Drake — the artist, the brand, the living meme — goes through the motions these days. Why? Because he knows that he’ll be handsomely rewarded for doing so. After all, he’s become the biggest musical act in the world by replicating the same exact product for the fifth or sixth time, somehow breaking even more streaming records with each subsequent project — all achievements that he will eventually topple in the near future, once again by sticking to a formula that became tiring two album cycles ago. He’s unstoppable — to a degree that makes it rather difficult to root for him, a fact not helped by either the stagnant quality of his current output or his near monolithic presence in general culture (or because he DMs teenagers). A new album from Drake isn’t a revelatory experience, more an expected recurring event that needs little prior fanfare or even the most basic rollout to connect with the general listening public. There was “Laugh Now, Cry Later,” but that was scrapped after it failed to reach the top spot on the Billboard 100. Other than that, it was only the status of Drake’s name-brand recognition that kindled the non-existent fervor. Even when he was actively trying to drum up some much-needed excitement before release, the best Aubrey Graham could muster was putting long-standing collaborators’ names on regional billboards in a not-so-creative version of Guess Who?, clearly attempting to mimic the same type of tactics that his arch-rival Kanye West employed in the media-event frenzy lead-up that surrounded Donda.
This is to say, if you’ve listened to any Drake release from the last few years, then you’ve in essence already gotten the gist of Certified Lover Boy before even hitting play on the first song. It is, in theory, and in practice, nearly identical to Scorpion and Views, except Drizzy has somehow gotten more jaded since 2016 and even less artistically ambitious. There are 20 or so tracks, most of which could comfortably sit in the category of “chill background music” as they plod along with inert synth arrangements and tonally one-dimensional instrumental choices. In keeping with the established Drake mythos, there are references galore to past mistakes that are never fully explained or explored, with questionable bars that were written with the intention of setting the internet ablaze (taken to its logical conclusion with the groan-worthy “Girls Want Girls,” a deeply stupid song packed full of them). There’s a lot of faux mean-mugging and Internet gangster cosplay — he claims the weather is looking “real opp-y outside” on Savage Mode II leftover “Knife Talk,” which it definitely does in front of his multi-million dollar Toronto mansion — with some additional moping about past lovers that you’d expect from a 22-year-old, not someone who’s pushing 40 (he has a track here called “Fucking Fans,” do with that information as you will). The bitterness culminates with the thinly-veiled Ye diss track “7am on Bridle Path,” where his peeved presence suggests human emotion outside of pity and arrogance; it completely fails to register as menacing (Drake once again plays the victim, his go-to media tactic), but it’s one of the few moments that carries a pulse.
Outside of these titles, only a handful leave much of an impression: beyond sounding aggressively expensive — there’s a Beatles sample; guess getting MJ again would be a bit overkill — and stylistically inert, they feature plenty of guests who carry their respected tracks, like the boisterous “You Only Live Twice” featuring the much-needed talents of Rick Ross and Lil Wayne, who light a fire under Champagne Papi’s ass. The notable exception to this rule comes in the form of “Way 2 Sexy,” though that’s mainly due to how fucking cringe it is: Drake awkwardly tries to act suave over a Right Said Fred sample being unironically deployed in 2021, while Future croaks out its stupid chorus and Young Thug tries to sneak out the backdoor with a pitiful closing verse. All three come off as desperate to stay relevant, somehow even more yikes than the atrocious Damien Hirst cover art for CLB, which will certainly age as poorly as most of the monotonous music here will. Drake has put out another album; not much more to it than that.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: What Would Meek Do?
Following the genre-bursting bravura of I Am Shelby Lynne — an album so drunk on possibility it won its maker a Grammy for Best New Artist, despite being the sixth title in her discography — you might have assumed that Lynne could do just about anything. As, perhaps, she can. But if you had “bare-bones collection of gospel songs and Christian spirituals” on your Bingo card, well, you’re one step ahead of the rest of us. Either way, The Servant is certainly a welcome arrival. Released to remarkably little fanfare in the summer of 2021, The Servant rolls through 10 songs that have been passed down through folk traditions, revival meetings, and tattered Baptists hymnals, the album’s unassuming launch mirroring the modest quality of the music. Amidst standards like “Go Tell it On the Mountain” and “Wayfaring Stranger,” it’s possible that “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” an old gem most commonly associated with Johnny Cash, is the closest The Servant comes to offering a curveball or an obscurity. But the familiarity of these songs is a feature, not a bug: The Servant isn’t about uncovering gnostic texts so much as seeking solace in the songbook that has sustained Lynne, and countless other pilgrims alongside her, for generations. The warmth and affection in her singing are palpable: For her, these songs are not just folk relics, but reservoirs of living hope and consolation.
Lynne has never before used her music for such straightforward expressions of faith and devotion, which might make The Servant feel like an apocryphal text rather than core canon. But actually, it’s not the outlier you might think it is: She’s spent a decade or more making lovely, low-key affairs with small bands of collaborators, each album impressive in its craft and appealing in its homemade feel. This one is no exception. In fact, it’s the most modest undertaking of her career: its songs feature just her voice, the unobtrusive shading of some harmony singers, simmering bass, rickety percussion, and a strummed electric guitar, vaguely reminiscent of Roebuck Staples’ resonant accompaniment. Even within this modest framework, and even with an energy level that never crests above laid-back and low-key, The Servant finds plenty of space for variety: Lynne’s “Amazing Grace” plays like a dreamy companion piece to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” where “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot” is indeed a persuasive bit of swing. She brings jubilance to “Didn’t It Rain,” and soul-rattling solemnity to “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” Like any great psalter, The Servant provides a rich vocabulary for articulating a full range of human emotions. It’s a beautiful exploration of an American folk tributary that continues to nourish and revive; and, another piece of evidence that, as a singer and a record-maker, Lynne can do pretty much anything.
Writer: Josh Hurst Section: Rooted & Restless
Alessia Cara made her name as an indie-pop girl in the mid-2010s post-Lorde boom, and a few years later, her biggest hits — “Here,” “Scars to Your Beautiful,” Zedd’s “Stay,” Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” — mostly feel inessential, or at least diminished by similar songs that came soon after. Cara never seemed to have pop star ambitions, content to be honest in her writing and presentation, and so her presence has become more ignorable in the years after her Best New Artist win. But that doesn’t mean her output has been bad: if anything, having the time to grow and the ability to settle comfortably into a niche only seems to have improved Cara’s music. Her last project, 2019’s This Summer, was an underrated EP full of warm singer-songwriter pop that seemed like a hint of more good music to come (“October” and “Ready” were the best tracks), and her new full-length album, In the Meantime, feels like a worthy and natural follow-up. To be clear, it’s not a groundbreaking record, but it is a pleasant, quiet one that makes for an appropriate companion in our current chaotic world.
Mellow, acoustic indie-pop is the sound most often associated with Cara, but Meantime incorporates some other playful musical influences as well. Standout track “Lie to Me” is a legitimately upbeat jam; insomniatic lament “Sweet Dream” has violins and a distorted synthy hook; there’s a crooning, jazzy feel to hypnotic single “Shapeshifter”; “Find My Boy” pulls from bossa nova; opening track “Box in the Ocean” has a syncopated, reggae-ish beat. “Middle Ground” is solidly mid-tempo, but also features a nice half-rapped, half-sung verse from Chika that references both basketball and Disney’s Hercules. And though the project stays squarely in the territory of the introspective singer-songwriter, there are surprising, upbeat musical moments scattered all over its runtime that keep the listening experience fresh across a long tracklist.
At 17 songs (plus one short intro), there are inevitably some tracks on In the Meantime that end up feeling like filler. There’s a bit of a slump in the middle — “Somebody Else” and “Drama Queen” aren’t bad, but are somewhat nondescript and could have easily been cut. But the album at least ends on a strong note: the last half a dozen songs are the best stretch on the entire project, sonically varied and boasting strong hooks and vivid atmospheres. Although the upbeat tracks on the album are fun, Cara knows what she’s doing as a writer and makes a few of the slower songs into highlights as well, and penultimate track “You Let Me Down” is a great example. It’s quiet and resigned, but the soft production and Cara’s nuanced vocal performance elevate it from one-note despondence into a pretty, bittersweet breakup song. “I Miss You, Don’t Call Me” is another slow track whose gorgeous harmonies and simple, steady beat turn its heartbreak sentiment into something special.
About half the songs on Meantime are produced by either Jon Levine or Michael Wise and cowritten solely by them and Cara. However, there’s a surprising amount of other writers and producers scattered across the rest of the tracklist: notable names like Boi-1da, Salaam Remi, Greg Kurstin, Caroline Ailin, and Joel Little all appear for only one song each. It’s impressive, then, how cohesive and specific to Alessia Cara’s voice this album feels. The tracklist on its own seems to indicate a scattershot approach to writing with whoever was available, yet Cara’s vision is strong enough to cohere these disparate collaborators and influences together into an album that feels like a unified statement.
The lasting impression that In the Meantime leaves you with is, yes, that of a pandemic album. Not explicitly (thank god), but quietly, in its multiple references to endings, isolation, troubled sleep, and the sense of having nothing to do but get stuck in your own head. But the music itself is pretty, wistful, and empathetic to the emotional turmoil it describes: it’s the kind of project that works best on shuffle in the background, as a companion to make your quiet moments of solitude feel a little more full.
Writer: Kayla Beardslee Section: Pop Rocks
For many, Sleigh Bells may solely exist in hazy memories of 2010–2012, though they have in fact kept together and continued to release albums with some regularity. 2013’s Bitter Rivals would likely be the cut-off point for most, the album seemingly the crest of their aesthetic’s potential, and the band seems to have felt similarly, reorienting with the founding of their own label (Torn Clean) on which they released 2016’s Jessica Rabbit. That album put in some conscious effort to advance the Sleigh Bells project, skewing toward expansive, fluid melodies and working vocalist Alexis Krauss’s range harder than ever before. A follow-up EP, Kid Kruschev, came out in short order and kept to this newish direction, but neither project brought them back closer to the peak of their visibility. Now, four years on from Kid Kruschev and eight from their last project for Mom + Pop, Sleigh Bells return to that label with Texis, refocusing on the stylings and compositions that initially cast them as icons of a particular millennial demographic.
While Sleigh Bells aren’t likely to return to the heights of 2010’s Treats and its various, ubiquitous singles, they are savvy in their timing, recognizing a cultural nostalgia for that album as well as the emergence of popular music trends (re: hyperpop) that share aesthetic proclivities similar to those that informed that record. To their credit, Krauss and co-Sleigh Bell Derek E. Miller sound totally engaged and appropriately contemporary on Texis, convincingly bridging their not-so-distant past with the current-day music that has descended from it. The songs here pull off the classic Sleigh Bells combo of vaguely ominous lyrics delivered as clipped schoolyard chant/cheer and sing-songy femme vocals over aggressive, thrashy guitar (the album art seems to allude to Pantera as an influence) complemented by noisy production, as orchestrated by Miller. This time around, Miller’s compositions are geared more explicitly toward club-appropriate, danceable rhythms, frontloading these tracks with precise, establishing beats that provide a throughline through the usual Sleigh Bells sonic landscape. Opening track “SWEET75” sets this template while poking fun at the band’s present-day positioning in the culture (“Aren’t you a little too old for rock n’ roll?”), where subsequent songs move away from this light self-referentialism while sticking to this same compositional pattern, favoring punchy anthemic hooks more broad and vibey than profound (lead single “Locus Laced” has Krauss exclaiming “I feel like dynamite / I feel like dyin’ tonight”). Over the course of Texis’s lean, unrelenting 35 minutes, Krauss and Miller reassert themselves as captivating performers, though there’s a uniformity to these tracks that renders them unsatisfying outside the immediate moment in which they’re enjoyed. Still, Sleigh Bells has a keen understanding of their strengths even if they haven’t always known how to further them, and Texis is a testament to the fact that they can still turn it on when they want to.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux Section: Ledger Line
To say that a record is the best mainstream country album of its year is a peculiar form of genre gatekeeping: it implies that the major labels on Music Row are fundamentally incapable of releasing work that honors country’s conventions while still pushing the genre ever forward. It has also resulted in a decade-plus period in which exactly four artists have rotated the honor of the consensus choice of having created Nashville’s One Great Album. But 2021 has broken form; Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton are off-cycle for new releases, Kacey Musgraves released a pop album that can most politely be characterized as “divisive,” and Eric Church put out a bloated double-album that no one liked all that much. The beneficiary of this disruption is Carly Pearce, whose 29: Written in Stone has earned raves for the vulnerability of Pearce’s songwriting and its skillful balance between traditional flourishes and the cadences of contemporary pop-country.
Pearce previewed the set as a 7-song EP back in February; the great surprise of Written in Stone is how much stronger it is in its expanded version, since the new songs here lean into the thematic heft of the album’s status as Pearce’s “divorce record.” Whether or not the songs are purely autobiographical is incidental because the specificity of the details on the songs leaves the most precise of cuts: “He helped me a change a tire in the Citgo parking lot,” makes for a hell of an opening line — one delivered by the great Ashley McBryde on “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” — while there’s a real weight to the reflection on the title track when Pearce sings, “twenty-nine / is the year I got married and divorced… / From a Ms. to a Mrs., then the other way around.” “What He Didn’t Do” boasts the strongest hook that Pearce has yet committed to record, making for a withering kiss-off that accounts for every last failing that doomed a relationship, and “Your Drinkin’, My Problem” nearly matches that standout track for its catchiness and its savage dressing-down of an ex.
Still, the album’s centerpiece is “Dear Mrs. Loretta,” on which Pearce stakes her claim as the heiress apparent to Kentucky’s legacy of country music, as she coaxes Patty Loveless out of retirement for a duet that pays tribute to Loretta Lynn. Singing directly to Lynn herself, Pearce sighs, “Your songs were all fun / Til I lived them myself,” before belting out, “I’m not a coal miner’s daughter / But my grandmother was,” as Loveless wails a high harmony. It’s a glorious moment in isolation, but, in the context of an album steeped in personal heartbreak and country tradition, it feels like the song on which Pearce truly comes into her own as an artist. To say 29: Written in Stone is the best mainstream country album of 2021 isn’t to damn the album with faint praise; instead, it highlights how an on-the-cusp-of-the-A-list-er can still set an awfully high bar for what modern country music can be.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Rooted & Restless