans hearing songs she’s lived with for over a year.
The tracks featured on Sensitive Bad Bitch Music Vol. 1 embrace the duality and conflict the title holds. Opening tracks “Passion” and “Upside Down” are highly-caffeinated, pop-fueled jams with spinning grooves; ruminations on the varieties of separation take the form of the self (“RIP”) and interpersonal (“Tragic”); instant sing-along and ode to discrete intimacy “IYKYK” is an earworm that burrows. Even in their differences, every song is the same in that they are all sensitive bad bitch music, a category Bryan has been living in since her 2021 EP Fresh Start. “Everything I've released so far has been me learning how to make the music that I'm making now, and it feels really authentic and exactly where I'm at in my journey,” shares Bryan. “Will my next project sound exactly like this? Knowing me, definitely not. But I do feel like I've kind of reached a more confident, secure place in my sound and more of like, ‘okay, yeah, this is Bailey Bryan making sensitive bad bitch music,’ and anything you hear from me from now on will just be a more honed in version of what you're hearing on this project.”
If the term “sensitive bad bitch” isn’t descriptive enough for you, Bryan is happy to oblige in providing more of a definition. If you’re seeking the most entertaining explanation, consult @sbbclub on Instagram, the community’s official social media correspondence including a hotline, criteria list, and occasional updates from the leader herself, Bailey Bryan. To allow the least amount of misinterpretation, a written statement for clarity: “‘sensitive bad bitch’ means allowing yourself to be vulnerable and owning all the hard feelings and heartbreak, but not letting those feelings stop you from learning and re-learning your worth as you go through life. I’m someone who struggles with anxiety and doesn’t always love what I see when I look in the mirror, but I’ve slowly realized that my weaknesses shouldn’t keep me from having fun and feeling sexy and everything else we associate with the bad-bitch persona. It’s about holding space for my humanness, and for everyone else’s humanness too.” Her concept of a SBB is well-rounded in most part because it was hard-learned. In the past, Bryan felt her emotionality detracted from the confidence she strived for. It wasn’t until she realized that the confidence she was seeing in other women was actually just authenticity that she began to embrace her swaying emotions. “I'm such a fucking cry baby. It's ridiculous. I used to think that because of that…I can never really identify as a bad bitch, you know. Somewhere along the way I learned that that's not true. If you're able to be real and be vulnerable, that's the most bad bitch, badass thing that you can do, and I just wanted to share that realization with people through my music.”
Bryan wears her self-proclaimed title not only for what it means to her today, but also in a sort of defiance of the labels placed on her music when she began her career. At just 17 years old, Bryan moved to Nashville from her small hometown in Washington to better position herself as a songwriter. Without much of an established sound or style when she arrived on the scene, her talent conformed to country standards, even though it didn’t exactly fit her image. “That was my biggest hurdle in country music…everyone's like, ‘you're not country enough to call your music country,’” she admits. “I'm like, ‘what are you gonna call this? Pop? Like it's got a banjo in it, what are you talking about? And listen to the lyrics. That's country.’ But I wasn't raised in the south. I wasn't even really raised on country music in its wholeness. I didn't care if people called it country or not.” Her first project, 2017’s So Far, is 18 minutes of exceptional country music, true to the ethos of the genre. In spite of her success in the space, Bryan felt pulled to write more pop-influenced music, music that more closely aligned with the sounds she heard most often growing up. Having an eclectic palette empowered her to express herself in different ways, all while maintaining the same genesis. “Some people might listen to ‘Upside Down’ off the new project and think, ‘oh, this is a rock song,’” Bryan explains, acutely aware of the perceptions that could surround SBBMV1’s dynamism. “Other people might hear it and be like, ‘oh, she's rapping in the pre-chorus.’ Like, I don't care what you think. Do you like it? Does what I'm saying resonate with you? That's really all that matters to me and once I started leaning into that and calling it sensitive bad bitch music, that's when I felt like I was really coming into my own as an artist. I still have a long way to go with that too.”
The process of self-discovery follows a non-linear development pattern, full of stagnation and setbacks meant to discourage a clear sense of identity. For Bryan to arrive at a place where she can accept herself as both sensitive and magnetic, she had to go through heartbreak. Not the kind of heartbreak you hear about in country songs, either. While transitioning from Nashville to Los Angeles, Bryan was dropped from her record label. Just as she felt ready to make the most honest music of her career, she had lost her support system. Being a good sport, Bryan describes the situation as “the best label breakup anyone could have had. All the vibes were good. It was the right thing.” Regardless of the terms, Bryan was still in a vulnerable position just as she was taking ownership of her music. She was anxious to release the SBBMV1 single “RIP” and “IYKYK”, and continued writing through the industry-purgatory she had found herself in.
Born out of that period was “Credits,” the closing track on SBBMV1 that punctuates the project in the most appropriate style. With a bitingly bitter first verse that devolves into a harmonious and sentimental delivery, it’s a closured kiss-off that declares her the victor of the break-up at hand. Written with breadth and ambiguity, her goodbye to her past record label strikes the same cord as walking away from a long-time romance. An intentional writing approach, its effectiveness was aided by the emotional proximity of Bryan’s heartbreak to these two scenarios. “I was feeling all of the same sort of feelings I feel when I'm processing an actual breakup. I was signed to 300 longer than I have been in any actual relationship in my life, and I had real relationships with the people that worked there,” she says, confessing the subject made her emotional even in reminiscence. While she’s grateful for the time spent together, “I didn't see it going this way. I still see myself winning in the future…but I saw myself winning with them. The same way you see your whole future with someone when you're dating them. You can break up with someone and know it's right and know that your futures as individuals are still big and bright and beautiful, but have a moment where you sit back and be like, ‘It's not gonna be what I thought it was.’” As she detailed this all-too-relatable sentiment to me over our call, I started to become emotional as well. I was quickly reminded by Bryan that that’s only one side of the coin. “I guess that's the sensitive side of it. And then the bad bitch side of it, that's like feeling all of those feelings and feeling that hurt, but knowing 100% that you're gonna be okay. The most important thing is that I believe in myself.”
On the release day of SBBMV1, Bailey Bryan seems to be right where she wants to be, personally, professionally, musically. Her self-effacing personality was on full display during our conversation, just as glowing as it appears on her sporadically-entertaining TikTok account. She’s surrounded by a team that is not overwhelmed by her impulsive ideas, but instead helps craft her visions into reality. Her time in Nashville has provided her with the technical skills to allow her writing to flow effortlessly into the fluid category of sensitive bad bitch music. Relocating to LA has indulged her “follow the vibe” creative process, resulting in the most freeing project she has shared to this point. “It's just like, we're making a great fucking pop song,” Bryan says of the more one-dimensional approach LA has offered her. “What do you wanna say? That's weird; go ahead, say it on the mic,” she mocks, perhaps giving an inside track to the studio conversations that led to the songs that make up SBBMV1. Whether you’re looking for poolside pleasure, in-the-mirror recitations, windows-down cruising, or break-up posturing, Bailey Bryan will soundtrack it. She’s been there before and she continues to live it now, as unapologetic as she knows how.
There comes a point in an album's press cycle where nearly all perspectives or observations are exhausted. There's only so many divinely-crafted reviews, free-flowing profiles (plurality was intentional), personality-defining podcast interviews, and online discourse you can consume until your plate is empty. For most people, this oversaturation is a nonissue. The more you know, am I right? It only becomes problematic when you're in a position like my own, wanting to make content but feeling cornered by the all-bases-covered press around the album. To say I must be creative in these situations is perhaps a bit too complimentary of my approach; goofy is maybe a more fitting adjective, especially in this case. Never have I been more insecure of my own ideas than in deciding on a medium for this piece, focusing on boygenius. The majority of this insecurity can be placed on the subject at hand, a band who's name derives from the infatuation and accompanying inflation relating to the ideas of white males. In the face of this critique, I persist, unrelenting! (But a little relenting.)
The debut of boygenius, indie-rock supergroup consisting of members Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus, officially arrived in late 2018. Having just completed my senior year of high school, my obliviousness to not only their shared EP but the members' respective works is an indictment solely on my self-obsession with my own tastes at the time. In playing catch-up for the much-anticipated release of the record, my appreciation for each individual in the group grew in correlation with my understanding of the genesis of boygenius. I'm tempted to describe the group as a three-headed monster, but that seems unfair to their personality as an outfit. Better yet, they bear similarities to Fluffy, the 3-headed dog from Harry Potter, who's name carries an intentional irony.
In trying to sort through a different way to interact with the album, I landed on a self-explanatory concept: I will be analyzing the record through the context of a high school yearbook, specifically the superlatives that offer broad categorizations of people (or, in this case, things). Some prompts are cliché, others more suited to this exercise. You will not find a Most Likely To Become Famous or Best Singer designation here, for obvious reasons. But there's still plenty of other titles to hand out, and an intriguing ensemble of nominees.
Most Likely To Win an Oscar: "the film"
It's not the only visual to be released from the album, but it does hold the distinction as a film, making it the best qualifier for this category. Uniting the videos for "$20", "Emily I'm Sorry", and "True Blue" through a satisfying lens, it's not as if "the film" is devoid of merit. All that is required to take home the category is for it to stand out among its peers, which is accomplished here. Bringing on Kristen Stewart as a director adds some juice to their campaign - between added name recognition and general wishing of goodwill towards Stewart, I feel this becomes the clear choice.
Will Likely to Describe My Life in 4 Years Award: "I'm 27 and I don't know who I am."
Phoebe Bridgers doing Phoebe Bridgers things: cutting deep! As a 23-year-old who is endlessly at odds with my identity, I'm frightened by the potential of this lyric if I were to come across it in 4 years time. There's not a whole lot of optimism on the album which led to a number of contenders for this title, but the specificity here gives it the edge. If I do come across these words at 27, I only hope I listen to the record long enough to get some encouragement from Lucy Dacus on "True Blue": "When you don't know who you are, you fuck around and find out."
Life of The Party: "Satanist"
When you walk into a party, who's the one person you want to see the most? If you were to hit shuffle on the record, what's the one song you'd be most excited to emerge first through the randomness? This was my approach to answering this prompt, and there wasn't much of a second thought. "Satanist" walks into the function after it has gone a little dry, immediately livening up the scene and convincing people to stick around for awhile longer. The best song on the album, I dare say. Additionally, it has provided me with the perfect opening line for when I see someone I want to talk to at a party: "Will you be a satanist with me?" Thanks boygenius, can't wait to try it out!
Best Social Media Caption: "Always an angel, never a God"
A tough choice here, and not particularly for the strength of contenders but rather my inarguably subpar captioning instincts make me an unfit judge. But this one seems like it fits: comes at a great time on a great song, great symmetry on each side of the comma, good balance of superficiality and existentialism. Let's go with it! Personally, I would choose Dacus' closing comments on "Leonard Cohen": I am not an old man having an existential crisis at a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry..." Objectively true! Don't even ask what photo it will be attached to.
The Definitely-Didn't-Peak-In-High-School Award: "Cool About It"
I am interpreting this category as acknowledging a song that has the potential to grow on fans and become a favorite down the line. I haven't been hearing enough about "Cool About It", a song that doesn't have the punch of "Satanist" or the emotional wrestling of "Not Strong Enough", but still holds its own in that weight class. It continues the album's upward trajectory after a strong opening, and the lull of the record is just around the corner. "Cool About It" puts each artist in a comfortable space and allows them to thrive, a quality I'm sure we'll be much more appreciative of as the novelty of the new music wears off. It's the classmate that got pretty right after graduation, or the kid who's name you didn't bother to learn but is incredibly wealthy when you reconnect at the 10 year reunion.
Teacher's Pet: "Leonard Cohen"
Call it unfair, call it irrelevant, call it whatever; I call it serendipity, and it's not working in boygenius' favor. In the absence of Lana Del Rey's "Kintsugi", I may look more favorably on "Leonard Cohen". Just a week before the record's release, Lana used the same metaphor used in "Leonard Cohen" on one of her own tracks. "Leonard Cohen once said, 'There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in,'" boygenius quotes before breaking into harmonization with an all-too-literal descriptor. Lana's writing counters this tongue-in-cheek delivery: "I don't trust myself with my heart / But I've had to let it break a little more / Cause that's what they say its for / That's how the light gets in," Lana bleeds on the track with a devastating softness, going on to wax poetic empathetically. While it was almost certainly unintentional, it is derivative all the same, with the two releases' proximity only working against boygenius. A clean sweep in defense of Lana: she was the first to share her interpolation, used a more creative application, and made the better song.
Best 3 Song Stretch: "True Blue" - "Cool About It" - "Not Strong Enough"
A true category of personal taste, but with some parameters: there's a hard cut-off at "Leonard Cohen". Any consecutive string of 3 out of the first 7 songs is acceptable. I don't find much of anything enjoyable about "Leonard Cohen", and the 4 tracks that follow don't have a strong enough sequence for me to extend my framework. Sorry not sorry.
Most Likely to Become TikTok Famous: "Cool About It"
This is the only category that I used statistics to justify. While it may not meet the viral threshold, "Cool About It" is the most used sound from the record a week after its release. Most content surrounds the song's closing verse and the reference to method acting, an imagery-filled monologue from Bridgers deserving of TikTok infamy. "Letter to an Old Poet" is gaining momentum in this category, but I'll call this race early and happily give "Cool About It" some more shine.
Most Changed Since Freshman Year: Julien Baker
Assigning boygenius' debut EP as a symbol of their freshman year, Julien Baker shows the most growth in elevating her presence on this record. On the group's latest release, Baker subtly finds herself contributing to the album's most prolific moments. boygenius is presented as a group of equals, a band without a lead; while this may still be true, Baker asserts herself in a way that assures she will never be relegated to a background role. As a freshman, she was chameleonic, naturally layering herself as to not attract much attention. On the record, Baker emerges as the friend who was always around but content in the periphery. Nothing has changed relating to her personality, just her surroundings.
Prom King: "Not Strong Enough"
The most charismatic of this collection of songs, "Not Strong Enough" wins the popularity contest. It isn't a political victory either - all 3 members have a strong showing, though Bridgers does most of the heavy lifting in carrying the track to sublimity. While I'm sure it was not made with this intention, it is likely the most radio-friendly song on the album. You have to love a fluid chorus, and the way it develops makes it one of the strongest hooks you'll find on the record. I'm hesitant to call Prom King the top honor, but it's sure to make the recipient feel good about itself.
Most Likely Peaked In High School: "We're In Love"
"We're In Love" is not going to age well, I fear. While not the worst recording here, it does have arguably the weakest writing. I hate to put Lucy Dacus down, but the track comes across uncharacteristically shallow. She has better work on the LP and even stronger evidence in her own catalog. I'm not mad about it, just disappointed I suppose.
Most Likely to be BFFs: boygenius
As I did my obligatory reading and listening and watching of boygenius, I started to question whether or not I've ever had a real friendship in my life. The standard boygenius sets for this otherwise casual connection between people makes me further question if I would ever want to feel this way about someone else platonically. Both on the album and in their personal interactions with one another, they give friendship a cult-like intensity. The acapella opener, "With You Without Them", is as sentimental as it is ritualistic: it sounds like an off-color hymn or a collective-worshiping prayer. The "power of friendship" and its products are often mocked for its unserious connotation. If anything, boygenius takes their bond with one another too serious, weaponizing a force of widespread playfulness into a sonic boom of true companionship.
"Last night felt like an out-of-body experience," confessed Gracie Abrams, addressing the sold-out crowd at the House of Blues Chicago for the first time of the night, already having checked off a couple of songs from the setlist. "This feels real...I feel like this is really happening tonight." On the second night of back-to-back dates in the Windy City, the adrenaline of being in front of an audience again was still fresh for the 23-year-old, inspiring the rare occurrence of shared anxiety among performer and audience.
Some performers put on a show for the spectacle of it all. Their moments of spontaneity or improvisation are precalculated or ingenuine. For Abrams, the theatrics, emotions, and interactions she displayed on stage were not for show. After delivering a particularly heart-piercing lyric or album cut ("Right now"), Abrams would momentarily retreat from her keyboard, burying her head in her hands to supportive applause. When parading around the stage rejoicing in the unfiltered joy of “Feels Like”, she willfully grabbed fans' phones and disposable cameras to record herself on stage. On multiple occasions, she paused her act to offer water to those crowded on the floor who were likely too overwhelmed by her presence to acknowledge their basic needs. Aided by the songs soundtracking the night, you were never given the impression that the person on stage was an object for your personal enjoyment. Abrams presented herself just as she does in her writing: as just another human, one who feels just as much, if not more, than we do.
While Abrams' presence undoubtedly heightened the show, the ticket was worth the charge even if you'd spent the whole concert with your eyes closed. Though Good Riddance serves as her debut EP, Abrams had a collection of heavily-adored music at her disposal, with some tracks that fans were likely hoping to hear ("The Bottom", "Augusta", "Under / Over") were left on the cutting room floor. Naturally, the setlist leaned on the standouts of her latest record, but her live performance provided credence to the cliché of giving "new life" to the tracks. The recordings for Good Riddance at times fall into the trap of stagnation, the synths growing stale and monotone, with Abrams moving at a pace that is comfortable for her but perhaps stalling for listeners. The live instrumentation gave teeth to these tracks, a new pulse established within the new life these songs are offered. For fans who had likely been cramming listens of Good Riddance in anticipation for the show, these live renditions were a breath of fresh air that add dimensions to the album that are only available to those in the concert hall. Abrams contrasted this experience with the right balance of nostalgia, pulling from prior EP's minor and This Is What It Feels Like to complete the evening. She performed tracks like "21", "I miss you, I'm sorry", and "Camden" in a manner that speaks to her distance from those memories stored in the music, clearly not as weighed down by the emotional baggage that dampened her while she strummed her guitar for "Full machine". These two eras, if we can call them that, are not entirely separated though; in the middle of her set, Abrams took to the piano to perform a medley of "Rockland" and "Will you cry?", a wonderfully disorienting choice that elicited as many gasps of admiration as it did unconstrained applause from fans when the trick was revealed.
Several times throughout the night I caught myself thinking this could be a live album, a tangental entry into Abrams catalog of diaristic melancholy. I later came to the selfish realization that I'm glad that will not be the case; exclusivity is the precipise of intimicy, and to be able to now listen to the Good Riddance with a more varied interpretation of the sound that meets my ears is the result of being in the House of Blues on that Tuesday night. Its an experience I will almost certainly keep to myself, as my only contemporaries for this event were mostly women to be generous, and girls to be realistic. The pigtails and X-marked hands that I saw frequently throughout the venue are in a much different position than myself, a mere admirer of a talented singer with a dagger-like pen. For most of the young fans in attendance, Abrams will be the pop star who defines their teenage years, as Taylor Swift did for those in my generation. Well, maybe Taylor is still that empathetic figure for this crowd: when Gracie asked how many people in the room were coming to Swift's The Eras Tour, a loud majority announced their presence. To this realization, Abrams took comfort. "If I frame it in my mind as a reunion, maybe it won't be so fucking terrifying."
There was no formal announcement of the evening's final song, but there was never a doubt what the choice would be. "This song is about missing home," Abrams offered succinctly, taking her place in front of her keyboard. As the lights reflexively focused on the burgeoning star at her most vulnerable, she began to play "Right now", the final track on Good Riddance. "I feel like myself right now," Abrams repeated to a crescendo, if not sonically then emotionally, at the songs close. Then she got up from her position and swiftly exited the stage, shyly waving at fans on her way, and there was a sudden sense of abruptness that also felt appropriate. There would be no encore, as it would serve no purpose. Abrams had said her piece, and whether or not you felt is was enough or not, you ultimately understood.