By BRUCE DENNILL
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Artist: Ziggy Alberts
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.
Artist: Tenth Avenue North
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.
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.
Artist: Red Rocks Worship
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Artist: Ross Jack
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Artist: Zach Williams
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.
Artist: Wendy Oldfield
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.
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.
Artist: Anna Wolf
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.
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.
Artist: Albert Frost
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.
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.