Unknown Mortal Orchestra Are Quietly Having An Incredible Year, With Not One But Two Great New Albums

Neil Krug

The RX is Uproxx Music’s stamp of approval for the best albums, songs, and music stories throughout the year. Inclusion in this category is the highest distinction we can bestow, and signals the most important music being released throughout the year. The RX is the music you need, right now.

A couple weeks ago while I was feverishly writing a piece late into the night, looping one song over and over on Youtube for hours on end, another song managed to sneak into the fray. “Hunnybee” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra wiggled its way in between clips I was using for research, the algorithm offering it as a suggested follow up, perhaps graciously trying to give me some respite at 2 AM. Golden, buzzy, and casual as its namesake, the song’s loopy chorus is immediately addicting, evoking a desire for more even while you’re still listening, like a familiar sky turned purple at sunset, or a sour-sweet candy that triggers you to reach for another.

At first, I thought I was so taken with the song because it was simply something else, a necessary break in a long night. Deadlines can addle your brain. But, the melody hung in the air, even after I went back to work with the old song on loop. When I woke up the next morning, it was still there, too, lilting along in the back of my mind. And when I went to Spotify to put it back on, I found I was by no means alone — the track has a whopping 10 million plays, which is a lot for a smaller, independent artist like UMO, who released the album that housed the track, Sex & Food, this past April on Jagjaguwar.

So, the track had racked up 10 million plays in the mere six months since then, already on its way to vying with other fan-favorites like “Multi-Love” off 2015’s album of the same name, and the beloved “So Good At Being In Trouble” from their 2013 record, II. Back on Youtube, the video sat at a cool 11 million in the four months since it had been uploaded. By some standards, UMO have a full-blown indie hit on their hands, Billboard charts be damned, this thing is buzzing away. For added context, “Multi-Love” has 5.5 million views on Youtube, “Trouble” has 2.9 million, both with years of potential viewership under their belts.

I’d played through Sex & Food several times through back when it came out, but in a week that also included new releases from Cardi B, Alison Wonderland (a fav), Saba, Hop Along, Kali Uchis, and Wye Oak, the field was admittedly packed. Invasion Of Privacy alone was on repeat for most of April, but months out, I had plenty of time for UMO.

Returning to Sex & Food with a fresh perspective, I was completely mesmerized by it, like I am by most of Ruban Nielson’s records; he’s a masterful songwriter, skilled at marrying psych-pop medleys with introspective, poetic observations and commentary on the cultural and political state of our world. None of it comes across as heavy-handed, but with track names like “American Guilt,” “Major League Chemicals,” and “Ministry Of Alienation” they certainly aren’t fluff, either. On this album especially, Nielson let the Unknown Mortal Orchestra sound balloon into a fuzzy, technicolor funk he’d always at least leaned toward.

We interviewed Nielson right around the time the record came out, and he had pointed to traveling outside of his home in Portland to seek inspiration and write in places like Mexico and Vietnam. And just in tandem with my rediscovery of Sex & Food came the news that the band would be releasing another record to round out the year. IC-01 Hanoi, which came out last week, is a seven-track, purely instrumental release that was recorded and inspired in Vietnam during sessions for Sex & Food.

Nielson and his band teamed with local musician Minh Nguyen on sáo trúc, đàn môi, and Vietnamese percussion, and Nielson’s father, Chris, on flugelhorn, saxophone, and keyboards for a series of live sessions. These sessions eventually became IC-01 Hanoi, with each track titled “Hanoi” and a corresponding number, one through seven.

In many ways, the record functions as a foil to Sex & Food, digging into headier, harder to parse psychedelic solos and expressing some of the frustration and alienation that the prior album addressed in its lyrics solely through instrumentation. Plenty of the hypnotic force of the album is due to the very fact that it avoids words, though; these sounds can be freely taken and shaped to suit whatever moods the listener may be in, imbued with whatever force or fear is necessary. The songs wind between paranoia and aggression on the first couple tracks, to peaceful and then meditative, seamlessly wending between UMO’s signature psychedelic jazz and funk and the more traditional Eastern sounds.

Either record stands as a gorgeous piece of musicianship on its own, one decidedly on the accessible pop end of the spectrum, the other on the weirder and more experimental, but it’s taken together that the two illustrate the expansive, quietly understated power of Nielson’s skills as a composer and a producer. He may not have grabbed a lot of headlines or created a massive impact on radio or the charts, but as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Nielson has consistently produced impactful, influential indie rock that sets a tone for plenty of other artists. This year, he managed to do it across two wildly disparate albums that both showcase his band’s unique position.

Even months after his first album was released, it’s still winning over new fans, myself included, and with a second album out last week, he’s proven his band can be just as prolific as your favorite rapper. So for everyone else that skipped Sex & Food to listen to Cardi B, I recommend you go back and listen to it, along with IC-01 Hanoi. And, if nothing else, “Hunnybee” will win you over instantly. It’s too damn good not to.

Sex & Food and IC-01 Hanoi are both out now on Jagjaguwar. Buy them here and here.