Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Magdalena Bay, James Blake, BADBADNOTGOOD, aespa, The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

This week delivers some of the best releases of the year, with a variety to tide over any listener. Both gorgeous debuts and mature returns are to be explored, with all out dance ragers to blossoming balladry found within. In all, another week to show that 2021 is further cemented as one of the greatest years in modern music.

Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World
Released October 8, 2021

5 Globes out of 5

I am going to cut to the chase. This is my album of the year, and it isn’t even close. Magdalena Bay, a synthpop duo consisting of vocalist Mica Tenenbaum and multi-instrumentalist Matthew Lewin, are relatively new to the world. Having only released a few EPs over the past several years, “Mercurial World” comes as the band’s first full length album. As a whole, it is the culminating synthesis of pop music in the last 15 or so years. Everything has been leading up to this exact moment in pop music.

The album drops us quite literally at the end with “The End,” a short spoken word track that sets the tone for the album perfectly. The title track then kicks in, with blazing keyboards and sky high synth pads that carry an understated but incredibly infectious melody. “Dawning Of The Season” is a bit more immediate, and I dare you to listen and not sway your hips when that chorus kicks in. Each song on the album transitions into each other, and this track boiling into “Secrets (Your Fire)” is easily one of the best track changeovers in history. “Secrets” is effortlessly my song of the year, integrating g-funk, nu-disco and house music alongside some of the best lyrics and melodies in a pop song. Seriously, this song is unmatched. The line “you think you know me, wanna show me that you’re super in the know” paired with Mica’s delivery sends me into a fervorous frenzy every time without fail.

“You Lose!” switches up the mood by turning to shoegaze for a new textural palette. The following pairing of “Something For 2” and “Chaeri” show that being kind isn’t dead, as they both deal with interpersonal relationships and being aware of how we treat others, including the regrets these interactions can sometimes carry. “Chaeri” has an especially purging of emotions once the progressive house synths rupture into a towering wall that crashes down onto you. “Hysterical Us” teeters between tender ballad and all out dance rager, all thanks to the jaunty “What A Fool Believes” inspired piano line in the chorus. “Prophecy” does cross over into complete ballad territory, but unlike many in that style, it actually feels like Mica is sincerely in love with the subject. The strings on this track are just so, so gorgeous. “Follow The Leader” features some of the most creative uses of lo-bit production on the vocals that really make the song sound so much more ethereal and alien. “Domino” lulls you into a false sense of sereneness in the verses before ripping into your heart with that explosive guitar swell. Mica delivers some more spoken word on “Dreamcatching,” a song about wanting to see all the world and trying all those things you want to do before you die. It is the perfect penultimate track before “The Beginning” finishes it out in an all out disco dance party that would make anyone get out of their seat. I almost shed a tear of pure joy when the chorus kicked in at the end with the gang vocals. Did I mention the album loops on itself? Well, you can keep the party going, as “The Beginning” flows directly back into “The End.”

That is just me giving a rough overview of the songs, but I can’t do them any justice just talking about them. They need to be experienced with your own ears. They really couldn’t have smashed this one out of the park any more. Matt handled all the engineering, mixing, mastering and instrumentation himself, which is absolutely cracked that he did that all himself. Mica wrote and produced everything with him, so this album was really a labor of love from both of them. They are the perfect musical match. The production, instruments and vocals across the entire album hit every single second. There is not a wasted second here. I really don’t know if mainstream pop will take to this for quite some time, but this is indubiously the zenith of pop. Have we reached the end? Or is this just the beginning?

James Blake – Friends That Break Your Heart
Alternative R&B
Released October 8, 2021

3.5 Globes out of 5

It has been 10 years since James Blake’s classic debut album and in that time he has slowly worked his way into the DNA of modern pop music. While his influence isn’t as direct as some others, he is undoubtedly one of the more important figures in musical production. Rather than slowly build and flesh out a mix, Blake has historically stripped down his compositions to their bare bones, creating an incredibly intimate atmosphere.

“Friends That Break Your Heart” continues Blake’s experimentation with trap and hip hop, albeit less direct than his previous album “Assume Form.” This is a double-edged sword, as these new excursions take the place of his previous forays into electronic music that were a tad more adventurous and interesting. That is not to slight this album, however. It all depends on how you are coming to it. Longtime fans might view this album as a step down from his past works. To those who haven’t heard a James Blake song, these complaints won’t exactly find any footing. One thing most can agree on is that Blake has better incorporated features into his own music. JID’s verse on “Frozen” is the exact opposite in terms of vibe when compared to Blake’s collaborations with Travis Scott, utilizing vapor and cloud rap production techniques. SZA fits on “Coming Back” incredibly well, enough to make me wish for a full album of hers that he would produce. As for Blake himself, he sounds as passionate and soulful as ever. This album can be a downer, as the album always stays in the same melancholy lane and Blake’s lyrics deal heavily with emotional longing and heartbreak. “Say What You Will” and “Foot Forward” are about as uplifting as the album gets, with the latter repeating the title as a mantra in order to move on from a rough breakup.

This is by no means a bad album, but Blake has done better. However, he really is one of the more consistent artists out there, and you can tell he never releases something he isn’t sure about. I think “Friends That Break Your Heart” will be treated kindly with time, as much of his previous work took some time to really stick with people.

Jazz Fusion
Released October 8, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

BADBADNOTGOOD are likely one of the most relevant names in jazz music in the 21st Century. Having worked with many hip hop legends like MF DOOM and Kendrick Lamar, the group have really gotten around in terms of collaborations. Also, the recent virality of their song “Running Away” on TikTok helps as well. Their main studio output is also pretty revered, with four albums being released until now. Each one bore a Roman numeral, but their fifth outing “Talk Memory” breaks that streak. It also comes as the first release since pianist Matthew Tavares departed the band in 2019. Coincidentally, it is also the group’s least hip hop inspired album to date, aligning much more with chamber jazz and fusion.

Fans of the collective’s previous work might be a bit turned off at this record’s approach, but more traditional jazz fans will like it. It is not too dissimilar to the Floating Points album from earlier this year, which is no coincidence, as he has production credits on this record. Another similarity is the addition of a string section, arranged courtesy of cult Brazilian musician Arthur Verocai. “City Of Mirrors” is a perfect example of how the two compliment each other, with spaztik piano solos giving way to epic string passages that feel fit for a movie chase scene. Multi-instrumentalist Leland Whitty really dominates every sax and guitar solo he is given, particularly in “Unfolding” and “Beside April.”

The boys once again execute a great album, but the hip hop style is a little missed, as I am a big fan of jazz rap. However, these three adapt well to the lavish style presented on this LP enough that I am firmly excited to see where they go. Equal parts pretty and invigorating, “Talk Memory” is both something people should talk about and remember.

aespa – Savage
Released October 5, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

While the way music is released has evolved in recent years, K-Pop is very insular in its approach. Every record has a different special edition for each member, spoken word introductions are released as an artist’s first project and pretty much anything can be considered an album. “Savage” stands as “the first mini album” from aespa, a quartet who lean hard into the hip hop side of K-Pop. While I am normally a fan of the more new jack swing influenced groups like SHINee, aespa really do bring it all on their debut project.

The EDM, deconstructed club and future bass influences across these six tracks brings to mind PC Music legends A.G. Cook and the late Sophie. Due to this, aespa stands out a lot from other more famous K-Pop groups. “YEPPI YEPPI” is such a peppy, bassy dance tune that has enough strange production choices thrown in that really push the envelope for parent genre aespa work in. The rapping and singing is wonderful from all members, but leader Karina deserves her spotlight due to how charismatic she is on the mic. That is not to slight the others, as the harmonies and interplay between the foursome is really what makes the group work so well. The possible reference to Charli XCX’s “Vroom Vroom” on “ICONIC” is such a fun little throwback to a track that has obviously inspired much of this project.

If you’re not a fan of K-Pop but enjoy the likes of Charli and hyperpop, take a chance on this record. At twenty minutes, it is not too much of a time commitment. However, it is a bit too short for me to fully love it. It does lose some steam with the final track “Lucid Dream,” which is a bit of an unceremonious ending compared to the previous five bops. It isn’t all killer due to the stumble of an ending, but this would easily be alleviated in the context of a longer, more fleshed out project. I once had cold feet about the reign of K-Pop, but I’ve really come around on it, all thanks to aespa.

The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Illusory Walls
Midwest Emo
Released October 8, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

As far as emo band names go, The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die take the proverbial cake. Jokes aside, TWIABP is a very special band for a lot of people. Their 2013 debut “Whenever, If Ever” is a modern day midwest emo classic. That record cemented the band in the offshoot of midwest emo that incorporates elements of post-rock, a specific strain of emo that really hits the spot. Now, the band return with their fourth album, “Illusory Walls.”

This album ushers in elements of both metal and progressive rock, which is just an awesome move for the band. Take for example the ending of “We Saw Birds” or the middle section of chugging in “Your Brain Is A Rubbermaid.” The production does keep some of these moments from hitting full force at times, but not enough to actively detract from the listening experience. The fact that the band did not ditch the keyboards as a part of their arsenal also adds to the wonderful atmosphere presented here.

The first half of the album is a lot more immediate, as the band fully dives into its previous flirtations with post-punk to create some wonderful angsty songs. “Trouble” is a great cumulation of the album’s first half. The second half is where the album picks up, with the final two songs clocking in at 15 and 20 minutes respectively. While “Infinite Josh” is a fine song, “Fewer Afraid” is far and away the best song on the album. Starting with the standard emo spoken word section, the song slowly amps up into an emotional climax that peaks twice, the second with an incantation that feels like a summation of the band’s career. I don’t think this is the band’s last album, but this song feels like a finale in that sense.

While the first half is engaging enough, it doesn’t capture my attention quite like the final two songs. The production is also a little clean for my liking, and it really only works to the benefit of the music on the final songs. Still, this is an incredibly emotional album that would punch any emo fan straight in the heart. The world is a beautiful place, but we have to make it that way.