Music Reviews: The Single File

September 21, 2023

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

Artist: So Kindly

Track: All I Own

Thoughts: There’s a great suggestion of the career songwriter and performer (Springsteen, for example) rather than than the flash-in-the-pan pop star here. The flip side is that this song would probably have more weight as part of an album – isolated, it’s a strong sound rather than a knockout hook.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: James Deacon

Track: Wow

Thoughts: There’s not much dynamic range here, but a driving groove and compressed, layered synths support Deacon’s vaguely sneered lyric line well for a party lock-in that asks some challenging questions of switched-off listeners.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Switch 

Track: Better View

Thoughts: Built around a louche R&B groove underpinned by fat bass, Better View is as much svelte late-night club music as it is an edifying worship song – an achievement not many bands can achieve.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Red Rocks Worship

Track: Echo Holy

Thoughts: Synth-drenched and driven by powerful drums, Echo Holy certainly has scale, but while the atmospherics are impressive, there is limited lyrical impact in terms of freshness of perspective.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Claire Hopkins

Track: Keeper

Thoughts: A tune that sounds as though it’s sung with a smile, Keeper is country rock that’ll probably fill a dancefloor in a bar or other venue where listeners connect with something that supports their desire to have a good time.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: K-Jo

Track: The Dilemma

Thoughts: A song about being faced with the decision to be a full-time musician or opt for something safer – subject matter all artists can identify with. There’s a touch of Olivia Rodrigo in both musical feel and the emotional ground covered, but without that artist’s incisive hooks.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Hamzaa

Track: Heaven

Thoughts: Smooth, late-night R&B, Heaven feels more about mood than it is about melody, encouraging relaxation and flirtiness without engaging the listener too much.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Avi Mack

Track: Maybe Never

Thoughts: Synth-laden electronic pop with a Nile Rodgers-ish Strat strum in there somewhere, Maybe Never is not huge on either beats or hooks, but it has a laid-back flow that is easy to get into and enjoy.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Tailor & Tramp

Track: Alley Cat

Thoughts: As loping blues rock, Alley Cat would suit any venue where jeans are worn and whiskey is available – it makes you imagine a square dance even if you’ve never done one. A solid groove.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Lloyiso

Track: Seasons

Thoughts: Lloyiso’s powerful, soul-drenched vocals place him in the company of John Ledger and Sam Smith, and Seasons’ thoughtful pacing and unapologetically emotional theme and lyrics give him a wonderful platform to show what he can do with that voice.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Corne Pretorius and Hunter Kennedy

Track: Liefde Is ‘N Werkwoord

Thoughts: A driving anthem of love found and lost and found and lost again, Liefde… has a number of hooks that linger after just one or two listens. Strong, uncomplicated rock.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Dr Bone feat Muziholic

Track: Pusha

Thoughts: Driven by booming low bass, Pusha is built around repetitive lyric patterns and a pleasing if not particularly challenging looping melody. Both rappers have good flow, but there is no real dynamic range throughout the song.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Ashnikko

Track: Panic Attacks In Paradise

Thoughts: With a singing style and style similar to Avril Lavigne, Ashnikko takes on challenging themes like anxiety and its manifestations with, mostly, disarming honesty. Production is lush, but the arrangement is kept relatively simple. Enjoyable.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Faith K

Track: Nangena

Thoughts: Underpinned by foundation-loosening bass, Nangena features complementary lyrical hooks in Tsonga and English which, when combined with a recurring one-hand keyboard lick, makes for a smooth mix.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Kehlani

Track: Altar

Thoughts: Driven by a sultry, compressed bass groove, Altar is a soulful ballad with a heartfelt lyric line supported by layered vocals. A good arrangement places the many production elements in useful places.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Earl Sweatshirt

Track: Titanic

Thoughts: The opposite of the grandness suggested by its name in every way, this track is short (less than two minutes) and monotonous – three notes at most, with lyrics mumbled over an unchanging beat.

Rating:

 

Artist: Posduif

Track: Spinnekop

Thoughts: Featuring a great Eighties power ballad keyboard lick, Spinnekop builds through by-the-numbers production ideas to become undeniably catchy and foot-tappingly upbeat. Hard to shake after just a couple of listens.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Yellow Majesty (feat Alli Hart)

Track: A Song For The Weak

Thoughts: Yellow Majesty is Swedish musician Amir Haj-Bolouri, collaborating here with American singer Alli Hart, with each artist recording their parts on separate continents. The mood is consistently minor, recalling Placebo, with the call-and-answer vocals adding interest to a track without many hooks.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Stanley Sibande

Track: Lavender Eyes

Thoughts: Awash with pedal steel and layered vocals, this is a celebration of love in its many forms. The gentle melody is pretty cyclical, without much in the way of changes in dynamics, but where it doesn’t excite, it soothes.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Matt Maher

Track: Joyful Noise

Thoughts: A dynamically powerful vocal octave pop adds interest to a well-produced gospel-pop noise from a consistent, talented performer. Enjoy the whole-hearted backing vocals in the final minute.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Lonefield

Track: We Go Blind At Night

Thoughts: Featuring a cyclical, relatively uneventful melody and mixed to have the vocals and instruments in a rather narrow band, We Go Blind At Night doesn’t do much to hold attention. Background or mood music, mostly.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Matthew Gardiner

Track: Brown Hair, Brown Eyes

Thoughts: Melding a balladic beginning with a driving, party-friendly chorus, Brown Hair, Brown Eyes leaves the listener humming a number of different standalone hooks. Cheerful and well-performed.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: James Blunt

Track: Love Under Pressure

Thoughts: A new track included in his latest greatest hits collection, Love Under Pressure doesn’t really belong in that company, being an adequate electronic pop tune without ever enthralling. The video for the track is better than the music…

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Muse

Track: Won’t Stand Down

Thoughts: A middling effort from a band this hugely talented, Won’t Stand Down is memorable for its ear-pummelling rhythms and its sinister promo video. At low volume, it may pass without much impact. Played loud, it starts to grow into itself after a few listens.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Wendy Oldfield & Friends

Track: One Of The Girls

Thoughts: Talking about an important issue – the need to belong – Wendy Oldfield and collaborators including Vicky Sampson keep matters relatable with a loping rhythm and a multi-thread shared vocal line that communicates the friendly studio vibe.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Cece Vee

Track: Black Light

Thoughts: Thick and bass-heavy, the production on this electro-pop single is as big a feature as the pleasing but not distinctive melody – if you enjoy it, it’s as likely to be for the physical feel of the song’s pulse as it is the songwriting.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Gerduan Kemp

Track: Jou Tipe Jaloers

Thoughts: Well-made, straight-ahead country-pop, this tune is a lot more jaunty than its subject matter (the title translates as “your type of jealousy”) might imply.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Kahn Morbee

Track: She Takes Me Home

Thoughts: Driven by a picked acoustic guitar, and never adding much more muscle than a brushed snare shuffle, this is a beautiful singer-songwriter vignette – much missed in the average radio station’s rotation.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Kate Rok

Track: Maangenade

Thoughts: With a vintage sound recalling Laurika Rauch, Kate Rok adds a beautiful chorus featuring layered harmonies to give an otherwise rather restrained track a stirring lift.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Lydia Laird

Track: I’ll Be Okay

Thoughts: Her message is fairly generic, if positive – if God is with us, we’ll be … okay – but Lydia Laird’s strong vocal and a moody, affecting arrangement give this piece some emotional heft.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Ed Sheeran

Track: Shivers

Thoughts: When operating at Ed Sheeran’s level of, yes, chart omnipresence, but also skill and songwriting nous, even a less convincing effort like this makes for a pleasing, foot-tapping listen. And the tongue in cheek video confirms that he’s not taking himself too seriously either.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Tim Young

Track: Seesaw

Thoughts: With relatively toneless sung-spoken vocals that are heavily autotuned (for effect) and a lyrical narrative about a fickle response to the actions of an equally fickle protagonist, Seesaw relies on the relative catchiness of its chorus for any initial impact it makes.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Masked Wolf

Track: Say So

Thoughts: Recalling Smash Mouth’s All Star in its rhythms and chord intervals, Say So is short of that hit’s vibrant energy and drenched in autotune, but it has a strong hook and a foot-tapping beat and will be a likely party playlist inclusion for a while to come.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Jan Rhaap & Juan Boucher

Track: Afrika

Thoughts: A heartening love letter to Africa, this song is largely a simple listing of beautiful places and the emotions they raise in the singers. As such, it’s effective, if a touch cliched (though at least these artists live in Africa, unlike, say, Toto).

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Stone Jets

Track: I Will Rise Again

Thoughts: With more electronic touches than much of their previous output, I Will Rise Again retains Stone Jets’ sure touch with melodic songwriting. Given Nkanyane’s voice deserves a much higher industry rating than it currently has, adding levels of emotion and texture to the track.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Zach Williams

Track: Heaven Help Me

Thoughts: Admirably consistent in the quality of his output, Williams again combines some of the major strengths of country music and CCM on this track, adding in some moody, uplifting gospel choir backing behind his own gritty vocals in this instance.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Sabrina Claudio

Track: Put On Repeat

Thoughts: It’s difficult to know if the basic strengths of this song – a neat, emotive hook and Claudio’s sultry singing style – would stand up on a less heavily-produced platform. The backing feels a little over-cooked – the shiny, bright packaging around a pleasant but not mind-blowing idea.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Vaughn Prangley

Track: Call Our Own

Thoughts: A simple but satisfying song, with colour added by a couple of crescendoes when you may not expected, Call Our Own is given clear character by Prangley’s interesting voice – somehow sonorous, even in his upper range.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Eggsta feat Lee Cole

Track: Bae

Thoughts: Eggsta being known as an EDM artist and the word “bae” placing this song superficially in a young listener niche suggest a different outcome to a smooth, melodic tune that will work best as party music if you’re on a beach, with a drink in your hand. Well-produced, Latin rhythm-infused pop.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Skrillex, Justin Bieber & Don Toliver

Track: Don’t Go

Thoughts: A result that’s less than the sum of its parts – the brand value of the collaborators here is a bigger pull than the song – Don’t Go has some pleasing components, including the non-autotuned parts of Bieber’s vocal performance and some clean guitar licks. But it’s disappointingly  generic.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Marcel Dalmayda

Track: Dis Hoe Sy Dans

Thoughts: An Eighties-style power ballad, Dis Hoe Sy Dans is well-produced and, at the loudest part of the dynamics, a great showcase for Dalmayda’s impressive upper range. Lyrically, it’s a fairly standard journey through part of a relationship, but the melody lingers…

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Louise Carver

Track: Take My Hand

Thoughts: A celebration of being able to return – to some degree at least – to normal life post-pandemic, Take My Hand is cool cocktail electronica. Lyrical and musical phases are cyclical, creating as much a mood as a melody to soundtrack a night out.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Ryan Ellis

Track: Heart Of The Father

Thoughts: A smooth, soulful groove to begin with, Heart Of The Father is a solid, slow-building CCM single until after the breakdown, when a beautiful gospel bridge lifts the piece a notch above similar material. Encourages repeat listening.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Triveno

Track: Walking Tall

Thoughts: Beautifully recorded, restrained backing supports a straightforward, earnestly encouraging lyric line reassuring listeners that everything is going to be okay. Gently idealistic and hopeful, but it falls short of imposing itself on your psyche.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Mpho Sebina

Track: Too Late For Mama

Thoughts: Wrapping the sharper edges of Brenda Fassie’s original in velvet, this interpretation removes some of the angst of the lyrics but adds, in its arrangement a sense of svelte movement behind Mpho Sebina’s voice. Should please fans of the original and attract newcomers.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Christiaan Baartman & Mack Rapapali

Track: ‘N Vriend Soos Jy

Thoughts: This duet’s heart is in the right place, celebrating the value of friendship. The song is by-the-numbers Afrikaans pop – inoffensive and cheerful, but short on facets to help maintain interest.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Guy Buttery

Track: Raag Yaman

Thoughts: As an interpretation of staple of Hindustani classical music, fingerstyle guitarist Guy Buttery’s collaboration with Mohd Amjad Khan and Mudassir Khan will certainly sound exotic. Focus on its particular elements may be a challenge to unfamiliar listeners, but the playing and recording is excellent.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Liam Burger

Track: When I Met You

Thoughts: An attractive looping guitar lick anchors this gentle love song, giving it in immediately recognisable hook but, less positively, also becoming very familiar very quickly and so perhaps starting to feel a little samey towards the end of the tune.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Jesse Clegg

Track: Waiting On The Outcome

Thoughts: With a reverb-laden, synth-led arrangement that recalls Eighties pop hits from Howard Jones or similar, Jesse Clegg’s melodic tribute to his late father Johnny is less dark and thoughtful than his usual output, expressing its message in relatable lyrical and musical terms.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Casting Crowns

Track: Scars In Heaven

Thoughts: Though Casting Crowns’ stock-in-trade style and the title of this tune tell you exactly what you need to expect before you press play, top-level musicianship and songwriting nous that consistently deliver make this another moving (if not fresh) CCM ballad.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Gerduan Kemp

Track: Langpad Na Môre

Thoughts: A strong vocal and good production make this pop-rock song an easy enough listen, but in both its structure and the tone and mood of the lyrics, Langpad Na Môre is a story told and heard often, which may make it difficult to engage with beyond a certain point.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Tome

Track: Conquer

Thoughts: A slow-building ballad dealing with the pain and confusion of losing someone close to him, Conquer is an elegant, well-constructed composition, as well as a moving tribute. The strings and piano elements in the arrangement are both beautiful and dynamically effective.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: CAIN feat. Steven Curtis Chapman

Track: Wonderful

Thoughts: Christmas music is always seasonally popular, but it’s a big deal to deliver an original addition to the canon that immediately stands out. This is that rare beast, combining the harmonies of the siblings who make up CCM act CAIN and the pure quality of Steven Curtis Chapman, it has huge joyous dynamics and a powerful message.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Dozi

Track: Dis Hoekom

Thoughts: Big, juicy production supports a kind of barroom swing groove and a lyric about how confusing the singer/narrator finds the name changes of South Africa’s towns. The novelty value of that idea is likely to fade – and for listeners sensitive about language and heritage, this may feel like a fight that doesn’t need to be picked.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Phil Gregory

Track: Holding Candles

Thoughts: Including many of the facets that make mainstream country music so widely appealing – ringing guitars, well-placed backing vocals, an accessible lyrical theme and a strong hook – Holding Candles could do well in any market where it was delivered to a large audience.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Arno Carstens

Track: Reason

Thoughts: Another single from an album (they’re still out there if you look) called Out Of The Light Into The Night, Reason is a slow burner with a gritty, restrained crescendo and Carstens’ layered vocals adding plenty of personality and heart.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Neville D feat Brian Temba, Lebohang Kgapola & Vally Eaton

Track: Behind The Scenes

Thoughts: Superior musicianship and interweaving of several voices a la Boyz II Men-style R&B and soul make this worship offering a multi-faceted listen, with the positive message a bonus for listeners in need of encouragement.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Claire Hopkins

Track: Keeper

Thoughts: A light-hearted examination of romance/mild stalking (the tongue-in-cheek video suggests the latter), Keeper suffers a little bit from the phrasing of the lyrics, with the number of words often requiring Hopkins to rush through certain sentiments.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Jason Derulo

Track: Acapulco

Thoughts: A thick slab of autotune and (if you watch the video) a sculpted six-pack seem to be part of an effort to argue that this is more than a lightweight dance track – perfectly suitable for maintaining a club energy level, but otherwise a bit of high-budget fluff.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Rinel Day

Track: Jy’t My Gered

Thoughts: Somewhere in the region of the gilded country pop of LeAnn Rimes – but with the lyrics in Afrikaans – Jy’t My Gered shows off Rinel Day’s vibrato as a well-placed part in a powerful arrangement. A big-hearted ballad.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Henrico Coetzer

Track: Die Lewe

Thoughts: Delivered with heart and layered in strings and lilting piano, Die Lewe is pleasant and well-made, but it doesn’t feature much new in the way of lyrical perspectives, meaning that it feels like another song you heard recently and another you’ll hear tomorrow.

Rating:

 

Artist: Ed Sheeran and Elton John

Track: Merry Christmas

Thoughts: There’s more than a touch of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart about this tune – though what’s Elton going to do; sue himself? – and it’s enormously, tongue-in-cheek cheesy, but Merry Christmas has the melody and chirpiness to make it a possible future seasonal staple.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Zach Williams

Track: I Don’t Want Christmas To End

Thoughts: Applying his huge country-soul voice and performance persona to a song with a melancholic feel, Zach Williams proves that he is as effective in a novelty genre like Christmas music as he is in his CCM and country day jobs. Stirring and more-ish.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Jethro Tait

Track: Another Lonely Christmas

Thoughts: Tackling one of the less documented and more unhappy aspects of the festive season, Jethro Tait perhaps could have gone a touch further into his theme to leave more of a mark. Although the perspective is different here, the lyrical tropes are more or less the same as the more cheerful stuff.

Rating:

 

Artist: Haylea Heyns

Track: Sorry

Thoughts: Featuring an arrangement and instrumentation that is far more cheerful than you’d expect for a song with the central lyric “It’s too late to say sorry”, Sorry is driven and bolstered by the effortless clarity of Heyns’ voice. Uncomplicated, classy pop.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Reggie Peace

Track: The Struggle Is Over

Thoughts: Heartfelt and sincere as it is, The Struggle Is Over treads well-worn ground without adding much in the way of nuance. For listeners who need encouragement, however, the song could play a useful role.

Rating:

 

Artist: Isaiah Rashad

Track: Headshots (4R Da Locals)

Thoughts: Isaiah Rashad’s pleasing delivery – a smoky voice combined with a knack for smoothly negotiating wordy, multi-syllabic passages – is undermined here by a lack of much in the way of memorable melody, making it tough to remember once it’s done.

Rating:

 

Artist: Majid Jordan

Track: Summer Rain

Thoughts: This single from Canadian duo Majid Jordan is precision pop, with hooks dropped early and beats and vocals matched with a title and theme that more or less everyone can relate to. They’re not quite as punchy as Savage Garden or the like, but they lean in that direction.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Helmut Meijer

Track: Sink

Thoughts: Couched in Eighties-style synth-pop – hear it from the next room and you’ll think it’s A-Ha – Helmut Meijer’s consideration of the weight of various challenges is still upbeat and positive, in terms of its rhythms and tone. Energising even as it questions.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Moonchild Sanelly

Track: Yebo Teacher

Thoughts: As a mainstay of the kwaito offshoot genre gqom, Moonchild Sanelly’s songs are expected to comprise electronic dance beats and repeated lyrical refrains. On the dancefloor, this maintains energy levels and provides focal phrases for revellers to call out to each other. For just sitting and listening to, though, there is not much to excite here.

Rating:

 

Artist: Ed Sheeran

Track: Bad Habits

Thoughts: This is full-bore Pop Star Ed (as opposed to Singer-Songwriter Ed). In both cases, he’s an expert at taking small, normal activities – in this case, going out partying at night and the good or bad outcomes of that – and making them into melodic, hook-ridden vignettes. Bad Habits is all of that, driven by dance rhythms and with a fantastic video.

Rating:

 

Artist: Don Toliver feat Kali Uchis

Track: Drugs N Hella Melodies 

Thoughts: There’s a lyrical thread in this song about things that put you to sleep, so perhaps the possibility of the song itself doing that will be considered a good thing. Four minutes pass and one or two autotuned phrases suggest themselves as hooks. Then it’s over. Nothing offensive or disturbing; just … not much.

Rating:

 

Artist: Kelly Clarkson

Track: Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You)

Thoughts: Other than one timing change, this Christmas offering couldn’t be more designed to suit the holiday season commercial model. Happily, though, Clarkson does whatever she does well, so the production and performance is superb. The song won’t necessarily hold its appeal next year, but it’s good for now.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Mick Jagger with Dave Grohl

Track: Eazy Sleazy

Thoughts: Loads of people wrote lockdown-inspired songs. Many of those were excellent, examining formerly unexplored feelings and situations. Some were just collections of cliches – fun, perhaps, but easy to set aside. This falls into the latter class – catchy riff aside – and the pedigree of the musicians involved makes no difference.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Lathan Warlick 

Track: Gotta Be God

Thoughts: Using a rich voice as suited to country or rock music, Lathan Warlick’s melodic delivery adds to the import of his words – in this case, recounting stories in which his life has been affected by God. Huge, clear production also aids in making this offering effective.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Emile Welman 

Track: Sprokiesland

Thoughts: Well produced, with elegant string arrangements rising as it progresses, Sprokiesland is a song packed with populist elements, from the sort of hooks included to lyrics about dancing in the rain. That makes it a good fit for any number of mainstream playlists, but short on fresh interest for listeners with wider taste ranges.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Slash ft Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators 

Track: The River Is Rising

Thoughts: A song that is a sum of its parts will generally be effective when two of those parts are Slash’s virtuosic guitar playing and Myles Kennedy’s effortlessly towering vocals. The song is otherwise relatively straightforward – more of what Slash has consistently delivered on solo or solo-with-friends albums – but the collaborative energy lifts it early and holds it there till the end.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Scatterchild 

Track: No Sense To End

Thoughts: No Sense To End pulls off the neat trick of sounding like popular British indie chart hits (there are moments when it straddles the unlikely midline between Morrissey and Embrace) while also adding original twists and tweaks that, along with the emotion in Jay Plent’s vocals, give their storytelling memorable intensity.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Nic Jeffrey 

Track: The End Of Time

Thoughts: A meditative ballad, The End Of Time is pleasing but a little cautious, with restrained phrasing – both in the vocals and the instrumental arrangement – meaning the mood stays pretty constant throughout; not a bad thing in itself, but not allowing for layered listener interaction.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Este Gross feat. Len Muller

Track: Hemelruim

Thoughts: Beginning with a sound like a contemporary hymn, Hemelruim soon becomes more robust, with pulsing electro-rock segments giving the duet a more mainstream pop feel. Aside from these dynamic switches, the writing is fairly conventional, though consistently effective.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Honn feat. Pink Sweat$

Track: What Would You Do?

Thoughts: The positive encouragement of the lyrics – don’t wait to act when telling someone that you care for them – is supported by R&B-tinged pop with opulent, beautifully realised production, all made even more pleasing by the song’s video promo, in which self-deprecation is realised to an hilarious degree.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: I Am They

Track: Promises

Thoughts: Having made their name with beautifully written and performed Americana-tinged CCM, I Am They have shifted here to a possibly more mainstream but somewhat less interesting synth-heavy pop approach. Still, Promises is up-tempo and heavy on hooks.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Kyle September

Track: Analog Heart

Thoughts: The concept here – “I’ve got a digital mind but an analog heart” doesn’t quite translate, but Kyle September’s clean, clear singing and crisp guitar work (plus excellent production) support a friendly, catchy melody.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: El Mukuka

Track: Bosana

Thoughts: A driving dance rhythm is accentuated by the percussive phrasing of Congolese singer Gaz Mawete, but the cyclical nature of the arrangement means that the track could easily become background music. Except, of course, as a dancefloor filler, which is its intended purpose.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Jasmine Thompson

Track: Already There

Thoughts: Carefully produced to make the most of the potential for dramatic atmospherics – guitar harmonics, Thompson’s breathy voice, rich cellos – Already There is, like many strong tunes, a fairly simple, effective idea given impressive power in the studio. Enjoyable.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: H.E.R. & Tauren Wells

Track: Hold Us Together (Hope Mix)

Thoughts: A huge-sounding mix combining two powerful vocals over a balladic melody, Hold Us Together has the air of a triumphant closing song at the end of a film that has seen a character make it from dark to light somehow. Slowly, sensitively anthemic.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Hersh

Track: On My Mind

Thoughts: Lavishly produced, this slow-burn R&B from Cape Town singer-songwriter Hersh ticks all the technical boxes, but doesn’t do much to move the heart or soul. Good, but a stock sound.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Jeremy Loops

Track: Postcards

Thoughts: With a melody that’s a lot bouncier than it’s theme – the lyrics deal with the challenges of being strongly attracted to someone but incompatible with them – Postcards has levels that some listeners might miss. Strong writing, rhythm and production complete a catchy package.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: TheInternxT

Track: Supacute

Thoughts: A thin, auto-tuned vocal track doesn’t make for an inspiring introduction, but a great groove gives this uncomplicated statement of arrival – it’s a debut – considerably more weight and drive.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Leon Gropp

Track: Swerwer

Thoughts: Good, solid pop songwriting is given strong support by dramatic production, with the addition of a dark, almost EDM pulse in the middle eight adding extra interest.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Matthew West

Track: What If

Thoughts: A clever, clipped lyric examines a life philosophy focused on avoiding regrets and some unusual arrangement elements add interest. The production is perhaps a touch heavy on layered synths, which fill up much of the available space, but there’s still plenty of appeal.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Doja Cat & The Weeknd

Track: Right Now

Thoughts: Expensively produced, and uniting two of contemporary R&B’s more zeitgeist-chomping stars to handy marketing effect, Right Now is technically strong but emotionally uninspiring. The Weeknd’s high-range vocals are effective, though.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Jacob Swann

Track: Two Blue Eyes

Thoughts: Beautifully restrained, but still overflowing with emotion, Two Blue Eyes could as easily be a way for a listener to process a complex relationship or moody late-night driving music. Understated, top-notch writing and performance.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Anny Whyte

Track: When He’s Gone

Thoughts: Dealing with an important theme – empowering women who may need encouragement to leave toxic relationships – When He’s Gone is edifying without being exhilarating. That said, the interesting dynamic build takes it from folk pop to a kind of gothic rock.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: SXEEPS

Track: Why Won’t You Lie To Me

Thoughts: Andre Scheepers (SXEEPS) is an experienced producer, and his skills in that area are evident in the layered, Chainsmokers-esque synths and bass that bolster a lyric line that asks interesting, valid questions about whether lying can be a strategy for both negative and positive ends.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: CAIN

Track: Yes He Can

Thoughts: A family band featuring a brother and two sisters, CAIN offer fantastic close harmonies borne of musical understanding developed over a lifetime, and there’s a great country-pop melody to go with it, plus the joyous lift of a gospel choir.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Ava Max

Track: Every Time I Cry

Thoughts: A strong pop tune that moves from quietly introspective singing into dancefloor-friendly beats, this is the kind of thing that would be on high rotation on MTV if MTV still focused on, well, music. Catchy and innocuous.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Ty Dolla $ign, Jack Harlow and 24kGoldn

Track: I Won

Thoughts: As with the Fast & Furious films – this is part of the soundtrack for F9 – what has worked before is not tampered with now, and I Won is, while good, a template bass-and-trap-beat hip hop tune, its hook repeated endlessly and its singer quota not really needed relative to the amount of work done. Fine, in context.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Cindy-Louise

Track: Femme Fatale

Thoughts: With its big, dramatic production, Femme Fatale has the feel of a torch song but a lyrical line that encourages the listener not to get involved with its protagonist: “Never trust a woman like me”. Intriguing in that respect, but lyrically a little flat elsewhere.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Roddy Ricch

Track: Late At Night

Thoughts: Beautifully produced, this slow jam is otherwise pretty much par for the course in mainstream rap terms – sung-spoken autotuned vocals and lyrics about what a man expects from a woman when he “treats her right” (accompanied by visuals of heavy jewellery and Ferraris). Short on freshness.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Koryn Hawthorne

Track: How Great

Thoughts: In her lower range, Kory Hawthorne’s voice has the rich, slightly cracked resonance of so many of the great R&B singers. When she leaps up an octave and really goes for it, though, it’s an extraordinary instrument, easily soaring over a powerful gospel arrangement.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Locnville

Track: Stranger Things

Thoughts: Big, roomy production and a strong hook right upfront make this relatively laid-back offering immediately easy to listen to. The Chaplin brothers’ distinctive octave-leaping vocals add good texture, too.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Kiesha

Track: Airplane Mode

Thoughts: A clean, elegant R&B arrangement supports an introspective lyric about wanting to be able to isolate from others when times are challenging. A chilled production.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Christian Heath

Track: Without You

Thoughts: Christian Heath is a capable songwriter, but here he interprets one of the mellower songs from Canadian outfit My Darkest Days (other singles include Porn Star Dancing and Casual Sex), with little in the way of frills and plenty of emotion in his performance.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Rhett Walker

Track: Gospel Song

Thoughts: What seems like an uninspired title is just the entry point to a buoyant, spirited celebration of both the genre and its subject matter. Choirs, harmonies and handclaps plus Third Day-ish rock arrangements take the listener to church, while a more personal lyrical thread reflects Walker’s own situation.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Tailor & Tramp

Track: Midnight Temptation

Thoughts: Well-made country rock with all the elements needed to get a friendly crowd swaying and singing along, Midnight Temptation is not as edgy as its subject, a temptress who’ll “break a little boy like you”. It’d be interesting to hear the same song with looser, more aggressive delivery.

Rating:

 

Artist: Pieter Marcato

Track: Ek Onthou Jou

Thoughts: Marcato’s gravelly vocals are a standout feature of this heartbreak ballad, which sounds good but is perhaps held back a little by a relatively small dynamic range, which doesn’t allow its strongest parts to really shine individually.

Rating:

 

Artist: Hanna Malan

Track: Alle Paaie

Thoughts: Sincere delivery and a robust rhythm power this Afrikaans love song, which both lyrically and melodically is clearly competent, though not compelling. Gentle pop with sweet intent.

Rating:

 

Artist: Jordan Smith

Track: Great You Are

Thoughts: The production feel here echoes that espoused by the big TV talent platforms (Smith first made his name as a winner of The Voice), and it suits his powerful voice and wide wide vocal range, allowing him to confidently express plenty of emotion in his performance.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Vaughn Prangley

Track: Passing Seconds

Thoughts: A well-constructed pop-rock ballad, Passing Seconds has a hint of the Eighties about it – perhaps Rick Springfield or similarly guitar-and-vocal led musical storytelling. A strong offering from a young performer.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Toya Delazy

Track: Resurrection

Thoughts: Prominent bass, shrieked backing vocals and propulsive rhythms give this track a claustrophobic, ominous feel, supported by a music video that suggests what’s coming back might be coming to get you. Potent – and patent – energy.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Griff

Track: One Foot In Front Of The Other

Thoughts: It’s not clear if the prominent autotune used here is necessary vocal assistance or a stylistic choice, but there’s no doubting the strength of the song, which hovers somewhere between Taylor Swift and Sara Bareilles in terms of emotiveness and chart appeal.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Leanna Crawford

Track: Mean Girls

Thoughts: An uncomplicated examination of the pain caused by negative input from peers, Mean Girls is given epic scale by its production. Think Christina Perri with a slightly different perspective

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Willem Van Der Ryst

Track: Nikkels En Die Wyn

Thoughts: An initial listen suggests an uneven dynamic between sensitive verses and enthusiastic choruses, but a catchy melody and easy Afrikaans country accessibility settle well after a couple of spins.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Sketchy Bongo feat. Jimmy Nevis & Emtee

Track: The Moment

Thoughts: Smooth, mellow R&B has its major hook underpinned by cavernous bass, making it hard to miss. For the rest, nobody’s individual contribution is in the listener’s face – the blend is good, if relatively unassuming.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: PnB Rock feat. Swae Lee & Pink Sweats

Track: Forever Never

Thoughts: A well-produced musical story about tragically missing out on what might have been is afforded few favours by having three vocalists who all sound very similar to each other and a gentle melody that generates little in the way of hooks.

Rating:

 

Artist: Anne-Marie & Niall Horan

Track: Our Song

Thoughts: Multiple hooks, the pulling power of two popular stars and high-end production do the business in a song that is both patently good the first time you listen to it and difficult to remember after the sixth or seventh…

Rating:

 

Artist: Olivia Rodrigo

Track: Drivers License

Thoughts: A current chart darling, Olivia Rodrigo benefits from excellent production from Dan Nigro and substantially increases the appeal of good but fairly conventional song by pouring all the emotion she can muster into her vocals. The poignant result is more than the sum of its parts.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Elevation Rhythm

Track: Quiet

Thoughts: Though everything from the vocals to the synths is heavily processed – filters and effects everywhere – Quiet communicates its emotional core via sensitive use of space and volume, making it both moving and easy on the ear.

Rating:

 

Artist: Matt Maher

Track: Run To The Father

Thoughts: The gargantuan choral opening is a bit of a red herring as to where this track is going dynamically, but Maher’s consistency as a great songwriter and a strong melody and ready hook make this another strong release.

Rating:

 

Artist: Ariose

Track: Jy

Thoughts: An honest investigation of the thoughts and feelings of a character on the giving end of an unrequited love, Jy is arguably too … tidy in its expression of confusion and heartbreak. Competently put together and performed, though.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Janie Bay featuring Majozi and Early B

Track: My Lief

Thoughts: Smooth production and the variety provided by Bay’s Afrikaans lyrics, Majozi’s English verse and the rhythmic change of Early B’s rapping are the main attractions in an otherwise chilled, low-risk musing on relationships.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Casper Stone

Track: Freak

Thoughts: Intended as a critique of the one-sided, obsessive nature of social-media stalking in the name of romance, Freak – with its appropriately dark tone – lacks enough lyrical balance to defend its stance strongly.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Casting Crowns

Track: Start Right Here

Thoughts: A no-punches pulled challenge to Christians who prioritise style over substance, Start Right Here has powerful pop production that helps drive home the message while keeping the song consistently engaging.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Imagine Dragons

Track: Follow You

Thoughts: hugely cheesy track, it’s difficult to know if Follow You is intended for Imagine Dragons’ more sentimental fans or is the result of an in-joke that ran the distance. The amusing video is so tongue in cheek that it’s a wonder you can hear Dan Reynolds singing…

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Twenty One Pilots

Track: Saturday

Thoughts: A pleasant enough paean to the weekend at the opportunities it provides (provided – is this still a thing during a pandemic?), Saturday has some Nile Rodgers-esque guitar strumming to help drive its dance-pop beat. May move the feet, but little else.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: SEU Worship

Track: Fire In My Bones

Thoughts: Well produced and enthusiastically performed, Fire In My Bones suffers from being too trope-laden, with instrumental sounds and lyrical phrases that feel familiar on an initial spin, but because you’ve heard them all over pop and worship playlists many times.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Lana Del Rey

Track: Blue Bannisters

Thoughts: Gorgeously empty, soulful storytelling, almost devoid of hooks and yet still absorbing thanks to subtle key changes and the purity of Del Ray’s voice in the more emotive passages.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Lydia Laird

Track: Hallelujah Even Here

Thoughts: A well-timed reminder to seek to find things to celebrate in the toughest times, this track could perhaps have benefitted from dropping the relentless keyboard patch, giving more space for Laird’s rich, relatively low-register vocal tone. Heartfelt and positive, though.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Holly Humberstone

Track: The Walls Are Way Too Thin

Thoughts: There’s an odd twist here as a song written to express a feeling of claustrophobia morphs, through the warmth of its melody and the empathy of the vocal performance, into something rather comforting – encouraging regular revisiting.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Nosihe

Track: Uthando Olunjani

Thoughts: Almost eight minutes long and never outstaying its welcome, this single was recorded live and reflects the extraordinary musicality of Durban singer-songwriter Nosihe MaZulu and her superb band. High-octane fuel on the fire of missing the authenticity of high-quality live performances.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Skrillex, Swae Lee & Siiickbrain

Track: Too Bizarre

Thoughts: For a track with this title, performed by three artists for whom edginess is a major part of the brand, Too Bizarre is very … tame. Other than Siiickbrain’s brief yelled interludes, there’s not much dynamic range, and the melody is plain, without many memorable musical phrases. A slight diversion.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Tones And I

Track: Won’t Sleep

Thoughts: Recalling fellow Australian’s Sia’s ability to present relatable lyrical themes in unconventional ways, Tones and I talk-sings her way through this late-night theme park ride of a song with tongue-in-cheek brashness, giving her big hooks both a swagger and an air of harmless fun. Lively and well-crafted.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Coldplay

Track: Higher Power

Thoughts: Another example of Coldplay’s enviable ability to take what is a competently written and well-performed tune – with no real stand-out elements (which many of their hits do have, to be fair) – and make it an event. One of their weaker singles for some time but still, with its associated moves and colours, enjoyable work.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Zach Williams feat Dolly Parton

Track: There Was Jesus

Thoughts: What is a well-written and superbly recorded and performed combination of much that is good about about both CCM and country music leaps up to standard-setting excellence about 2:30 in when Dolly Parton ditches the studio voice and exposed her soul to the microphone.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Vertical Worship

Track: Faithful Now

Thoughts: Mid-tempo contemporary worship leaning heavily on a number of the genre’s well-used formulae, Faithful Now still manages to communicate both message and uplifting mood well. Sometimes, if it ain’t broke…

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Jamie-Lee Sexton

Track: It’s True

Thoughts: Dance-pop with a pleasing line in simple, direct lyrical sultriness, It’s True has the feel of a Cher single, with higher register vocals but similar phrasing and mainstream effectiveness.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Zahara

Track: Nyamezela

Thoughts: Catchy because of its cyclical structure, this gospel-pop track is dynamically flat, making it tough to be as invested at the end of the song as you are at the beginning. Pleasant, but not compelling.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Alec Benjamin

Track: The Way You Felt

Thoughts: Unexpectedly high vocals drive a melody that loops within a narrow range (the bulk of it is just three or four notes) and determined lyrical rhyming patterns. A simple idea padded with strong production.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Anitta

Track: Girl From Rio

Thoughts: Built around the hook from The Girl From Ipanema, this track has a lyrical concept – that girls from Rio are down to earth and normal in every way – that’s immediately undermined by Anitta’s styled-to-the-nines image and beauty. Smooth and catchy, though.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Jamie Kimmett

Track: Since I Met You

Thoughts: Beginning with an attractive picked guitar lick, Since I Met You sheds some of its personality in a more predictable chorus, but its combination of melody, feel and energy is a winner.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Watershed

Track: Empty Space

Thoughts: A slow start builds into a shuffling brush rhythm behind a catchy folk-pop chorus – a strong tune that’s completely on brand for Craig Hinds’ songwriting style. As such, a comfortable fit for radio and (when the pandemic allows) live shows alike.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Mzansi Youth Choir & PJ Powers

Track: Bayete Mzansi

Thoughts: Part of a social cohesion programme funded by a government department, this song, beautifully performed and produced, is lyrically not much more than a collection of unfeasibly optimistic cliches. Government – more leadership, less propaganda, please.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Ziggy Alberts

Track: Chocolate

Thoughts: Australian singer-songwriter Ziggy Alberts builds a lyric about longing – specifically wanting more time with a loved one – around a gently looped strum pattern and a vocal line given character by an octave pop in the choruses. Simple and effective.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Tenth Avenue North

Track: No Shame (feast. The Young Escape)

Thoughts: A laid-back pop-rap tune, No Shame is cheesy (perhaps by design, given the title and theme) in the sense that it has the sort of rhythm that has white men throwing rapper shapes with their hands – which is confirmed in the video. The message is positive and uplifting, but the delivery lacks punch.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Cordae

Track: More Life (feat. Q Tip)

Thoughts: Slow, thoughtful flow sees Maryland rapper Cordae looking back at what he left behind and how important it was that he did so. That’s more or less it, though – no fireworks, either lyrically or instrumentally.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Red Rocks Worship

Track: Breakthrough

Thoughts: Every full-band contemporary worship arrangement box is ticked here – this is music made for large auditoriums – but it has a major feel/minor chords combination that works well, with a strong, heartfelt vocal line that stands out over the layered synths and keys. Rousing stuff.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Lee Cole

Track: Honey, Let Me In

Thoughts: Operating  along the Sam Smith – Charlie Puth continuum, Lee Cole has a rich voice, using stylised phrasing for extra effect. The knowing pop arrangement of this artfully yearning ballad are as structured as his designer stubble, but Cole also has a self-deprecating streak, showcased in the song’s appealingly cheesy video.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Ernie Smith

Track: Jesus I Need You

Thoughts: A smooth-as-silk jazz groove is the foundation for this simple statement of devotion from singer-songwriter and guitarist Ernie Smith. Those elements are, however, cycled and repeated to an extent that makes retaining focus on specific aspects of the song challenging.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Rita Li

Track: Kleur My In

Thoughts: A straightforward country-pop ballad, Kleur My In leaves plenty of space in its arrangement, allowing for rising, layered vocals in the chorus to add solid, satisfying dynamics.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Elle Limebear

Track: What Love Looks Like

Thoughts: Delirious? frontman Martin Smith’s daughter Elle Limebear has her father’s formidable pipes. Her approach here follows a mainstream pop formula: huge production with a soaring, synth-driven chorus that fits the expected chart sound rather than staking out new sonic space.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Donel

Track: Motion

Thoughts: With it’s accompanying video, in which young Zimbabwean-English singer Donel Mangena never stops moving, this song has more heft. On its own, it’s light and airy, never giving its lyrics the punch they might otherwise have.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Prophet

Track: Jy Kan Nie Sommer Vir My Sê Nie

Thoughts: With a title translated as “You can’t just tell me”, this is a protest song that enthusiastically lists the frustrations of being dictated to by supposed leaders who have not earned the right to comment on our lives, over well-produced, bluesy backing.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Shirazee

Track: Right Thang

Thoughts: Driven by a foot-tapping beat, Right Thang is otherwise a pleasant but not striking autotuned vocal collaboration between New York-based Beninese singer-songwriter and South African singer Busiswa, whose rap break gives the piece an energy injection.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Twenty One Pilots

Track: Shy Away

Thoughts: A fairly straightforward pop tune, Shy Away sees Twenty One Pilots coming across like Savage Garden with a bit of an EDM edge. Catchy and likeable, but without some of the invention the duo’s displayed before.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Charmaine

Track: Woo!

Thoughts: As lyrically profound as a college hazing session, Woo! is nonetheless brilliantly produced, and Zimbabwean-born, Canada-based rapper Charmaine has fantastic, confident flow.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Ross Jack

Track: HBK

Thoughts: Making an impression more with tone than with melody or lyrics, this is a bass-heavy piece where shoegaze mood meets rap delivery. Not wholly successful…

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Justin Serrao

Track: Brand New Day

Thoughts: Adding to an expanding sonic palette, Justin Serrao delivers, in Brand New Day vibey Afro-pop (complete with violins and Bakithi Kumalo-esque basslines). Sophisticated party music.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Branan Murphy

Track: Coming Home

Thoughts: Heavily produced radio pop, Coming Home connects through great use of individual instruments in the mix – crisp guitar licks and drum breaks – that give it an irresistible groove.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Steve Umculo

Track: Your Eyes Through Mine

Thoughts: Crisply played and in a pleasingly jaunty major key, Your Eyes Through Mine nevertheless deals with pain, specifically the confusion and regret involved in a break-up. Intelligent, thoughtful pop-folk.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: JJ Lin and Anne-Marie

Track: Bedroom

Thoughts: A cleverly packaged 50/50 collaboration between Singaporean (Li) and English (Anne-Marie) success stories, Bedroom is lush, filmic pop that flips the romantic balladry of its sound with caustic break-up lyrics. Soaring but acerbic.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Saarkie

Track: River Blues

Thoughts: Adele Fouche’s voice adds grit and drive to a simple (where that description is a compliment – good writing choices are made and executed well) pop-rock song that is easy to relate to and to remember.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Passenger

Track: Sword From The Stone

Thoughts: Passenger has always operated in the same part of the pop sphere as his compatriot James Blunt, and this song offers perhaps the closest parallels yet, but with a gentler approach in everything from the vocal tone to the lyrical emphases.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Silk Sonic

Track: Leave The Door Open

Thoughts: Early on, this tune feels overhyped, thanks to the involvement of Bruno Mars and its thick layer of Seventies nostalgia. But repeated listening underlines the sublime musicianship, including intriguing chord changes and fantastic performances (note Mars’ vocal in the section around 2:54 into the song).

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Kayleigh Bell

Track: Better Days

Thoughts: Combining upbeat lyrics and a pulsing strum patterns with chord choices that make for a rather more subdued mood, Kayleigh Bell processes some tough times in folk-rock with a bit of an edge, recalling the quieter moments of artists like Florence Welch.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Luke de Agrela

Track: Sleep When I’m Dead

Thoughts: There are shades of early Justin Timberlake or similar early-millennium pop stars in this track, which mixes earnestly expressed lyrics with an R&B-infused arrangement and a subdued trap beat (plus a clever flat-line tone as the hook is delivered). Stylish stuff.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Elderbrook

Track: Body

Thoughts: A well-produced dance track with a little two-string electric guitar motif as a particularly pleasing part of its layering, Body is gently catchy and quietly propulsive – rhythms that are easy to move to but which don’t otherwise intrude much.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Sarah McArthur

Track: Hard To Be Happy

Thoughts: An interesting combination of glass half-full lyrics with a sprightly, cheerful melody and arrangement, Hard To Be Happy features folk-pop collaborators Sarah McArthur and Jon Shaban trading anxious asides. It’s brief and effective – and perhaps worryingly relatable.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: VonZound featuring KJM Cornetist

Track: Mystery & Jealousy

Thoughts: Unashamedly in thrall to Depeche Mode and other synth and New Wave titans, Von Zound do their influences proud from the opening notes of this debut single. The simplicity of a brooding arrangement is given power by superb production and a jazzy trumpet break adds light and movement.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

Artist: Zach Williams

Track: Survivor

Thoughts: Every bit as country as he is Christian, Zach Williams provides something for both markets in this polished, sincere paean to not only getting through tough times, but doing so with reliable help. A great singing voice is also well used to convey strong emotion.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Wendy Oldfield

Track: Home

Thoughts: Rootsy and thoughtful, this song lyrically examines the notion of home – the reality of it being emotion and texture and time as well as place. Oldfield’s voice has a sultry, smoky edge to it over sprightly instrumental backing and a melody that slightly recalls Fairground Attraction.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Finding Faith

Track: Good Hands

Thoughts: Australian-Canadian duo Finding Faith cloak their belief-inspired lyrics (the hook is “the hands that hold it all are good hands) in layered, thoughtfully-constructed production, built on a foundation of keyboards and synths. The result is a chart-friendly pop sound that quickly gets under your skin.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Anna Wolf

Track: Gong

Thoughts: Moody and dark, Gong recalls the less mainstream moments of artists like Tori Amos, a sinister fairytale lyric woven into changing time signatures that unsettle on a first listen. On repeated spins, though, the arrangement starts to feel more natural, and Wolf’s multi-octave vocals help uncover the emotional heart of the piece.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Cherry Pill

Track: Tears That Flow

Thoughts: Providing an interesting instrumental platform – violin plus nuanced guitar, here – Cherry Pill suggest a diversion from their folky style with quirky timing tweaks as this tune starts. But it settles into a more straightforward pattern – beautifully played, but more like MOR folk-pop than the slightly edgier feel of the opening passages.

Rating: ♥♥

 

Artist: Albert Frost

Track: Everlasting

Thoughts: The sunny, choir-backed intro riff is a little misleading in terms of the tone of much of what is a relatively thoughtful tune for much of its running time (particularly in the verses), but that and the powerful lift into the chorus – plus the trademark solo – leave you feeling better at the end of the song than you did when it started.

Rating: ♥♥♥

 

Artist: Sia ft Burna Boy

Track: Hey Boy 

Thoughts: The fantastic full-throttle vocal and funk strut of the first 30 seconds is up there with Sia’s considerable best. The rest of the song? More predictable, less thrilling (but still solid) pop, with Nigerian rapper Burna Boy adding vibes more than a standout individual contribution.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

 

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