Black Genius, in its Own Words

Today I’m highlighting several things I’ve recently ordered for the library that I think will add beauty and insight to our collection – focused on the experience of African-Americans, including full measures of joy, grief, hope, shame, love, and vulnerability. Have your own reading or listening suggestions? Tell us in the comments!

 Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers features baritone vocals and piano accompaniment over eight tracks by black composers, many with lyrics by eminent poet Langston Hughes.

 

 

You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience is an anthology curated by Tarana Burke and Brene Brown, meant to act as a counterpart to Brown’s famous works on vulnerability.

 

 

 

Life, I Swear: Intimate Stories from Black Women on Identity, Healing, and Self-Trust by Chloe Dulce Louvouezo is an illustrated collection of essays inspired by a podcast and telling the stories of prominent Black women’s journeys to self-love and healing.

 

 

 

For more recently-published celebrations of the Black experience, try:

Love in Color by Bolu Babalola, a striking retelling of myths, especially from West Africa, but drawing from folklore traditions around the world.

Black Magic by Chad Sanders, on the resilience and confidence the author gained from navigating America as a Black man, and how it contributed to his career success.

We Are Each Others’ Harvest by Natalie Baszile, detailing and celebrating the past and present of African-American farming, including how American culture has been shaped by these connections to the land.

The Disordered Cosmos by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a combination love letter to science and vision for a more inclusive scientific community, criticizing harmful systems which are in place.

Read Until You Understand by Farrah Jasmine Griffin, which dives into historical records of Black genius, from Malcolm X to Stevie Wonder to Toni Morrison, to show the wisdom of Black culture.

Music Hype: Human by OneRepublic

This album has been hovering on the horizon for months now, as I waited to order it until a release date was officially announced. Now, it’s finally here! So let’s talk about OneRepublic: who they are, how they got here, and how we feel about their latest offering: Human.

OneRepublic is an American pop band formed in 2002. I know many of us in the millennial and maybe Gen X camps grew up listening to Apologize and Stop and Stare from their first album Dreaming Out Loud – both of which became massive hits around the world. Apologize in particular became iconic after being remixed by Timbaland.

All the Right Moves was the big hit from their second album, Waking Up, from 2009. Other earworms included Secrets and Good Life. More recently a lot of people found they’d accidentally memorized all the words to Counting Stars, the hit song from 2013’s album, Native. Their fourth album was Oh My My in 2016 and it was a major departure in their sound, producing singles Wherever I Go and Kids.

Human has been delayed a number of times (and I’m sure COVID was part of it), but there have been singles released from it to build hype, including Rescue Me and Wanted. According to some critics, this makes the album feel more like a time capsule than a new release: Rescue Me came out in 2019, which as we all know was a very different emotional moment than 2021. But there’s still a lot to love including the upbeat anthem Run and yearning track Distance, which echoes some of the band’s classic vibes. Speaking for myself, a band than can do soulful, emotional, and danceable all equally well is definitely worth following, and OneRepublic has a very strong track record to recommend them.

If you’re looking for a solid pop album that captures some nostalgia and some optimism, you might want to try OneRepublic’s Human, finally available for checkout.

Key Changes: Gen Z Hitmakers

I don’t know about you, but I’m hugely vulnerable to earworms: those songs that stick in your head and just never leave. Now, I fall squarely in the “millennial” camp, but in my experience lately, there are some Generation Z (born 1995-2015) pop artists that are making really catchy songs that spread like wildfire on social media and everyone finds themselves singing. Here are three top-rated Gen Z artists whose new albums we’ve recently purchased for the library, full of new earworms for you to love and hate – you’re welcome!

Billie Eilish became iconic for her oversized fashion and green-and-black hair alongside her homemade, whisper-sung tracks. I always found her work atmospheric and spooky, leaning into the dark side of humanity and growing up. For her new album, Happier than Ever, Eilish has changed her image to blonde hair and a nude color palette – but her softly sung, otherworldly musical style and lightly cynical lyrics remain largely unchanged. You might have heard her hit song Bad Guy from debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? This time around, watch out for Therefore I Am, which has a similar sound but revolves around defying bullies and haters.

Tones and I, AKA Toni Watson of Australia, rocketed to fame on the song Dance Monkey in 2019. Like Billie Eilish, she has a unique vocal sound, which in her iconic track is paired with danceable beats (evidence: the song is my favorite from the game Just Dance 2021). Dance Monkey was released on the 6-song EP The Kids Are Coming in late 2019. The new album, Welcome to the Madhouse, may have grown in scope as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: Watson added 5 more songs and took extra time to do most of the production work herself. According to critics, the songs on this album are Watson being really vulnerable and exploring her mental health and the cruelty of haters, through clever lyrics and strong vocals.

This last entry was added to our collection a few months back, but it’s too popular not to be mentioned in this group. Olivia Rodrigo was originally known for her acting work on Disney shows, including High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, but with the release of her smash hit album Sour, her fame has definitely shifted. The earworm (for me, anyway) in this case is Good 4 U, an energetic and danceable take on the anger after a breakup, especially when an ex-partner moves on quickly. The album as a whole is very centered on the teenage experience, especially falling in (and out of) love: the other popular track is Driver’s License, about getting a license but losing a partner. Guaranteed to knock around your brain for a while, this is not an album to miss – even if you’re not a teenager anymore.

Key Changes: New Country Mega Albums

In previous blog posts, we’ve talked about how being in isolation during the coronavirus pandemic has caused many artists to make unique new music and innovative albums. This time around, it’s the Country Music Edition, featuring two artists who have created double and triple albums of their best work in the past year. Don’t miss these exciting large-scale projects from big names and hitmakers from the country music world!

First up, Eric Church. Heart and Soul were released in April, two weeks apart, and they’re designed to be part of a trilogy set. The third album, called ‘&’, which unites the two, is being exclusively released on vinyl to Church’s fan club. Heart and Soul are the two bookend albums with nine songs each, featuring songs each written and recorded in a single-day marathon recording session in early 2020, according to an interview with Church about the release. This allowed writers and musicians to collaborate more directly than in his previous work, a process which Church says produced a “special, special project.”

 

Second, Sturgill Simpson. Rather than releasing new tracks, Simpson has remixed his older country songs into bluegrass versions. Cuttin’ Grass vol. 1: the Butcher Shoppe Sessions, and Cuttin’ Grass vol. 2: The Cowboy Arms Sessions are two albums which pay homage to bluegrass music with powerful and creative versions of Simpson’s earlier works. Volume 2, released in April, also features a previously un-released track shared with Simpson by the late Merle Haggard. A longtime trendsetter in the country music genre, Simpson has now created a pair of albums that explore his inspirations, grounding his transcendent themes in an earthy style.

Key Changes: New K-pop

In case you’re not familiar, K-pop is an increasingly popular music industry based in South Korea. It features energetic tracks inspired by styles of music from all around the world, along with tight choreography. K-pop has produced a number of talented bands, including the ones highlighted below. Forming a k-pop group is taken very seriously in South Korea, with aspiring musicians becoming trainees and working hard to be chosen for a group, all while under a great deal of public scrutiny and strict rules for conduct. If this is all new to you, read on to discover your next intercultural music addiction! If you are familiar with this global sensation, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye out for the below albums, recently added to the library collection. (Side note: k-pop tracks are also highly featured in the Just Dance video games, and make for quite a good workout!)

BTS (or the Bangtan Boys) is a seven-member pop group that first debuted in 2013, really breaking into the global music market in 2017 and quickly becoming one of the most popular Korean groups in the United States. Be is the South Korean boy band’s 5th album in Korean, and their 9th total, including their 4 albums in Japanese. It was created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring the band members’ thoughts and feelings during the crisis and the album’s creation. Primarily a pop music sound, the album includes influences from hip-hop, disco, synth-pop, funk, and many others. Lead single on the album is “Life Goes On”, and music critics have praised the album’s authenticity and simplicity. Previous albums available include Love Yourself: Her, Love Yourself: Tear, Love Yourself: Answer, Map of the Soul 7: Journey, and Face Yourself.

Blackpink is a four-member pop group, also based in South Korea, that debuted in 2016 and quickly rose to fame on the international charts, repeatedly setting new records for most-viewed music video within the first 24 hours of release. The Album is the group’s first Korean album (preceded by Blackpink in Your Area, a Japanese album, and their two-track debut album, Square One), their first full-length work, AND the first album by a Korean girl group to sell more than a million copies. The album’s eight tracks include collaborations with Selena Gomez and Cardi B and explore love and the complexities of growing up, highlighting the group’s mature side. Reviews have been mostly positive, complimenting Blackpink’s vocal ability and stylistic variety.

See also: Blackpink: Kpop’s no.1 girl group and BTS: Blood, Sweat, and Tears, two nonfiction works about the groups, as well as some great YA fiction featuring the industry: Shine, Somewhere Only We Know, I’ll Be The One, and K-pop Confidential.

Key Changes: New Classical Music

Some great new classical music has been added to the collection lately! The reigning theme is: fresh takes on tradition. Check out some of the great possibilities below.

Bach Cello Suites vol. 2 (arranged for guitar) by Jeffrey McFadden takes some of the most famous classical cello music ever written and puts a new twist on it – arrangement for guitar. In a new medium, the full harmonic complexity of the composition is on display, making this a worthy addition to the recordings of these pieces. Volume 1 coming soon.

 

The Art of the Mandolin by Avi Avital is definitely not something you see every day – an album comprised entirely of works written for the mandolin! Drawing from famous composers like Vivaldi and Beethoven, as well as contemporary composers including the performer himself, the album celebrates the mandolin in its unique glory.

 

Debussy & Ravel with the London Symphony Orchestra explores mystery, fantasy, and stirring odysseys through the work of two composers: Ravel, who explores his Spanish heritage in the Rapsodie espagnole, and Debussy, who creates mystic, free, and wild worlds in the Prelude de L’apres-midi d’un faune and La mer. Discover the subtleties and nuance of classical compositions.

 

Time by Jess Gillam is the second album by the award-winning saxophonist, following 2019’s Rise. This album strives to emulate and evoke the rising and falling energies over the course of a day, and echoes a wide variety of styles and influences. It promises an immersive sound experience and a time for reflection.

 

Not Our First Goat Rodeo by Stuart Duncan edges into the world of classical crossover, with chamber music melding with country, folk, and blues. This light-hearted ensemble features the cello stylings of Yo-Yo Ma, and promises a boundary-breaking good time. It’s a follow-up to the 2011 album Goat Rodeo Sessions, also available.

 

John Williams in Vienna with the Wiener Philharmonic takes the classic soundtrack music of John Williams, and sets it in the stirring instrumentals of a philharmonic orchestra. Take an emotional and nostalgic journey with this star-studded program! Includes music of Indiana Jones, E.T., Luke Skywalker, and more.

Key Changes: New Music by Enchanting Voices

First things first: everyone has different opinions on which singers have the most beautiful voices. The two singers I’m highlighting today are just two of my personal favorites — I love the rich, velvety tones of their voices and am looking to share the beauty of it with you! Both these singers are probably known to you in some way, because they’re iconic features of vocal music in popular culture. These, their most recent albums, show their chops and add to their already considerable reputations – in popular music circles, anyway. Classical music critics have mixed feelings.

Believe by Andrea Bocelli is the 16th solo album the pop tenor has released (though he’s collaborated on many more!) and it strikes a very timely tone for 2020. It’s a collection of uplifting songs that Bocelli has loved throughout his life. In his announcement, Bocelli said the album is a celebration of the power of music to soothe the soul, and it features duets with opera singer Cecilia Bartoli and award-winning singer Alison Krauss.

Harmony by Josh Groban strikes a similar note: Groban reportedly developed and fleshed-out this album during the isolation of the global pandemic when he was trying to reach a place of light and hope. The resulting album represents a miracle of cooperation as musicians and producers combined their efforts from a distance to create a unified whole. Moreover, the songs themselves are a mix of classic melodies and original songs which express hope for the future.

Key Changes: New Classical Crossovers

I grew up listening to a lot of classical music because of my parents, and only developed a love for pop music later. This has given me a unique perspective on music, and a love for a genre that’s a bit obscure but super fun if you’re a music nerd like me. It’s usually called Classical Crossovers, and it’s what happens when instruments and groups that typically play classical music play… NOT classical music, whether that’s pop music, rock music, soundtracks, etc. How this works depends on the group and the music they’re covering. I like it because the different instrumentation puts a unique twist on a familiar melody. Here are a few examples of this genre, recently ordered for the library.

Disney Goes Classical by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is an album where a symphony orchestra plays beloved Disney songs, from movies like The Lion King, Moana, Frozen, and more. It also features guest artists who are some of the best classical musicians today, including Matteo Bocelli,  Renee Fleming, and more. If you’re looking to relive your childhood or experience the magic of Disney in a different way, check out this album for a classy journey down memory lane.

10 by the Piano Guys probably needs no introduction; The Piano Guys have been an Internet sensation for a long time with their amazing covers of popular songs and mashups with both popular and classical tracks. In this album, they celebrate 10 years of making music with new covers as well as some of their greatest hits. They always adapt the original song to work perfectly with their instruments (piano and cello) and the songs on this album are no exception.

Alive by David Garrett is the newest album from an acclaimed violinist known for his violin covers of rock and popular songs. In this album, he has created a collection of his favorite soundtrack music, which runs the gamut from Disney songs like Beauty and the Beast and Let it Go to dramatic hits like Shallow, all the while staying true to his roots as a classical musician.

Key Changes: New Quirky Music

I love ordering the music CDs for the library – getting the inside scoop on all the new albums coming out is great fun for me. The only thing I like better is sharing the cool new music with other people! Today I’ve got another two albums, recently ordered for the library, which give us a great opportunity to think about how the artist’s work has changed and matured over the course of their career.

Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass by Lana Del Rey is another unique installment in already unusual body of work. Her music is hard to classify in my mind, with old Americana glamour (think 1950s and 1960s) fatalistically described in hypnotic, narcotic vocals. I’ve heard it described as a red rose smoking a cigarette. Another word people use is “sadcore”, which describes a moodier, alternative musical style featuring depressive themes, bleak lyrics, and/or downbeat melodies. It’s perfect music for thinking about doomed love or the flaws in the American dream. She has continually evolved over the course of her career: her first album, Born to Die, was a breakout hit, heavy with American nostalgia but influenced by hip-hop and indie pop. A subsequent album, Ultraviolence, was more guitar-based, sounding like psychedelic or desert rock, and was followed by Honeymoon, which had a thick, crooning sound that felt like a time warp, according to one reviewer. Her next album, Lust for Life, was for her fans, and it was followed by her biggest success, Norman Fucking Rockwell, which delved deep into twisted and sordid American fantasies and was called “massive and majestic” by reviewers. In Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, she has created a spoken word album, putting a series of original poems over musical accompaniment. Another studio album is anticipated in early 2021, titled Chemtrails over the Country Club.

Love Goes by Sam Smith is another artist that I’ve always felt stands apart from the crowd. They first rose to fame in 2012 and 2013 performing on other artists’ tracks, before releasing their first studio album In the Lonely Hour in 2014. This album rocketed to the top of the charts and won them 4 Grammy awards. They continued to release individual tracks, including Writing’s On The Wall, a very atmospheric song for a James Bond film in 2015, Promises with Calvin Harris, and Dancing with a Stranger with Normani. In 2017 they released a second studio album, The Thrill of It All, which was also a big success, especially the lead single Too Good At Goodbyes. This third album features another string of wildly successful singles including How Do You Sleep, To Die For, and I’m Ready with Demi Lovato. The beauty of Smith’s music is that it has grown increasingly personal and intimate over the course of their career; In The Lonely Hour had a crooner, R&B sound that was familiar, though extremely catchy, and the lyrics told age-old stories of love and loss reminiscent of music by Adele. With The Thrill of It All and subsequent singles, Smith became more vulnerable, putting more personal truth into their songs and developing a more meditative, unique sound. This album promises to be the most authentic record yet, featuring tracks that already popular as well as new unknown songs. Early reviews are positive, saying that with this album Smith celebrates freedom and self-expression in a way they haven’t before.

Recently Added: Quarantine Music

I think it’s safe to say the last few months have changed a lot of plans. Countless goals and dreams and ways of thinking have been forced to adapt, be revised, or be put to rest. One way, both beautiful and bittersweet, that these changes are expressed is through the art we create. Taylor Swift is a good example of what can be created in these unusual circumstances, but there are several other cases of creative projects altered by pandemic that are worth looking at. All the albums listed have recently been ordered for the library and will be available soon.

how i’m feeling now by Charli XCX is an album that was created in a truly unique way, unlikely to have arisen except in the context of self-isolation. The artist announced (where else?) on a Zoom call  that she would be making an album in self-isolation and that she would use only the tools at her fingertips to create the music, album art, everything.  Moreover, she worked collaboratively with her fans to get feedback on tracks, album art, and more. The result has been highly acclaimed by critics and fans.

In A Dream by Troye Sivan is the artist’s third album, following 2018’s Bloom. According to Sivan, this album represents an emotional rollercoaster, where emotions and feelings are shockingly fresh. Similar to Taylor Swift’s journey with Folklore, this album was made while Sivan was in lockdown in Melbourne, and it was facilitated by the boredom and isolation of the experience. Songs were created day by day and it was an unexpected realization to find that an entire album had materialized.

Here On Earth by Tim McGraw, in contrast to previous examples, was planned and recorded before the pandemic, but was unmistakably altered by it. The tour originally planned to accompany the release had to be canceled, and according to an interview with Rolling Stone, McGraw had to reexamine the record in light of the pandemic to see how its emotional impact had been changed. Some tracks, including I Called Mama, were found to have unexpected emotional weight.

ALICIA by Alicia Keys was also planned ahead of time, but struck a timely chord with its themes. Critics said the album struck a balance between hope and despair, and Keys herself said the album showed the value of introspection – something we’ve all had more time to do lately, right? The album was scheduled for release in March, but was delayed by the pandemic until September. In the meantime, various virtual performances allowed Keys to debut songs from the album ahead of its release, including the iHeart Living Room Concert for America.