Priest Picks #30: Our Favorite Songs of Q2 2021
This Q2 mixtape loosely covers the time period from April Fool's Day to Juneteenth, the latter finally and deservedly a national holiday. There is no theme, per se, but there is some heaviness at times; other times there's joy, and sometimes we don't know what the fuck is going on and we like that. The artists represented have passports from all over the globe (Canada, Africa, UK, Australia, France, Ohio) and drop pins all over the stylistic map. So, if you want to emerge from your cocoon with some panache, this mix is for you. If you're still not ready yet we've got you covered; I've included a slow wind down at the end. We're ready when you are, my friends. For the rest of you, press play.
1 MONSTER MAGNET | “The Diamond Mine / Mr. Destroyer”
Monster Magnet king wizard Dave Wyndorf knows his shit. When assembling tracks for his psych-metal covers album, A Better Dystopia, he knew it had to open with a "cover" of a late-night rant by Dave Diamond, a DJ from the late-60s/early-70s who was a major supporter of the psych-rock scene at the time, not to mention one crazy motherfucker (ironically, his nonsensical patter seems to have influenced Van Halen's own Diamond David Lee Roth). So, with your permission, I'm gonna cheat a little and open our Q2 mixtape with the freakiest two-minutes of 2021 to date. Here's a taste of madness as you emerge from yours...
Slide with me, now, down that purple shaft into the deep, inner depths of the diamond mine where we will witness the flight of the precious peanut butter fudge angel of love as she spreads her wings and flies high through the thundering silence of your vacuum-kept secret hiding out on the pulsating fringe of your bubbly, fudge mind...
The guy loved fudge, I can't fault him for that. He also loved the hallucinogenic properties of psychedelic drugs and the music that surrounded them. Monster Magnet does, too. The whole record is a loving homage to some demented and under-appreciated acid-rock tracks that only a small group of fringe-dwellers will be familiar with (that rules me out), but if you pay close attention to the lyrics of songs like simmering volcano freakout "Mr. Destroyer," you'll find Wyndorf's motives are deeper than mere tribute. These songs were selected to make a point. If you didn't already know, the track was originally cut by an Ohio band called Poobah back in 1972, but if you didn't you might assume it was written in response to the January 6th insurrection at the Capital: "The people gather in the street / They think it's time that they all meet / They say it's time to get their way / So they will start a war today." Not many bands could pull off such a trick, but Monster Magnet aren't just any band. This album, and this song in particular, is the answer to your post-COVID doldrums. Snap the fuck out of it already.
2 CLAUD | “That's Mr. Bitch To You"
I wasn't expecting a catchy indie-pop record as the first release from Phoebe Bridgers' new imprint, especially after she not-so-enticingly named it Saddest Factory Records. Ooooh, more sad bedroom pop? Sign me up! But Claud, from Chicago's tony North Shore, isn't just your average bedroom pop star. She's got a way with a catchy hook and she's got a sweet, pleasing singing style that makes even her most poignant observations go down like cotton candy. There are better overall songs on her debut record, Super Monster ("Guard Down," "Soft Spot," "Overnight"), but "That's Mr. Bitch to You" is too useful as an all-purpose takedown of toxic masculinity to pass up. I've found myself singing its indelible chorus in the strangest places at the oddest moments ever since.
3 THE BEACHES | “Let's Go”
While we're on the subject of socially conscious earworms, here's another sticky rock song that takes on gender supremacy, this time from the Beaches, a Toronto quartet that checked in with their second EP, the super-duper Future Lovers, earlier this year. They are clearly a band who want it all on their own terms and, with more catchy songs like "Let's Go" and the four others offered up, they just might get it. They've clearly been confronted and driven by the usual sexism faced by an all-girl band (i.e. guys mansplaining punk rock or trying to pigeonhole them as cute indie-pop stars) and they rear back with a powerful leg kick in response ("Fuck that! I'm just gonna be me / They can be whatever they are"). On "Let's Go" they temper their angst by never forgetting to bring a crowd-pleasing chorus of oooh ooh oohs along for the ride. I can already hear this song careening around the rafters of Toronto's revered Bovine Sex Club (name-checked in the lyrics) someday soon.
4 CARSIE BLANTON | “Be Good”
"Be Good" is the catchiest depressing song I've heard in a long time. It'll make you feel ashamed of our collective humanity, or lack thereof, which often demonizes and aborts those advocating for tolerance and empathy, but it'll also make you sing along with its hopeful, simplistic chorus as well. Could the answer really be this easy?
5 JAPANESE BREAKFAST | “Be Sweet"
There's no denying that Michelle Zauner is having a moment right now. She's got a hit album (Jubilee), a successful book (Crying in H Mart), and a smash single ("Be Sweet") that sounds to me like it has been written countless times already, but actually hasn't. That's the mark of an indelible pop song. Something tells me her moment is going to last for a while, but where and what she does next is still to be determined.
6 THE BLIPS | “Yes Yes No Yes Yes No”
Clocking in under two minutes, using a grand total of 14 different words along the way, is this Blips anthem of indecision, "Yes Yes No Yes Yes No." You'll notice that yes gets double time along the way, and don't we all want to live in a "Yes" world, where we are open to all kinds of music, people, and activities? I know I have a problem saying yes a lot of the time, but this song is here to remind me now and then to default to the positive whenever possible. So consider this your new daily affirmation. Say yes to the Blips!
7 SOPHIA KENNEDY | “Orange Tic Tac”
If not for Orange Tic Tacs, I'm not sure I discover the supremely talented Sophia Kennedy. Maybe she eventually gets on my radar in some other way, but there's no guarantee. I'm troubled by the fact I can't listen to everything, a victim of chronic FOMO syndrome. So many songs and albums swim around in my musical fishbowl at any one time that sometimes it takes a glimmer, a reflection, a color, a stroke of luck, a happy accident, or even a product placement in the title to draw my attention. I wish the process was less random at times and more scientific. This time I was lured in due to of my love for Orange Tic Tacs, my #1 ranked impulse buy while I wait for my groceries to get scanned at the supermarket. They're the caboose of my order. When the Tic Tacs get scanned, that's it—tell me what I owe. If I meet Sophia someday, my first line of questioning will be Tic Tac related. Do we share a mutual love for Orange Tic Tacs perhaps? I hope I have the foresight to bring her a container as a token of my appreciation for her music. Oh, the song. The song is great, too. Like all Sophia creations, it's wildly inventive, this time combining traces of hip-hop, some broadway crooning, a little electronic ambiance, and some allspice, too (a combination containing trace elements of just about everything else). But alas, no mention of Orange Tic Tacs in the lyrics. Surely, there was room.
8 ILLUMINATI HOTTIES | “Mmmoooaaaaayaya"
I usually hate videos. I haven't watched most of the ones I've included here for your sampling convenience. But this one I watched because Sarah Tudzin (aka illuminati hotties) is so fucking compelling, so wildly unhinged, I don't want to miss a madcap moment. You never really know what she's going to be doing next and this video proves it. When she looks right at you, you can't turn away because there's a wild-eyed lunacy lurking behind her piercing brown eyes. You can just tell she's fearless. How else to explain what she gets away with regularly? Lyrics like "I do a dabble where I dribble the babble, baby!" come to mind. And she clearly is well aware of it, too. She comes right out and says it right off in the first few seconds of this song: "You think I'm interesting, don't you?" And the answer is obviously an emphatic yes.
9 DAWN RICHARD | “Boomerang”
I'm not 100% sold on the new Dawn Richard album like many others, but I see why there's a hubbub. What I am down for is another "Boom Boom" song for my growing collection.* Rock and roll is all about the "boom boom" and always will be. Here's further proof.
*Artists who have brought the "Boom Boom": John Lee Hooker, The Animals, Trio, Dinah Washington, Eli "Paperboy" Reed, Pat Travers, Little Walter, The Staple Singers, Tony Joe White, Macy Gray, Shaggy, and hell, even Fannypack. I could go on.
10 LIZ PHAIR | “Spanish Doors”
I don't know why, but I'm always excited when new Liz Phair material comes down the pipeline. That said, I'm not exactly sure why she's earned my loyalty. She's really had an underwhelming couple of decades if I'm being honest. Her last twenty years of music? Largely a letdown. Her book? Insufferable for the most part. Her interview on the Broken Record podcast this year? Irritating and pretentious. But the day it was released, Soberish was tucked under my arm at the record store and I was genuinely enthused to see what she was up to now. Perhaps it's because we have a geographical kinship since we both lived, or live in her case, in Chicago's Liz-nicknamed "Guyville" neighborhood (actually called Wicker Park by everyone else). More likely it's that, when it comes down to it, I admire her songwriting approach and want more of it, complete with its off-kilter melodies, unexpected turns of phrase, and interesting takes on everyday situations. I was also encouraged to see that she reunited with Brad Wood, who produced her early string of gems from the acclaimed Exile in Guyville through the vastly underrated whitechocolatespaceegg. His return seems to bring a greater cohesiveness to Soberish, which benefits its songs greatly. Their studio chemistry is on display all over the record. "Spanish Doors," the first single, is proof. It captures the old magic we all knew was still there somewhere. I'll always love catchy songs about heartbreak and sadness ("I don't wanna talk about it / Cause talkin' bout it makes me sad") and few have the ability to bring both to the table quite like Liz. The more I listen to Soberish the more I like it. Her songs are pleasing on first listen, but continue to sneak up on you later, too. In this case, it took her about twenty years to find her way back again and I'm the first to admit I really missed her.
11 DRY CLEANING | “Scratchcard Lanyard”
"It's OK / I just need to be weird and hide for a bit."
That one lyric from "Scratchcard Lanyard" kind of sums of London's Dry Cleaning for me. They're willfully weird and abstract, mixing instrumental post-punk with spoken poetry-slam lyrics delivered by the perpetually blasé Florence Shaw. It's a too-cool-for-you combination that is best taken in smaller doses rather than in its entirety (very much how I digest the Hold Steady). So, for me, their songs translate perfectly to the mixtape format. "Lanyard" is seemingly just four minutes of disaffected non sequiturs ranging from making ceramic shoes to women in aviators firing bazookas to knitting circles and, for some unknown reason, an avalanche of bouncing balls everywhere. It's not supposed to make perfect sense—that's the attraction. The link between all appears to be the oft-repeated phrase, "Do everything, feel nothing." Or as the band has explained, "In the search for your true calling in life, it’s easy to try so many things that you end up confused. It can lead to an enormous build-up of frustration." I suppose that explanation helps discern intent, but it certainly doesn't unlock the combination entirely. You don't want to do that anyway. It would ruin the fun.
12 SLEATER-KINNEY | “Method”
There's a great one-two punch on the new Sleater-Kinney album and I had some trouble deciding which one to pick for this spot on the Q2 mix. First is "Worry With You" which sounds to me like a tribute to the enduring partnership of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. When they harmonize together, "If I'm gonna fuck up / I'm gonna fuck up with you," you're well aware they've passed their silver anniversary as a group in amazingly vital condition. Not many groups can say they've been as consistently strong over such a long period (although I do lament the departure of drummer Janet Weiss—please reconsider). My choice for this tape, however, is the Carrie-dominated "Method" which follows "Worry With You" on their new LP, Path of Wellness. I love Corin's wail, of course, but I've always been a huge Carrie fan. Her halting vocal style exudes a natural cool that is not only still intact, but seems to get more confident as she gets older and wiser. "Method" is one of her best vocals in a long career of highlights as she details a laundry list of self-conscious character flaws all conspiring to sink a relationship out at sea. Will the awareness of such "issues" prevent a full-on iceberg hit? Unknown, but unlikely.
13 STIFF RICHARDS | “State of Mind”
Stiff Richards is a band almost always on the brink of losing it. In one song, they're looking for a logical "Point of View," in another their brain is "Going Numb," and elsewhere that same brain it outright missing ("Fill in the Blanks"). At least in "State of Mind" there's the hope for some kind of reliable perspective. You have to have a mind to have a state of mind. That's how it works. But, if you're going to lose you mind, there are few better bands to do it with than Stiff Richards.
14 CASSANDRA JENKINS | “Hard Drive”
The concept behind this song appeals to me. The mind is a hard drive constantly adding input from diverse sources. Since that is inarguably the case, it makes sense to curate that data input somehow and discourage system overload and harmful malware. Hence, throughout the song, Cassandra Jenkins recounts, in zen-like spoken word fashion, human interactions that have elevated her spiritual connection with nature. You can buy off-the-shelf software to clean your computer, but what can you use to declutter your mind? Therapy is the obvious answer. Maybe a life coach even. A spirit guide? While you're deciding, this song is a good place to start.
15 LA FEMME | “Disconnexion”
This quintessentially French creation would surely sound enticing to tourists trolling cabarets in Pigalle. I know I'd follow the sounds of this eclectic curiosity to its source just to see what or who is responsible for it. It includes a drunken philosopher babbling high-minded concepts to disinterested fashion models, an opera singer wailing over coldwave synths, and it even breaks out into a spontaneous banjo solo imported from the soundtrack of Deliverance at one point. In other words, anything goes at anytime. That's a dangerous game to play as a band—the risk of becoming a novelty act is real. But La Femme are too good at what they do to let that happen.
16 THE ALLERGIES | “Move On Baby”
From Bristol, England you say? Surprising, but not out of the question, especially these days as influences travel the globe faster and faster, perhaps thanks to the rocket ship pictured on the cover. The Allergies' new single plops a soul vocal sample on top of a deep Latin groove, adds in some drums and horns, and somehow exceeds the sum of its parts. "Move On Baby" sounds like one of those deep cuts only crate-digging DJs know about. But the secret is out—it belongs to all of us now. Volume mandatory, dancefloor essential.
17 TONY ALLEN FT. NAH EETO | “Mau Mau”
"I play yours, you play mine, the music never ends."
This could be the final Tony Allen project unless he had others in the can at the time of his death last year at the young age of 79. To the last moment, his playing was brilliant—undiminished by all accounts. There's simply no debate that he is one of the greatest drummers of all time. But he was also prolific and restless, always looking for something new to try. His collaboration with jazz legend Hugh Masekela last year was jaw-dropping, his contributions to the recent Keleketla! compilation amazing, and on this year's There is No End, where he lends his distinct beat-making skills to up-and-coming hip-hop artists of all types, he demonstrates his range as a musician. The whole record is absolutely fascinating at the very least, loaded with young talent clearly thrilled to be holding court with such a legend. "Mau Mau" finds Allen in prime form, creating beats that sound like nothing I've ever heard from him before. His partner on this track is the Nairobi's Nah Eeto (previously unknown to me) and both deliver something approximating a fireside tribal sex ritual, but I could be reading more into it than intended.
18 SONS OF KEMET FT. MOOR MOTHER & ANGEL BAT DAWID | “Pick Up Your Burning Cross"
Taking the incredible rhythms they're known for and inviting some guest vocalists for several tracks was another way for bandleader Shabaka Hutchings to keep his Sons of Kemet project both evolving and pushing boundaries. This may be the best example on the record of everything coming together seamlessly. The powerful and timely "Pick Up Your Burning Cross" brings in up-and-coming Chicago-based force of nature Angel Bat Dawid (one listen to her live album with Tha Brothahood this year being all the proof you need of her galvanizing talent) and Philadelphia's Moor Mother (aka Camae Ayewa) together for a prime slab of undulating afro-funk. This is what we live and breathe for at Pickled Priest.
19 BLACK MARKET BRASS | “Chemical Plant Zone”
We just wrote about this amazing new blast of Afro-funk on our Colemine mixtape a few weeks ago, so I'll keep it short. The Black Market Brass are what you need to funkify your life. You'll have to trust me. I hear you. I'm not sure either why the keyboardist is sporting a purple, sleeveless Members Only jacket in the accompanying video, but get over it. These guys are the real deal.
20 MDOU MOCTAR | “Chismiten”
This is the sound of Saharan rock and roll at its most thrilling, and there may be no cooler sound on the planet when it locks into one of its deep, trance-like grooves. Mdou Moctar's electrifying new album, Afrique Victime, opens with about 15 seconds of ambient sounds, presumably sandals walking across hot sand, before the left-handed, Hendrix-loving Nigerian guitarist plugs in and rips into "Chismiten" for about five glorious minutes. If you saw this in its natural habitat it would blow your numb American mind. Even on record, the heat is palpable.
21 MAXÏMO PARK FT. PAULINE MURRAY | “Ardour”
The triumphant return of one of Britain's finest! Well, they never left, to be honest. But, we'd written them off and prematurely, I admit. I've oscillated between four or five tracks from their new album, Nature Always Wins—a bounty!—but in the end have settled on "Ardour" mainly because it also heralds the return of British punk singer Pauline Murray from the band Penetration, whose 1977 single "Don't Dictate" has long been a Pickled Priest favorite. She's 63 now, but sounds almost exactly like she did in the 70s, and her voice blends perfectly with Maxïmo frontman Paul Smith on this devilishly catchy track that asks a very important question, "If I become the joke / Can I still deliver the punchline?" Pauline's wise answer? "It's easier said than done."
22 TONY JOE WHITE | “Scary Stories”
Tony Joe White has been dead well over two years now, which makes it even more impressive that's he's still putting out new records. The basis for Smoke From the Chimney is a collection of stray tapes discovered by his son after his passing in 2018. Smarty, ardent fan Dan Auerbach was entrusted to flesh them out. The ubiquitous Auerbach (he is the only remaining record producer it seems) does a stellar job, too, adding some oomph where needed and exercising restraint when appropriate. It's a tough task trying to determine what the artist might've wanted and there will always be critics, of course (most say it's too fleshed out at times), but the resulting record, flaws and all, is an absolute delight from start to finish. It highlights all the things that made Tony Joe both a one-of-a-kind songwriter and singer. He was a southern storyteller with the deep voice of a late-night DJ, two traits that earned him his "Swamp Fox" nickname. By law, I have to mention that Elvis was also an early fan, famously incorporating White's "Polk Salad Annie" into his early-1970's live sets which provided White with a tidy royalty up to the time of his death and beyond.* While the whole album has hidden gems, "Scary Stories" is a near-perfect demonstration of White's song crafting skills, most notably his ability to convey worlds of information and feeling with just a few perfectly-chosen words. Here, he puts you right in front of a warm fire in an old house on a stormy night, ghost stories being traded to capitalize on the already creepy vibe. Before long, the stories bring paranoia in the form of tapping on windowpanes and scratching on doors. By the end, the fun turns to fright: "I heard somebody whisper / Please don't tell that one again." Marvelous stuff.
*While not enacted yet, it should also be a law that I reference that he also wrote "Rainy Night in Georgia," a smash hit by Brook Benton in 1970.
23 TOM JONES | “Talking Reality Television Blues”
Tom Jones has never lacked audacity. From his earliest days singing "What's New Pussycat?" in the 1960s, the robust Welshman with the leather vocal chords has been a favorite of the ladies, and at 81 years, I'm pretty sure he still is. So much women's underwear has been hurled at him during his career that when it came to award him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, they put it right in front of a Fredrick's of Hollywood. To put it mildly, the guy has staying power. You need audacity to put out a record like Surrounded By Time, that's for sure. Tom, at this point, is tackling anything and everything he wants, kind of like Johnny Cash did later in his life, but with a far greater range of inspirations. I don't know how Tom sources his material, but he covers the waterfront on this record. An amazing 9:00 cover of Terry Callier's masterpiece "Lazarus Man" is most notable (seek out the original, too), with Cat Stevens' "Pop Star" (from Mona Bone Jakon) not far behind. Both, it should be noted, dripping with irony. Elsewhere, we get a Waterboys song, one by (the aforementioned) Tony Joe White, the mandatory Bob Dylan track, a more modern cut from Michael Kiwanuka, and an obscure early-70s folk oddity titled "No Hole in My Head" from Malvina Reynolds. Where in fuck does he get this stuff? Amazingly, somehow, someway, they all seem to work. How does he do it? He's like that 80 year-old refrigerator in your grandmother's basement that hums back to life immediately after being plugged in again—you can't believe it, but fuck if it wasn't built to last. The secret, it turns out, is commitment. Tom is a singer's singer and he knows the importance of owning a song, no matter what it is. Even a song written just a couple years ago by Todd Snider, the revered Nashville oddball responsible for the entry captioned above. It's, as advertised, a "talkin' blues" about television's role in forming the American experience. It take us from "video killing the radio star" to "Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles!" to "One small step for a man..." to "I want my MTV" and ends with a "man with a comb-over" hosting The Apprentice, and I bet you can see where this tale is going from there. It's a brilliant song reinvented by the versatile Jones. His voice was made to tell stories to music, and here he does so like a wise old owl speaking over a bed of ominous sounding guitars. It's a harrowing tale, but one that you'll want to hear again and again.
24 AMY SHARK | “Amy Shark”
When I noticed Amy Shark (the stage name of Amy Louise Billings) had titled one of her new songs after herself, I was intrigued. I'm not sure I could think of another artist who had ever done that. Groups have done it a few times, but has a solo performer? And why now? The answer is crushing, but it's also housed in a beautiful pop song. I normally dislike self-referential songs, especially those that deal with fame, but this is different. I don't want to tell you the facts because the lyrics tell the story better than I can. And I want you to hear it for the first time (if you haven't already) for yourself. It punched me in the gut, particularly the last line. And it has done so every time since.
25 THE ANTLERS | “Solstice”
I hadn't fully "found" this record by the time I made my mid-year list, but it's slowly but surely creeping under my skin. We're ending this quarter's mixtape with some mellow music, but it is no less powerful than anything else from the last few months. The Antlers are one of my go-to bands when I need to have my breath taken away. In a good way, that is. They have a way of doing so with a sigh, a moan, an exhale. This is gorgeous music that is inspiring, healing, and moving. I cannot get enough of it.
26 WAXAHATCHEE | “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”
We end with Waxahatchee's (Katie Crutchfield's) transcendent cover of Dolly Parton's "Light of a Clear Blue Morning" because it sounds like the exact song we all need right now. It is hopeful, the start a new day, a chance for redemption, renewal, cleansing, or whatever else it is you need. Dolly has a way of tapping into the essence of everyday lives and normal people with her songs and this is another example of her natural songwriting gift. That said, Katie's version now sounds definitive to these ears, making this one of the best covers we've heard in some time. Play it on repeat for comfort. Play it when you need a new look at life.
OK, this is the end. Surely that's enough for you. Either go back to the top and listen again or be on your way. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.