The 15 Best Songs of January 2021

Featuring Cassandra Jenkins, Real Lies, Yasmin Williams and more

Music Lists Best Songs
The 15 Best Songs of January 2021

Whether it’s someone trying to shake off heartbreak at a nightclub, a bookkeeper musing on the birth of the cosmos or a musician reflecting on years spent in their teenage bedroom, songs can transport listeners. You can find all those tales and more in our favorite songs from the past month, which came from Julien Baker, FKA twigs, Madlib, and Xiu Xiu, plus a whole host of newer names. Here are the 15 songs that moved us the most this past month, as curated by the Paste music team.

Body Meat: “ULTIMA”

Body Meat (aka Philly-based multi-instrumentalist and producer Christopher Taylor) is a master at melding jarring hyperpop with slinky R&B. Hot off the heels of his 2019 album Truck Music and his 2020 single “The Well,” he’s announced a new EP, Year of the Orc, which will be self-released on March 16. The news came with a new track, “ULTIMA,” an auto-tuned, tempo-shifting collage of harsh pop, with a message of self-preservation at the forefront. Much like on Truck Music, Taylor’s expressive, graceful vocals shine through the track’s glitchy eccentricities. —Lizzie Manno

Cassandra Jenkins: “Hard Drive”

New York singer/songwriter Cassandra Jenkins is prepping the release of her latest album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, out on Feb. 19 via Ba Da Bing Records. Lead single “Hard Drive” highlights how meaningful unexpected, passing interactions can be, and as the pandemic has shown, memories of brushes with friends, acquaintances and strangers can often act as heartwarming fuel in moments of pain. Over minimal, jazzy instrumentals, Jenkins delivers stories via invigorating spoken-word, ones that examine the intersection of the material and immaterial worlds. Whether it’s a security guard lending wisdom on an art exhibition or a dear friend offering to mend a heart via mystical yet well-intentioned means, Jenkins mines profundity from the mundane. —Lizzie Manno

Esther Rose: “How Many Times”

Esther Rose announced a new album How Many Times, out on March 26 via Father/Daughter Records and Full Time Hobby. It’s her third full-length, and it follows her 2019 album You Made It This Far. The announcement also came with a Sarrah Danziger-directed music video for the title track. The new single mixes Rose’s tried-and-true country roots with a doo-wop-esque sway and some sha-la-la’s for good measure. Add fiddle, lap steel and acoustic guitar to Rose’s winsome, compassionate vocals and timeless tale of heartbreak that needs to be numbed, and what’s not to love? “It’s not really just about feeling better, it’s about feeling it, whatever it is,” Rose says of her forthcoming album. —Lizzie Manno

FKA twigs, Headie One, Fred again..: “Don’t Judge Me”

This past Tuesday (Jan. 26), FKA twigs shared an expanded version of Headie One and Fred again..’s “Don’t Judge Me (Interlude),” which she was originally featured on, from their 2020 GANG mixtape. It also came with a new video co-directed by FKA twigs and Emmanuel Adjei (who co-directed Beyoncé’s Black is King), which is a match made in heaven, as FKA twigs is known for her intensely artful videos and dance moves. The extended version of “Don’t Judge Me” adds a verse from Headie One and gives more room for FKA twigs’ tender, high-pitched coos. While the original was more about personal judgement, the new version takes on a new meaning: “There’s been a million speeches / No justice, no peace, ‘cause we in pieces / Officer, am I allowed to breathe here?” Headie One asks. Plus, the sharp, eccentric vocal production lends even more beauty and anguish to their pleas. —Lizzie Manno

Julien Baker: “Hardline”

Hardline” debuted earlier this month alongside its music video, directed by Joe Baughman. “Even after having spent 600 hours immersed in ‘Hardline’ and having listened to it thousands of times, I am still moved by it. It was a fun and ambitious challenge creating something that could accompany such a compelling song,” Baughman said in a statement. “Hardline” is quite compelling indeed, beginning Julien Baker’s new record on an ambitious note, with staccato organ chords, heavy strings and synth accents wreathing the singer’s characteristically confessional vocals (“Start asking for forgiveness in advance / All the future things I will destroy”). Percussion of both analog and digital varieties picks up the song’s momentum as Baker barrels towards a dark inevitability: “I’m telling my own fortune / Something I cannot escape / I can see where this is going, but I can’t find the brake.” —Scott Russell

Madlib: “One For Quartabê/Right Now”

Madlib’s work is marked by his incredible alchemy of beats and samples, pairing together sounds that no one else would, and turning these strange collages into modern classics. Madlib teamed up with Four Tet for his new album, Sound Ancestors, and you can hear Madlib’s mind running wild—and it’s all the better for it. Perhaps the most Madlib-y track on the record is “One For Quartabê/Right Now,” a song that absolutely runs amok with its off-kilter jazz, explosive, polychromatic samples and psychedelic underbelly. Slightly sinister and radically boisterous, the track feels like you’ve just emerged from a dark tunnel and are viewing a landscape of an entire new universe for the first time, curated by an oddball artist. —Lizzie Manno

Nana Yamato: “Do You Wanna”

Tokyo-based artist Nana Yamato (who’s previously released seven-inch singles under the name ANNA) has shared a new single “Do You Wanna,” from her forthcoming debut album Before Sunrise, out on Feb. 5 via Dull Tools, a label run by Parquet Courts’ Andrew Savage. The album was produced by P.E.’s Jonathan Schenke, and this new single follows her previous track “If.” “Do You Wanna” is imbued with a sense of sacred solitude. Alongside synth loops, programmed beats, electric guitar strums and trumpet noodling, this 20-year-old songwriter sounds intentional and fully in control. This wistful tune doesn’t tout the hallmarks of other bedroom artists—often yearning for connection outside the confines of their home and recycling Spotify algorithm-friendly sounds—she’s fully immersed in the fantasy of her own world and decorates it with sounds that suit her tastes (in this case, with the off-kilter electro-rock of EMA and dreamy indie rock of Say Sue Me). —Lizzie Manno

Real Lies: “Oh Me, Oh My (Nicotine Patch)”

Following a prolific 2020, U.K. electronic duo Real Lies returned with a new single “Oh Me, Oh My (Nicotine Patch),” alongside a video directed by Ciaran Wood. Last year, they released four singles—“Boss Trick,” “A Rainy Night in Soho,” “I Wander” and “Birds”—plus a few remixes, and Paste featured them in our list of British Acts You Need to Know. There’s always been counteracting forces in Real Lies’ music—images of “flowers in the rain,” “Suicide bridge” and life-affirming camaraderie have always existed side by side—and their new single is no different. “Oh Me, Oh My (Nicotine Patch)” is a heady club track about a breakup, one that largely propels you forward, but memories of past nights out still cloud your ability to fully escape under the cover of darkness. “You and I / We’re through / ‘Cause all you do is make me blue / But it’s gonna be hard to get away from you / There are shrines to you outside every club I’ve ever been to,” Kev Kharas sings over moody synth pulses and hisses. —Lizzie Manno

Snacking: “Blacked Out on a Train”

An indie-rock quintet out of St. Petersburg, Fla., Snacking will release their new EP Painted Gold on Feb. 8 via Chillwavve Records. Lead single “Blacked Out on a Train” is a song of transition, taking liminal space—like the titular train car moving from a dark past to an uncertain future (“We’re leaving town alive / Without saying goodbye”), or the stylistic space between Minus the Bear-style math rock and emo revival—as its setting. Snacking show off effortlessly melodic guitars, forceful low end and emotionally complex lyricism, building “Blacked Out on a Train” up into an invigorating instrumental firestorm. “We chose ‘Blacked Out On A Train’ as the single because it’s a step in a different direction for us,” the band told BrooklynVegan upon the song’s premiere. “It’s more dissonant and hectic than anything we’ve written previously. We thought it would do a good job of attracting new listeners and hopefully surprise those who are already familiar with our prior material.” —Scott Russell

Squid: “Narrator”

U.K. band Squid announced their debut album Bright Green Field, out on May 7 via Warp Records. The album was produced by Dan Carey, and it follows their acclaimed 2019 EP Town Centre and a pair of 2020 singles, “Sludge” and “Broadcaster.” The announcement also came with their lead single “Narrator,” featuring Martha Skye Murphy, and its accompanying video, which includes stunning animation. “Narrator” may be their best track yet, as it encapsulates their offbeat horn-and-synth-laden post-punk, and also contains a patient, intensely melodic and almost ghostly unfurling of energy that will shake you to your core. —Lizzie Manno

Terry Gross: “Worm Gear”

It’s not every day you encounter a full-length album with only three tracks, but reader, you just did. The 38-minute debut LP from Bay Area-based rock trio Terry Gross (not to be confused with NPR’s Fresh Air host, but you just try telling Google that) is a krautrock odyssey of epic proportions, and a sustained rock ‘n’ roll explosion you can’t help but move to. Guitarist and vocalist Phil Manley (Trans Am, Life Coach), bassist Donny Newenhouse and drummer Phil Becker co-own San Francisco’s El Studio together—it’s there they started jamming, primarily so as to put the studio itself through its paces, but one thing led to another, and the result is Soft Opening. Near-20-minute opener “Space Voyage Mission” is a roving, sci-fi-inspired motorik chug that speeds and slows like a HIIT workout for your ears, ending in a psychedelic bit of studio wizardry that sounds as if the song has narrowly escaped being sucked into a black hole. “Worm Gear,” too, is a like watching a flame flicker in slow-motion, with ever-shifting, serrated guitars atop Newenhouse and Becker’s pulsating, pounding low end. —Scott Russell

Yasmin Williams: “Sunshowers”

Urban Driftwood is the second album from Virginia-based guitarist and composer Yasmin Williams, and its opening track “Sunshowers” is an arresting work of instrumental folk, reliant entirely upon Williams’ six-string mastery for its rustic, entrancing allure. Her fingerstyle acoustic guitar-playing makes one of popular music’s most familiar instruments sound new, capturing the luminous, evanescent beauty of the song’s namesake via bright harmonics, overlapping cascades of fingerpicked notes and intermittent lap-tapped percussion. “Sunshowers” shines bright, introducing a collection of stunning and inventive songs that feel particularly heaven-sent in this era of being stuck indoors, scared of civilization and disconnected from the natural world. —Scott Russell

Yung: “Unresolver”

Danish rockers Yung arrived with their debut album, A Youthful Dream, in 2016, and it was filled with punk-laced guitar pop, simultaneously scruffy and sharp, and often life-affirming. Now back with their follow-up, Ongoing Dispute, they sound like they’ve been emotionally tested and are now out to prove something. Their new LP is, at times, tense, as they try to make sense of where they are and where they’re going, but its unexpectedly intricate riffs and fits of rip-roaring joy both cut through and complement that emotional tension. They’re most exuberant and captivating on “Unresolver,” a big-hearted track wrapped in stylish post-punk, jangly indie and explosive, warped garage rock. —Lizzie Manno

Yuno: “Somebody”

Jacksonville-bred artist Yuno shared a video for his new single “Somebody,” out now via Sub Pop. It follows his 2018 EP and Sub Pop debut Moodie. On “Somebody,” Yuno melds skittering pop and warped hip-hop with catchy-as-hell emo. The track revolves around his ultra-slick vocals, ringing out over flickering beats and uplifting guitar strums. It’s an angsty song that captures the confusion of trusting no one except yourself, but still wanting companionship. The video depicts Yuno in a sterile empty space with roses and a teenager’s bedroom, a nod to the years he spent making music in his Florida bedroom. —Lizzie Manno

Xiu Xiu: “A Bottle of Rum (feat. Liz Harris)”

Xiu Xiu announced their 12th studio album OH NO, out on March 26 via Polyvinyl. The album consists of various duets, featuring Sharon Van Etten, Chelsea Wolfe and Alice Bag, plus members of Deerhoof, Drab Majesty, Liars and many more. The duo has also shared the album’s lead single, “A Bottle of Rum,” which features Grouper’s Liz Harris, plus an Angela Seo-directed video. “A Bottle of Rum” is an electro-pop stunner, with crunchy drums, Harris’ saintly vocals and atmospheric textures galore, and its juxtaposition of artful calm with immersive exhilaration is especially stirring. —Lizzie Manno

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