Summer is coming to an end (*laughs in Halloween*) and in a lot of ways, I’m totally okay with that. I have christened this summer as “my summer of absolute boredom” rather than my summer of sweet tea and fruit water. It’s rather fitting since I’m not one for hot weather anyway, despite being a summer baby. (Actually, I’m an end-of-summer baby so there’s that.)
Still, while I’m all too ready to cue in All Hallows Eve, I’ve been lulling about my office with one playlist blaring in the background while trying desperately to hunker down into a yoga pose and “eat green.” Initially, I had intended to create a fun, sunny playlist to share for 2021. But then the creative flow took on a vibe all its own, as it often does, cementing itself into something I was no longer in control of.
Anyway, the summer season can be depressing for some people for all kinds of reasons. Things ebb and flow differently for everyone, regardless of whether the sun is smiling down on us or not. “So,” I thought, “why not create a playlist to match that?” And before you judge too harshly, this list does include an upbeat tune here or there as a reminder to grab your fruit water on the way out. Sometimes, it’s the little things.
From local NJ artists to some exciting new voices from record label 4AD, here is an end of summer playlist for those that are less about the beach and more about the nostalgia of those summer nights spent around campfires and long-ago memories of “friends for life.”
“Cattails” by Big Thief
Based in Brooklyn, Big Thief came across my radar from a 4AD playlist and I’m so happy they did. If you could capture a sweet, soft, summer breeze in a bottle, it would be the voice of Adrianne Lenker on the single “Cattails.”
Lenker wrote “Cattails” in the woodlands of Washington state, unable to let go of the creativity that swept over her. She told SPIN that the song still brings her to tears sometimes, and it’s understandable. There almost aren’t enough words to describe how transportive “Cattails” is. It’s a beautiful folk melody that encapsulates the sweetness (or bittersweetness) of a summer day beginning (or ending). “Cattails” has a mythical quality, a feel-good temperament, and the hint of a farewell bell to a person, a season, even a life. Maybe that’s not quite the way it’s meant to feel, and perhaps that’s not how you want to feel as summer comes to a close, but it certainly feels that way here.
“Miami” by Bottled Blonde
Once, when I was in Florida, I felt like I was somewhere between an overheated resort and a prison. I consumed my weight in shrimp and large, overpriced fancy cocktails that you can only dream up while on vacation. I felt dry and “feathery,” as if I were on the verge of being sucked up into the vast nothingness of the ocean. Like a great, monstrous wave would jump up and ensnare me forever. My time there felt fictitious.
For years, I could never put that feeling to paper. But then Bottled Blonde presented us with a reimagining of her first track, “Miami.” Mackenzie Brown re-recorded the song during the pandemic, but it was originally written, “one summer in a hot, tiny bedroom.” This might be why the song feels the way it does; hot, cramped, and aching to get out of something. It’s reminiscent of my time in Florida, bringing me straight back into the feeling of that cloudy, heavy, and humid trip. Perhaps it’s Brown’s breezy, whispery vocals or the haunting reverb and piano synths that sound like the creaks of a haunted house.
The track has a sense of lonesomeness resulting from contemplating the consequences of weighty life decisions. It’s as if someone has tugged at the narrator, pulling them this way or that, while “putting you on display” or being “held under” by the sea, Miami, or a person. There is even a line in the song about having or seeking “A quiet ending/a test of who cares/as I reach the end.” While that might sound a bit fatalist, I don’t take it to be a permanent ending but rather seeking the end of something that no longer serves you.
Besides the track’s obvious title, the feeling of the song awakened the memory of my short time in Florida. I escaped the beaches and “paradise” with a resolution to no more be put on display, tugged around by the people in my life at that moment. I left seeking an ending that would reveal any and all key players that remained when the fog lifted. What I wanted was the chatter of various voices about who and what I should be or do, to end, and “Miami” brings me fondly back to that moment when I chose to live as I wanted to live.
“Miami” is contemplative and mysterious, and Brown’s ethereal voice is reminiscent of the murky, echoing chamber of memory. It will bring you to places you might have forgotten about, like that “one summer,” or even places you didn’t want to remember. Sometimes, songs like “Miami” are what we need to remind us why we’ve forgotten these moments in the first place and why we are so lucky to be where we are.
“Bend” by Radkey
Radkey’s Isaiah Radke confided to me that, “Bend,” off their album Green Room, was a personal piece that catered to every member’s personality. “Bend” holds a special place in the band of brothers’ hearts and, consequently, it holds a special place in the hearts of their fans.
On Radkey’s official Youtube, the track is described as being about “growing up and running around the world for most of your teen and adult life, before kind of stopping for a little while to look at where you are and at the kinds of things that you’ve blindly sacrificed in order to get where you want to be in life. It’s about the final push through the hardest time in your life when the easiest thing would be to run away.” …Heavy.
With “Bend,” there is a sense of now what? It’s a sense that while you’re chasing a dream your time becomes more constrained, and failures that unfold along the way are more painful: “When every day is the weekend/you can’t have fun anymore.” And that’s true.
The song feels like a ballad to the boredom or repetition that results from numerous let-downs or sacrifices of what should be a good time. It can be a deceptive process. In the accompanying music video, Dee Radke shouts the line, “You just can’t make enough,” and a flash flood of money is tossed towards the ceiling in a frustrated gesture synonymous with, “Fuck this!”
In contrast to the realities of any new venture, money is always slow to come in the beginning. But that’s part of the sacrifice one needs to make. Your first venture might chew your wallet to shreds and leave you starved with hunger pain. Literally or fictitiously, Radkey knows how to convey that in “Bend.”
“Bend” also works, as the band intends, as an anthem for growing up overall. Have you ever looked around a room in your teens or 20s while at a party where everyone is sort of lazing about and you realize that the people around you are stagnant, unmoving, headed nowhere? That if you don’t hurry up and get the hell out of there, you’re going to end up stuck, just like the track’s “Richie,” laying back on an old couch at a house party, high as a kite, only to wake up one day at 30-something surrounded by 19-year-old wayward kids? Yeah…
It’s that feeling that the party needs to end, that it’s time to grow up and sacrifice a fleeting “good time” for hard work towards stability, towards some kind of future that doesn’t leave you couch hopping. You realize all the parties, clubs, and bars are filled with the same characters in different costumes with the same scenarios and problems that aren’t real problems. You reach a point where you realize that outside these walls none of this matters. In five years, none of this will be relevant. And thus, when you grow up, you bend and make a gracious exit.
“Bright Lights” by Cannons
Indie electro-pop group Cannons was formed in 2013 by Michelle Joy, Ryan Clapham, and Paul Davis. Joy is a disco Americana dream with a saintly Cherie Currie-meets Farrah Fawcett vibe, but with a mystery that endures and endears you to her. Like Radkey, Cannons dotted the lineup of this year’s Lollapalooza and Summerfest and are currently headed for Las Vegas where they are adding to the Life is Beautiful Music & Art Festival lineup.
“Bright Lights” off their album Shadows is an electrified dream of escapism, of feeling compressed into a space or place that you don’t want to be. The song is the beat for anyone begging to leave their hometown, city, or figurative space and begging to be anywhere else. I’m something of a nomad, so for me, seeking new shores is thrilling–new hills, towns, mountains, cities, forests. There’s so much to see that standing in one place for too long is my personal idea of hell on earth, and “Bright Lights” is the kind of track you put on as you know that something is coming to an end. There’s so much to see after all!
“Moonlight” by Grace VanderWaal
Grace VanderWaal is the youngest person ever on Forbes 30 Under 30 List. She won the 11th season of America’s Got Talent, released her first EP Perfectly Imperfect on Columbia Records in 2016, and went on to have an extensive tour opening for the likes of Imagine Dragons and Florence and the Machine, as well as opening and closing the 2017 Special Olympics Winter Games in Austria. And she’s only 17 years old.
Peeling it off her 2017 album, Just the Beginning, “Moonlight” isn’t VanderWaal’s latest track, but it is all the more impressive when you realize the song was written when she was only 13 years old. Billboard described “Moonlight” as “a fun, tropical beat, making it the perfect summer song,” which it is. It’s so perfect in fact, that I’d classify it as an evergreen song—never going out of style. “Moonlight” can kick off a summer season and end it just as well, all with a seasoned depth and maturity that is rare in one so young. When I discovered the force behind the music was only a teenager, I nearly went into cardiac arrest. VanderWaal is a pop prodigy.
Part of what gives VanderWaal an artistic edge is her instrument of choice, the ukulele, which she wields the same way the best rockstars cling to their guitars; if not more impressively. “Moonlight” sounds like the heavy loss of a summer crush or even a deep friendship which can carry an even heavier ache. The track presents us with the sound and emotional fury of those said (or unsaid) sweet summer words that are futile and no longer, trapped in our hazy memory.
Most of my own memories of summer are isolated ones, solidifying my place as the outcast I was meant to be. Even if I were at a campfire surrounded by people or on a beach with family and friends, I felt isolated. So goes the way of tragic summer fury in VanderWaal’s “Moonlight.”
Even the ending of Grace VanderWaal’s “Moonlight” music video echoes the lonely summer, as a rooftop scene splits between shots of the artist alone, greyed, and isolated, to a reimagined version of herself at a glittering party, surrounded with love and eternal friendship. Is this a wish for friends that aren’t present? A recalled memory? I suppose it’s up to us to decide.
*For more on Grace VanderWaal, visit gracevanderwaal.com.
“Clay Pigeon” by Binki
“Clay Pigeon” is a quilted track about vulnerability, a delectable taste of Binki’s EP Motor Function. The indie artist told Farout Magazine that “Clay Pigeon’ is about navigating a time where he was focused on his dreams rather than building a relationship”—hey, it happens. The single is catchy, playful, and addicting. Like Binki, it’s unique in that it fits in everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Even if “Clay Pigeon” isn’t your cup of tea, it will undeniably stick with you long after the lights have turned on. Because of its difficulty to classify, I will delightfully quote Farout Magazine and say: “The dude makes Binki music, and that music happens to be pleasant to the ear.”
Binki (Baraka Origeri) intended to be an actor but instead embarked on an “accidental” music career after suffering from casting call rejection burn-out. He started taking music seriously after uploading the single “Marco” last year.
The bouncy, bedroom pop sound of “Clay Pigeon” has a summer feel with a sleepy vibe that speaks to the need—yet hesitance—to be vulnerable. In the context of this subjective playlist, you can pair it to other songs, like say, “Moonlight,” and have the reverse perspective. Remember that one summer when someone kept giving you mixed signals and you didn’t know where to land? That person who just swayed on the fence, unable to make a decision? And remember being so baffled, so angry, that you just wanted to push them off? Yeah. Me too. Well, if that wishy-washy, uncertain person wrote a pop song, it would be “Clay Pigeon.”
In short, “Clay Pigeon” echoes Binki’s insecurity and vulnerability; the fear of opening up and committing, and yet wanting it all the same: “Last week/I flew around like a hero/And my shoulders were touching other shoulders/While I’m here/I think I’ll dip my toes in.” And as we revisit that summer when you became someone’s beach toy, that someone probably ran off, while wondering if that was the best decision. But by the time they figured it out, it was too late.
“One Foot in Front of the Other” by Griff
When I first came across Griff, I knew nothing about her. But the emotionally charged single, “One Foot in Front of the Other” has an echoing and cloudy disposition that’s invaded my headspace this summer. But the most goose-bumpy moment came when its accompanying music video eerily matched the imagery in my head. A forlorn, sorrow-filled figure dancing fluidly in a heart-worn ballet; filled with despair, then hope.
You see while listening to Griff, I was rereading Lulu in Hollywood for the umpteenth time. It’s the collection of autobiographical essays of follies dancer-turned-silent film star, Louise Brooks. Brooks was plagued with disappointment and depression after being branded an outcast and a “nobody” by Hollywood in the 1920s and ‘30s.
The emotion dripping from Griff’s words, like: “I didn’t think I’d get back up/ I didn’t think I’d be alright again/you know it’s easy when you’re young, bounce back and whatever/I just bounce back like it never happened” were enough to give me chills. I imagined Brooks doing a sorrowful ballet number to Griff’s music. Although rather than Brooks, it was, of course, Griff performing a heart-aching choreographed number while singing about the hope she wasn’t sure she’d ever get back.
Griff (born Sarah Faith Griffiths) is a bi-racial singer hailing from England. She kept her musical aspiration a secret until signing with Warner Records and releasing her debut single, “Mirror Talk.” From there, Griff quickly ascended and won the Rising Star Award at the 2021 Brit Awards, marking her as one of the youngest winners ever in that category. And rightfully so.
Like many beautiful things, her debut mixtape “One Foot in Front of the Other” emerged from the confines of 2020’s infamous lockdowns, and it’s absolutely aces. According to music magazine NME, Griff stated in a press release, “One Foot is about that feeling that you could fall at any second.” Her hope is that the debut feels like a “raw, emotional, unpolished body of work.”
Raw and emotional, surely, but I wouldn’t call it unpolished. It’s damn near perfect. After watching Griff perform at her mixtape’s launch party, the chills I had upon unintentionally discovering her were reinforced. And I am thoroughly convinced of her talent and raw well of emotion. She literally shakes with it, as if she will burst into a thousand little talented stars. Every gesture and look, however slight, emits Griff’s vulnerability. She is certainly an artist to watch.
“Hot & Heavy” by Lucy Dacus
Lucy Dacus abandoned her film studies at Virginia Commonwealth University to pursue music. Hailing from Richmond, Virginia, Dacus signed with Matador Records in 2016 and, in the same year, performed at Lollapalooza which landed her a debut appearance on CBS This Morning.
“Hot & Heavy” comes off of Dacus’s third album, Home Video, and was performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Much of Home Video is like an audio memoir, filled with forgotten faces, lost summers, and rebounding to a hometown very much changed. “Hot & Heavy” is about forgetting after finding yourself, while being challenged with others’ perceptions about who they think you are, and thus you internalize:
“You used to be so sweet, now you’re a firecracker on a crowded street.”
The song could easily be about coming of age, finding yourself, and then your present self being confronted with the past. After all that time, change, and even trauma, you understand you can’t go back no matter how many times you revisit your old haunts. Surely “Hot & Heavy” fits the mold of waving goodbye to all those summer memories sprinkled throughout one’s life, but the past is the past and you’re better off now than you were yesterday.
*For more on Lucy Dacus, go to lucydacus.com.
“Disgrace” by Pixx
England-born Hannah Rodgers adopted her grandmother’s nickname, teamed up with producer Simon Byrt, and gave the world her debut EP, Fall In. Not long after, she dropped her album Small Mercies, whose subject matter largely explores love on all spectrums. “Disgrace” could easily be the rebellious byproduct of Catholic School brainwashing. Rodgers attended Catholic school as a child, and “Disgrace” is one of many trip-wire synth-pop dance tunes to tear itself from the record.
“Disgrace” begs you into the underground amidst its foggy depths where you will find no room for superficiality. The words are full of contempt and contemplation, it will make you dance and think, maybe you’ll even feel a little guilty (it goes back to the Catholic thing). Pixx has cited a variety of influences from Bob Dylan to Aphex Twin, and if you’ve read anything I’ve written you’re well aware that I’m a sucker for a varied palette and an open mind, especially in music. Pixx probably isn’t for everyone, but then again, 4AD doesn’t sign just anyone.
“Fruit Water Szn” by Sof
Sof’s “Fruit Water Szn” hit 3,000 streams within a week of its release, something that the alt-pop singer/songwriter is all too ecstatic about. I’m gloriously happy for her, and to top it off, her single helped pull me out of a hermit-blanket fort that I had created for myself and didn’t want to leave.
Upon watching the music video, which showcases Sof encountering several mishaps and “redos” of the same day (think Groundhog Day (1993) ) before finally getting it right. I thought, “She’s done it again… How is Sof releasing material that is almost my life’s story in that particular moment?”
According to Sof, “Fruit Water Szn” marks how “every year when summer begins, I feel a huge shift in my body and mind. Seasonal depression comes to a halt and I feel more motivated than ever.” Sof tries to prioritize her mental health and stay hydrated, carrying a bottle of water garnished with fruit everywhere she goes. This seasonal habit became a running joke between Sof and her boyfriend/producer, and together they coined the term “fruit water season.”
Lyrically, “Fruit Water Szn” is a positive, uplifting track that seeks to motivate. It has the message of self-care and self-love, spiced up with living in the moment while doing your best every day. No matter how things might not go your way, the song is about choosing to laugh through those moments before taking your power back so you can thrive.
“Level Head” by Superbloom
Brooklyn quartet Superbloom consists of Dave Hoon (singer), Matteo Dix, Tim Choate, and Brian DiMeglio. They might be inspired by punk and grunge, but they don’t consider themselves a grunge band. Rather, according to Dix via theyoungfolks.com, the band strives to be true to themselves and create music they want to hear. Their overall goal is “to tour, and then tour some more.” If it wasn’t for PANDORA ads and a good PR campaign, I would never have discovered Superbloom’s debut single, “Level Head.” In many ways, “Level Head” is the throttling, thrashing, raging piece of self summer loathing that reminds the elder millennial generation of the days when Billy Corgan made us hate, love, rage, and cry with our knuckles full of glass. It’s sentimental and tough.
While Superbloom’s Dave Hoon falls into a familiar category, his voice brings a softer, romantic tone to the battering ram of depressive, infuriated, energized lyrics carrying “Level Head.” There’s an angsty bite to it, but an attractive one that begs for an uninvited solace that is necessary and demanding of our time. It staggers with a clear message seeking such solace in one’s bedroom, the sort of solace that abounds with normalcy, submission, and having been subdued into an easy chair. Once you sit there, you’ve given up, depression and sleepless nights now reign, just not over late-night television.
“Level Head” is a reminder that trying and failing is far more attractive than defaulting into submission. Even those things that are small, like a “finished thought today,” or having the desire to “just wanna come around/help the medicine go down” in an effort to banish summer blues are worth it. With the release of their debut album, Pollen, I’m excited to see where this band ends up. As for the future of rock? It’s looking as colorful as the rare, natural phenomenon from which Superbloom takes its name.
“Off the Rails” by Wallice
Wallice emerged from her hometown of Los Angeles as a patron Saint for Gen-Z recently. After attending school for Jazz in New York and navigating the challenges of working on music virtually with her bestie/producer, marinelli, Wallice packed her bags and headed home to LA.
Wallice, a half Japanese half white Cali girl, and multi-musician is the voice for every struggling 20-something in the 21st century who’s stuck living at home with no direction in a broken economy that’s oh-so-different from the generations previous. You know, like how you can’t even afford a pack of ramen, find a job, or that time you borrowed someone’s car and “it always had that scratch.” In a world of tech-savvy economic crisis, it’s no wonder their summers are full of going off the rails.
“Off the Rails” was written during quarantine, with Wallice and marinelli shuffling between marinelli’s childhood bedroom and Wallice’s grandparent’s house in Utah. The song is the definition of bedroom pop (it was literally written in at least one bedroom), encapsulating the growing pains of living at home in your early 20s, broke, and feeling there is no place for you in the world:
“Take me downtown, I don’t know where to go/I can’t find my so I’ll play the radio/ My life’s a mess, but I don’t give a shit/ I never try my best, I learn to live with it/ I’m doing fine, stop asking me what’s wrong.”
Wallice has got a campy, comedic edge to her music that’ll keep her going along whatever track she likes. She reminds us that the road is always rocky, you’ll spill over the rails sometimes and you don’t always need to know where you’re going. But keep on, you’re gonna be just fine.
What do you think are the best alt. songs for an end of summer playlist? Let us know in the comments! For more music, check out these articles: 10 New Jersey Musicians on the Rise & Radkey: Three Cool Cats That Are the Next Big Thing in Rock.