15 songs we almost missed in 2021

Sofia Kourtesis, ‘La

At first, Sofia
Kourtesis’ “La Perla” develops like a Polaroid shot of a white-sand beach. This
is earnest, pulsating deep house: ripples of synths, oceanic drum loops,
feather-light hums, the iridescent touch of piano keys. But when the Peruvian
producer’s voice arrives, the track transforms into something less picture-perfect.
She intones, “Tú y yo / En soledad / Igual acá / Tratando de cambiar / Tratando
de olvidar” (“You and I / In loneliness / Same here / Trying to change / Trying
to forget”). Kourtesis composed the song with the water and her father, who was
dying from leukaemia, in mind; he used to say that staring at the sea is a form
of meditation. Lying somewhere between hope and melancholia, “La Perla”
embodies mourning: the on-and-off work of confronting your own suffering, while
harnessing fleeting moments of solace when you can. — ISABELIA HERRERA

Young Stunna
featuring Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa, ‘Adiwele’

This eight-minute
track from South Africa is a collaboration by singer Young Stunna and amapiano
producer Kabza De Small, from Young Stunna’s debut album, “Notumato (Beautiful
Beginnings).” It materialises slowly and methodically, with just an electronic
beat at first, then hovering electronic tones and blipping offbeats, then
syncopated vocal syllables. Eventually, Young Stunna’s lead vocal arrives,
breathy and increasingly insistent, tautly bouncing his lines off the beat.
“Adiwele” roughly means “things falling into place”; it’s a grateful boast
about his current success, but it’s delivered like someone racing toward even
more ambitious goals. — JON PARELES

BabyTron, ‘Paul

“Bin Reaper 2” — one
of three very good albums BabyTron released in 2021 — has several high points.
There’s “Frankenstein,” built on a sample of an old Debbie Deb song, and the
disco-esque “Pimp My Ride.” But “Paul Bearer” might be the best. BabyTron is a
casually talky rapper from Michigan, and in keeping with the rap scene that has
been germinating there for the past few years, he’s a hilarious absurdist,
flexible with syllables and also images: “Point it at his toes, turn his Yeezys
into Foam Runners,” “High as hell on the roof, dripping like a broke gutter.” —

Mabiland, ‘Wow’

For Colombian artist
Mabiland, living with the injustice of anti-Black violence is so surreal, it
resembles the worlds of sci-fi and neo-noir films such as “Tenet” and “Oldboy.”
On “Wow,” she draws comparisons to these cinematic universes, offering a
macabre reflection on those killed in recent years: George Floyd, as well as
the five of Llano Verde, a group of teens who were shot in Cali, Colombia, in
2020. Over trap drums and a forlorn, looped guitar, the artist recalibrates her
voice over and over, shifting between raspy soul, high-pitched yelps, wounded
raps and sweet-tongued singing. It is a subtle lesson in elasticity, creating
an expansive vocal landscape that captures her pain in all of its depth. —

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Remble, ‘Touchable’

One of the year’s
signature rap stylists, Remble declaims like he’s giving a physics lecture, all
punching-bag emphasis and tricky internal rhymes. An inheritor of Drakeo the
Ruler, who was killed this past month — listen to their collaboration on “Ruth’s
Chris Freestyle” — Remble is crisp and declamatory and, most disarmingly,
deeply calm. “Touchable,” from his vivid, wonderful 2021 album, “It’s Remble,”
is one of his standouts, packed to the gills with sweetly terrifying boasts:
“Came a long way from pre-K and eating Lunchables / I just took your life and
as you know it’s unrefundable.” — CARAMANICA

Morgan Wade, ‘Wilder

“Don’t Cry,” which
Morgan Wade released at the end of 2020, cut right to the quick: “I’ll always
be my own worst critic / The world exists and I’m just in it.” “Wilder Days,”
from her lovingly ragged debut album, “Reckless,” is about wanting to know the
whole of a person, even the parts that time has smoothed over. Wade has a
terrific, acid-drenched voice — she sounds like she’s singing from the depths
of history. And although this song is about wanting someone you love to hold on
to the things that gave them their scrapes and bruises, it’s really about
holding on to that part of yourself as long as is feasible, and then a little
longer. — CARAMANICA

Lady Blackbird,

There’s a deep blues
cry in the voice of Lady Blackbird — Los Angeles-based songwriter Marley Munroe
— that harks back to Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Billie Holiday. “Collage,”
from her album “Black Acid Soul,” rides an acoustic bass vamp and modal jazz
harmonies, enfolded in wind chimes and Mellotron “string” chords. It’s a song
about colours, cycles and trying to “find a song to sing that is everything,”
enigmatic and arresting. — PARELES

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Caetano Veloso, ‘Anjos

Recorded during the
pandemic, “Meu Coco” (“My Head”) is the first full album on which Caetano
Veloso, a great Brazilian musician whose career stretches back to the 1960s,
wrote all the songs without collaborators. “Anjos Tronchos” (“Twisted Angels”)
is musically sparse; for much of it, Veloso’s graceful melody is accompanied
only by a lone electric rhythm guitar. But its scope is large; the “twisted
angels” are from Silicon Valley, and he’s singing about the power of the
internet to addict, to sell and to control, but also to delight and to spread
ideas. “Neurons of mine move in a new rhythm / And more and more and more and
more and more,” he sings, with fascination and dread. — PARELES

Cico P, ‘Tampa’

The year’s preeminent
hypnosis. Put it on repeat and dissociate from the cruel year that was. —

Cassandra Jenkins,
‘Hard Drive’

“Hard Drive,” which
includes the lyrics that provided the title for Cassandra Jenkins’ 2021 album,
“An Overview on Phenomenal Nature,” plays like Laurie Anderson transported to
Laurel Canyon. With unhurried spoken words and an occasional melodic refrain,
Jenkins seeks insight and healing from people like a security guard and a
bookkeeper, who tells her, “The mind is just a hard drive.” The music cycles soothingly
through a few chords as guitars and piano intertwine, a saxophone improvises at
the periphery and Jenkins approaches serenity. — PARELES

Fatima Al Qadiri,

On “Zandaq,” Fatima
Al Qadiri looks 1,400 years into the past to illuminate a view of the future.
Inspired by the poems of Arab women from the Jahiliyyah period to the 13th
century, the Kuwaiti producer arranges plucked lute strings, echoes of bird
calls and dapples of twisting, vertiginous vocals, fashioning a kind of a
retrofuturist suite. The song draws on classical Arabic poetry’s ancient
reserve of melancholic longing, considering the possibilities that emerge by
slowing down and immersing oneself in desolation. — HERRERA

Nala Sinephro, ‘Space

Rising United
Kingdom-based bandleader Nala Sinephro plays harp and electronics, with a pull
toward weightless sounds and meditative pacings, so comparisons to Alice
Coltrane are inevitable. But Sinephro has her own thing going entirely: It has
to do with her lissome, contained-motion improvising on the harp, and the game
versatility of the groups she puts together. Her debut album, which arrived in
September, contains eight tracks, “Spaces 1-8.” On “Space 5,” she’s joined by
saxophonist Ahnasé and guitarist Shirley Tetteh; it’s a jewelled mosaic of a
track, with the components of a steady beat — but they’re distant and dampened
enough that it never fully sinks in on a body level. Instead of head-nodding,
maybe you’ll respond to this music by being completely still. — GIOVANNI

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Kaitlyn Aurelia
Smith, Emilio Mosseri, ‘Moonweed’

“Moonweed” is only
two minutes long, but it contains all the reverie and tragedy of a big-screen
sci-fi drama. (It’s a collaboration between experimental artist Kaitlyn Aurelia
Smith and film composer Emilio Mosseri.) With its unhurried piano and slow
gurgle of galactic synths that arrive like an extraterrestrial transmission
sent from the stars, the track manifests as both earthen and astral bliss. —

Johnathan Blake,

Jazz drummer
Johnathan Blake is used to playing as a side musician in all-star bands; when
he leads his own groups, he also tends to field a formidable squad. On
“Homeward Bound,” his Blue Note debut, Blake is joined by alto saxophonist
Immanuel Wilkins, vibraphonist Joel Ross, pianist David Virelles and bassist
Dezron Douglas — today’s cats, basically. Blake has a swing feel that’s both
densely powerful and luxuriously roomy, and he deploys it here across a set
that includes some impressive original tunes. On “Abiyoyo,” a South African
folk song, he strikes the drums softly, with a mallet in one hand and a stick
in the other, while Virelles handles a similar balance, using the full range of
the piano but never overplaying. — RUSSONELLO

Ran Cap Duoi, ‘Aztec

Vertigo alert: Ran
Cap Duoi, an electronic group from Vietnam, aims for total disorientation in
“Aztec Glue” from its 2021 album, “Ngu Ngay Ngay Ngay Tan The” (“Sleeping
Through the Apocalypse”). Everything is chopped up and flung around: voices,
rhythms, timbres, spatial cues. For its first minute, “Aztec Glue” finds a
steady, minimalist pulse, even as peeping vocal samples hop all over the stereo
field. Then the bottom drops out; it lurches, slams, races, twitches and goes
through sporadic bursts of acceleration. It goes on to find a new, looping
near-equilibrium, spinning faster, but it doesn’t end without a few more
surprises. — PARELES

©2021 The New York
Times Company

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