Sometimes you have to almost lose something in order to realize just how much it’s worth. Such is the case with Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, a treasury of reel-to-reel home recordings that Gillian Welch parsed out in three separate volumes over the course of 2020. (A comprehensive collection, binding together the contents of all three volumes, is available on CD and vinyl, only through the artist’s website.) Welch and her partner, David Rawlings, tossed off these 48 songs over the course of a single weekend, in 2002, intending them as nothing more than contract fulfillment; they then languished in a warehouse somewhere, Rosebud-style, until a tornado blew through Nashville and nearly destroyed the tapes. With a jolt of clarity, Welch and Rawlings realized that these discarded tunes were worth preserving, and if they are worth preserving then they must be worth airing in public. The resulting collection amounts to something of a deluge for Welch fans, who are by now accustomed to getting maybe 10 new songs each decade from the famously fastidious artist. But if this treasure trove of loose, acoustic recordings is notable for its magnitude, it’s all the more remarkable for how it presents the music of Welch and Rawlings in a new light: Where proper Gillian Welch albums feel careful in their writing and assembly, the material here is agreeably tossed-off and casual. There are some tearjerkers and heavy hitters, but also some of the most lighthearted, unassuming songs Welch has ever committed to tape. Like All the Good Times, Welch and Rawlings’s other 2020 release (a quarantine covers collection), The Lost Songs feels unencumbered by the historical sweep and thematic cohesion that characterize 2001’s Time (The Revelator) or 2011’s The Harrow and the Harvest; it revels in the freedom to just have fun singing and playing folk music.
All three volumes are superb, but song for song, Volume 3 (which saw release in November of last year) is the sharpest of the bunch. It may also be the most far-reaching; it opens with a tough-talking blues (“Sin City”) and a two-minute Chuck Berry sendup (“Turn it Up”) before eventually winding its way to a folksy amble called “How’s About You,” as fine an example as any of Welch’s easeful way with rural vernaculars. There’s some familiar material here and there, including the Soul Journey standout “Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor.” There are also some wonderful surprises. With the lilting “There’s a First Time for Everything,” Welch proves that she can write something as direct, as tuneful, and as wrenching as a Great American Songbook standard while, working in a similar mode, “What Can I Do” is a haunted torch song, textured with acoustic frills from Rawlings. “There’s gotta be a song left to sing / Because everybody can’t have thought of everything,” Welch muses on the closing number, “One Little Song.” The Lost Songs serves to prove that she’s been holding out on us.
Writer: Josh Hurst Section: Rooted & Restless
21 Savage & Metro Boomin’
If Savage Mode is the cult classic that introduced the world to 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’, Savage Mode II is the blockbuster sequel, one that affords the two collaborators extravagant resources with which to properly bring their ideal vision to life. The boost in budget is immediately apparent: The set opens with a narration by none other than Morgan Freeman, whose supernatural aura looms throughout, adding a cinematic feel to the project. For his part, Metro maintains his focus on production texture at a granular level, though his aesthetic gets a noticeable upgrade: more subtle flourishes enter the mix, like the synth lines of “Rich Nigga Shit” (which feel luxe to the extent that they summon images of both artists living-it-up in silk loungewear). With everything being grander and more expensive-sounding, 21 seems inspired to become a larger-than-life version of his rap persona, upping the ante of his methodically violent bars and even coming up with exactly one new flow: after an extended stint of rigid rapping, the chorus of “Slidin’” stretches end-rhymes like sweet taffy, utilizing an elongated croak that’s bound to wriggle deep into the listener’s subconscious. With all that said in 21 Savage’s favor, unfortunately, elsewhere on Savage Mode II the rapper seems like the weak link; his simple rhyme schemes have lost a step, failing to deliver the same bone-chillingly intense minimalism that defined his iconic performance on the original Savage Mode. Ultimately, for all the effort that’s been put into making this sequel so extra, the best moments tend to come when 21 and Metro deign to revisit the same formula of grim despondency that worked so well for them the first time around. And that combination of half-hearted experimentation and diminished returns on original strengths add up to Savage Mode II being something of a disappointment.
Writer: Ryo Miyauchi Section: What Would Meek Do?
Kylie Minogue, a trusted spokesperson of the dance floor, heard the disco call and answered it — again. After her divisive foray into country-pop with 2018’s Golden, Kylie has returned to working with the sounds that have defined her career in the emphatically-titled DISCO. The joyous album delivers in its modest promise, filled start-to-finish with dance pop tracks with demure strings and delicate grooves that nod to the genre. Recorded mostly at Minogue’s home studio amidst the pandemic, the throughline is obvious: every track on DISCO is upbeat, single-ready, and has that special maximalist, near-grating quality that’s part of the Kylie musical tradition. Nuance and reinvention are not a part of the process at this stage of Kylie’s career and — maybe it’s because of the epoque, maybe it’s her mastery of this sound — they’re not missed on this non-stop victory lap. Album opener “Magic,” sets the tone perfectly for this camp event that follows. From the trumpet’s staccato, the youthful, banal lyrics (“So, do you believe in magic? / Do you, do you, do you?”) and the airy, ad-libbed whispers of “magic,” Kylie is chasing an aesthetic, not digging for profundity.
Such theatrics are present throughout the record. The bass-heavy “Monday Blues” threatens to run away from itself as Kylie lists the days of the week on top of a propulsive drum beat and crescendoing horns. “Dance Floor Darling” starts moderately before an accelerando transports us to a breakneck speed, introducing electronically altered tracks of Kylie, reminiscent of Random Access Memories. She also dons her vocoder on “Real Groove,” a voyeuristic tale of sexual rivalry at the discotheque, which is likely to be the biggest moment of this album thanks to a remix with Dua Lipa and a premiere at her Studio 2054 performance. To close the record, Kylie takes a classic, straightforward disco approach on “Celebrate You,” a clever and cathartic finale and a joyous celebration of the dance floor everyperson, affectionately referred to here as “Mary.” Kylie squeaks out higher notes and spits sillier lyrics than ever before. It’s a perfect finale. On DISCO, Kylie pays homage to music she loves, but she’s also looking back at her career as a hitmaker, basking in the glory of a revival in the sound that brought her a second stateside peak during the Fever era. At this stage in Kylie’s career, it’s clear that this is the type of album she wants to make: breezy, light, cover-to-cover singalong bops. DISCO is about dancing and perfect, sticky hooks: it’s an assured album that’s exactly what it wants to be.
Writer: Tanner Stechnij Section: Pop Rocks
Only in the world of Autechre could the enigmatic, intergalactic goth etudes of SIGN constitute easy listening. But such is their uniquely audacious and demanding project. The long-running electronic duo’s previous studio release, 2018’s NTS Sessions 1-4, was eight hours long, and they have followed it with 26 live albums and a 2-hour compilation of 30-year old material since. To be overwhelmed by the mass and density of Autechre as a project is increasingly the only way the band allows listeners to experience them. And then there’s the music itself — more often than not, a challenging maze of mechanized sound. SIGN, by contrast, is melodic, straightforward, and just over an hour long. Where NTS Sessions was bruising, SIGN’s synth pulses skew gentler — opener “M4 Lema” moves with a kind of magisterial grace, while the gradual unfurling of the track “Metaz form8” manifests an emotional weight. Though SIGN’s glacial sense of calm isn’t unprecedented in the Autechre catalog (their first two albums, along with 2010’s Oversteps, are new age antecedents of sorts), this break from the band’s recent trajectory makes for an uncharacteristically accessible gesture. Even SIGN’s more percussive tracks (“si00,” “au14”) are content to click and shimmer rather than punish — such is Autechre’s commitment to sustaining the album’s restrained, subdued mood.
Of course, things with Autechre are never so simple, and 12 days after SIGN’s release, the duo surprise-released PLUS, another hour-and-change of (mostly) new music. Compared to SIGN, PLUS is more eclectic — half tonality-shifting, percussive excursions, half miniature versions of the techno balladry of SIGN. This is by no means a detriment; the comparatively more experimental thrust of PLUS is, well, a plus. Take the album’s centerpiece, “X4,” whose original version (from NTS Sessions) built to a combustible conclusion; here, the track burns brightly first, before winding down into unexpected quietude. (Eerie closer “TM1 open” charts a similar path.) Elsewhere, the necrotic crawl of “marhide” is practically a Ghostmane beat, metallic punctuations through a thick haze, while “iipre esc” is perhaps the most overtly dramatic offering of anything on PLUS or SIGN. That this one-two punch release arrives itself as a supplement to Autechre’s marathon radio sets for Mixcloud from earlier this year — generous, 12-hour collections of ‘80s rap and electro — is proof positive that the band has only barely pared back the sprawl of their work, pivoting to smaller serving sizes, perhaps, but supplying those in abundance.
Writer: Michael Doub Section: Obscure Object
D’orjay the Singing Shaman
Much of the discourse about country music in 2020 centered on inclusion and the genre’s deeply entrenched — and deeply problematic — white supremacism. D’orjay the Singing Shaman’s New Kind of Outlaw is an album that foregrounds matters of identity, and D’orjay commands entry into a space that has, historically, not been welcoming to women of color and queer artists and perspectives. What’s immediately striking about the album is D’orjay’s mastery of country, blues, rock, and hip-hop conventions — and her facility with incorporating meaningful genre signifiers into her songs in ways that honor genre without being overly beholden to it. The title track, one of 2020’s best country singles, lays down an acoustic blues riff over a four-on-the-four stomp that puts the likes of Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert on immediate notice that their “outlaw” drag is purely performative. The song is a powerful declaration of intent, as D’orjay drawls, “They ain’t feelin’ my black, queer flow,” before shouting, “I love country music / Will country music love me?” The rest of New Kind of Outlaw reaffirms D’orjay’s love of country music. “Dirty Little Secrets” is a love-gone-wrong ballad drenched in steel guitar, while “One Day Closer” bounces along to some church piano power chords. Throughout, D’orjay’s full-bodied alto makes her a forceful presence: She’s a great singer, belting the a capella opening of “Float On (I Choose Me)” and showcasing her keen interpretive instincts on a terrific cover of the Wallflowers’ “One Headlight,” which closes the set. What makes New Kind of Outlaw such an assured debut, though, is D’orjay the Singing Shaman’s embrace of what makes country music vital — while also refusing its historical limitations and biases.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Rooted & Restless