We’re a bit more than halfway through 2021, all laser-focused on a normalcy finish line. Slowly, the tour machine is grinding up, and all the artists who have released great pandemic recordings are getting ready to strut their stuff on the concert stage. The back half of 2021 is likely to look a lot different – lots more releases, shows, concerts, actual live music on KUTX – and we’re all really excited about that. But we shouldn’t overlook the great music that has already been made, even it was released more or less in a vacuum. Here are some of our favorite songs from the first half of the year. Maybe you’ll find some of yours.
– Jeff McCord, KUTX Music Editor
Art Levy -producer/host
Field Music – “Orion From The Street”
In their recent ‘My KUTX’ takeover, the Brewis brothers showed off a love for all things ’80s pop, which you can hear as a throughline across their varied work. But what sets Field Music apart from so many similarly-inspired bands is their attention to detail, and a restless creativity. They self-record in their Sunderland, England-based home studio, which allows for happy accidents and an off-kilter point of view. “Orion From The Street” is big and joyous, but homespun, the kind of music that’s daydreamed into existence.
Pino Palladino & Blake Mills – “Just Wrong”
The credits between Pino Palladino and Blake Mills are staggering: Pino’s played bass with D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and The Who; Blake produced Alabama Shakes’ smash Sound & Color before working with John Legend, Perfume Genius, and more, including his own recordings. This team-up was bound to bear some interesting fruit. “Just Wrong” is generously weird: not off-putting, just off-kilter. Pairing a mini-orchestra with a shape-shifting jazz ensemble, the song sounds as if Brian Wilson were a member of the Soulquarians, or J Dilla chopped up Pet Sounds. Add in Sam Gendel’s stuttering sax and you get a song that’s as strange as the past eighteen months, but ready to usher in a new future.
Shannon Lay – “Rare To Wake”
Shannon Lay makes the kind of folk music that sounds simple, but it’s deceptively complex. “Rare To Wake” leaps gracefully between time signatures, Nick Drake-like drones, and choral arrangements, all in a completely naturalistic way. If that weren’t enough, Shannon’s lyrics and singing are exceptional, tapping into the need for change in these hazy, in-limbo times. “I will miss my pain / But I have to make way for something better,” she sings. “Without change something / Sleeps inside us.” This is a song that comes from standing on the edge of a new door, and that uncertainty gives it extraordinary power.
Elizabeth McQueen – producer/host
Golden Dawn Arkestra – “Phenomenal”
I hear a lot of new music when I’m making the Pause/Play podcast. We used this track beneath our interview with Golden Dawn Arkestra band leader Topaz McGarrigle — but this song is much more than killer background music. I keep returning to it because of the way it captures the frustration so many of us felt this last year — having to accept digital interactions over actual physical interactions. Plus it’s a killer dance song and dancing may be one of the best ways that I know of to process the trauma of the last year.
Bo Burnham – “Welcome to the Internet”
Bo Burham’s Netflix special Inside is one the most interesting pieces of art to come out of the pandemic so far. It’s an insightful and devastating look at internet culture, pandemic panic and the creative process. “Welcome to the Internet,” a song from the special, sums up so much of the ambivalence I feel about the massive digital space that seems so incomprehensible and out of our collective control. “Could I interest you in everything, All of the time? A little bit of everything, All of the time. Apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime. Anything and everything. All of the time.” Plus it’s catchy as hell and gets stuck in my head for days.
Magna Carda – “Better If”
I love a song that charts a good internal discussion and this song does that so well. On the track, Megz Kelli ponders whether it’s better to address an attraction head-on, or whether it’s better if “I kept it on the page.” Truly, who hasn’t been there? Dougie Do’s accompanying beat is the perfect compliment, both hopeful and melancholy at the same time.
Jacquie Fuller – assistant program director
Bachelor – “Stay In The Car”
There’s so much I love about this song: the fuzzy 90s vibe, Jay Som and Palehound’s Kim-Deal-esque cooing, the way the chorus swells. But what ultimately hooks me are the lyrics. The narrative they create seems mundane, but by zeroing in so acutely on a moment, this song defamiliarizes it into something downright Lynchian.
Ya Tseen – “Knives”
As a kid, I split my time between Texas and rural Alaska, so I bring a little bias to my love of this multi-disciplinary artist. Nevertheless, I fell for this track long before I knew anything about Ya Tseen’s indigenous/Alaskan background (which just made me love this song more.) All brooding minor key and wavering restraint, “Knives” is a sexy, clenched fist of a song.
Nuevo – “Querido”
Tex-Mex music – conjunto in particular – was a mainstay of my childhood in San Antonio. As I got older, discovering the connections this music had to my beloved rock-and-roll – from ? and the Mysterians to Doug Sahm – felt like a kind of cultural validation. Nuevo – the new project from Hacienda’s Dante Schwebel, keeps this torch brightly lit. “Querido” is a sweet number that refuses to let you forget that Elvis Costello’s trademark organ sound wouldn’t have existed without artists like Augie Meyers.
Jay Trachtenberg – host
Valerie June – “You And I”
I was fortunate enough to interview Valerie June in Studio 1A, and I was struck by what a spiritual-minded person she is. This spirituality shines through in her music via a soulful, ethereal voice and haunting, wistful lyrics to match. I couldn’t get enough of this song.
Twin Shadow – “Johnny & Jonnie”
This song stopped me right in my tracks the first time I heard it. Maybe it was the fidgety quality that reminded me of some of the UK Two Tone bands I so admire. Or perhaps I was hearing Twin Shadow’s Dominican/Caribbean roots at play. All I know was that I wanted to get up and dance.
Altin Gun – “Yuce Dag Basinda”
Looking for a new sound? Try this on for size. The music of Amsterdam-based Altin Gun has been described as “Anatolian rock” mixed with “psychedelic Turkish folk.” And when you throw in lyrics sung in the particularly impenetrable Turkish language it makes for a stunningly exotic mix. And the dub-wise touches of reggae are always a plus in my book.
Jeff McCord – music editor, host
Sons of Kemet – “Hustle”
Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings stands tall (literally) among London’s new jazz scene, fronting several disparate acts. The best of them, Sons of Kemet, is a four-piece deeply rooted in Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Not everything on their ambitious new album Black to the Future takes flight, but “Hustle”, featuring UK rapper Kojey Radical, burrows its disjointed, loose-limbed funk deep into your subconscious. On the surface, it’s a simple tale of rising up (“I go make nothing something”), but the chugging tuba and nimble percussion bring Radical’s fervor alive.
Faye Webster – “I Know I’m Funny haha”
She is funny. But there’s much more to this 24-year-old Atlanta songwriter – her wry observations, a certain who-gives-a-f**k youthful arrogance, witty songs about the commonplace told with grace and economy. On the title track from her latest album, a couple, about to vacate the neighborhood, drinks sake and gossips about their siblings and neighbors. Nothing much happens, Yet through three verses that don’t change much musically, adorned by a sleepy and pitchy slide guitar, Webster achieves a kind of hypnosis. You’re there with them on this summer night, tasting the humid air, watching the streets as the sky grows dark. “I wonder if they know we’re moving.”
Dawn Richard – “Bussifame”
In a long career that’s been all over the place, New Orleans artist/actor/animator/model/dancer Richard has been full of surprises. Her group Danity Kane found pop stardom, which led to a collaboration with Sean Combs and even more success. But that all ended almost a decade ago, and judging from her new recording Second Line: An Electro Revival, she is not nostalgic about those days. Describing “Bussifame”, she told an interviewer “I’m celebrating the death of old views in the industry.” If this sounds bitter, it’s anything but. “Bussifame” is n absolutely joyous romp, rolling the city’s heartbeat into slick house production. It’s all there – vintage soul, hip-hop, funk, second line; it’s a bracing fusion that brings all of Richard’s talents to the fore.
Jody Denberg – host
The Los Sundowns – “Se Cae El Sol”
This Austin outfit – featuring guitarist/producer Beto Martinez and drummer/DJ Daniel Villareal – recently premiered with their self-titled debut. This song, with a title that translates to “The Sun Goes Down”, captures the mystical hours of twilight time like some long-lost Ennio Morricone score. Along with current instrumentals by The Budos Band and The Menahan Street Band, The Los Sundowns give us a break from the linear world into a foggy notion. Do it again.
Femi Kuti – “Pa Pa Pa“
The son of Afrobeat pioneer and activist Fela Kuti follows in his father’s footsteps with this undeniable groove, fronted by lyrics that call for governments to act on behalf of citizens. From the album “Legacy +” – a double-disc that features Femi on one-half and on the other, Made Kuti (Femi’s son, Fela’s grandson) carrying on the family tradition.
The Lazy Eyes – “Where Is My Brain???”
Of all the great, trippy psychedelic-prog emerging from down under (Psychedelic Porn Crumpets anyone? King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard?), this song is a favorite. The group formed when they were in high school (!), and though they wrote this song four years ago it is just now being heard. I first discovered it on journalist/DJ David Fricke’s “The Writer’s Block” satellite radio show and have been hooked on it ever since. Be sure to listen to the long version (6:39) when you can!
Matt Reilly – program director
Israel Nash – “Stay”
I love Israel’s voice and adding horns is a nice touch. This is like comfort food for me. It feels familiar and easy to get into.
Golden Dawn Arkestra – “Phenomenal”
Sometimes you want a cosmic dance tune. It’s impossible to sit still when this comes on. Can’t wait to see it live and embarrass myself by showing off my sweet old man dance moves.
Shungudzo – “It’s A Good Day To Fight The System”
A protest song wrapped in a candy coating. I’ve been curious as to why there haven’t been more loud, angry songs about fighting the system as these times are ripe. Turns out, this delivery method is more delightfully subversive.
Paul Carruba – host
Little Simz “Introvert”
I mean, that marching fanfare…do I have to say more? The word “epic” is way overused, but here, it’s pretty darn apt. “Introvert” is the aural equivalent of ultra-widescreen 4K. It’s also a reminder that Little Simz is one of the finest MCs around. Full stop. Her flow is as fast, fearless and her words bleed like an open-wound. She wrestles at once with the ills of the world and her own self-doubt about who she is as a person and an artist. “To you I’m smiling but really I’m hurting,” Simz declares in one particular gut-punch of a lyric. And she keeps them coming rapid-fire over swelling, symphonic bombast. A truly epic song from an epically talented artist.
This is not a flex or a brag, but I’ve been a champion of these British weirdos for a while. I’m just glad that their growing UK acclaim is finally starting to seep in over here in the colonies. “Paddling” has got everything that makes Squid such a pleasure (well, for me anyway) to listen to: spiky guitars, driving motorik beat, lead singer Ollie Judge’s delightfully manic, semi-sprechgesang. But if you’ve followed Squid, you’ll notice a subtly more sophisticated sound—incorporating electronic touches and a, for lack of a better word, “fuller” arrangement. I will be the first one to admit that the band ain’t for everybody, but if you’ve got a hankering for the strange and interesting, I suggest you dive down to the murky depths with Squid.
Dry Cleaning “Strong Feelings”
Dry Cleaning follows a proud lineage of British post-punk—bittersweet melodies and lyrics that make you want to smoke cigs in a cold, damp northern winter. Dry Cleaning, though, has something unique in vocalist Florence Shaw. More spoken-word artist than singer, she lets loose intriguing and oblique lyrics in a breathy deadpan that evokes Jarvis Cocker’s sardonic snarl and John Cooper Clarke’s cranky cool. “Strong Feelings” kicks off with a driving beat and a rumbling bassline, and then Shaw drops in with one of the best first-lines I’ve heard in a while: “Just an emo dead stuff collector.” If you’re just reading that non-sequitur of a lyric, you’re missing out on how perfect Shaw’s delivery is, and how well it complements the backing track. It’s doomy and hopeful at the same time—which is why Dry Cleaning fits snugly in the pocket of great post-punk.
Rick McNulty – music director/host
Tamar Aphek – “Crossbow”
The most propulsive song you’ll hear all year, like a stampede of wild mustangs avoiding capture. Tamar is my new favorite guitarist and her drummer, David Gorensteyn, my new favorite percussionist.
Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen – “Like I Used To”
It took two indie stars to channel the ghost of Roy Orbison. The vocals soar to heights we haven’t heard since 1989, which not coincidentally was the year Orbison released his last album–the one record Van Etten said she listened to on repeat during the pandemic.
Flock of Dimes – “Price of Blue”
Jenn Wasner is hitting her stride with songs to burn between Wye Oak and her solo project. This track shows off her guitar chops, but even more, it reveals her dramatic vision for epic compositions. Pro tip: the album version is a 6+ minute journey to the heart of darkness.
Soundfounder – host
quickly, quickly – “Feel”
Electronic producer quickly, quickly completely pivots away from his typical electronic sound for this funky, emotional journey with a live band. The drum track feels influenced by Afrobeat and creates a unique foundation for the dense layers of melody and vocals. The unexpected pairing of the rhythm and melody parts creates a juxtaposition of styles that feels distinct and memorable.
Madlib – “Hopprock”
Prolific multi-instrumentalist, rapper, and beat maker Madlib’s 2021 album Sound Ancestors is a collaboration between himself and acclaimed Electronic Producer Four Tet. In an interview with the BBC, Madlib claims to have sent around 2,000 beats to Four Tet from which he cherry picked 16 tracks to be manipulated, mixed, and mastered. The end result is arguably Madlib’s most well polished solo album: “Sound Ancestors”. With heavy drums and rhythmic plucked guitar samples, “Hopprock” stands out as a rock-solid single from the project. Simply undeniable craftsmanship from one of the greatest ever.
BoomBaptist – “Komfort Food”
Austin Beat producer BoomBaptist took advantage of his time during the Global Pandemic lockdown of 2020/2021 to produce and release multiple projects, and start a new record label – Cream Dream Records. The track Komfort Food is part of a self-released compilation paying tribute to the influential beat maker J Dilla, and it stands as one of Boombaptist’s most confident and high-quality tracks to date. A heavy drum break and keyboard samples take the listener on journey as Boom flexes his production chops all the way through. It’s a fun time.