Long before their days of weighty concepts and studio experimentation, Los Lobos cut their teeth as a wedding band, doggedly gigging across Los Angeles. Relying on a deep reservoir of crowd-pleasing covers, the band honed a particular set of skills: an ability to capture the familiar contours of beloved songs while still adding something of their own personal panache. It’s an ability that has proven bedrock throughout their long-running career, and it’s brought to the foreground with Native Sons, a collection of standards and obscurities associated with LA songwriters.
It’s tempting to say that an album like this offers freedom, or at least a kind of busman’s holiday, for a group that has long shouldered the burden of being arguably the most prominent of Mexican-American bands. They have admirably stewarded this position, and all the responsibilities entailed, with a handsome catalog of albums that have grown increasingly world-weary and politically engaged. Native Sons, on the other hand, very often plays like a party album, highlighting the band’s muscle but also their light touch: listen to how nimbly they navigate the swingin’ jump blues “Never No More,” or to their good-natured groove on “Farmer John,” a song they’ve been playing for decades. When the song calls for it, Los Lobos can ratchet up their intensity, bringing piledriving momentum to Thee Midniters’ “Love Special Delivery” and pushing “Los Chucos Suaves” into a frenzy of percussion and horns. (Special kudos to sax player Steve Berlin, whose raw, juke-joint playing is integral to the record’s endearingly ragged spirit.) The album’s momentum stalls only when it downshifts into mid-tempo FM radio fare, like Stephen Stills’ “Bluebird,” though it’s worth singling out War’s “The World is a Ghetto” for providing the band with an excuse to stretch out for a full eight-minute odyssey.
Of course, Los Lobos couldn’t fully opt out of their ambassadorial role even if they wanted to, so while there’s not much in the way of explicit politics here, Native Son stands for something nonetheless: its intermingling of classic rock stalwarts with little-knowns and also-rans makes some implicit arguments about the canon, and its melting pot of blues, folk, rock, and Mexican music embodies a borderlessness that transcends artificial division. More than anything, the album revels in the specificity of time and provenance: it celebrates a city in all its sprawl and complexity, shielded from the culture war’s insistence on reducing everyone and everywhere into simple symbolism. The closest Los Lobos gets to saying all this out loud is in the title song, the album’s lone original; it’s presented not as any kind of thesis statement, but as a lilting love song to the city herself. The affection is palpable, perfectly summarizing the heartfelt intentions of this top-tier covers collection.
Writer: Josh Hurst Section: Pop Rocks
It seems impossible to announce that 3OH!3 is back in the year 2021 with a new album, as many not familiar with the typical Warped Tour lineups of the late 2010s would assume the duo had passed either of old age or some sort of irrelevancy-based incident. But against all odds, NEED was released in August, an effort to revisit the sound of their old albums while still reflecting some of the sonic changes that came with the albums that followed their most popular era.
Sean Foreman and Nathaniel Motte have aged. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the fundamentals of human biology, but their music hasn’t entirely aged with them — the trademark juvenilia that has peppered 3OH!3’s catalogue since their inception is as plentiful as ever. Perhaps as a contrast to this, the duo notably references their mutual encroachment on middle age on tracks like lead single “I’m So Sad,” a mix of their older electro-club tonality and their later pop punk guitar affectations. But despite this over-the-hill acknowledgment, they still do drop familiar lines, like a reference to meeting a hookup in the bathroom after class, which honestly scans more like a sex crime than flirtatious innuendo at this point in their careers. They pass it off nonchalantly enough, however, and their catchy hooks — built on the pair’s longstanding staples of thumping bass, electronic whirls, and vocal effects on nearly every line — tie together songs comparing breakups to underwear skid marks (rest assured, the duo reminds us that they wash out) and ones proclaiming that they should have probably settled down by this point in time. To some, such immaturity will surely be only cringey, upsetting even, but there’s no denying the clear tongue-in-cheek intentionality of the whole gambit, and the somewhat meta result is more lightly charming than creepy for those with more than a passing familiarity to the duo’s work. In a world of artists releasing the same album every 18 months in order to get enough streams to support their lifestyles, it’s genuinely exciting to listen to an effort that was 5 years in the making and that outright refuses to take itself too seriously.
In the late-aughts, a band like 3OH!3 would have been entirely disposable, considered a relic of the previous decade’s radio-pop frivolity. When they released their self-titled debut in 2007, it was easily assumed that they would release a couple more lackluster albums before fading into quick obscurity, as most bands in the party rap genre tended to do. Instead, the Colorado-based duo released a series of major hits, most famously “Starstrukk” and “Don’t Trust Me,” both of which were notable for their playfully crude and crass lyrics and earworm hooks, backed by of-the-time throbbing electronic beats. This would mark the end of the gravy train for the group for a while, as their follow-ups were rooted in a less popular pop-punk sound. Fast forward to 2021, where hyperpop artists like AG Cook and Dorian Electra and 100 gecs have soared in popularity in recent years, and connections to the heavily electronic party rap sounds of early 3OH!3 (and, more broadly, the late 2000s) can’t be ignored. It makes some poetic sense, then, that NEED contains a collaboration with the latter avant-popsters, and reflects the bizarre but deserved twist of fate wherein 3OH!3’s decades-old trendsetting has come to in many ways define the current landscape of popular online music. NEED is a celebration of that influence, while still absorbing some of the pop punk guitars that kept food on the table in the decade it took mainstream audiences to come to their senses. In this, and indeed all areas, it’s a major success.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Pop Rocks
Recorded in 2019, before she announced her official retirement, Encore will most likely be the legendary Wanda Jackson’s final studio album. For her swan song, Jackson enlisted a catalog of collaborators who, on paper, read like the obvious heirs to her genre-spanning legacy: Joan Jett, Elle King, and Angaleena Presley are among the artists who figure prominently on the project. Jett co-produced the album with her frequent partner Kenny Laguna, and she’s featured on three of the album’s eight tracks, so the temptation is to place much of the blame for the album’s limitations at her feet. Whether it’s a function of Jackson’s diminished vocal ability — she disclosed post hoc that she’d suffered from a stroke in 2018 — or a purposeful aesthetic choice, Encore’s mixing is atrocious, slathering Jackson’s performances in obvious compression or layering her beneath harmony vocals that are placed far too forward in the track. Simply put, the album sounds awful, and that’s a real disservice to Jackson and everyone else involved.
The material itself, however, is exactly the kind of spirited, shitkicking rockabilly, country, and blues hybrid that Jackson perfected, and all of the varied collaborators are game. “Two Shots,” with Jett and King, should have been a gimmie of a single, a bit of wink-and-nudge posturing in the vein of hits like “Gunpowder & Lead” and “Before He Cheats.” But the production trudges along, and Jackson sounds like she recorded her vocal in the same cave where Little Big Town recorded their last two albums, and so the track ends up utterly lifeless. “Good Girl Down,” a fantastic song that Jackson co-wrote with Presley and former American Idol standout Vanessa Olivarez and which appeared on Presley’s album Wrangled, plays out as a dirge, despite the spirited backing vocals by Presley and Candi Carpenter. There’s truly nothing on Encore that highlights how vital Jackson remained into the later years of her recorded output and, even more unforgivably, nothing that highlights any of the strengths that have made her one of the most important women in country music and rock and roll history. Jackson deserved a far better party than Encore for her send-off.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Rooted & Restless
Since 2017, K-pop artist Sunmi’s velvety synthpop singles have helped establish her as one of the most musically striking soloists in the industry. Her songs have cycled through concepts as varied as romantic city pop (“Pporappippam”) to social media being the uncanny valley (“Noir”) to sneering EDM drop (“Gashina”) to wistful EDM drop (“Heroine”) to catlike seducer (“Tail”) to her newest title track “You Can’t Sit With Us,” which is built on a foundation of 2000s Mean Girls nostalgia. Despite her consistent presence as a pillar of the K-pop scene — before her solo work, Sunmi was also a member of the popular group Wonder Girls — her discography is surprisingly small, as the majority of her comebacks have been standalone singles and her last mini album release was back in 2018. August’s 1/6 EP, then, is a significant addition to her discography, but not just because it has six new tracks: 1/6’s music is also exciting, thoughtful, and a highlight of the year among K-pop comebacks.
Almost all the songs on 1/6 are inspired by the ‘70s and ’80s retro sounds that have dominated K-pop most recently. (Interestingly, Sunmi’s single “Pporappippam” and her JYP collaboration “When We Disco” in summer 2020 were both at the forefront of this trend.) Release-day single “You Can’t Sit With Us” has no pretense about its existence in a post-“Blinding Lights” world — with a terrible rap break but enjoyable everything else, Sunmi sings about the frustration of a crush over bursts of synthwave production. B-sides “Sunny,” “1/6,” and “Call” all have gently polished nu-disco and funk-inspired grooves; the latter even has the lightest shades of piano house, while the former has, for some reason, an “O captain, my captain!” reference.
Despite buying wholesale into the retro trend, however, these songs distinguish themselves with sophisticated production and vocals and surprising touches of darkness and anxiety. Closing track “Borderline,” which was first performed in 2019 and released with a music video in 2020, is a significant departure from the rest of the mini album. Over hazy, grungy guitars, Sunmi sings in English about her mental health and the struggles of being in the spotlight (she opened up about her diagnosis with Borderline Personality Disorder last year). This song’s theme of trying to be “a good girl” also appears in “Call,” where she sings, “Used to call you my boy / And now you call me mad girl.” Shades of anxiety are present in “1/6” as well — its chipper beat slows down suddenly when Sunmi confesses, “Don’t wanna feel gravity / Don’t wanna feel anything,” and its lyric “Take my pressure to the moon” gains added meaning in conjunction with the EP’s tagline, “On the moon, where gravity is one-sixth, will the weight of anxiety also be one-sixth?” “You Can’t Sit With Us” is about her confusion over mixed feelings of love and hatred; even the lighthearted “Sunny” circles back to the question of personal identity (“Oh, you can call me Sunny, Sunny… / I’ll be your Sunmi, Sunmi”). Although the songs on this mini album are fun enough to be enjoyed mindlessly, their composition is thoughtful and unafraid to ask serious questions of the listener. It’s no coincidence that Sunmi is the sole credited lyricist for every one of these tracks.
The crown jewel of 1/6 is “Narcissism,” a stunning synthpop song with one of the best choruses of the year. In it, Sunmi dives even deeper into themes of fame, identity, and mental health (“You look at me, I am reflected in your eyes / Is that beautiful?”), writing in a way that seems to blur the distinction between artist and audience (“I shrunk myself into the mold you built”). The song begins with a twinkly beat and breathy vocals, but, after a long buildup, eventually explodes into a chorus so desperate, blinding, and almost overwhelming that it should make you feel grateful for the craft of pop music itself. “Narcissism” is a lavish song, rich in synth textures and melodies, but in the extremity of its emotions it also feels stark and vulnerable. It’s the perfect representation of Sunmi’s 1/6 as a whole: self-assured in its presentation as a polished piece of pop, but unafraid to question the norms that underpin that presentation—and creating nothing but great music along the way.
Writer: Kayla Beardslee Section: Foreign Correspondent
While many of country music’s legacy artists have been as prolific in their elderly years as they were in their youth, Connie Smith has recorded only a scant three new studio albums since 1978’s New Horizons. Despite regular appearances on the Grand Ole Opry stage, these lengthy gaps in recording create significant anticipation around each new album, along with questions about whether or not Smith will deviate in any substantial way from the brand of traditional country that has been her trademark aesthetic. The Cry of the Heart, Smith’s first album since 2011’s Long Line of Heartaches, answers those questions with a resounding no: It’s an album that, sonically, could be dropped most anywhere in Smith’s discography without seeming the least bit out of place. Unlike other veteran acts who have collaborated with producers who pushed them in new directions — Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series with Rick Rubin, or Tanya Tucker’s recent While I’m Livin’ set with Brandi Carlile — Smith has elected to sit comfortably within a style that has served her exceptionally well for decades.
The Cry of the Heart is Smith’s third album to be produced by her husband, Marty Stuart, and both are staunch preservationists of the sounds of country music’s “golden era,” and it’s her third straight album to stand as a sterling reminder that an artist of Smith’s caliber is not in any way limited by sticking to what she knows. What’s immediately striking about the set is how undiminished Smith’s voice is at the age of 80: always the genre’s most underrated vocalist, she possesses an easy power that allows her to fully envelop songs of heartbreak, like the standouts “Three Sides” and a cover of “A Million and One,” originally a hit for Billy Walker that she here takes definitive ownership of with a commanding performance. While her voice has deepened slightly, her inimitable sense of phrasing remains unchanged, and that’s what brings such a powerful agency to “Here Comes My Baby Back Again” and “I Just Don’t Believe Me Anymore,” a new song by the legendary Dallas Frazier. Though Smith chose some tremendous songs here from the likes of Frazier, Carl Jackson, Melba Montgomery, and Merle Haggard, the original compositions she and Stuart contributed to the set are exemplary trad-country tracks that mine familiar genre tropes without being reductive. There’s always the chance that an album like The Cry of the Heart, for its dogged traditionalism, will stand as more of a museum curio than an essential contemporary release. Stuart’s instincts at the mixing board here are spot-on and are the key to avoiding that outcome: he knows exactly how to highlight Smith’s on-point songwriting and her still-formidable voice at every turn. Genre purists will be hard-pressed to find a better album of this sort in 2021.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Rooted & Restless