Darren Jordan Cunningham may not like talking about music, but he certainly enjoys thinking about it. Every one of his releases as Actress comes steeped in quasi-philosophical meditations on identity, sci-fi futurism, and abstract ideas about color and geometry, while his previous release, 2014’s Ghettoville, was accompanied by a Beat-poem eulogy for the Actress name and music itself. Fortunately, you don’t have to take those treatises seriously to enjoy Actress’ music—least of all that last one, which turned out to be a premature farewell to Cunningham’s idiosyncratic, bleached, and bit-crushed take on minimalist techno. “X22RME” announces the welcome return of Actress on new album AZD, a shift way from the gloomy churn of Ghettoville and back toward the more woozy, playful sounds of Splazsh. After nearly a minute of digital feedback that dares you to click away, a rinsed-out four-on-the-floor beat kicks in and begins to slowly build its burbling synth sounds into a pixelated rave, before everything drops out for a disorienting, double-tracked conversation on artistic interpretation from voices in English and Japanese. It’s typically heady stuff, but also unobtrusive and hypnotic enough to nurture your own deep thoughts. For example, when are that guy in the welding helmet and those Japanese fashion models gonna play soccer already?
The Lemon Twigs, "As Long As We're Together"
It’s easy to focus on just how young The Lemon Twigs are, but they’d be just as impressive at any age. Teenagers Brian and Michael D’Addario were obviously schooled on Elton John, Rufus Wainwright, and early Bowie while they learned their multiple instruments (they both switch between guitar and drums onstage) and practiced songwriting during their formative years on Long Island. The duo’s first album, last year’s Do Hollywood (4AD), rightly kicked them off on a world tour and snagged them an impressive Late Show appearance, and even their inspiration Elton John now counts himself as a fan. “These Words” is the dreamiest pop ditty this side of Todd Rundgren, while “I Wanna Prove To You” is an orchestral doo-wop throwback (aided by an inspired documentary video that explores the relationship between an adorable senior-citizen couple). For a gateway cut, check out “As Long As We’re Together,” a five-minute epic that crams an entire space-age rock opera into one lo-fi pop song. On second thought, maybe it is the D’Addarios’ youth that gives them the lack of self-consciousness to play up those theatrics, as well as the willingness—and the stamina—to open up your heart, just to see it get punted across the floor.
I’m not usually one for ’80s-biting pop, but “Tightrope” does something different. It’s the first release from LPX, a.k.a. Lizzy Plapinger, frontwoman for retro-groove act MS MR. In her solo debut, Plapinger steps into the role of dance-floor diva with a rawness and intensity that most music in this genre usually pretties up, or else funnels into belting, Adele-style vocal calisthenics. LPX, by contrast, begins the song with a frenetic edge to her vocals, and it only gets more elevated as she goes along. The choruses transform the track from a shimmy to a stuttering burst of guitar-driven eruptions, over which her voice wails into extremities, as though she were driving herself hoarse—and just when you think it’s about to power the song into blissful, open release, it pulls back again, bringing her down to a more restrained timbre. This push-and-pull is what makes the song so vital, but also makes me frustrated she hasn’t put out a proper full-length record yet, damn it.
Tinariwen is one of music’s most fascinating stories. Formed among the camps of the Tuareg people’s rebellion against Mali, this musical collective has been recording its uniquely guitar-heavy rendition of traditional Tuareg music for more than 30 years. What started as a band whose songs of repression and rebellion were traded around the Sahara on homemade cassette tapes has become a Grammy-winning, world-touring troupe with records that reach around the globe. “Sastanàqqàm,” a highlight from the band’s new album, Elwan, is a perfect introduction to its work. Its funky bass line and call-and-response vocals give way to a blast of fiery blues guitar, and it’s at this point that Tinariwen’s effortlessly badass musical amalgamation is revealed in all its glory. The rest of the song vamps on that same basic progression, each recursion more electrifying than the last.
Everything But The Girl, “Wrong”
I started listening to Everything But The Girl way after the fact, probably in 2010 or so, when I was looking for midtempo late-’90s electronic music to steady my blood pressure at a job I didn’t like. The English duo, consisting of married couple Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, had a full decade of wistful, romantic folk music under their belts before they about-faced on their last two albums to embrace U.K. electronic music. Walking Wounded was the first of these, and single “Wrong” is the perfect fusion of their styles, featuring the keening romanticism of their early work alongside stately dance drums and Thorn’s unlikely turn as an melancholy dance-floor diva. The track presages the bleary, lovelorn pulse of recent work by The xx, not to mention the headphone-friendly pulse of millennial Kompakt releases, all the way back in ’96. The track and the album are rightly regarded as classics, but I keep quietly rediscovering them year after year, their low-key pleasures only growing with time.