It’s been too long since Alicia Keys released her 2016 album, HERE. Though not always as effective as it was ambitious, her heartfelt brand of R&B, paired with some of her most political songwriting to date, arrived at what felt like just the right time. And even if it didn’t stand out in a year filled with politically charged albums made by black American artists – her competition included Beyoncé, Solange, and Frank Ocean, to name just a few – it served as yet another reminder that few contemporary songwriters are as adept at crafting inspirational self-esteem anthems as Alicia Keys, from the rousing ‘Holy War’ to the upbeat ‘Work On It’.
Keys’ new album, ALICIA, doesn’t follow the same artistic path that the more exploratory, versatile side of HERE seemed to hint at, but it is once again both timely and often empowering. There’s a reason lead single ‘Underdog’, an uplifting track that’s anchored by Keys’ ability to sell everyday stories about perseverance, only grew in popularity since it was first unveiled in January. It’s no doubt one of the album’s highlights, too, but it’s far from the only song of its kind here – and it’s when ALICIA seems to be openly addressing the current cultural climate that it feels most pertinent, as in the buoyant ‘Authors of Forever’, where Keys assures the “lost and lonely people” that it’s going to be alright.
Over the last couple months, producer Jim-E Stack has been sharing some stray tracks — “Note To Self” featuring Empress Of and “Sweet Summer Sweat” featuring Dijon — and today he’s announced a whole new album called Ephemera, which will be out at the end of October. It also includes “Good Enough,” his collab with Ant Clemons that came out last year, and team-ups with Kacy Hill, Octavian, Bearface, and, last but certainly not least, Bon Iver.
Jim-E Stack has been in the Bon Iver orbit this year, racking up credits on his 2020 singles “PDLIF” and “AUATC,” and now Bon Iver has repaid the favor. “Jeanie” certainly sounds like it came out of the Justin Vernon extended universe, with Vernon’s manipulated vocals front-and-center over a driving and gooey beat.
Today — on a single day’s notice, just in time for the autumnal equinox — Seattle folk ensemble Fleet Foxes released its long-awaited fourth album Shore, a product of two years of hard work and unexpected twists. Initial writing for the album began as touring for 2017’s Crack-Up wrapped in 2018, and recording started in earnest a year ago but slowed in February — chief singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Robin Pecknold struggled to find words to match his new songs’ rustic highs — before coming to a halt in March along with much of the country, as shutdown procedures began to combat COVID-19. Pecknold dropped everything and decamped to New York, figuring the city that got hit first would also get through the worst of it first, then eased into the unsettling quiet of quarantine, periodically taking daylong drives without a set destination as the restrictions loosened and participating in marches in the summer as they passed his door.
It was in those aimless drives that lyrics for the instrumentals took shape. They’re achingly sentimental, borne out of missing friends and the comforting rhythms of a life that now seems forever changed. “May the last long year be forgiven,” Pecknold sings in “Featherweight,” “all that war left within it.” “I’ll be better off in a year or in two,” he says at the close of “A Long Way Past the Past.” Shore’s 15 songs are a gearshift from the longer compositions and brash textures of Crack-Up, though they’re no less elemental and transportive. The bustling “Can I Believe You?” is one of the finest Fleet Foxes rockers to date; the opener “Wading in Waist-High Water” is a sweeping sendoff to a summer we barely knew but will never forget. Accompanying Shore is an hour-long nature documentary shot by Pecknold’s friend Kersti Jan Werdal around Seattle and Washington State. Together, he hopes the film and album will provide comfort to anyone understandably having a rough year.
Despite carving out a name for himself in recent years as a West Coast artist to watch — eye-catching solo projects here (2016’s ‘I’m Uugly’), glowing endorsements from the likes of Billie Eilish and Tyler, the Creator there — Duckwrth has long had his sights set on his major label debut album.
The LA musician and visual artist, born Jared Lee, recently revealed in a YouTube interview that he selected the name for this particular project way back in 2013. “But I was never in the right space with myself mentally and energy-wise to be able to present an album that felt like a celebration,” he admitted. “An album that was made with nothing but love and joy.”
Boy, could we all use some love and joy right now, huh? Fortunately, Duckwrth has chosen the chaotic backdrop of 2020 to provide some relief with ‘SuperGood’, his first studio album as part of the Republic Records roster. It’s a vibrant sonic collage of escapism that twists and turns in direction with almost every track change, and Duckwrth previously signposted the record’s protean nature by declaring that it also serves as “an appreciation for Black music and Black rhythm”.
The record’s pick-and-mix approach to genre produces a something-for-everyone feel to this 16-track album: try resisting the ‘Coloring Book’-like hip-hop jam ‘Money Dance’ or the slick pop-funk guitar licks that accompany the rich falsettos on ‘World On Wheels’. You’ll equally find it tough to find much of a grudge with the smooth, chopped soul of the EARTHGANG collaboration ‘Super Bounce’, while ‘Coming Closer’ boasts a house-meets-R&B beat that would have Kaytranada nodding in approval.