When we started the “Best of Summer” series last year, none of us expected that we would still have a hanging shadow of the pandemic looming over us. If anything, this series was created as a defense against the social brain rot brought out by constant screen interfacing and self-isolation. If there is one entity that can foster genuine connection without the need for physical immediacy, it’s music. With that in mind, here we are, one year later, still reeling from the effects of this separation but with possible hope on the horizon. As artists return to recording studios with the music they’ve created during the pandemic, the music beat is celebrating the return of new music with our favorite summer releases.
Mood Valiant – Hiatus Kaiyote
Never has outer space felt so realistic. Hiatus Kaiyote’s third album Mood Valiant grounds the strange and unfamiliar feeling of what is past the atmosphere, making it seem like something within our reach. By that, I don’t mean simple synths and voice alteration technology. Theirs is an album filled with intricately thought-out instrumentation that walks the line between jazz, R&B, funk, electronica and something undefinable. Their lead Nai Palm’s singing, which swoops between euphoric, daring, grooving and tender, is a highlight on the album, as usual. While the album is perhaps not as cohesive as their last masterpiece, it still makes strong use of their technical skill while remaining in empathetic touch with the listener. Songs like “Stone or Lavender” bring the listener to a reckoning with their insides, encouraging us that love is the difficult choice we should always make. Meanwhile, “Get Sun ft. Arthur Verocai” and “Chivalry Is Not Dead” really dig into it in completely different ways, displaying once again the insane range of this band. Because their music does not fit fully into any genre and is like none I’ve ever heard before, each album of theirs becomes a new world to explore.
— Fia Kaminski, Daily Arts Writer
What do you get when you take the soulfulness and cryptic wordplay of Erykah Badu, a velvety smooth bassline, then add a taste of fusion jazz? Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Red Room.” This was my favorite song of the summer, by far. The production is stripped down to its bare minimum, the song builds but doesn’t necessarily change and the drumbeat is not busy at all; its simplicity is effective. “Red Room” showcases the artistry and skill of the band, since there is literally nowhere to hide, and everyone is heard. Frontwoman Nai Palm’s voice dances on top of the groove — there is something ritualistic about her vocal performance, like a shaman guiding you through an auditory hallucination. She’s not afraid to explore the edges of her register, and she finds beauty in the imperfections. The lyrics are hard to unravel but not meaningless. It’s poetry, and the words flow like a crystalline stream of consciousness. Sparse instrumentation and simplicity is a dangerous game in music, but “Red Room” definitely comes out on top.
— Jason Zhang, Daily Arts Writer
Solar Power – Lorde
Lorde’s release of Solar Power feels very timely given the current state of the world. As we emerge from isolation and embrace a “new normal,” Lorde has returned from her hiatus, giving us a fresh album that grapples with global issues while appreciating the beauty that we have left to cling to.
Unlike the dark, somber mood of her 2017 release Melodrama, Solar Power offers a sense of optimism and feels more commercial than any of her previous releases. But commercial doesn’t necessarily equate to being unoriginal. Produced with Jack Antonoff, who recently produced Taylor Swift’s cut-back indie albums folklore and evermore, Solar Power embraces simplicity and seeks clarity through poetic accounts of her ponderings over the climate crisis, her recent trip to Antarctica and her relationships — both romantic and familial.
The album’s title track has become a summer anthem, a song that celebrates the natural world and sonically mimics the warmth of sun-filled summer days. With its inspiring retrospection and concern for the modern crises plaguing our world, Solar Power is not just a feel-good summer release — it is a call to action.
— Kaitlyn Fox, Music Beat Editor
Spiral – DARKSIDE
When news broke out that producer Nicolás Jaar and multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington would be returning to their DARKSIDE project nearly 8 years after their debut record Psychic, expectations could not have been higher. The release of Psychic felt like a new discovery was just made in electronic music, with its murky textures being allowed to roam the liquid architecture provided by subterranean synth ambiance. Jaar in particular has continued to be a trailblazer in the genre for the years following.
With their new release Spiral, DARKSIDE stick to their formula of synthetic mysticism. However, they do so with an entirely different aesthetic in mind. In fact, the respective album artwork between the two records perfectly highlights this distinction. Whereas Psychic sounds like an air bubble swirling in the darkness of a fog-imbued room, Spiral is lurking underneath the verdant foliage, slithering between the pockets of space provided by the leaves. It’s an album whose sound is allowed to ferment as sharp plucks of guitar give way to the encompassing hum of a singing bowl. It feels so in tune with a summer whose oppressive heat and humidity have often made it feel like you were swimming through the air. At the same time, there is also a certain pulse that the album seems to function under, whether it be a lone hi-hat count, a hard-hitting bass groove or just a steady thump of the kick. In this sense, Spiral feels like a living organism, with its heart-pounding away buried beneath the overgrowth.
— Drew Gadbois, Music Senior Arts Editor
Fatigue – L’Rain
Residing in an emotional state of limbo has never sounded more breathtakingly ethereal than it does on Brooklyn musician L’Rain’s latest album, Fatigue. The project arrived amid a summer spent balancing high expectations for normalcy with circumstances that often changed for the worse. It’s an odd space that we inhabit now, most of us not unscathed by the events of the last two years but willing to welcome hope and joy with open arms. On Fatigue’s opener “Fly, Die” a probing voice asks, “What have you done, to change?” L’Rain artfully unpacks this question, tying together the moments of chaos and peace that have defined her own fatigue into one cinematic listening experience.
What is perhaps most special about Fatigue is the way that each song unfurls into something unexpected. The track “Find It” begins as a relatively spare arrangement of soft vocal loops and light synth, yet by its end crescendos into a soulful explosion of gospel choirs and church organs. “Two Face” leads with an incredible twist of hard-edged piano and percussion and descends into sparkling guitar and grooving bass. “Suck Teeth” flows between a more classic R&B bassline to almost eerie vocal delivery.
With her background as a chameleon-like instrumentalist, L’Rain doesn’t stay in one place for long. Despite Fatigue’s eclecticism, it never sounds disjointed. Instead, L’Rain has opened up a space for her emotions to breathe and interact with one another, reminding us that it’s okay to step back and reconcile the conflicting forces of our being.
— Nora Lewis, Daily Arts Writer
Black Metal 2 – Dean Blunt
You remember laying in the backseat of your parents’ car — the one they got rid of years ago — and the radio is playing a hundred seats up; you’re looking at the yellow dots of street lights passing above you like paint strokes against a fogged-up mirror … ok, maybe it’s not like that. Maybe, it’s just another incredible edition to Dean Blunt’s discography of blissful, impossibly hypnotic and cruelly melancholic art-pop music: Black Metal 2. The British musician’s signature sound echoes throughout the 23-minute mini-album: his muddy baritone against the harmonization of album companion Joanne Robertson and her hazy vocals, along with lazy soulful guitars, warm string sections and production that rings snares and bells throughout such playfully short songs. Black Metal 2, the sequel to Dean Blunt’s 2014 enigmatic Black Metal, feels less like a complete work and more like a continuation of a sound that is so confidently strong after the musician’s long and influential career. “DASH SNOW” has been on repeat since the album came out back in July, and no matter how much I listen to Dean Blunt, I somehow always find myself back to these songs, closing my eyes and swaying every inch of my body. Because that’s what his music does to you: It makes your everything sway. His music and lyrics have the effect of knowing something you wish you didn’t, but here you are, and what else can you do, you can’t get away; you can only sit down and listen to Black Metal 2 by Dean Blunt again and again.
— Conor Durkin, Daily Arts Writer
Jubilee – Japanese Breakfast
Japanese Breakfast’s latest release, Jubilee, was by all means the perfect summer album. Though Michelle Zauner is best known for her heart-wrenching ballads and artistic performances, this 2021 album strays from somber narratives and embraces optimism successfully. Jubilee is the type of alternative pop album that can be blasted in the car equally as well as it can be background music while you’re doing homework. The most popular song, “Be Sweet,” is sultry and bouncy, with an addictive ’80s inspired hook. “Be Sweet” is the ultimate summer song, the one that I had on repeat at every waking moment once I heard it for the first time. Songs like “Sit” are more reminiscent of Japanese Breakfast’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet, with powerful, almost overpowering guitar and airy vocals, but the album is all-around so different from anything she’s released before. Even though Jubilee is not-so-subtly advertised as an optimistic album, the latter half of the record still holds weight and shows Zauner’s ability to write a beautiful, sad song. Part of what makes Japanese Breakfast so special is the poetry behind her lyrics. The lyrics of each song on Jubilee could be separated from the music, and the words themselves would still be beautiful and hard-hitting. Waiting nearly four years for the release of new Japanese Breakfast was certainly unenjoyable, but the album itself combined with its summer release could not have warranted a more welcomed comeback from me.
— Gigi Ciulla, Daily Arts Writer
I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses – Backxwash
I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses is not for the faint of heart. Throughout the album’s blistering 33-minute runtime, Canadian rapper Backxwash delivers a bone-chilling industrial hip-hop performance. Aggressive and distressing, Backxwash grabs the listener by the talon and forces them to behold the terrifying state of her inner psyche. I Lie Here uses influences from horror movie soundtracks and heavy metal to deliver a concise album about pain. With her chaotic sound, Backxwash shows staggering vulnerability while detailing the pain of drug abuse, social unacceptance and dysphoria. If this description of this album sounds nauseating, that’s because it is. It will drill you down; however, brave listeners who are up for the challenge will find themselves greatly rewarded. Although I Lie Here is brutal, it’s brutally honest, and listeners will discover a morbid beauty in the filth which could only be accomplished through one truly expressing their pain.
— Kai Bartol, Daily Arts Writer
Home Video – Lucy Dacus
Home Video, the latest album by Lucy Dacus, is an essential pick for this summer’s best releases. With Dacus’s beautiful singing voice and stirring lyrics, Home Video feels fresh and fun but still smart and introspective. Over the course of its 11 songs, ranging from soft-spoken whispers to energetic bursts of guitar and drums, Dacus explores memories from her adolescence and Christian upbringing in Richmond, Virginia. In an interview with Esquire, Dacus remarked, “That phrase, you can never go home again is true,” after returning home for the first time since her leave-taking. Dacus, like many of us, finds herself engaging in a re-examination of the self. Yet Home Video is more than an existential crisis spurred on by the pandemic: Homecoming is a phenomenon that all of us must confront at one point or another. Like Dacus, the pandemic has coincidentally landed many of us back home, complete with all the aches and growing pains of finding yourself a stranger in a once-familiar place. Or as Dacus puts it in the song “Hot & Heavy,” “Being back here makes me hot in the face.” Notably, Dacus skillfully weaves a dialogue that offers honesty without feeling burdensome and authenticity without irksome solemnity. Home Video doesn’t try to offer a clear resolution — the act of homecoming is too personal to do so. However, Dacus’s Home Video does offer validation: As we struggle to reconcile who we are becoming with who we used to be, Dacus is here along for the ride, too.
— Madeleine Virginia Gannon, Daily Arts Writer
The House is Burning – Isaiah Rashad
This summer, one of the best and most lauded releases in hip-hop was Isaiah Rashad’s long-awaited third studio album, The House is Burning. The Top Dawg Entertainment-signed Chattanooga rapper had not released a full-length album since 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade, and while the new album doesn’t showcase any evolution to his sound, he continues to enhance the elements where he already has strong foundations. Rashad has always been good at blurring the lines between rap and R&B, utilizing muted, spacey beats and loose, nonchalant vocals. Rashad also enlisted several R&B artists to help him develop this soundscape, including 6LACK, SZA and Smino.
Despite his renewed commitment to R&B, Rashad continues to hone his skill as a technical rapper. He proves he can go bar for bar with brilliant storytellers like Jay Rock while keeping pace with both Lil Uzi Vert’s rapid-fire staccato flow and Memphis upstart Duke Deuce’s aggressive cadence. Deuce especially does a great job of escaping his comfort zone, rapping on a beat that is much more relaxed than many of the hard-hitting Memphis instrumentals he built his career on. While Rashad does not deviate heavily from the soundscape of The Sun’s Tirade, he manages to have another strong outing by utilizing the formulas he has mastered already.
— Ryan Brace, Daily Arts Writer