Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Taylor Swift, Brockhampton, Yukika, Sufjan Stevens, Spirit Of The Beehive, Ron Mist, Junior Varsity

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

1. Taylor Swift – Fearless (Taylor’s Version)

Country Pop

Released April 9, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

You don’t have to be an avid music listener to be slightly aware of how hard Taylor Swift has had it in the last decade and some change. From legal battles and feuds with other celebrities, it seems like she can’t catch a break. Of course, she is one of the most successful people in the music industry, being worth over $350 million at the age of 31. Still, her battle with music mogul Scooter Braun over the last few years shows just how unfair the industry can be. After all, she should own her music, right?

Well, Swift certainly thinks so. To combat this, she has undertaken the task of re-recording her first six studio albums, starting with her sophomore breakthrough “Fearless.” While the updated version will allow her to fully profit off of her music, it does show the stitches in her older material. There was always something that kept me from truly loving Swift’s music, or at least admitting I liked it. As I’ve gotten older and matured, I’ve stopped putting up a front about pop music like I did when I was a kid. I have also realized that my hunch about my least favorite part about Swift’s music was true. During the release of the original “Fearless,” Swift didn’t have the best control over her voice. Of course, she was only a teenager, but the re-recordings show just how much she has grown as a vocalist. Almost every song is improved upon due to her more mature vocals.

Now, maturity is also what really holds this back. As I said, Taylor was a teenager when these songs were written, and it really shows. Hearing her tackle these topics when she’s tacked on a decade to her life feels somewhat uncomfortable. Maybe it’s due to the recent divergence in her career with “Folklore” and “Evermore,” but her revisitations of these older tracks show how immature of a writer she used to be. Yes, she was a teenager, but that isn’t exactly an excuse considering art that has come from musicians of a similar age. Swift’s writing has been the butt of many jokes over the years, and you can’t really say that there isn’t a reason for it. There is a naivety in songs like “Fifteen” and “White Horse,” with the former still standing as one of her lesser tracks on this album in my ears. Then there is the juxtaposition of songs like “The Way I Loved You” and “Forever & Always,” two tracks who say the exact opposite things placed right next to each other.

That being said, it is still easy to see why this album was so huge. Tracks like “Fearless,” “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” are still incredibly catchy earworms. The fact that Swift set out to make these covers as close as possible does hurt this project, as a lot of these songs feel like they could benefit from lusher and more dynamic arrangements, especially when compared to her recent work. As they stand, they still feel slightly underwritten.

Now, the real meat of this package is what is actually not on the original album. Swift re-recorded songs adjacent to “Fearless,” such as songs included on soundtracks, but the last few songs are all previously unreleased. While there is nothing to base these on as they have no prior arrangements, they are clearly the highlights when it comes to how pretty they sound. Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff return to produce these vault tracks and it shows. “Mr. Perfectly Fine” would’ve been a massive hit and could’ve replaced a number of songs on the original album. “That’s When” is breezy and gentle, with some wonderfully glittery guitar throughout. “Don’t You” might just be the best song on this whole project. The shimmering synths and pulsing percussion are stylistically different from everything else on here and shows where she was heading in her career. It is truly baffling that this was left on the cutting room floor until now.

Overall, this is far from Swift’s best work, but it is very encouraging that she is finally getting the proper payment for her music. I can’t wait to see what her other albums sound like with the reworks. If you love Swift already, you will love this. If you aren’t a fan, you won’t have any revelations about the main album, but don’t pass on by the vault tracks.


2. Brockhampton – Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine

West Coast Hip Hop

Released April 9, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

Sometimes, missing the initial hype of something can gut your enjoyment of that particular thing. For me, I feel that happened when I blew off Brockhampton in the summer of 2017. The “Saturation” trilogy never clicked with me like it had for my peers, and I was especially let down with “Iridescence” and “Ginger.” With “Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine,” I was prepared to be disappointed. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised!

“Roadrunner” is far from a perfect album, but it does bring some much needed energy back to the group’s music. The prior two albums, especially “Ginger,” felt very sedated compared to their past work. Too many R&B cuts dragged the group down, keeping them from the zany chemistry they became known for. On this album, they rectify some mistakes while keeping and creating some new ones.

The R&B leaning tracks that killed the flow before are handled much better this time, with cuts like “Old News” and “What’s The Occasion?” showing growth in their handling of the genre. However, some of the songs like “I’ll Take You On” don’t land. This song features a very underutilized Charlie Wilson, which is another big problem with this album. Sometimes a song will have a pointless feature that adds nothing or the featured artist gets more time than any member of the group. The latter point isn’t all bad, as Danny Brown and JPEGMAFIA carry their respective songs they appear on. The number of features paired with the low amount of members appearing on each track make this record feel less like a group project and more like a bunch of solo cuts stitched together. Dom McLennon has the most outstanding moments on this record and delivers more outstanding verses than any other member of the team this time around.

While this is far from a cohesive project, the group managed to write some of their best material in a while. “Don’t Shoot Up The Party” and “The Light” are some of their best songs so far. “Windows,” despite having one of the weaker hooks on the album, shows exactly why they need to cut more posse tracks à la Wu-Tang. Even if it isn’t perfect, Brockhampton is back. That is until Kevin Abstract decides to stop announcing the group is disbanding every year. 


3. Yukika – Timeabout,


Released April 7, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

Yukika Teramoto, known mononymously as Yukika, is one of the best in the game when it comes to k-pop. Starting her career with a starring role in The Idolmaster KR, a South Korean drama, and the adjacent fictional girl group Real Girls Project, Yukika has had quite the buzz around her. The strangest part of her k-pop success? She isn’t even Korean.

Yukika is actually Japanese, having a relatively successful career doing voice acting for video games and anime. She was selected as the only Japanese member for The Idolmaster KR and then let her career in South Korea take off, releasing her debut album “Soul Lady” in the middle of last year. Now, she has followed it up with an EP of new tracks. That being said, this is some of the best dance pop released this year. Yukika blends elements of synthpop and synth funk in these six tracks to create an electrifying little dance party for the listener. While most k-pop is dance orientated, Yukika makes it accessible. There is no choreography required to boogie along with a song like “Insomnia” or “Time Travel.”

Yukika also adds some of her Japanese roots to the mix by adding flourishes of city pop, a genre that was popular in her home country in the 70s and 80s. The jazz and disco influence of that genre mixed in with urban and romantic centered lyrics really make the addition of the city pop influence take this thing to a whole new level. Just listen to the closer “Pung!” to hear exactly what I mean. I know that groups often overshadow solo artists in the k-pop world, but I really hope Yukika gets the recognition she deserves. This is some of the most carefree and fun music I have heard in a very long time. My only complaint is that this isn’t longer. I guess I understand why k-pop fans get impatient for full length releases in a sea of mini albums and EPs. I cannot wait for her sophomore album.


4. Sufjan Stevens – Meditations

Space Ambient

Released April 8, 2021

3.5 Globes out of 5

Sufjan Stevens seems to be in a pretty set release schedule these days. Every five years, he returns with a proper studio album. In the years between, he drops side projects and other odds and ends. However, his newest project is not merely a side-hustle. For the next few weeks, he will be dropping a fifth of his new project “Convocations.” This project consists of five pieces of ambient music that chronicle Stevens’s thoughts and feelings after his father’s passing last fall around the release of Stevens’s newest album “The Ascension.”

Each piece of this musical puzzle is modeled after the five stages of grief. While I couldn’t find anything concrete, I assume “Meditations,” the first section to drop, is the denial chapter. Stevens manages to have that translate through this collection of ten tracks. The space ambient influence makes these songs feel otherworldly, like the keyboards are filled with absentminded thoughts inside a clouded head that can’t think straight. Most of the songs stay in one place, but they don’t feel like they come together as one bigger piece. I am not sure if that is intentional, but it fits the theme. These fragments deny the listener of resolution. The fact that none of the tracks segue into each other teases the listener and keeps these songs from being one large ambient backdrop.

I doubt I will review the rest of these as there are bound to be other albums I would like to cover, but I insist you give this project a shot. As of now it is nothing mind blowing, but it is better than Stevens’s other forays into electronic music. I can’t wait to see how this whole project looks when it is finished. 


5. Spirit Of The Beehive – Entertainment, Death


Released April 9, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

Yeah, this thing absolutely rules. I was only vaguely familiar with Spirit Of The Beehive prior to listening to this, and I am really glad I decided to take the dive. I really hope that a lot of people end up checking this band out because they could be a gateway to many musical avenues they might have not explored yet.

“Entertainment, Death” is not exactly a rock or a pop album. While it contains elements of both, it rides this line that keeps the listener on their toes due to the different styles thrown together. Shoegaze, downtempo, synthpop, indietronica and many more genres are all blended into these songs at one point or another. The vocals are usually dreamy and pushed back into the mix, while the production is rough but laid back enough to invite the listener in. “The Server Is Immersed” and “Wake Up (In Rotation)” are essential to any chill indie loving college kid, while “There’s Nothing You Can’t Do” and “Give Up Your Life” take things in a nosier and more anxious direction.

There really isn’t a bad track on here and it flows a lot better as an album than I thought it was going to. If you are a fan of Alex G, Jay Som, Hippo Campus, Tame Impala or any of those other “chill vibe out indie college kid” bands, I implore you to check this out. This is the perfect gateway album for fans of those artists to test the waters on more experimental styles of indie rock. I wish I could say more about this album, but it’s better if you just go listen to it. Like, right now. You might learn something about your taste in music!


6. Ron Mist – A Celebration Of Being Alive


Released April 9, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

Normally I only do five albums a week, but I wanted to spotlight two local artists for a hot second. I unfortunately never got the chance to see String Machine live, but being a Point Park student, I have heard many stories. I briefly met one of the members, Dylan Kersten, through WPPJ my freshman year. I didn’t know it at the time, but he would later go on to drop an hour of club bangers this year.

Those bangers are packaged as “A Celebration Of Being Alive,” an hour long party into the question of “what is dancing?” Tracks like “A Sending” and “Oh BB” harken back to 90s house giants like The Orb with the ambient drum pads, retro handclaps and pitch-shifted vocals. “Jeremiah” sounds like Bon Iver gone full dance mode, and I love it. The album flows very well too, always slowing down when you need a breather and picking back up so you never leave the party. “BLADE” is a great example of a track that knows exactly when to kick it up a notch.

The guest features fit very nicely into the contexts they are used, whether it be an additional guitar or vocal performance. The album’s concept is really unique and enjoyable. The biggest disappointment is that there currently isn’t a feasible way to see any of these songs performed live or played out at a party. Still, this album manages to be an engaging listen on your lonesome for a house album. Even if you aren’t one for dance music, give this one a spin and support your local artists. Check it out on Bandcamp as well! This album is just such a fun and joyous listen that I can’t recommend it enough. I can’t wait to see what else Ron Mist puts out, and I want nothing more than to catch a DJ set before the year closes out.


7. Junior Varsity – Where Is The Winter Sun?

Indie Rock

Released February 14, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

The second local artist is someone I have actually shared a stage with. February 2020 saw my band’s last performance before the pandemic at The Smiling Moose, and on the same bill was a group called Longview. They blew us away despite playing a set of mostly covers and we were shocked to find out that they were just a gaggle of high schoolers. I went back to the venue to see my friend’s band play and was unknowingly greeted with another Longview performance. I exchanged socials with the band and kept in touch with them somewhat throughout the pandemic.

The guitarist for Longview, Jacob Vance, has since debuted their solo project, Junior Varsity, and released a debut album titled “Where Is The Winter Sun?” I will admit, I am a little late in terms of reviewing it, but CDs became recently available on Bandcamp, so I figured it wasn’t too late to go back and shout out a musical pal of mine. “Where Is The Winter Sun?” is a hazy and lo-fi look into isolation that I can imagine has a lot to do with the current state of the world. Jacob handles all the writing and production, and I have to say that this thing sounds better than most local indie rock artists I’ve heard. Of course, it still has the rough aesthetic of artists like Current Joys and Car Seat Headrest, but with more youthful energy.

I am not entirely sure if Jacob recorded all of the instruments themselves, but the performances are pretty great across the board. I do think there could’ve been touches of synths on some of these tracks to liven them up, especially on the climax of “Stay The Night.” The following track “My Regret” shows exactly how well these extra textures can really give these songs a big boost, but I understand that not every song has to be bigger and more climactic than the last. I know this is a solo project in a way, but I can only imagine how well these songs open up in a full band setting. I also really like Jacob’s voice, as it reminds me somewhat of lower register Anthony Gonzalez from M83. The slower songs like “Take Me Away” and “In My Room” set a nice lethargic tone to the record that fits the overall atmosphere of the album and the themes contained within very well. While I enjoy these songs, I’d like to see some more uptempo numbers on future projects just to shake up the tracklisting a little. 

While this is a very impressive debut, I am more curious to see where Jacob takes this project next. From my interactions with them, they really embody the narrative that local music scenes are truly something special that we need to hold on to. A lot of young people like Jacob and I socially survive in performance spaces, and it is comforting to know we are headed back into a world where opportunities to be in the same room together will be a reality again. If you find yourself at any local venues and see that either Junior Varsity or Longview are playing, make sure you stop to watch. Also, support your local artists and snag a CD on their Bandcamp. Pittsburgh has a bustling music scene, and I hope this review and the one prior incentivise you to check out some local acts!