When I was about thirteen, I wrote the Rilke quote, “a piece of art is good if it is born of necessity” on a Post-It note and stuck it above my bed. It remains there as I write this, flanked by an Andrew Wyeth postcard and a crude illustration of Phoebe Bridgers cut from the margins of my tenth-grade Spanish notes. The quote is both a source of comfort and a source of anxiety for me. I often interrogate the extent to which my art is necessary, and it is difficult to come up with a concrete assessment. Is this necessary for me, for my own healing? Is it necessary for others and their healing? Is it causing harm? Is it mending harm? Am I saying something that has not yet been said in this way, at this time? Sometimes you cannot answer these questions until your art has been released into another person’s world.
2020 was a year full of music that felt vital, music that felt like release, like worship, like exorcism. Below are some thoughts about the short-form projects that I feel most grateful got released into our world. I hope that you find comfort in some of this music, that it challenges and excites you, that you see slivers of yourself scattered across the melodies like sycamore seeds over wind.
Ache of Victory (Zsela) Zsela’s “Drinking” unleashes a specific type of emotional devastation that I don’t think I’ve experienced since FKA Twigs released “Cellophane.” Her repetition of the refrain “I’ve been drinking again,” warping the words and drawing them out into quiet howls, demands attention. When she concludes the song on a half-sentence, “I’ve been losing all my,” I realize that I have not yet exhaled. Ache of Victory is a record with breadth and attention, the gorgeous twisting with the devastating, characterized perfectly by the first word of the title. Achingly beautiful, achingly destructive, simply aching. When Zsela sings “I went and found the beauty for you” on “For Now,” it feels like a mission statement.
Apparition EP (serpentwithfeet) The first staccato inflections of “A Comma,” the bewitching opener to serpentwithfeet’s Apparition EP, strike like needles to the spine. Perhaps it is clichéd to liken a song to a spell, but this phrasing is the only concrete way in which I am able to make sense of what Joshua Wise achieves. His voice beckons and recedes, catching on the refrain “life’s gotta get easier / can’t carry a heavy heart into the next year.” At only eight minutes and eleven seconds long, Apparition EP is both perfectly constructed and entirely self-contained. It is a stunning collection of songs anchored by one of the most enthralling voices in independent music, Wise’s intonations lofting and subsiding like fragments of sea foam caught under moon.
Collection 1 (Aja Newsome) I don’t think that I really appreciated the skill it takes to create comfort in art until this year. I found it under bridges on HBO’s Betty, along rivulets in Wolfwalkers, and rendered gently across a fretboard on Aja Newsome’s Collection 1. I first became familiar with Newsome’s work through their guitar covers on Twitter. Watching them hone their craft makes me want to be a better guitarist and a more thoughtful artist. Not only is Newsome’s knowledge of the instrument prolific, but she has such a defined and unique style in her approach that weaves through all of her work. Collection 1 is comprised of four guitar covers, but the word “cover” feels insufficient in describing what Newsome accomplishes on the EP. Frank Ocean’s “White Ferrari” is a forever song for me, but hearing it through Newsome’s ears elicits a completely fresh emotional response. They reference the transitional tenderness of the original while adding new textures and dynamics. Newsome is an artist who makes me excited about music, and they have given listeners a profound gift this year.
DIOBU (Asuquomo) Morris Ogbowu of Asuquomo is a wildly skillful and dynamic vocalist, and his virtuosity as a singer informs the range of approaches used to tell the stories of which DIOBU comprises. From the longing call that opens “YAHWEH” to the rhythmic stream of prose that characterizes “NEVER DIE,” Ogbowu is both surprising and cohesive in the body of work that he collects on this release. The songs are grounded by deft percussion and first-person narratives, culminating in the gorgeous closer, “WATERSIDE,” a song that sweeps you up and fills you with awe at the skill, precision, and heart that Asuquomo epitomizes.
Dreamland Demos (Senseless Optimism) Through narrating the mundane with such pithy observation, Brittany Tsewole of Senseless Optimism develops wonder and humor from experiences that seem ubiquitous. Her voice stretches and warps over deceptively simple phrases, using first-person present to construct familiar dioramas that capture me as a listener with their sheer specificity. The dream logic that Tsewole employs throughout the record hits at truths that both cut and crystallize. A standout, “Self Medicate,” opens with the line “I need therapy, so I take psychedelics,” and I love it so fully because Tsewole humorously addresses an uncomfortable truth without obscuring it. She is a brilliant songwriter and producer, and I am so stoked to follow her vision into 2021.
Drop 6 (Little Simz) From the very first bar of “might bang, might not” to the vocalizations that close “where’s my lighter,” Simbi Ajikawo of Little Simz brings an energy and urgency to her delivery that feels infectious. Her use of rhythm exhibits both her relentless creativity and ability to make language dance, letting her rhymes pirouette and dive with the kind of effortlessness you know must belie the utmost skill. Drop 6 is an invigorating record full of indelible hooks and thoughtful bravado from an already-prolific musician and writer.
Golden Age of Television (a mess.) The guitar and ukulele strums that characterize the gentle world a mess. constructs on their debut EP have provided me a profound comfort this year. Golden Age of Television is gorgeously produced, the central narratives rendered transportive through the intersection of thoughtful lyricism and thoughtful instrumentation. The melodies penned by Hannah Boundy and Sara Liebl waft over me upon every listen, distantly familiar, like songs overheard in a dream.
Greenhouse (Miloe) Greenhouses trap the warmth in. While I cannot speak to the specific reasons why Bobby Kabeya of Miloe chose this title for his second EP, it feels immensely appropriate to what he achieves as a writer and performer. He captures feelings of deep pain on songs like “Greenhouse” and “Marna,” but one of the many remarkable facets of his artistry is the way he still recognizes the warmth within these experiences– through sparkling guitars and synth sounds, through measured snares, through his own soaring vocals. Greenhouse explores healing and painful questions of identity with an earnest smile. Miloe is neither covering up his hurt with fake happiness nor spiraling into dour reflection; he just sings his truths in the truest way he can. He traps the warmth in.
Honesty Hour (Allergen) Honesty Hour is a uniquely empathetic record, stitching together mundane observation and extraordinary emotion through Shannon Maroney’s incisive lyricism and Eve Speers’ precise guitar riffs. The project reaches one of many highs on the third track, “Dream,” when a metronome drum joins with a mellow guitar line to embrace a moment of fierce internal reflection (“I wear my heart on my sleeve / to remind me it still beats” is one of my favorite lines from 2020). Allergen has the ability to come right up to a breaking point, dip its toes in, and then retreat until the exact right moment. That moment, no matter the context and no matter the song, feels like free fall.
in earnest (s/t) “Personal” by Stars is one of the songs that got me into songwriting, and I felt the legacy of that lyricism reflected in this debut. Dialogue in music is difficult to pull off, and in earnest’s approach is so subtle that it took me multiple listens to start grasping the interplay between the songs themselves. Rather than trading verses in the classical sense, vocalists Sarah Holburn and Thomas Eatherton develop a body of work that is reflexive, capturing a multiplicity of experiences rather than trying to consolidate them. It is truly captivating work anchored by introspective and deeply-felt lyricism.
Papercut (Blue Venus) From the center of a raucous storm on the third track from Blue Venus’ debut EP, vocalist Sagal Abyan unleashes one of my favorite lyrics of the year: “they don’t respect me so I / put ’em on blast in my song.” Papercut is an EP vibrating with energy and intelligence, and it makes me deeply regret only listening to Blue Venus for the first time this year because I just know these songs would demolish live. Progressing from the forked riff that opens “White and Rich” to a dialogue between crashing drums and Abyan’s screams on “First Gen,” Papercut is an intentionally sequenced record, constantly shifting into something more exciting, more novel, more acute.
pop songs 2020 (bumper) When I first heard the wayward synth swing to the front of the production on BUMPER’s infectious opening track, I felt dizzy. I am a long devotee of Michelle Zauner’s searching rock under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, but was previously unfamiliar with Ryan Galloway’s work. Collaborating on pop songs 2020, they construct a collection of songs that are distinct in their perspective and appropriate to the climate under which they were recorded. Despite representing a shift in tone, “Ballad 0” was a standout for me, cautious and distant like an Emily Haines ballad, its skeletal production providing space for Zauner’s voice to soar.
Projections (Tomberlin) Only one record this year took the time to ask the essential question, “boyfriends, what are boyfriends?,” and for that, I am obligated to include Projections on this list. Since At Weddings, Sarah Beth Tomberlin has acuminated her approach to songwriting and crafted some of the most resonant lyrics of the year. There is an exquisite balance struck on this record, wherein they write sharp lines but choose to deliver them gently. Tomberlin’s candor and empathy in their own writing extend to their cover of Casiotone’s “Natural Light,” an interpretation that completely shifted and stretched my understanding of the song.
Rosetta (Dua Saleh) Dua Saleh is a singular writer and performer, and I feel so lucky to be alive at the same time as them. They leap from world to world with quick turns of phrase on the infectious “cat scratch,” constructing and deconstructing pop hooks on “umbrellar,” inviting listeners toward a soaring in-between space on “windhymn.” Rosetta seems to be an exploration of queerness and queer archetypes composed without judgment despite the magnitude of the figures Saleh calls upon, invoking Sister Rosetta Tharpe through the title and stark Christian dichotomies on “hellbound.” Saleh’s sense of humor belies the weight of Rosetta‘s subject matter on surface listens, and his ability to balance tone and musical approach is not only virtuosic but perfectly in service to the thesis of the record.
Sensitive (Serena Isioma) I don’t know how to even begin to capture how vibrant this project is in words. The grooves and emotions explored are wide-ranging but rendered in such a way that the record feels cohesive, the songs leading into one another generously. Isioma is such a dynamic writer and performer, and an artist who I am desperate to see perform live. She approaches these stories with both humor and intensity, sometimes involving the two in dialogue. Her biggest hit to date is the title track, an unassailable song that I do not think I will ever get sick of listening to, but the infectiousness of “Sensitive” in no way overshadows the quality and care put into every other track on the record. It is painstakingly consistent, a labor of love, and one of the first records of 2020 that I think of when I think “necessary.” Necessity in art is difficult both to quantify and to qualify, but I know it when I hear it, and it drips from every second of Sensitive.
Skullcrusher s/t There are certain words that draw me in as song openers. “And” is one; it evokes the continuation of a conversation with a close friend. “You” is another. As Skullcrusher’s Helen Ballentine beckons listeners into the tranquil world of “Places/Plans” with the line “you told me your friend’s in love / with a guy she looks up to,” I want so badly to live within the restrained sweep of the composition. Yes, it is melancholy, but it is also introspective and organic, earnest while retaining self-awareness. Skullcrusher is a record to soak in, evoking the feeling of leaning your face toward the surface of a bath, watching your body reflecting and warping across the ripples of the water, coming further and closer and further away.
Songs to Yeet At The Sun (Soul Glo) I knew this would be one of my favorite records of the year the second I heard Pierce Jordan’s opening scream on “(Quietly) Do the Right Thing.” Sometimes when your anticipation of a project is super high you worry that the final product will not deliver, but I never feel even an inkling of this doubt with Soul Glo. They remind me of why I got into hardcore and why this musical style can be so exciting despite the myriad of bands that disgrace its ethos under the guise of revolutionary ideology (I am reminded of this Blue Venus tweet). The record is thrashing and relentless, meditative at the highest decibel. It is also one that begs unpacking and careful examination of the lyricism. The line, “it comes to mind there was a few times I wanted to admonish you / when I felt provoked by the words you spoke in real time like they weren’t first mine” from “Quietly” is so succinct in its observation and a reminder of the care that permeates all of Soul Glo’s work.
SOUTHPAW (Ivy Sole) Ivy Sole knows how to construct a punchline. They rap with cool frankness (“she would let me if I ask / that ain’t a flex, it’s just a statement of fact”), quick and discerning in the boxing ring. I saw Tenet a few days ago, and my favorite thing about the film was John David Washington’s jabs. He jabs people in the throat, the stomach, with a cheese grater. There is a lightness to his fighting, an aloof intelligence. The way that he moves in the film reminded me of the way that Sole writes, raps, and produces. They know it is not just brute force that wins the match; it is intelligence, it is judgment, it is speed. The beats and instrumentation that frame their lyricism are often restrained, at times ebullient and at times minimal, but always centering storytelling and the indomitable power that is Ivy Sole.
Summer (Bymaddz) In five minutes and fifty seconds, Bymaddz architects one of the most mesmerizing musical projects of the year. She has a marvelous, ethereal voice that enthralls at the center of these songs while wafting in harmonic layers in the background of the production. The guitar compositions on Summer are equally gorgeous, honeyed triads conversing with one another, less of a support to Bymaddz’ voice and more of an anchor. This is both a lovely record and a heart-rending one. Listening to it reminds me of the diagrams I memorized when I studied waves in Physics, the image of a wave of light diffracting through a single slit, not unlike Bymaddz building her voice around itself, a heavenly choir of one.
…They‘ll Say I’m Talking (Ruth Orhiunu) …They’ll Say I’m Talking is a record that crept up on me. These five songs are often centered around short phrases, phrases that have been circling through my mind in a lyrical carousel since I first heard them. Orhiunu delivers them in ways that sometimes feel hypnotic, and the more I listened, the more I noticed small shifts, tiny changes in inflection or cadence, differences in the ways the production embraced her words. Orhiunu’s voice is alluring and doleful, seasoning love songs with the unspoken knowledge that forever does not exist. …They’ll Say I’m Talking is an EP consumed with the tenderness and acidity of the now.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time out of your day to read the first feature from Headlight Spirits. I appreciate you and look forward to listening with you for as long as this project feels necessary.