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Our Favorite Songs of April 2021

. 17 min read
Our Favorite Songs of April 2021

Every month, our Music contributors write about the songs that stuck with them during the most recent lunar cycle. From now on, we'll post these on the first Friday of every month, when Bandcamp forfeits its revenue share to artists and labels. Of course, these lists are by no means exhaustive, so check our Twitter thread—and those of other publications, music writers and musicians you follow—for more Bandcamp Day selections.

This month's round-up is a behemoth that our editors wrestled into submission through sheer force of will. The blurbs were long, the hour was late, but nevertheless, we persisted.

The 16 tracks highlighted below range from nerdy fusion to homespun dance pop to rap to harsh noise to baby sounds, and (almost) everything in between.

Want to contribute to next month's list? See our call for submissions at the bottom of this post.

“Black Gold” is the theme song composed by Flying Lotus for the new Netflix anime Yasuke, created by LeSean Thomas and starring LaKeith Stanfield. FlyLo was more involved in the series than composers typically are: He worked closely as an executive producer alongside Thomas, composing the music chronologically as the show was developed and contributing ideas for some of the more ethereal aspects of the storyline, such as (I imagine) the scene where supernatural wunderkind Saki discovers her latent mystical powers as she fights an evil (and equally supernatural) Daimyō on the astral plane. In order to get into the headspace of the show, the producer-composer meditated on what it means to be an outsider—in Anime, in music, in life—and to discover one’s latent strength. (The creative process also involved “watching a lot of samurai movies, eating a lot of sushi, and getting bento boxes.”) “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness,” Thundercat sings in his trademark falsetto on the theme song for Yasuke, “Because I’m strong, you see / Stronger than you’ll ever be.” —Rapha Grumser

Buy the Yasuke soundtrack here.

Listening to Natural Information Society will put you in a trance. Increasingly, the group has drifted away from shorter songs, toward compositions that push an hour, digging deep into hypnotic repetition. Their bare-bones setup of minimal drum kit, harmonium, bass clarinet and guimbri creates a psychedelia that respires with elastic changes in tempo and subtle phase shifts; a living, shimmering thing that shrinks and grows before our very ears.

On descension (Out of Our Constrictions), we find NIS performing live at London’s Cafe OTO with free-improv legend Evan Parker sitting in on soprano saxophone. Parker finds all sorts of pockets in NIS’s groove for his chaotic, exploratory solos. His unhinged deluge of sax is an exciting foil to the rest of the instruments, especially to leader Josh Abrams’ equally nimble yet far more measured guimbri.

The result is ultimately rewarding. Parker is a legend and Abrams is one in the making. There are moments when NIS and their collaborator sound a little out of step, but this only serves to make their moments of unification all the more thrilling. When the applause hit after an hour and fifteen minutes of improvisational flexing that wrapped in a wink, I missed live music more than I have at almost any point in the past year. —Evan Lee

Buy descension (Out of Our Constrictions) here.

Welcome to Cooper Handy’s first studio album. Actually, The Music Industry Is Poisonous, out today via Dots Per Inch, will be Handy’s 11th bandcamp release under the Lucy moniker—the previous 10 include Cooper Handy’s Album Vols. I–VII—not to mention some collab records here and there, and (at least) five more as the lead singer of Taxidermists, (at least) two of which are titled Pool Party. But this new album, which was written and recorded months before COVID hit, is the first Lucy project touched by any hands other than Handy’s own. (Ipso facto, it’s also the first Lucy project not produced from soup to nuts on GarageBand.)

The “un-performatively earnest,” “DIY” spirit of Handy’s music has always been part of its charm, at least according to the few music writers who’ve given Lucy the time of day, most of whom are named Duncan Cooper. But TMIIP feels no less authentically Lucy than any of the artist’s previous works.

I won’t say much more about the album, as we’ve got a whole interview about it coming out next week on THIS VERY SITE, other than to briefly discuss the track at hand. I chose it because my favorite track on the album was released just hours ago and is thus disqualified from our April round-up; because after listening to both of the record’s lead singles dozens of times—first as an intrepid music journalist and then a slave to the algorithm—I am far less annoyed by “Lucky Stars” than I am by the clangorous repetition of “Rock, The;” and because, like all Lucy’s music, it’s very good. As an added bonus, its music video (embedded above this rant) is interactive, and I think that’s pretty cool.

I’ve almost managed to avoid any mention of the song’s musical properties in this blurb, but I’ll end by saying it’s piano chords are pretty in that cozy, welcoming way that’s become characteristic to Handy’s music; that the lyrics are deceptively simple and tragicomic—take the line “They don’t love me like I love me, it’s a shame” from the hook, for instance—the way they are on all his best tracks; and that you should acquaint yourself with Lucy’s discography over the weekend so I don’t need to explain it to you all over again on Monday. —Raphael Helfand

Buy The Music Industry is Poisonous here.

Connie Constance channels the punk powerhouse females who came before her (X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene comes to mind) and mixes their impenetrable energy with a fierce endurance to create “Electric Girl.” Hitting you with a whirlwind of force that lasts less than three minutes, Constance sings of seasonal depression, breaking society's norms and dancing without a care. She performs with such convincing vitality that our only option is to take on Electric Girl’s energy and jump around the room. —Martha Cleary

Buy "Electric Girl" here.

On “A.L.C.,” Dry Cleaning gives frontwoman Florence Shaw’s spoken word musings space to be fully heard. The backing track is slow and sparse: the drum beat and bassline act like a metronome while a scratchy guitar riff drops in and out to provide occasional punctuation. In instrumental absence, Shaw’s voice is front and center.

In the promotional materials for New Long Leg, Dry Cleaning’s debut LP, Shaw says “A.L.C.” is the only cut on the album whose lyrics she wrote in full after the onset of COVID. Thinking about this makes me chuckle. Lines like “You can’t just come into my garden” hit more literally during a lockdown.

Shaw seems tired. There are no good jobs and there is no one to go to the café with. All we have are scattered thoughts and old pants to fix. It takes a scrawny, impertinent track like “A.L.C.” to pull back life’s curtain and reveal that nothing is behind it. —Andrew Burton

Buy New Long Leg here.

Luca Yupanqui is a baby, and she made this album when she was still in her mother’s womb. If you know me, you know I don’t like to listen to music that’s for babies; I’m way too grown up for that kid stuff, sorry. But music that’s by a baby? OK, I’ll give it a shot.

This album would not have worked out if Yupanqui’s parents hadn’t been around to help her bring it into existence, but this is partly true of every album ever made. Then again, like the rest of the adult babies on music journo Twitter, I’ve grown skeptical of art made by anyone whose parents I’ve heard of—this excludes the music of Frankie Cosmos—and I’ve almost heard of Yupanqui’s parents. Her mother, Elizabeth Hart, plays bass in Psychic Ills, and her father, Iván Diaz Mathé, has dubbed with the likes of Lee “Scratch” Perry. Their cumulative clout, and the fact that Psychic Ills is signed to Sacred Bones (the label on which Sounds of the Unborn was released last month!) is a smoking gun. Yupanqui is the music industry’s youngest plant.

Even still, the album is an impressive achievement. It’s a record in its most literal sense, a sonic log of Yupanqui’s in-utero micro-movements during her parents’ intense meditation sessions, transcribed by the miracle of “biosonic MIDI technology,” through devices attached to Hart’s pregnant stomach, into sounds that mimic the core qualities of percussion, bass, and solo instruments. This final step was facilitated by Diaz Mathé’s evidently impressive synth collection. In other words, Hart was the studio, Yupanqui was the composer, Diaz Mathé was the conductor and the machines were the musicians. Or, to put things more simply and bring them back to the present—where we sit in rapture as these preconscious decibels flood our ear canals—Yupanqui is the message and her parents are the medium.

Did Yupanqui make the album, as her insidious PR machine would have you believe, since her movements generated the chain reaction that brought these ‘songs’ to life? Did her parents make the album, since they created the conditions that made this chain reaction possible? Did the album make itself, since its end result was not determined by a conscious brain? All these philosophical questions fade away as we sink deeper and deeper into the seething drones that blanket Sounds of the Unborn, giving the album a sense of menace that does not evoke birth so much as its opposite. There are also moments of eerie hope and segments that would do well at a German techno club suspended in aspic. Some parts sound suspiciously composed, but I’ll keep my cynicism at bay for now to avoid going down another rabbit hole.

As a grown man with bills to pay, I have little in common with a spoiled infant born with a silver microphone next to her mouth. I can’t say that the album has provided me with answers to the fundamental questions of existence, or even granted me a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be a fetus, but I can say that Sounds of the Unborn has given me a sonic experience as transcendent as any I’ve had in the past year. —RH

Buy Sounds of the Unborn here.

Another contender for top transcendent sound experience of ‘20-’21 is Claire Rousay’s A Softer Focus. Rousay, who has mainly dealt in textures as a sound artist, has now added harmony and melody to her oeuvre, seemingly from nowhere. Already, she’s proved herself more than capable of using these additional elements to enhance her timbral microcosms. Surprising as this vivid rush of color may be in Rousay’s previously grayscale sonic universe, it’s incorporated smoothly enough into the record’s fabric that nothing in the first 10 minutes feels particularly jarring. That all changes halfway through track 3, “peak chroma,” when her singing voice emerges, wrapped in a gauzy gown of autotune that seems so entirely foreign to everything she’s done before it that my jaw actually dropped on first listen. Even this development, though, is achieved carefully, through a gradual build.

The track begins with a staticky organ drone that blossoms ever so slowly: new textures and tones are ushered in single file, then two-at-a-time, but never all at once. Rousay’s speaking voice flits in and out, slightly but noticeably altered, so that even the autotuned singing is not a complete surprise. Still, its introduction is given room to breath in the mix; Rousay knows it’s a special moment.

Around the 7:30 mark, the track dissolves into fragments of conversation, the voices still distorted by the autotune’s fallout. They seem to be discussing online profiles—dating apps, perhaps, or maybe applications to artist residency programs—but the content of the chatter becomes secondary to the textures the voices create alongside the scraping chairs and other room noises Rousay throws in. As the track powers down, we’re back on her home turf. —RH

Buy A Softer Focus here.

Across the music industry there are artists reinventing themselves and their sound. Some are driven by exploration and discovery, others by a need to stay relevant or break barriers. Angel Olsen–poised to release a new box set called Song of the Lark and Other Far Memories—is not living in the past, but neither is she rushing towards the future. Alive and Dying (Waving, Smiling) is the latest offering from this collection and sees the singer-songwriter reworking the original “Waving, Smiling” in a new arrangement that features an 11-piece orchestra, a backdrop more akin to the lush tracks on All Mirrors than the stripped-down songs of its addendum, Whole New Mess. The result is a heavenly take on the haunting acoustic version, as dreamy and hopeful as it is bittersweet and heartbreaking. Maybe it’s Olsen’s weary delivery or simply the fact that the track was initially released in the midst of 2020’s lockdown, but the palpable sense of exhaustion on “Alive and Dying (Waving, Smiling)” is one that echoes so much of the past year. —MC

“Vento de Beirada,” the title track from Dora Morelenbaum’s latest EP, is a ballad built on the number three: three lines to a verse (two halting clauses followed by a lengthy phrasal resolution), three discernable sections (two verses followed by a modulation overtaken by a sultry bass-clarinet solo), three minutes and three seconds (to a track which is the third of a three-song EP).

Somewhere in the fragmentary, fractal sequence that is “Vento de Beirada,” Morelenbaum sings, “if it is to be / let it be something more easily understood”; elsewhere, “for me, a ‘yes’ / doesn’t signify the end”; and finally, “this is how it was / the day I threw myself for the first time.”

The lyrics to “Vento de Beirada are tri-biguous, creating an esoteric lure using simple, everyday Portuguese language. Is Morelenbaum singing about throwing herself off a cliff? Throwing herself into love? Into the Lispectorian substratum of existence? I am left with my questions when suddenly the lyrics end and the composition (and I along with it) is cast into a sea of bass-clarinet flanked by lush synthesis. Plunged into the disorienting depths of instrumental overload, I search breathlessly for sunken meanings, signs, connections. I begin to see in threes. I remember Jorge Ben’s fascination with the Emerald Tablet, and the tablet’s purported author, Hermes Trismegistus (or Hermes, the thrice-great), who wrote, “as above, so below.” I resurface. —RG

Stream and purchase Vento de Beirada here.

What’s the straightest thing you can think of? I would personally nominate Mission:Impossible-3 for its pantheon of sexless, hetero-psycho, bush-era, wife-guy snuff. JJ Abrams’ thesis, if you’re one to believe him, is that Impossible Mission Force agents don’t dance. This is stupid.

I’m not really one for franchise subversion—I prefer the smooth, friction-less mirage of prime-era Bond to Daniel Craig getting his balls slapped through a wicker chair—so the greatest sin of M:I-3 is that it directly follows John Woo’s M:I-2. Woo, in full-on Self-Reference Mode, birds and all, proves that IMF agents do, in fact, dance. This is dumb.

Let’s divide: Stupidity is a quality interpreted by the mind. Dumbness is a quality interpreted by the body.

When I first heard this remix, I thought “This is Mission: Impossible music.” Mute this video. Notice where your mind fills in the sound. Now play the remix under it. Note the musicality of Woo’s edit. It’s not just that the sound and image sync up well; finding sync points is unavoidable. It’s that they both respond to the ebb and flow of your attention span, building peaks and valleys, negotiating. The content, both visual and sonic, is dumb; it’s cool. Combined, they pull you out of your intellectual processes and into your bodily ones. It just works.

What I see in common between these two is what Michel Chion would call “temporal vectorization”. Sounds, in general, have a narrative in and of themselves. This narrative has a name: ASDR (Attack, Sustain, Decay, Release), or the sound envelope. Think of it this way: In the space of a film, a scene played forwards then backwards would set you back at the moment the scene started, since images operate untethered from time. But a sound played forwards then backwards cannot create this sense of time travel, because sound’s medium is time.

Here, however, music begins to engage with the pure cinematic space of film. Rather than gratifying the sense of anticipation that comes when a character walks to meet the screen, or a musical phrase rises to meet another musical phrase, Woo and BOM92 confound the temporalization vector. A kaleidoscopic sense of time emerges. Because rhythm is the first narrative people become familiar with, the subversion of our rhythmic impulses is one of the most pleasurable experiences art has to offer. To quote Chion again, it’s a “trans-sensory experience,” unconfined to one specific sensory perception. In other words, it’s a dumb, bodily sensation.

John Woo famously exhausted his crew during the filming of Hard Boiled by doing up to 8 (!!) setups, or camera placements, for each scene. We see a similar tactic at work when we watch the motorcycle chase from M:I-2—rapid cuts, an array of angles and perspectives, a roving camera. Rather than engaging in elliptical editing, Woo elongates the action, emphasizing the energy of each sequence.

Just listen to the original version of “Gasolina”. Its skipping rhythm and sonidera accordions are anchored by a traditional musical narrative. The lyrical content, finite and oriented irreversibly forward in time, is temporally vectorized. DJ BOM92 recasts Moa Pillar and Uzhok’s track as a kaleidoscopic piece of club music. A good example of this editing style falls from 2:39–2:50. Used here, the vocal melody is less a bridge than a wide shot, revealing what is constantly hinted at over the course of the remix. Its abrupt entrance and unsteady duration speak to a sensation of simultaneity, as if another piece of music has accidentally broken into the song you are listening to. It’s one of the few breaks in the barrage of micro-edits, each of which heightens, stretches and tangles the kineticism of the track. BOM92 evokes chaos through precision.

If the images and edits in Woo’s film suggest sound, then DJ BOMB92’s “Gasolina” remix suggests movement. This remix is Mission: Impossible music, and not only because it’s a call-back to early-aughts techno culture. More importantly, it satisfies the fantasy of sound implied by Woo’s M:I-2 edit. It is sympathetic to a narrative in which Attack, Sustain, Decay and Release balance weightlessly, kaleidoscopically free from time. —Justin Enoch

Buy Gasolina (the original track and three of its remixes, including DJBOM92’s) here.

Analysing the complications that come with being human, Rebecca Lucy Taylor (Self Esteem) alternates between self-criticism and words of reassurance in her spoken-word verses. “Stop trying to have so many friends / Don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have / Don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun / Prioritise pleasure,Taylor says as a powerful string arrangement builds behind her soulful, layered vocals. The self-directed music video finds her speaking to and hugging herself, reminding the listener that this track, riddled as it is with reminders of the darker side of human nature, is ultimately about self-love and self-preservation. —MC

Stream and purchase "I Do This All The Time" here.

Maybe I’ve totally lost it, but I’m going to call Black Crows Cyborg, the first collaboration between Prurient and Merzbow subtle. Rather than go for the all-out assault one might expect, the pair slowly construct a detailed, knotty mess of electronics and pure dread. This track (and the album, in general) is a rare instance in which the god Merzbow doesnt completely overpower his collaborator; the talents of each artist shine through. There’s room for two on this little slab of hell, and boy is it grim. “City Barbarism Melancholy” is the sound of a worn-down industrial world clanking along, wheezing into a slow death. Like their best individual freak-outs, Prurient and Merzbow’s unholy meeting is a wicked psychedelia, finding common ground in dissociative hallucination. —EL

Buy Black Crows Cyborg here.

Most great artists in any medium are clever, insightful people who are self-aware enough to take even their own work with a pinch of sulfur. But the converse of this statement is generally false. Contrary to what most arts critics and culture industry leeches like myself would have you believe, there are many more smart and funny people in the world than there are great artists.

Ryley Walker is an excellent musician who is not only funny and insightful but also GOOD ON TWITTER. What’s more, he seems like a genuinely sweet guy who speaks openly about his mental health struggles without making it all about him like most of us headcases do. I’m always pleased when I listen to his instrumental work or find him playing on the tracks of my favorite Drag City stalwarts, and his plain-spoken yet subtle mid-western aesthetic appeals to me. But somehow, I’ve never been able to connect with his singer-songwriter stuff. His voice, through no fault of his own, tends to get on my nerves after a while, and his straight-ahead lyrics sometimes lack the nuances that make his tweets so good.

Enter Course in Fable, the first Walker-as-frontman project I can full-throatedly support. Not every track on the record grabbed me on first listen, but they all have something interesting to offer, and they are greatly benefitted by the playing of Bill MacKay, whose gentle guitar licks perfectly complement Walker’s rawer riffs. And “Axis Bent,” which at Track 4 of 7 is the album’s literal centerpiece, is a pure triumph. From its first note: an F# harmonic that hangs around the arpeggiated E major chord it precedes like a friendly ghost, to its last: a minor 7th tone that never resolves, preferring to hang instead in the reverby plasma from whence the following track emerges, it’s an absolute bop. Over understated drums and a firm yet tactful bass, Walker and MacKay’s guitars make sweet love. This sonic boudoir is the perfect setting for Walker’s soft, unassuming voice to come into its own. If you’re still not sure whether this track is the one, look no further than its opening lyric, THE TITLE OF THE DANG ALBUM! All my true followers know that I love when artists say their album titles in non-chorus moments on non-title tracks. If you don’t feel the same way, I don’t want to know you.

The latter half of “Axis Bent” mostly consists of a 90-second breakdown that melts from Jimmy Page-style pedal-point onanism into off-key mouth trumpet over rhythmic dysentery, which in turn disintegrates into half a minute of other miscellaneous mouth noises, prurient guitar screeches and percussion panic. In other words, it’s a perfect tract, and it somehow makes all the sense in the world when it shifts abruptly back to square one and returns to its tidy intro to ride out its final seconds. —RH

Buy Course In Fable here.

Among the new voices coming out from Mexico City, there is Tessa Ia, an actress and singer who sprung onto the scene in 2016 with her debut album, Correspondencia. On April 30, she dropped Naïf, a three-track EP that opens with “Yo no canto” (“I don’t sing”), a playful reflection on the frustrations of songwriting. “I don’t sing, I share my food / verses that I don’t sing / but can help / if one day you shout in the rain / and they make you feel safe,” she sings in Spanish. Equally important to the songs are her music videos, which range from colorful cinematic productions that blend the music with her acting, to minimalistic clips (sometimes in black and white, reminiscent of Francoise Hardy’s early videos) in which she stares at the camera and sings. Naïf captures an immature yet serious view of the world: what matters is to write a truthful verse, with or without rhyme. —Guillermo Manning

Stream and purchase Naïf here.

This song speaks for itself in the quiet way all MIKE’s tracks do. It’s more proof (if you still needed any) that MIKE (born Michael Jordan Bonema) is the best rapper of our generation, edging out even his close competitor and frequent collaborator Earl by virtue of his consistency, his complete indifference to clout, and his location (NY > L.A. always). His streak of AOTY contenders—from 2017 to present—is unmatched, and if “Evil Eye” is any indication, we’ll have another one when Disco! drops in June.

Over a silky John Lee and Gerry Brown sample from 1976, transformed by DJ Blackpower’s alchemy so that “see the light” becomes the new track’s titular phrase, Bonema raps methodically, taking great care to enunciate every syllable. But because his stream of internal rhymes and brilliant wordplay is so steady—he barely pauses to breathe, and even his setups are better than most rappers’ best punchlines—it takes multiple listens to absorb everything he says. In 16 bars, his fragmented scenes create a better impression of his youth and his family life than most memoirists could paint in 16 pages. He finishes by paying homage to his mother, who passed away last year, in a repeated four-bar refrain whose final lyrics echo long after the two-minute track comes to a close: “It’s for my momma when I make raps dummy, when I pray / Because I know she gonna gonna pray back for me.”

Look out for a pre-order link for Disco!, out June 21 via 10k.

There’s nothing specific that I can say that hasn’t been said better in this video's caption. If you have the time, explore the work of Norman W Long (and alter-ego eXU-9). Instead, here’s a cut-up reflecting on the wonderful poetry of the HiFI sound industry, a direct response to Long’s note that “Black Space in Winter” was created with “ affordable handheld devices.” —JE

Buy Black Space in Winter here.

*Thumbnail graphic created by Jda Gayle

**The Spotify playlist (which we include reluctantly) does not include "Black Space in Winter" by Norman W Long because the song isn't on that platform. As indicated above, it is available to stream and purchase on bandcamp.