Happy New Year Stereogum readers! We’re staring down some crazy times, but we’re happy to be doing so with you all by our side. Over the course of the holiday season, a lot of excellent music was released; here are five of our faves.
A bubble can be the best way to describe being in a relationship. No one gazing in from outside of what you and your partner share knows exactly what goes on between you two. The small, wordless communications that register loudly, sometimes even without each other’s knowledge. The feeling that all the love, affection, and energy in a room has been vacuumed into a space only you two can inhabit. But oh, if that bubble bursts, it can be like taking a hammer to the spacesuit helmet that helped you float above Earth, high on infatuation.
Dave Longstreth wields the power and devastation of that hammer with a smooth, delicate touch on “Little Bubble.” The beautiful mixture of silky R&B vibes, electro rumble, and atmospheric blips soothe the piercing melancholia of lines like “Dreams are dumb and meaningless/ Like the days they refract/ But are dull, empty, and sad/ I wanna sleep with no dreams/I want to be dead.” But the aesthetic also preserves the beauty of still being alive to overcome the depression and find happiness, or even go through another bout of depression and bounce back again if that attempt fails, too. Bubbles burst; that’s what they do. That doesn’t mean you don’t have the breath to create another one.–Collin
As Yowler, Maryn Jones took the personal and made it fantastical and bleak; with All Dogs, she took intimacy and made it radical and invigorating. On “The Light,” the first of some older songs that Jones is planning to release through the year, the Philly-based musician lets the simplest sentiments float with significant weight. “The Light” is the dust you see in the air when you shake out the sheets, the remnants of calm that make the harder times worth it. It’s a song about the stillness that one feels waking up in the arms of someone you love, and Jones is economical and plain in her phrasing: “I just can’t let go/ I don’t want to know what it’s like without you making me smile,” she sings in the opening lines. It’s nakedly sentimental and gooey, and Jones is aware that expressing these emotions verbally is both intensely vulnerable and immensely satisfying: “I like thinking when I fall asleep about you laying next to me/ Yeah, I know that’s embarassing/ But if I’m feeling it, then it needs telling.” And that’s a good way of summing up what makes Jones so affecting as a songwriter: she puts truth to words, encapsulates these small wonders in exactly the right tiny packages they deserve. “The Light” is a snapshot in time, a feeling of warmth and happiness and security that may not last, but for the moment that it’s there, it feels like something you’ll never want to live without. –James
Any number of tracks from Jeremih and Chance The Rapper’s surprise Christmas mixtape could have cracked this list: the swaggering, funny, “Jingle Bells”-tweaking “All The Way”; the Jackson 5-interpolating “Stranger At The Table”; the brisk yet low-key title track “Merry Christmas Lil Mama.” On a different day, maybe they would have. Right now, as I stare out my window at a blanket of white, “Snowed In” is tops. It’s one of those thematic R&B flirtations R. Kelly has long specialized in (no surprise given that these two jumped on a track with their Chicago elder last Christmas). In this case that means a slow jam about staying in during a blizzard, replete with references to pulling up in a sleigh and having a silent night. And while it’s cute to hear Jeremih sing about Santa’s list, what sticks with me are a creeping groove, lithe processed melodies, and abundant flashes of regular-folks humanity. Jeremih envisions cooking up Hamburger Helper. Chance jokes about how all his exes say the same things about him. Both fantasize about curling up under blankets with a lover on a frigid night. The cumulative effect is a snowglobe diorama with much more than just a gimmick swirling inside. –Chris
I want to take every Grouper release and wrap it around myself like a fleece blanket. Liz Harris makes winter music; the stuff of substance that seeps in with a storm and stays there. “Headache” was released on the solstice, and it initiates with a few low, plodding notes that grow bigger and more layered as they’re joined by Harris’ voice. Her lyrics are near-indecipherable at times, a perfect case study for that whole “the voice is an instrument” cliche. “Headache” feels like the intimate, quiet moment before you’re fully awake; it’s the sound of someone nudging you out of a dream. –Gabriela
I could’ve chosen to write about “Down,” or “Call Ticketron,” or “Hey Kids (Bumaye),” or “Hey Mama,” or “A Report To The Shareholders/Kill Your Masters,” or virtually anything off of RTJ3. While the standouts on RTJ and RTJ2 kicked you right in the teeth and forced you to take notice, RTJ3 is a subtler beast. There’s still plenty of shit-talking and flexing and fiery agitprop to go around, but the moments that hit hardest are actually the most intimate ones — the moments of personal contemplation and sorrow, the moments that let us see the mere mortals behind the comic book heroes that El-P and Killer Mike have become.
“Thursday In The Danger Room” is the best of those, an elegiac reckoning with death that serves as the album’s emotional centerpiece. But because this is RTJ we’re talking about, that elegiac reckoning with death still fucking goes. El-P’s production is a dense cloud of buzzing robo-synths that alternately pulverize and smolder, swirling around Kamasi Washington’s mournful sax to weave a rich tapestry of moody atmospherics. “I guess I say you left too soon/ But the truth is that you never left,” El and Mike intone on the chorus. “‘Cause I never let myself forget.” By the time the closing track rolls around, they’re back to the fire and brimstone, but we haven’t forgotten the pain. –Peter