New Songs to Quarantine To, March 2021

In April, my home state will be opening up vaccinations to all adults. This is a fact that has not completely registered in my mind – even after I get my shots I’m guessing I’ll be flinching at shadows in crowded places for a long time. But I do find myself being more easily comforted by the thrumming noise of woodpeckers searching for sustenance outside my home office window. And the songs that really spoke to me in March include the work of two octogenarians, deriving joy from doing what they love, as well as a reverential cover of Dolly Parton’s most hopeful song. Things are changing out there, even more than a typical spring.

1. Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet”

And here it is, the first serious contender for 2021’s Song of the Summer (for me at least) – an airy synth pop gem about the need to believe in someone that feels like it’s existed ever since Cyndi Lauper first promised “If you fall, I will catch you.”

2. Zara Larsson – “FFF”

I could spend this whole space talking about the grammatically heinous and somehow perfect line, “Is this a story arc? / Cause if it are, it’d be iconic.” But then I’d be ignoring that insanely catchy beat, which sounds like the Vengaboys trying to impress Kylie Minogue in 1998.

3. Tune-Yards – “Nowhere, Man”

This duo loves establishing a monster drum and bass grove, and then doing everything they can to get in its way. On “Nowhere, Man” they try telephone vocal effects, a shouty chorus and a bridge that throws the kitchen sink into the mix. None of it kept me from dancing.

4. Aesop Rock – “Long Legged Larry”

Did you know that March 20 was World Frog Day? Aesop Rock did, inventing an amphibious character called Long Legged Larry who rescues cats from trees and poodles from high-wire act disasters, rapping about him in a sing-song storytelling style that will have listeners of all ages jumping for joy.

5. Loretta Lynn – “I Saw the Light”

New music from a profoundly influential, 88-year-old country legend, singing Hank Williams’s timeless ode to spiritual epiphanies with palpable delight in her voice? Maybe there is a god.

6. Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Mufaro’s Garden”

Evocative, jazz-inflected instrumental hip-hop that doesn’t need a rapper to resonate – it’s already rhyming with our souls.

7. Genghis Tron – “Pyrocene”

This synthesizer-fueled prog-metal group has reunited after over a decade apart, seemingly on a shared mission to uncover a new form of interstellar sonic beauty.

8. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – “Movement 4”

The 80-year-old saxophone legend Pharoah Sanders has teamed up with a British producer and world-famous orchestra on a gorgeously interconnected suite called Promises. This is my favorite bit, because it begins with Sanders vocalizing into the mic over a soft bed of mallet instruments. He doesn’t form one word, aware that his improvised gibberish has a soothing quality, like the sound of bubbles racing to the surface of a pond.

9. Lil Nas X – “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”

By titling his new single with his real-life first name and tossing in an homage to one of the first gay films he ever watched, Lil Nas X is not bowing to the pressure he must be facing to give the world another “Old Town Road.” He’s taking us along on his personal journey instead, rapping over a flamenco-flecked beat about a real-life COVID crush and confessing “I wanna sell what your buyin’ / I wanna feel on your ass in Hawaii.”

10. Waxahatchee – “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”

As the vaccination numbers continue to rise, and more and more people step out into the world with something resembling relief, the timing was right for Katie Crutchfield to release her cover of “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” hewing closely to the golden-sunrise country-pop arrangement of Dolly Parton’s cynicism-destroying original. It’s the sound of hope, pure and true.

July’s Bestest Songs

July WordPress.jpg

Here are my favorite tracks from July 2019, a month in which it got so hot that I would’ve killed to have a fever of 103º. (Foreigner, you had no idea.)

1. Purple Mountains – “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me”

This delightfully suicidal sad-sack country jaunt from ex-Silver Jews frontman David Berman will have you LOLAL-ing (laughing out loud about loneliness): “If no one’s fond of fucking me / Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me.”

2. YBN Cordae (feat. Anderson .Paak) – “RNP”

This optimistic Chicago newcomer is full of the kind of easy charisma that Chance the Rapper gave up for lent back in 2016. This track pairs him with Anderson .Paak in full guest-spot assassin mode, over a beat that sounds like The Neptunes producing “If I Ruled the World.”

3. Bleached – “Heartbeat Away”

Sober people deserve fist-pumping, scream-along Camaro rock too.

4. Charli XCX (feat. Christine and the Queens) – “Gone”

“It feels so cold in here / I am just now realizing they don’t care,” belts Charli XCX on this triumphant dance-pop duet, using her social anxiety to fuel a flight to incandescent heights.

5. Maxo Kream – “Pray 2 the Dope”

Nobody’s telling stories like Maxo these days. On this one, he raps about working at Panera Bread. It’s riveting.

6. Bat for Lashes – “Feel for You”

Over an undulating swirl of ’80s synths and drum machines, Natasha Khan repeats the same two lines – “I love you / I feel for you.” Sometimes honesty trumps poetry.

7. Ty Segall – “Ice Plant”

The prolific garage rocker leaves the guitar in its case on this a cappella ballad, his unpolished harmonies trembling like emotions laid bare.

8. ShooterGang Kony – “Charlie”

It’s been awhile since rappers leaned on straightforward funk loops to further embolden their swagger. Here’s proof they should do it more.

9. Angel Olsen – “All Mirrors”

One of our most dynamic singer/songwriters seems to be going full, mid-’80s, peak-era Kate Bush, and I’m here for it.

10. High on Fire – “Into the Crypts of Rays”

Is there anything more metal than starting a song with 22 seconds of screaming? Sludge legends High On Fire have done this, and the effect is like one of those Benedictine Monk CDs from the ’90s. At around the :15 mark, the screams start to sound more like a chorus, beckoning us to a higher plane. And then the universe explodes.

11. Lil Nas X (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus, Young Thug and Mason Ramsey) – “Old Town Road (Remix)”

“Old Town Road,” a country track recorded by a gay black man, is not just the longest-running #1 song in pop history. It’s a miracle of sonic science, mutating into different forms at all times, beginning with Billy Ray Cyrus’s savvy remix and moving on to inspire artists like Cupcakke, RM from the Korean boy band BTS, Young Thug, and possibly Dolly Parton. LNX’s song has more than a catchy Trent Reznor banjo loop going for it – its positivity and disregard for labels is even more of hook. How else could Thugga and the yodeling Walmart kid sound so damn good together? I hope it’s #1 forever.