Phoenix Playlist Picks: January 2021

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The sixth installment of Phoenix Playlist Picks — a series of monthly articles where Phoenix editors make Spotify playlists of the best new music each month and then select some of their favorites to write about — focuses on January’s new releases.

While January tends to be a sparse month for music releases, legendary Americana artist Steve Earle put out an album as a tribute to his late son and rising dark pop artist Get Tuff dropped their debut album, among other new music featured on this month’s playlist.

Just Friends – “JF Crew, Vol. 1”

While Just Friends’ newest extended play (EP), “Just Friends, Vol. 1,” doesn’t technically contain new music, the reimaginings of previous releases will definitely satiate fans who have been eagerly awaiting the group’s next album.

An acoustic rendition of the hit “I Wanna Love You” from their debut album “Nothing But Love” opens up the three-track EP and gives vocalist Brianda Goyos León yet another chance to show off her vocal chops. 

Between the two reimagined songs of their own sits Just Friends’ version of “Dosed” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The soundscape backing the track largely remains true to the original, though the use of layered vocals sets it apart in the best way possible.

The conclusion — and highlight — of the release is without a doubt the remix of “Fever.” The new rendition features Nate Curry, who breathes new life into an already fantastic song with his melodic solo vocals guiding groovy instrumentals and beautiful harmonies. 

Steve Earle – “J.T.”

In September, famed Americana artist and former Rogers Park resident Justin Townes Earle died of what police believe was a drug overdose. This January, his father and even more famed Americana artist, Steve Earle, released an album in his honor. 

“J.T.” is a stark departure from much of Earle’s recent work as he steps away from political commentary to cover his late son’s greatest hits. In staying true to both himself and his son’s work, Earle leans into classic Americana sounds while also using some of the elements his son was famous for blending in.

“Lone Pine Hill” is a highlight of the album and the perfect example of what the older Earle was shooting for when making this record. What was formerly a stripped down solo performance is turned into quite the production, complete with a backing ensemble of folk instruments.

“J.T.” is a fitting tribute, staying true to the elder Earle’s sound while encapsulating what made his son’s music so special. 

GET TUFF – “In Sickness and In Hell”

RB Roe, better known as a Lansing-based dark pop artist GET TUFF, dropped their 10-song debut album Jan. 15 — just six months after their first single hit streaming services.

Roe — who uses they/them pronouns — was featured in the October’s edition of Phoenix Playlist Picks as part of their other group The Weak Days, which released a six-song fantasy narrative told through song. “In Sickness and In Hell” is the perfect demonstration of Roe’s artistic range when set next to The Weak Days’ last EP.

Roe almost single-handedly carries the melodic end of the album. Soaring vocals move between high belts and low drawls to communicate hard-hitting lyrics, while cleanly produced percussion keeps everything on track.

Lorde fans should rejoice, as GET TUFF is both the artist to fill the gaps between her sparsely released music and so much more.

Cheekface – “Emphatically No.”

California-based trio Cheekface dropped their sophomore album “Emphatically No.” Jan. 11, and to say the least, it’s far off from the “sophomore slump” people come to expect from great bands.

“Emphatically No.” takes the best parts of late-90s and early-00s alternative rock and updates them for a new decade, effectively creating a modern day competitor for Cake’s 1998 album “Prolonging the Magic.”

Part of what brings their songs into 2021 is lyrical emphasis on current crises, such as the pandemic and climate change. On “Original Composition,” guitarist and vocalist Greg Katz gives his take on global crises being ignored.

“The climate changed and I left it on read / The bees died off and I left it on read / They don’t recycle your Sprite bottles anymore /  Don’t need a weatherman to know,” Katz talk-sings on “Original Composition.”

“Emphatically No.” is a lackadaisical jab at the chaos of the world that also happens to be the perfect soundtrack for strolls around outside that have come to replace the normal actions of daily lives nearly a year into this pandemic.

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