THE NEW YORK TIMES

15 songs we almost missed this year

15-songs-we-almost-missed-this-year

Pop critics for The New York Times weigh in on notable new songs and videos. 

Sofia Kourtesis, ‘La Perla’

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 leukemia, 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 materializes 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 Bearer’

“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.” – JON CARAMANICA

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. – HERRERA

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 Days’

“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, ‘Collage’

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 colors, cycles and trying to “find a song to sing that is everything,” enigmatic and arresting. – PARELES

Caetano Veloso, ‘Anjos Tronchos’

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. – CARAMANICA

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, ‘Zandaq’

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 5’

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 jeweled 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 RUSSONELLO

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. – HERRERA

Johnathan Blake, ‘Abiyoyo’

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 Glue’

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


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.