Words by Luke Labenne
Luke LaBenne is an Off Shelf contributor and co-host of the Best Song Ever Podcast, where he and his cousin/co-host play and discuss their favorite new music. He is an avid music consumer and musician who writes about music on his own site The Volt and makes his own music under the name Indie Darling.
Nnamdi Ogbannaya has been a staple of the Chicago indie-rock scene for years, but on his latest album he truly comes into his own. The brooding, building electronic soundscapes Nnamdi implemented on 2017’s Drool are still present yet the compositions on this record feel more tangible and tactile. Intricate guitar work, clicking percussion and math rock rhythms appear, showing the stylistic adventure and growth on this album. Nnamdi’s most unique asset is his one-of-a-kind vocal style. His voice sporadically swings to extreme highs and lows, adding a playful unpredictability to his lyrics. These songs build and bloom in unexpected ways as this “big ol’ brat” bares his soul over incredible expanding instrumentals.
The sophomore album from the New Zealand-based rock quartet takes their sound to a new level. They deliver in-your-face electric guitar driven rock jams and shimmering pop anthems all with captivating lyricism, catchy hooks and memorable riffs. Channeling early aughts power pop, with propulsive percussion and fuzzed out guitars, this album has an air of nostalgia and coming of age. This an album full of big bright rock anthems that will permanently stuck in your head and warrant repeat listens.
After a decade of honing her skills, perfecting her craft, and collaborating with legends, Sa-Roc’s tenth album establishes her as one of the most formidable forces in hip hop today. Each song brings a new mood and sound bed to the table, paying homage to the classics as well as exploring modern production techniques. Whether it’s over thumping drum beats, bouncy bass lines, boisterous horns or muted synths, she brings engrossing energy to already-incredible instrumentals.
The larger-than-life superstar scaled down the production of her new album, stripping the music back to its folk roots, and delivering the finest work of her career. Swift elevates her songwriting and storytelling to create incredible impactful scenes of love, aging, regret and growth. Employing master producers like The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bleachers’ Jack Antanoff, she creates a minimal yet mesmerizing soundscape. Listening to this album you almost forget she’s one of the biggest stars in the world, as she taps into the feelings and fears of humanity as a whole.
This was my most anticipated album of the year. The Haim sisters kept releasing singles, each new one as strong as the ones before it. When it finally released it did not disappoint. Not only do they deliver the obligatory polished pop tunes but they branch out stylistically, venturing into folk, 90’s influence r&b and saxophone-laden slow jams. Whether it’s in the bigger pop moments or the more quiet emotional moments these songs are enjoyable and unforgettable.
I was never a fan of this band and greeted the positive reviews for this album with a scoff, yet when I listened I was floored. Going from a Greta Thunberg speech to a raging punk song to an ethereal instrumental track to a shiny 90’s pop-rock pastiche, this album has it all from dance jams to vulnerable ballads. Part of my love of this album is sentimental because I listened to it a lot during my 30th birthday weekend when my wife and I retreated to a cabin in the woods of northern Michigan. We left Detroit when it was a ghost town and returned to city streets full of protesters. This album was an unlikely soundtrack to a strange yet special time in my life.
Hip Hop’s hardest-hitting duo, Killer Mike and El-P, have a history or delivering savage indictments of societal injustice set to electrifying instrumentals. It would be no surprise that their new album would comment on subjects like systematic racism, economic inequality or police brutality. However, when the country erupted into protests following the killing of George Floyd, that same injustice and evil that they were already planning to tackle suddenly became even more necessary and needed. While this album definitely has the high energy bravado and excitement that all their past albums possess, this album feels a bit darker and more deliberate. These two powerhouses are at peak performance as they deliver an album that is both forward-thinking yet absolutely essential to the time of it’s release.
Hannah Read’s Lomelda project has grown and morphed over the years. The make-up of the band has grown and shrunk, resulting in varied sounds and style throughout the first three Lomelda albums. Hannah Sun feels like the culmination of all her previous work, into a fully-realized and perfected sound. Stripped down acoustic tracks recall the style she explored on 2019’s M for Empathy while harder-rocking tracks exemplify the full-band sound on 2017’s Thx. Read’s voice, both conceptually and technically, is the strongest it’s ever been. She grapples with purpose and identity through sharply crafted lyrics delivered by her unmistakable crackling coo. Hannah re-recorded the entire album multiple times to make it perfect and that hard work paid off in the form an understatedly incredibly work or art that will surprise and stir the listener.
The anime-loving art-rapper channels personal trials into a very powerful and personal expression of pain and loss. Though the subject matter is weighty, Mike’s patented blend or goofy humor and poignant insight are in full force on this album. He curses Netflix for his marriage’s failure, sarcastically reflects on self-care, pitches his own anime series and bares his soul while recounting both personal and professional losses. Frivolity and fantasy collide with tragedy and reality as Mike grapples with this time of transition in his life and the world at large.
A handful of early singles established Samia as an incredibly strong songwriter, with offbeat anecdotes and personal proclamations, not to mention as an astute instrumentalist with a fully-formed sound. So it’s no surprise her first full length is a dynamic and addicting album that shifts from floaty to frantic, from fun and accessible to somber and soul-wrenching. This is a record that truly captures the artists personality and history, as Samia confesses her hopes, fears, failures and triumphs. She respects the power or her messages yet doesn’t take it too seriously, injecting levity that only makes these songs feel more personal and lived-in. Pairing her distinct writing style with engaging, expertly crafted instrumentals makes this is a stunning debut from one of the boldest new voices in indie-rock.