Best of CH 2021: Listen Up

From house-inflected nu disco to experimental indie, 20 tracks that moved us this year

Whether buying records, sharing songs, making collaborative playlists or seeing live performances, our voracity for music seems to be never-ending. Our favorite releases from this year vary and, like the year itself (unsteady, unpredictable, at times joyous and others disquieting), follow no clear theme. While genres continue to be less important and harder to define, we found ourselves grounded by elements of neo-soul, loosened up by laidback R&B, uplifted by lavish nu disco, calmed by atmospheric experimentation and soothed by slow-burning orchestration. While the songs and artists varied and the feelings followed suit, one thing remains: music moves us, and endures as an oftentimes essential escape.

Mereba: Rider 

From singer-songwriter and producer Mereba (aka Marian Mereba), “Rider” is her first solo release of the year and follows her gorgeous 2019 debut album, The Jungle Is the Only Way OutMereba—who is also a member of Spillage Village—worked with producer Dreamville’s Elite on the mellow tune, replete with steel pans, gentle percussion and sublimely layered vocals.

Noname: Rainforest

Noname’s new track “Rainforest” remains true to her staunchly anti-capitalist spirit while referencing the vulnerabilities, conundrums and joys that can exist alongside those beliefs. Over a jazzy, bossa nova beat, she name-checks Marxist political philosopher Frantz Fanon and Huey P Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide, questions how we can champion billionaires, and notes how capitalism is inherently racist. “Dyin’ on stolen land for a dollar like that ain’t fucked up / It’s ‘fuck they money,’ I’ma say it every song / until the revolution come and all the feds start runnin’,” she raps alongside breathy back-up vocals. Her seemingly effortless, deft rhymes pack a punch.

SOPHIE: BIPP (Autechre Remix)

Early in 2021, the world lost the visionary, treasured and trailblazing artist SOPHIE (aka Sophie Xeon) who passed away aged 34. Back in 2013, the Scotland-born musician’s banger “BIPP” emerged, rejecting trends within electronic music in favor of kick-drums, high-res squeaky sounds (made on an Elektron Monomachine and Ableton Live) and pitched-up vocals, all the while leaving plenty of blank space. Beyond her solo work, SOPHIE was behind Madonna featuring Nicki Minaj’s rambunctious “Bitch I’m Madonna,” Vince Staples featuring Kendrick Lamar’s industrial-inflected “Yeah Right,” as well as a bunch of songs with Charli XCX. While much of her magic existed in collaboration, SOPHIE stated back in 2015 that she never wanted any remixes made of her songs, “unless it’s Autechre.” Just days before her death, Autechre (aka English electronic music duo, Rob Brown and Sean Booth) released their remix of “BIPP” along with a note: “Sorry this is so late.” The pitch-shifted version utilizes a looser, more laidback drum loop, but it still soars—repeating SOPHIE’s promise, “I can make you feel better.”

Caroline Polachek: Bunny is a Rider

Recording artist Caroline Polachek returns with the single “Bunny is a Rider,” her first new track (aside from a cover of “Breathless” by The Corrs) since the release of her critically cherished 2019 album, PANG. Buoyant, optimistic and upbeat, the single is a sonic evolution for Polachek, and incorporates a charming, well-placed whistle and the voice of producer Danny L Harle’s baby daughter. Polachek says the song “is a summer jam about being unavailable. Bunny is slippery, impossible to get ahold of. Maybe it’s a fantasy, maybe it’s a bad attitude. But anyone can be Bunny, at least for three minutes and 17 seconds.”

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble feat. Moses Sumney: Soon It Will Be Fire

In honor of their 25th anniversary, record label Jagjaguwar continues to release special tracks, exceptional covers and unexpected collaborations that speak to their storied history. The latest release, “Soon It Will Be Fire,” pairs the Chicago-based eight-piece Hypnotic Brass Ensemble with singer-songwriter Moses Sumney for a rendition of the lead track off of Richard Youngs’ iconic three-track, 37-minute album Sapphie. For more than nine minutes, Sumney’s vocals mesmerize listeners over the impeccable, slow-burning orchestration.

Nite Jewel: This Time

Nite Jewel (aka Ramona Gonzalez) makes a welcome return, four years after her last solo release, with the announcement of her upcoming record, No Sun. Out in August, the album features “This Time,” a slow-burning, delicate tune that the artist says is “a deconstructed ode to Prince.” Leaving plenty of quiet moments in the song, the LA-based singer-songwriter creates space for listeners to revel in the piece’s gentle magic. The album, her press release states, “questions and remodels the archetype of female pain.”

Lil Nas X + Jack Harlow: Industry Baby

Lil Nas X continues to triumph and tantalize (and torment homophobes in the meantime) with “INDUSTRY BABY” featuring rapper/singer Jack Harlow. The video, directed by Christian Breslauer, is a colorful, vibrant celebration of homoeroticism, Black men, queerness, sex and freedom—all in Lil Nas X’s now-familiar playful style (and even nods to his partnership with The Bail Project). The song itself provides Lil Nas X fans with yet another banger.

Wet Leg: Chaise Longue

Clever and catchy, the debut single “Chaise Longue” from Wet Leg (aka Isle of Wight-born duo Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers) burrows into the brain and throws a witty, wild dance party within. The sunny track blends post-punk, alt-rock and French disco into something delightful and danceable. Its official music video underscores the silly vibe to perfection.

Aimee Mann: I See You

Following the release of two critically acclaimed songs earlier this year, “Suicide Is Murder” and “Burt It Out,” Aimee Mann returns with a third advanced listen to the exquisite emotional magic that will be found within her forthcoming album, Queen of the Summer Hotel (out 5 November). This new track, “I See You,” offers hope as Mann sings to a girl awash in dread and despair, affirming her that she is seen.

Dijon: Many Times

“Many Times” by Dijon “recreates the intense energy of the recording process,” the LA-based artist says in a statement. Sonically, this translates to a single reminiscent of a jam session, from converging guitar tracks to Dijon’s urgent vocals and a jazzy piano bridge. The action-packed nature of the song is manifested through the music video’s experimental point of view, which puts viewers over the shoulder of a passionate and jerky Dijon as he records with friends. The video, directed by Jack Karaszewski, flashes the lyrics haphazardly across the scene, capturing the dichotomy of Dijon’s newest release: chaotic yet harmonious.

Yebba: Boomerang

Yebba (aka Abigail Smith) offers yet another taste of her upcoming debut album Dawn with “Boomerang,” a song about toxic relationships, revenge and karma. The West Memphis, Arkansas-based artist co-wrote the song with Tommy Brenneck and Ilsey Juber, and it was produced by Brenneck and Mark Ronson. The track was inspired by a friend of Yebba’s who was in an unhealthy relationship. “As soon as she had a baby, her husband started beating her,” the singer-songwriter explains. “Because I’ve never been married and I’ve never had a kid, the best way I knew how to tell that story was to describe how I feel when I’m blindsided by a relationship, and the shock that comes with that. I walked into this space in my mind where I find the one I love in someone else’s bed, and my mind goes right to violence. It’s the kind of thing where you have so much comfortability with rage, you’re able to think through it logically—like: ‘If I shoot him in the stomach, I’m gonna have to pay his hospital bill, so fuck that. If I shoot him in the head, then I could be convicted of murder. So what am I supposed to do?’ It ends up being a picture of running with your rage, and just trusting that karma will come back around and take care of things for you.”

Coco O: Gwen

One half of electronic soul duo Quadron, Cecilie Karshø—known professionally as Coco O—has just released her debut solo LP, It’s a Process. Full of the Danish artist’s sweet, soulful and at times beautifully breathy vocals, the resplendent album pulls influences from R&B, soul, electronic, jazz and pop. “I have been looking forward to this day for almost seven years now. To be honest, I have struggled to make this album. I needed to take some time to figure out what I’m about as an artist, and how to take ownership of my own process,” she wrote on Instagram. “Gwen” is a divine introduction to the record, but we recommend listening from start to finish.

PinkPantheress: All my friends know

“All my friends know” is the eighth track from internet sensation PinkPantheress’ debut mixtape, to hell with it. Like her other songs, this melancholy breakup bop evokes a futuristic world using nostalgic vocals. While short and sweet, the less than two-minute track embodies the young artist’s signature lo-fi rave sound with nuance and sincerity. Briefly, she whispers of turning to nature to mend a broken heart, as calming birds and piano—sampled from Sven Torstenson’s “Wind Glider”—perfectly draw the sonic scene’s beauty and sorrow to a close.

Little Simz: Introvert

Little Simz (aka Simbiatu Ajikawo) makes a powerful return with “Introvert” from her upcoming album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. “I’m not into politics, but I know it’s dark times,” she raps over an expansive orchestral opening before the dramatic song explodes into a soaring political anthem. Exploring inner turmoil and exterior catastrophes, “Introvert” triumphs with arresting moments about identity, unity and hope. “My speech ain’t involuntary / Projecting intentions straight from my lungs / I’m a Black woman and I’m a proud one / We walk in blind faith not knowing the outcome / But as long as we’re unified, then we’ve already won,” she rhymes on the track, which also features Cleo Sol and Emma Corin.

Tokischa + ROSALÍA: Linda

Spanish singer ROSALÍA and Dominican rapper Tokischa team up for the electrifying “Linda,” a vibrant track that combines dembow, flamenco and more. “We kiss, but we’re homies,” they sing in Spanish together on the banger, which was co-produced by ROSALÍA and Tokischa’s frequent producer Leo RD. The track comes along with equally raunchy, raucous and playful visuals, directed by Raymi Paulus.

Ruthven: Don’t Keep It To Yourself

Released on Jai and AK Paul’s label-meets-collective Paul Institute, Ruthven’s hypnotic “Don’t Keep It To Yourself” is a spacious, slinky and sultry track about pillow talk and secrets—”bedroom feels,” the UK-based singer-songwriter and musician says. Blending elements of future funk, ’80s R&B and more, Ruthven (aka Sean Nelson) effortlessly transitions between delicate falsetto and big, soulful pop vocals.

La Femme: Le Sang de Mon Prochain

In advance of acclaimed French psych-rock act La Femme’s third LP, Paradigmes (out 2 April), the dazzling experimental rockers have released one more single, “Le Sang de Mon Prochain.” Directed by Ilan Zerrouki, the mind-bending official music video pairs over-the-top costuming with theatrical performances. The retro-futuristic soundscape itself defies genre classification.

Japanese Breakfast: Glider

The lead single from the forthcoming original soundtrack for the video game Sable, “Glider” by Japanese Breakfast (aka musician and author Michelle Zauner) entrances through mystical instrumentals and beautiful, call-to-adventure vocals. Zauner composed all 32 songs on the soundtrack, noting that she “wanted the main themes to recall iconic works of Joe Hisaishi and Alan Menken, to fill the listener with the childlike wonder of someone on the precipice of a grand discovery.”

Tolliver: Nervous

Chicago-bred and LA-based artist Tolliver’s recently released EP, Daddyland, is an ode to his late father and journeys through their complicated relationship to arrive at self-love. “Nervous,” the third track on the EP, finds itself on the latter end of this arc with its confident lyrics and buoyant rhythm. Soaked in funk and fun, this bop crafts an anthem for misfits and outcasts, punctuated by syncopated popping sounds. It’s delivered with an equally vibrant, kaleidoscopic video, directed by Ali Robert.

HARD FEELINGS: Holding On Too Long

HARD FEELINGS (aka Amy Douglas and Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard) came to existence after Goddard publicly tweeted at Douglas, “Amy, can we make a thing?” Now, the duo is signed to Domino Records and just released their debut single, “Holding On Too Long.” The late-night banger melds lyrics about the demise of a relationship with uplifting, nostalgia-tinged dance. Douglas says of the collaboration, “‘Holding On Too Long’ is the common denominator of the entire musical union of Amy and Joe. In this ‘opera of sad bangers’ here is its key aria, its ‘Un Bel Di’ from Madame Butterfly or the ‘Mad Scene’ from Lucia Di Lammermour, the unforgettable moment of the story wherein our heroine stands up defiantly and has her moment to wail, scream and cry her pain and fury centre stage to the world.”

Listen Up is published every Sunday and rounds up the new music we found throughout the week. Hear all of 2021 on our Spotify channel. Hero image courtesy of Little Simz