Words by Luke LaBenne
Luke LaBenne is an Off Shelf contributor and co-host of the Best Song Ever Podcast, where he and his 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.
On her third album as Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner expands her sound with joyous and jubilant results. This project began quite simply as Michelle Zauner mourning her mother through music. Mining this pain delivered two amazing and acclaimed albums, but on her third album Zauner wanted it to be more of a joyous affair, and aptly titled it Jubilee. This also marks a new chapter in the sound of the band, with Zauner expanding her style into a variety of exciting and effective new territories. She formally learned how to play the piano, which is no surprise since this album is packed full of synth-laden jams like “Be Sweet,” and “In Hell.” She also incorporates a horn section on the album opener “Paprika” and some smooth sax on “Slide Tackle.” Each song brings some gorgeous orchestration or engaging electronic concoction to sink your teeth into. Whether you’re looking for compelling introspective lyrics, impressive technical feats or just a banging beat to tap your foot to, Jubilee has you covered.
No introduction is necessary for 20 year old producer, singer and rapper Hykeem Carter Jr. aka Baby Keem. He’s nominated for 4 Grammy’s including Best New Artist (alongside Japanese Breakfast) and his song “Range Brothers” spawned a dance trend on Tik Tok. This year, he followed up two promising mixtapes with an astounding and innovative debut album, The Melodic Blue. Keem made a memorable appearance on Kanye West’s song “Praise God” this year and right around that time he dropped the lead single “Family Ties” featuring his cousin and collaborator Kendrick Lamar. Each subsequent single that Keem released was different from the last and the album delivered on that promise with each song bringing a different vibe and different musical style to the table. He delivers hard-hitting bars with innovative beat & flow switch-ups on tracks like “Trademark USA,” “Range Brothers” and “Vent.” He brings fun and upbeat bangers likes “Pink Panties” and “Cocoa” alongside understated sample-based stunners like “Scapegoats” and emotional synthpop anthems like the album closer “16.” On tracks like the powerful piano ballad “Issues” and the sporadic auto-tune jam “Gorgeous” he demonstrates his boundary pushing production and melody, clearly influence by the likes of Kanye West and Kid Cudi. With this album Keem establishes himself as one of the most versatile, creative and hard-working artists making music right now. He can do trap like Uzi, bars like Kendrick, snotty rap like Chance, melodies and production like Kanye. He’s a true hip hop renaissance man and I believe there are no limits to the kind of music that Keem can create. Baby Keem is the artist to watch and we can expect much more great music from him in the future.
Spotify will tell you that Megabear is the album I listened to the most in 2021 and it was for a good reason. There truly is no album like it because it transcends labels of “album” and “song” and re-envisions the way the listener can consume music. 52 mini songs that can be played in any combination and they synch up, this innovative album concept makes for a one-of-a-kind experience every time. Beside the album concept is the pure and basic goodness of these songs. Whether the next 30 seconds hold an absorbing cosmic instrumental or some of Myles McCabe’s personal and powerful lyrics, Megabear doesn’t disappoint. The best part is that “the party’s never over.” The listener can return to any point in the album at any point in their life and they can find new meaning, new emotion and have a new experience.
On her fourth album Little Simz delivers her most ambitious, epic and cinematic work while simultaneously making her most personal, introspective and existential work. She examines the world, her place in it and the many sides of herself over excellent instrumentals that shift from ominous strings to funky bass to acoustic guitar to catchy sample loops. Whether it’s fuzzed out bass, glitchy electronics or elegant and epic orchestrations Simz can spit fire and make your head spin with her effortlessly innovative flows, insightful acuity and impeccable attention to detail. This album is dense and delightful, thought-provoking and blood-pumping, it tackles big topics with big compositions and bold writing. Simz was already on my list of Top 5 favorite rappers, yet with each new album she always finds ways to transcend and do something new.
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Laura Marling and superproducer Mike Lindsey embrace their inner animal on their second LUMP album. The duo created this project as an outlet for some of their stranger and wilder musical impulses and on this album that energy is perfectly harnessed to create cinematic scenes of hedonism and indulgence. Marling delivers a powerful examination of human nature in her lyrics while Lindsey delivers a world of new and exciting sounds on each track, ranging from funky bass-driven groovers like “Gamma Ray” to spacious and minimal heart-wrenchers like “Red Snakes.” After hearing their first album I expected this album to be fun for a listen or two but the lyrical depth and innovative instrumentation astounded me and kept me coming back for more.
On his first two albums, Houston’s Maxo Kream (aka Emekwanem Biosah Jr.) established himself as a vivid lyricist and gifted storyteller. However, on his third album WEIGHT OF THE WORLD he truly shares his burdens with the listener and brings them into his world. As expected, he delivers enlightening wisdom and trap anecdotes, yet his lyrics carry an added weight on this album as he considers his legacy and mourns the loss of his brother Mmadu Biosah aka Money Du. Maxo likes to “paint scenes” and he has a gift for transporting the listener with his words. Whether it’s the rags to riches anthem “Local Joker,” the examination of his families relationship to money and trauma “MAMA’S PURSE,” or the heartbreaking true story of his brother’s death on “TRIPS” he brings smooth swagger and pensive depth to every song. Maxo has a “big persona” and you can really feel it come through the music as he consistently brings his unique warmth, wisdom and charism to the mic every time.
Even back on his debut EP Blisters in 2016, serpentwithfeet showed that he was a once in generation vocal talent. Just listen to the Baby Keem song “Scapegoats” which samples serpent’s song “Redemption” and his pitched up voice could be mistaken for Nina Simone. On his second full length album he embraces his religious upbringing and dons the title of DEACON. He brings southern sweetness and hymn like harmonies with beautiful odes to black male love, yearning professions of desire and smooth, sensual serenades. Though he cherishes his love a superstitious paranoia still exists as he examines whether relationships last, adding a haunting dark side to the album that is ultimately countered with light. The album ends with one of my favorite songs of the year “Fellowship” a sweet a loving celebration with the relatable lyrics, “I’m grateful for the love I share with my friends.” It’s always a spiritual experience listening to serpent so it’s only fitting that he should take on this holy role of DEACON on this divine album.
One of the most unexpected and engaging projects this year comes from Dublin poet and producer David Balfe under the name For Those I Love. After losing his best friend, Paul Curran, Balfe’s grief manifested partly as a creative outpouring with him writing 76 songs, as he states on the album ”5 songs a day for 2 summers.” The result is 9 tracks that feature intricate electronic compositions outfitted with samples and actual audio of Paul and David, all this as a canvas for Balfe’s spoken-word professions of love and loss. With bass and drums and synths he lays the bricks of the buildings and the stones of the streets in the place that he and his friend inhabited together, fully immersing the listener in his world. This album is unfathomably as catchy and enjoyable as it is devastating and contemplative. Balfe reflects on his childhood and the loss of innocence that comes with adulthood, but overall he captures a journey of grief and acceptance. I became obsessed with this album early in the year and by some strange serendipity lost a friend myself this summer. I’ve never felt an album take on such a pronounced shift in relevance as this one and it served what I consider to be music’s most sacred function, to make the listener feel like they aren’t alone in what they’re going through.
Similar to serpentwithfeet Katy Kirby grew up is a southern religious environment and eventually broke away. She chronicles this transition into adulthood in the secular world with a finely crafted orchestrated indie-rock masterpiece, Cool Dry Place. Though it’s her debut Katie comes out the gate with a distinct sound that sets her apart, it’s rock singer-songwriter injected with southern soulful emotion. Whether its writhing guitar grooves backed by swelling horns or songs that start unassumingly simple only to build into unexpected anthemic moments of orchestrated rock glory, this album has depth and beauty met with grit and groove. This is an incredibly promising debut from one of the best new songwriters on the scene.
When Detroit hip hop titan Danny Brown met Bruiser Wolf he told him that he was an instrument, referring to his one-of-a-kind voice and vocal style. On his debut album we get to hear that instrument in all it’s glory and witness the birth of one of Detroit’s greatest new talents. It’s not only Wolf’s voice that sets him apart, his writing brings lightness and humor to heavy situations yet doesn’t shy away from vulnerability and emotional introspection. He can have you laughing or admiring his wordplay with one lyric, then pack an emotional punch with the next. Producer Raphy delivers incredible production throughout with sunny hooks and infectious grooves infused with jazzy samples and woozy instrumentals that perfectly supplement Wolf’s style and personality. Bruiser Wolf is one bold voice in a collective of talented Detroit artists putting music out as part of Danny Brown’s Bruiser Brigade Records. As a Michigan music-head I’m super excited to witness this vibrant music scene deliver such quality content in my own backyard.