A popstar reclaims her hype, an indie-darling goes pop, and a trio of locals make good on their early promise. These are the songs of the month – five international, five local – as picked by The Spinoff’s culture editor Sam Brooks.
‘Don’t Feel Like Crying’ by Sigrid
For a while it seemed like the heat was cooling a little on Sigrid, the 23 year old wunderkind whose febrile pop seemed like a natural heir to Robyn’s mid-aughts sad pop throne. After a few unimpeachable singles (‘Plot Twist’, ‘Strangers’) and some memorable live performances, an album never materialised and the singles got more… impeachable, I suppose.
‘Don’t Feel Like Crying’ shifts Sigrid from neutral into fifth right from the uplifting strings that open this two-and-a-half minute ode to keeping a stiff upper lip. While Robyn sang along to club beats about dancing on her own, Sigrid sings along to a plinky piano about staying out on the town because if she ‘goes home, she’s gonna get upset’. It’s the kind of pop song that deserves a seven minute Fred Falke remix, and in a just world that’s what we would get.
‘Juice’ by Lizzo
Speaking of ‘where the hell is the album’, Lizzo!
Lizzo’s ascent has been more gradual than Sigrid’s. ‘Good as Hell’ came out in 2016 but didn’t seem to truly sink into public consciousness until last year, even though Lizzo has been reliably creating these love songs – whether it’s loving yourself or loving whoever the hell you want to love – for a good half-decade now.
With ‘Juice’, Lizzo moves from a zone of self-love into a zone of ‘you should love me, why don’t you love me, you dick.’ It’s not the most exciting track that Lizzo has ever made, and alongside the likes of last year’s ‘Boys’ or even ‘Fitness’, it feels like an album track, but Lizzo has enough charisma to push even a B-side into essential status.
‘Red Bull and Hennessy’ by Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis is back, you guys! The Voyager was one of my favourite albums of 2014 – the perfect blend of pop sensibilities and surf rock vibes, it was an album that made as much sense at a barbecue as after a breakup. ‘Red Bull and Hennessy’, a title so graphic it makes me sympathise with her hangover already, plants Lewis in the role of that waif who gets a bit too drunk, solely so she can make a bad decision with someone whose interactions can only be described as ‘bad decisions’.
‘Red Bull and Hennessy’ hews a little closer to country that Lewis’ earlier stuff, likely courtesy of its producer, Mandy Moore’s ex-husband Ryan Adams, and the big production suits Lewis well, surrounding her glass-cut vocals with double tracks, big drums (by, I’m shitting you not, the guy who did the narration for Thomas and the Tank Engine, Ringo Starr!) and a wall of guitars. And that solo! My lord.
Expect this one on year-end lists.
‘Seventeen’ by Sharon van Etten
Real talk: Is there an age that has made a better musical subject than ‘seventeen’? Probably, but Janis Ian, Stevie Nicks and now Sharon Van Etten make a great case for this being the perfect age for writing a song about.
I’m all for this trend of late-aughts indie darlings taking a right turn into pop that is in no way commercial, but is one hundred percent Good, Solid, Pop Music™. In this song (and also, the entirety of Remind Me Tomorrow, the year’s first essential album), John Congleton applies his distortion magic to Van Etten’s straw-thin voice and builds, builds, builds to a climax that recalls Fever Ray or even mid-nineties My Bloody Valentine. Hell, ‘Seventeen’ even has a fade-in, which should never work in a song.
Despite, maybe because of all these disparate factors, the song is an earworm, resting around the concept of Van Etten singing to her seventeen-year-old self palling around the city street: “But you’re just seventeen/So much like me.”
‘Gotta Go’ by Chung Ha
If you’re not familiar with Chung Ha, then you’re probably not familiar with modern K-pop, and vice-versa. Chung Ha used to be a part of the now defunct girl group I.O.I, but most importantly she released last year’s K-Pop smash hit ‘Roller Coaster’.
A good rule of thumb to follow when it comes to K-pop is that if you’re listening to a song that doesn’t have at least five hooks and isn’t secretly three songs blended into one, then it’s probably not worth listening to. ‘Gotta Go’ steps up to this expectation, and exceeds it.
The tinny synth flutes, the trap beat backing, the vocal samples all build and build until the final act of the song, essentially the third song, which explodes and threatens to break free like one of PCD’s best songs during their prime, or even a less stringent Little Mix song. It’s all anchored by Chung Ha’s surprisingly warm, confident vocal. Even her detours into English, which are often the cringe-kiss of death for a K-Pop song, come more as punctuation than as distractions.
In short: If you’re not paying attention to Chung Ha in 2019, then you’re not paying attention to K-pop. And if you’re not paying attention to K-pop, you’re not paying attention to where music is going.
‘Karma’ by Robinson
‘Karma’ begins with Robinson fitting into the now quintessential indie-pop croak, but the song takes off with the drop and the killer couplet: “Karma’s a bitch/and she’s coming for you!” That’s the kind of line where the dance circle turns inwards, points at each other, and yells in unison.
What makes it special is the hungry pine during the middle eight, where the beat drops out and Robinson simply repeats: “I was whole, I was whole, I was whole.” Love-hungry pop is one of my favourite kinds of pop, and this fits nicely (and cleverly) into that niche.
‘Falling Apart’ by Broods
Yes Broods! Give me that moody sixth cigarette of the night realness! Give me that Robyn b-side distortion! Give me that 90s Cardigans vibes! These are all the things that ‘Falling Apart’ touches upon, while still incorporating the gliding coolness that has always been essential to Broods’ general vibe.
I’m into it, can’t wait for Don’t Feed The Pop Monster.
‘Holograms’ by Tiny Ruins
And now for something completely different: ‘Holograms’ is more of a good thing from Tiny Ruins, with a little sprinkling of poppy stardust on top of it. On the surface this seems like a song that demands that you put flowers in your hair and don your flowiest robe, but it’s lyrics like “I saw the grim reaper and gave him the slip/saved by the Darth Vader novelty helmet” that clue you into the wry wit lying not that far beneath.
It’s a chill vibe, but not a sleepy one, is what I’m saying.
‘Greensmoke’ by imugi (이무기)
The song’s atmosphere is hazy beats and smoky vibes, but the vocals and lyrics are biting and sharp, culminating in the song’s apparent thesis: “I got no empathy for pain.” Which is nothing if not a big, sympathetic mood during this January heatwave.
Also: “Smoke turning green, crush out this roaches, don’t wanna sound mean, but I am too faded.” Not sure what it means, but I love it.
‘Depression’ by Dead Little Penny
The obligatory press release describes Hayley Smith’s voice as being similar to Courtney Love, which is a better comparison than I could make, so why not reprint it here? Smith’s voice doesn’t just cut through the heavy guitars of ‘Depression’, it melds with them to create a fuller, more oppressive wall of sound.
It’s shoegaze, sure, whatever that might mean in the year 2019 when genres serve less as boundaries and more as helpful tags, but there are clear hooks here that make it a nice, snug fit on pretty much any playlist you might want to make to sound cool this summer.
You can listen to The Spinoff Music’s Songs of the Month for January at the playlist right here:
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.