So long Thanksgiving, hello December holidays. Before you start wrapping presents and stringing up the lights, let’s take a look back at November’s best music releases — including a stellar posthumous soul record and a Rihanna rap track, plus some unexpectedly great holiday tunes.
Sharon Jones’s final album is a bittersweet close to her career
When singer Sharon Jones died of pancreatic cancer in November 2016, she left behind a legacy of soul music and a full discography for fans to keep returning to. Now, a little over a year after her death, her final album, Soul of a Woman, is out. Supported by her band, the indomitable Dap Kings, Jones recorded the album amid chemo treatments and a last round of live shows.
It doesn’t miss a beat. Soul of a Woman is a standard SJ&TDK mix of slower tracks (“Pass Me By”) and groovier ones that you can just picture Jones dancing to onstage (“Rumors”). Jones wrote the last song on the record, “Call on God,” for her church choir years ago, long before she started her career with the Dap Kings. With her playing the keys, the song relaxes into a hymn about giving up your suffering to God. It’s a perfect end to both the album and to Jones’s musical legacy.
Rihanna and Pharrell teamed up to release a new earworm
After about a seven-year hiatus, N.E.R.D., a funk/rap/rock group from Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, Shay Haley, is back with a new single — one that features a hefty dose of Rihanna. On “Lemon,” Pharrell and Rihanna trade rap verses, and it’s hard to decide which one of them delivers their lines better. (Rihanna, obviously.)
And don’t miss the song’s music video. In it, Rihanna shaves the head of Mette Towley, a member of Pharrell’s dance crew since 2014, before Towley spends the rest of the song dancing to both rappers’ verses. It’s even better once you know how excited Towley was to lose her locks.
Lost At Last Vol. 1 lets Langhorne Slim tap into old-time Americana
Americana singer Langhorne Slim — a.k.a. Sean Scolnick, whose stage name is taken from his birthplace of Langhorne, Pennsylvania — is no stranger to the world of country-Americana music. The songwriter has been making records since the early 2000s; Lost At Last. Vol. 1 is his newest entry.
The album’s songs have a down-home, old-timey feel, with a little bit of tongue-in-cheek attitude mixed in. (See “Zombie,” where Slim laments an unrequited love in this fashion: “She had an old suitcase/Full of skulls/She kissed my lips/My blood ran cold.”) Other tracks, like “House Of My Soul,” are more traditional, with slight twinges of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes’ signature theatricality. If you’re looking for something to listen to while driving toward holiday vacations, this is it.
Utopia digs deeper into the magical world of Björk
The cover of Björk’s Utopia is only the first striking thing about the album. It presents the Icelandic singer (full name: Björk Guðmundsdóttir) in an alien-flower hybrid mask that dazzles even despite the fact that the singer is known for her extremely artful fashion statements.
The second striking thing, of course, is the music. Björk has been writing and singing for her whole life; her first solo record came out in 1993, with Debut. Her style is, to say the least, eclectic — shuffle a Björk discography and you’ll hear everything from jazz to electronica to avant-garde a cappella tracks.
Utopia is her 10th album, and it’s safe to say she’s ascended to true icon status. This record is more elaborate than melodic. Many songs feature flutes and fluttery synths, while lead single “The Gate” is a darker track about the exchange of giving and receiving love in a relationship. And “Paradisia” cuts out Björk’s voice entirely in favor of a fairy tale-like woodwind orchestra.
Angel Olsen ties up loose ends in her new album, Phases
On singer-songwriter Angel Olsen’s fourth full-length LP, she pauses for a moment to take stock of her musical career so far. Phases is a collection of songs spanning her whole career that hadn’t previously found a home: demos, covers, and B-sides, all swept up now into one new album.
Phases is quieter than Olsen’s 2016 album My Woman — a record that was full of simmering anger and electric guitar. Here, Olsen’s beautiful, old-fashioned voice is front and center, especially on acoustic tracks like “All Right Now” and “May as Well” (my personal favorite). “Sweet Dreams” and “California” are true standouts; both are lifted from a 2013 EP called Sleepwalker. And “Special,” her first single, features a video shot by Olsen herself during a visit from a friend.
Sia takes on Christmas in her newest album
I’m not sure if Everyday Is Christmas is destined to become a holiday classic à la Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but Sia’s giving it her best shot. It’s a gift box full of poppy Christmas songs, wrapped up in the literal bow around her red and green hair on the album cover — and all of them are unmistakably Sia in tone and style.
Half of them start with melancholy adjacent piano chords and flow into the singer’s raspy, strong voice (see the swooning, and similarly titled, tracks “Underneath the Christmas Lights” and “Underneath the Mistletoe”). The other half are all jingle and tinsel (see: “Ho Ho Ho” or “Puppies are Forever”). The best song is “Santa’s Coming for Us” — put that one on while you’re hosting gift exchanges with your pals, commiserating about how so little good Christmas music has been produced in the past decade.
D.R.A.M. has the best sleeper holiday hit of the season
For a more traditional take on holiday tunes, check out D.R.A.M.’s surprise release: #1HappyHoliday. D.R.A.M. stands for Does Real Ass Music, a pseudonym for rapper Shelley Marshaun Massenburg-Smith, whose song “Broccoli” was everywhere last year. With this short Christmas EP, he presents just three songs: “Silver Bells,” which features his mom (under the moniker “Big Baby Mom”) as the lead vocal; “The Christmas Song,” and an original, the title track.
D.R.A.M.’s voice is sweet, and when he breaks into his signature almost-out-of-tune style, it adds something extra special. The rapper sticks to a pretty traditional interpretation of his covers, but “#1HappyHoliday” sounds like a standard D.R.A.M. offering, with the singer crooning about cozying up to a lover while it’s cold outside.
Here’s a Spotify playlist of all the songs above.