Our previous You Should Be Listening To… column focused on the K-pop band Lucy, but this time we’re looking at eight different musical acts. There was a lot of great new music this summer in every genre, and below I’ve written about a few of the songs I’ve especially loved over the last few months. Some from new bands, others from long-time favorites, and one surprising and satisfying reunion single from one of pop’s biggest names.
ABBA – “Don’t Shut Me Down”
When ABBA announced they had reunited in 2018 and would record new music, I don’t think anyone expected the project to expand from two songs into the band’s first album in 40 years. Those two previously announced titles are also the album’s lead singles, and of them, “Don’t Shut Me Down” is the better of the pair. While “I Still I Have Faith in You” is a pretty ABBA-style ballad and a showcase for Frida’s voice, “Don’t Shut Me Down” finds ABBA at their uptempo best, anchored by Agnetha Faltskog’s ageless soprano. Where Frida excels at technical showcases, Agnetha’s strength as a vocalist is her talent in conveying an array of emotions in her voice, as here where she’s swept up in euphoria. It seems ABBA’s huge international fanbase has picked “Don’t Shut Me Down” as the better of the two songs too, as it’s consistently peaked higher than its twin on the charts around the world. It’s great to have ABBA back sounding like they’ve picked up right where they left off in 1982, and if a song as fun and effortless as “Don’t Shut Me Down” is anything to go by, the album Voyage will be worth its four-decade wait.
Bad Bad Hats – “Detroit Basketball”
A rousing power pop gem from Minneapolis’ Bad Bad Hats, “Detroit Basketball” has a lot of charm packed into its barely 2 ½ minute track time. The chorus is irresistible and will easily get stuck in your head, and singer-guitarist Kerry Alexander’s laid-back voices add a lot of personality and little details that make the song, particularly the opening semi-title-drop verse about the guy she broke up with spending all her money on Pistons games. There’s a lot of personality on display here, and that goes the same for their excellent new album Walkman. If you’re a fan of distorted guitars and power-pop choruses and are looking for an inventive and appealing take on the genre this year, Bad Bad Hats have you covered.
Francis of Delirium – “Lakes”
There’s been a lot of great music from unsuspecting places recently, but I would have never guessed that this perfect slice of classic Midwest emo would have come from the tiny European country of Luxembourg. Francis of Delirium is a duo of singer-guitarist Jana Bahrich and drummer Chris Hewett, and they channel the likes of Rainer Maria and Jets to Brazil so perfectly that you’d think a song like “Lakes” came out 20 years ago. Their vocals of Bahrich are succinct and expressive and match the song’s cutting guitars in their emotional gravity. Francis of Delirium have only a four-song EP out, but their darker, classic take on emo’s most storied era is sure to win them fans with that first crop of material.
Jelani Aryeh – “From These Heights”
A fun indie rocker from Aryeh’s compelling debut full-length I’ve Got Some Living to Do, “From These Heights” recalls the late 2000s indie rock of The Shins and Rogue Wave while still doing its own thing. Aryeh’s melodic vocal style meshes well with the song’s uptempo guitar-driven mood, with a catchy chorus tying everything together, including two different bridges. “From These Heights” is definitely a summer jam, but it’s also one that works well in the cooler fall months too, like most great indie rock. It’s definitely the kind of song you can sing along to in the car.
Laura Mvula – “Got Me”
One of my favorite awards that I keep an eye on is the Popjustice £20 Music Prize, in which the clever and influential music blog chooses the best British pop song of the year and awards the winner £20 (about $27) as an irreverent alternative to the Mercury Music Prize awarded the same day. Their panel has made some great choices out of their yearly shortlists, from Girls Aloud’s “Biology” to CHVRCHES’ “The Mother We Share”. This year’s winner was “Got Me”, a fun and lively boogie-pop throwback from Laura Mvula. “Got Me” has one hook laid on top of the other, right down a pre-chorus and chorus that work so well in tandem it’s like the song has two full and different choruses. If you love this neon-hued pop delight, Mvula’s whole album Pink Noise is full of songs that match its energy and style. Along with other similar retro-tinged R&B jams from the past few years, “Got Me” also makes a great case for the continued influence on The Pointer Sisters in contemporary music, and Mvula should be on the shortlist of presenters should that group ever get its much-deserved Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
The Goon Sax – “Psychic”
Have you ever fallen in love with a song so much that you went onto the artist’s Bandcamp page and bought the thing before you were even finished hearing it? That’s what I did when I first heard “Psychic”, the second single from Aussie band The Goon Sax’s new album Mirror II. What did it for me was the way the chorus hits out of the first verse as a perfect touch of melodicism in a slightly synth-pop way. The chorus itself is sticky and compelling, and The Goon Sax’s laconic and hooky take on post-punk is a real breath of fresh air. Much has been made about singer Louis Forster being the son of Robert Forster, the co-leader of beloved ‘80s Aussie indie band The Go-Betweens, but The Goon Sax don’t sound anything like his father’s band aside from both groups’ collective gift for melody. The real MVP of the Goon Sax is singer-drummer-guitarist Riley Jones, whose vocals and guitar solos act as punctuation on songs like “Psychic” and fellow single “In the Stone”, which is even catchier than “Psychic”. The Goon Sax have become one of the best young rock bands in the world over the past few years, and the superb quality of Mirror II points at good things for them in the near future.
Parquet Courts – “Walking at a Downtown Pace”
The best Parquet Courts songs sound like they’re playing a couple of feet away from you at a loud, happening party (“Wide Awake”, “Mardi Gras Beads”), and “Walking at a Downtown Pace” fits that description perfectly. The lead single from their upcoming album Sympathy for Life not only sounds like the band had a good time recording it, but is also an infectious piece of dance-punk highlighted by an exuberant chorus. The song is about something that has gone through everyone’s minds over the past 18 months: The plans we’re making for the (still-not-quite-there, it seems) end of the pandemic and about how we long to “treasure the crowds that once made me act so annoyed.” Concerts are starting to come back now, and an optimistic song partly about anticipating the return of events seems like something that will become anthemic for this time.
Rochelle Jordan – “All Along”
One of the year’s best R&B albums comes from Toronto-based Rochelle Jordan, who mixes deep house, new jack swing, and breakbeat into an irresistible concoction on Play With the Changes, where she effortlessly brings those very ‘90s styles into the 2020s. The album’s best song “All Along” is a breezy and effortless club jam that wraps up everything great about the album in one radio-friendly package.
What were your favorite songs from summer 2021? Let us know in the comments!