New Songs to Re-Batten Down the Hatches To, September 2021

I’m one of those walking clichés who “loves fall the most, actually.” But in the age of the delta variant, it’s pretty hard to be basic. While I’m relishing the tell-tale elements of autumn – cool breezes at night, curated horror movie collections on all the streaming services, the way-too-busy ice cream store at the end of my street finally shutting down for the season – it also means we’re headed back indoors, aka COVID’s home turf.

But let’s not dwell on that. Instead, let me remind you that fall is the time to close your windows – which means you can crank this playlist as loud as you want. Everything might feel more complicated these days, but that volume knob still works just the same.

1. Payday (feat. Danny Brown) – “Vampire”

Massive drums, weird operatic vocal loops, and chest-beating vampiric rap verses = an instant Halloween classic.

2. Courtney Barnett – “Write A List of Things To Look Forward To”

I don’t know too many artists who could earnestly sing, “Sit beside me / Watch the world burn,” without sucking every positive vibe out of the room. But cool matter-of-factness is Courtney Barnett’s stock in trade. So she extends that invitation over sweetly jangling guitar chords, and makes our shared human destiny feel full of reasons to smile, ever-so slyly.

3. Lil Nas X – “That’s What I Want”

As an acoustic guitar strums with an irresistible “Hey Ya” pulse, 2021’s savviest, most fully realized pop star lays his vulnerabilities out there in a way that brings all of us into the fold: “I want someone to love me / I need someone to need me.”

4. Unto Others – “Instinct”

On its second album, these goth-metal masters scrap the satanic rituals and throw a 47-minute sullen-teen tantrum – which would be somewhat silly if it weren’t so damn catchy.

5. Little Simz – “Little Q, Pt. 2”

“Real criminals live in the suit!” raps this London MC over a honey-glazed old-Kanye gospel arrangement, shining light into painful corners of her past, encouraging those who’ve caused her harm to step back and focus on the real enemy.

6. Aimee Mann – “Burn It Out”

Over a gorgeous folk waltz arrangement that she should be able to trademark by now, Aimee Mann sets her empathetic sights on a person who just set themselves on fire: “All of the shame that was yours to bear / Will it ignite like a signal flare? / Can you just burn it out?”

7. Bartees Strange – “Weights”

An indie rock song so gleefully and relentlessly buzzy, your hair just might stand up on end.

8. Native Soul – “The Beginning”

This hypnotic, mid-tempo dance groove was my first exposure to amapiano, a type of meditative South African house music that builds but never quite peaks. Its disinterest in grabbing our attention has the opposite effect; I could burrow deep into Native Soul’s world of unshifting shakers and synthesizers and feel eerily fulfilled.

9. Latto – “Big Energy”

Tom Tom Club begat Mariah. Mariah begat Latto. Amen.

10. Parquet Courts – “Black Widow Spider”

A loose, short, weird single about trying to outrun pain and inevitably getting squashed.

11. Open Mike Eagle (feat. Armand Hammer) – “Burner Account”

“Making sure the bass slap, Ndegeocello!”

12. Iron Maiden – “Hell On Earth”

Iron Maiden released its 17th studio album in September, and it smartly focuses on what the band does best these days – long, slowly unfurling epics that wrestle with big questions, and only provide answers in the form of exquisite guitar playing. “Hell On Earth” is the best, and most resolutely hopeless, of the lot. “Lost in anger! / Life in danger!” bemoans Bruce Dickinson in the song’s eighth minute, the musicians behind him affirming his righteous outrage by playing slowly and determinedly. Iron Maiden is no longer urging anyone to run for the hills. Because there’s no escape from what humanity has wrought. If this ends up being their final song laid to tape, I can’t think of a more honest – and thoroughly metal – farewell.

New Songs to Quarantine To, May 2021

Even though this was the month I became fully vaccinated and walked into the supermarket without a mask, I still don’t feel comfortable changing the title of this column. My psyche is still quarantining, and would rather listen to these cathartic, confident, grief-stricken songs than engage in a face-to-face conversation with someone I just met. Also, what would the new name be? “New Songs for a Strange Transitional Period Where Our Bodies are Protected but our Minds Need a Minute to Catch Up”? If you have a better idea, leave it in the comments. Even better, just press play.

1. The Linda Lindas – “Racist, Sexist Boy (Live at LA Public Library)”

So much more than a piece of content “we all need right now,” this breakout live performance from a quartet of Asian and Latinx teens and tweens boasts the kind of cathartic, no-bullshit punk songcraft that is made to last – especially in a country that is still pretending it isn’t racist.

2. Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Old Jack Swing”

This hip-hop instrumentalist has said that her new album is meant “to be played when you birth yourself back outside after a long introspective period.” And this offering of funky, distorted bass and rumbling low-end piano should make every vaccinated person want to take off their masks and strut.

3. Audrey Nuna (feat. Saba) – “Top Again”

This New Jersey pop/R&B/rap triple-threat fuses ’90s angst with ’20s swagger, using “Kurt Cobain” as a verb and boasting about how her “Gabbana pants sag in the mosh pit.”

4. Sarah Barrios – “IH8EVERY1”

As I begin to spend time with people other than my wife again, this nihilistically romantic pop-punk earworm is gonna get a lot of spins.

5. Mustafa – “The Hearse”

On this grief-stricken, revenge-fueled dubstep/folk triumph, Mustafa’s voice trembles like a deck of cards: “I wanna throw my life away for you.”

6. Holly Humberstone – “The Walls Are Way Too Thin”

Claustrophobia is going to be a songwriting theme for awhile I imagine, and this UK singer/songwriter has used it as fuel for a heartbroken synth-pop gem.

7. Japanese Breakfast – “Savage Good Boy”

Michelle Zauner has already given us Sweensryche’s Song of the Summer, but she’s just getting started. The deceptively sprightly “Savage Good Boy” finds her inhabiting a truly evil character – a billionaire with a bunker, attempting to lure a woman down there as the seas inexorably rise.

8. Mach-Hommy – “Kriminel”

The mysterious, multilingual, always-masked-even-before-COVID emcee Mach-Hommy just released Pray for Haiti, a stunning achievement of hazy, soothing, organically intoxicating hip hop. “Kriminel” exemplifies this artist’s preternatural sense of calm, reminiscing about lost loved ones and childhood struggles over a quavering vocal sample, and patiently explaining why: “Fuck all that industry / Cause killers keep calm / She wrong / Cause n****s’ feelings need songs.”

9. Lucy Dacus – “VBS”

Lucy Dacus is one hell of a storyteller, and here’s one for all the lapsed Christians looking to feel seen. The singer/songwriter mines her memories of summers at “Vacation Bible School,” as a once-earnest believer who meets a Slayer-cranking naysayer who tries to poke holes in her logic, however awkwardly (“Your poetry was so bad / It took a lot not to laugh”). By the end, nobody has been saved.

10. Little Simz (feat. Cleo Sol) – “Woman”

“Innovating just like Donna Summer in the ’80s.”

11. Shungudzo – “I’m Not A Mother, But I Have Children”

Over a gravity-free expanse of gently plucked guitars and faraway synth murmurs, this Zimbabwean-American singer (and 2011 Real World cast member) sings about our shared responsibilities for this planet with desperately poetic turns of phrase: “Isn’t the point to try? / Even though some things will not be alright / Before we die.”

12. Helloween – “Fear of the Fallen”

Like plenty of legacy metal acts, Helloween has churned through multiple lead singers over its 37 years of existence. But on this new track, the German power metal institution has done something original – invite all three singers back to wail lines like “Listen to your HEART!” with flame-throwing, doubt-destroying energy.

13. Shannon Lay – “Rare to Wake”

“Without change, something sleeps inside us,” observes this California singer/songwriter, as she makes her acoustic guitar strings dance like Nick Drake vacationing in Laurel Canyon, leaving us fully and completely awakened.

New Songs to Quarantine To, April 2021

As I write this, on the eve of my second vaccination shot, I’m thinking about the moments during quarantine that I want to hang onto. And they all have something to do with gratitude. While I’m excited by the prospect of being able to breathe openly in a room without tempting fate, I never want to lose the feeling of being safe with the person I love, in the house we made a home, amazed at the life we built together.

I think that’s why I was drawn to songs about intimacy, trust and hope this past month. No matter how much the world opens up, it’s what we carry inside of us that makes us free.

1. Kero Kero Bonito – “21/04/20”

This tired-but-hopeful sunshine pop song describes captures our current moment so accurately, you almost expect it to glitch like a Zoom call: “Hey, so, how are you doing? / I’m okay, you know, the usual kinda weird.”

2. Brockhampton – “Count On Me”

If this irrepressible Texas rap collective isn’t lying when they say this new release will be one of their last, at least they’re going out on top. “Count On Me” is a goosebump-raising good-vibes earworm about commitment and trust, perfect for anyone who wants to make a proclamation of love in the midst of a summer BBQ.

3. Spellling – “Little Deer”

We are all Bambi in the 2020s, trying to maintain friendships in a world full of forest fires and emboldened men with guns. And this Oakland R&B crooner has created an ideal soundtrack for us, pairing naturalistic poetry about the circle of life with the rich orchestral arrangement it deserves.

4. Jeff Rosenstock – “SKrAm!”

Jeff Rosenstock’s anthemic punk LP No Dream was a catchy, sweaty highlight of 2020. But Ska Dream – his new, track-for-track ska cover version – might be even better.

5. ILOVEMAKONNEN – “What You Tryna Do”

The self-love expressed in Makonnen Kamali Sheran’s stage name has always been more of a shelter than a boast, protecting his emotionally intelligent rap and R&B songs from the homophobic slings and arrows of the Atlanta trap scene. On this new acoustic ballad, he’s as close-miked, open-hearted, and consent-conscious as ever: “Is it okay if I have one little kiss?”

6. Vision Video – “Inked in Red”

In the same month that a U.S. president finally announced the end of the war in Afghanistan, we get a pitch-perfect retro-goth single from a band whose lead singer, Dusty Gannon, is a veteran of that war. When he sings “History has drawn these lines across my face,” it’s a long way from cosplay.

7. Polo G – “Rapstar”

A rap beat based on a ukulele riff sounds insufferably twee on paper. Polo G turns it into something enchanting.

8. Little Simz – “Introvert”

Over an epic trombones-and-choirs beat, this UK rapper confronts government corruption, systemic racism and her own personal anxieties with sensitivity and clarity, reminding us that art can at least feel like the light at the end of the tunnel.

9. Tierra Whack – “Link”

I was ready to roll my eyes at this partnership between Tierra Whack and Lego, but sometimes even product placement can move us. “You should come and build with me / We could link up,” the Philly artist sings over the kind of Rugrats-soundtrack music-box groove she’s been favoring these days. It might be a glorified ad, but after a year of humanity struggling to maintain connections, it absolutely works.

10. Lucy Dacus – “Hot & Heavy”

For anyone who’s not 100% thrilled about heading back to your hometown post-COVID, here’s a devastating anti-nostalgia rock anthem that turns Springsteen’s “Glory Days” on its head: “Being back here makes me hot in the face / Hot blood pulsing in my veins / Heavy memories weighing on my brain.”

The Bestest Songs of 2019

In the grand scheme of things, 2019 was a year with precious few bright spots. Fortunately for this column, music was one of them. Artists from the worlds of rap, metal, punk, folk, calypso, dance, R&B and pop all gave me that most precious of cultural gifts – a few minutes to focus on something beautiful. Here are my top 25 songs of 2019.

 

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25. Steve Gunn – “Vagabond”

This swirling acoustic ramble feels like it could go on forever. It’s almost disappointing when it doesn’t.

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24. Charly Bliss – “Under You”

“Every time you say my name I think it’s a mistake,” marvels Eva Hendricks on this absolute sugar rush of a pop-punk love song.

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23. Moon Tooth – “Awe At All Angles”

As singer John Carbone compares himself to whitewater rapids, the rest of this Long Island prog-metal quartet takes us on one hell of a ride.

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22. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib (ft. Anderson .Paak) – “Giannis”

Anderson .Paak’s gliding croon and formidable bars are perfectly suited to this twinkling groove from Madlib. But that doesn’t stop Freddie from outshining them both.

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21. Goldlink (feat. Maleek Berry & Bibi Bourelly) – “Zulu Screams”

Over an unrelenting, percussive Afropop beat, GoldLink doesn’t drop rhymes. He pours them, his preternatural flow a tributary to oceans of hooks, rhythms, and overwhelmingly good vibes.

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20. Normani – “Motivation”

If an early-’00s R&B revival is upon us, I am here for it.

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19. Jessie Ware – “Mirage (Don’t Stop)”

Club music tends to bludgeon. But in Jessie Ware’s hands, it caresses. “Last night we danced / And I thought you were saving my life,” she sings with gentle confidence on “Mirage,” as the irrepressible bass line whisks our inhibitions away.

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18. Ozzy Osbourne – “Under the Graveyard”

Ozzy Osbourne’s voice has a troubled, mournful quality that has elevated even the dopiest of lyrics. And on this impeccably produced power ballad – his first single in nine years – our 70-year-old Prince of Darkness shows us he’s absolutely still got it. Pondering the finality of death, in a voice that can still sound stunningly forlorn.

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17. Otoboke Beaver – “datsu . hikage no onna”

This Kyoto punk quartet has tapped into a reservoir of adrenaline potent enough to reanimate a long-dead heart.

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

This sad-sack country jaunt 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.”

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15. Idle Hands – “Nightfall”

If you like your Satan worshipping with a spoonful of sugar, don’t sleep on these Portland, OR, occult rockers. “Nightfall” has hooks to rival The Cure and Blue Oyster Cult, along with an irresistible dark energy all its own. So grab your sacrificial daggers – and dance!

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14. Rico Nasty – “Hatin”

Rico made a Neptunes beat her own in 2018. In 2019, it was Jay-Z’s turn.

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13. Weyes Blood – “Everyday”

The Beatles made it sound easy, but “I need love” can be a pretty terrifying thing to say out loud. Weyes Blood makes this admission, over and over again, wisely bringing a soothing, 1970s soft rock orchestra along for the ride.

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12. Little Simz – “Boss”

Take a goddamn seat, Bruce Springsteen.

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11. Helado Negro – “Imagining What To Do”

Calypso Nick Drake.

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10. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Too Much”

One of our finest pop alchemists applies her singular lovestruck energy to Mae West’s famous adage, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

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9. Megan Thee Stallion – “Realer”

Right now, nobody on earth is rapping with more authority than Houston emcee Megan Thee Stallion. On “Realer,” she wields syllables like free weights, knocking us out at the end of every couplet, while only getting stronger for the next one.

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8. Angel Du$t – “Big Ass Love”

This supergroup of moonlighting hardcore screamers happens to be incredibly good at writing catchy power-pop love songs.

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7. Brutus – “War”

This Belgian trio delivers a post-metal ballad that has a lot in common with Metallica’s “One” – a simple title; martial lyrics; an extended dramatic intro; a thrilling, headbanging flashpoint. But Stefanie Mannaerts is a better singer than James Hetfield, and a better drummer than Lars Ulrich. “One” was a ground battle. This is an airstrike.

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6. Annika Norlin – “Showering in Public”

A staggeringly beautiful folk song about locker room anxiety.

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5. Maxo Kream – “Meet Again”

This gifted Houston rapper pairs heartbreaking rhymes about an imprisoned friend with a beat that’s as smooth as a summer cocktail. This dissonance is brilliance.

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4. Bill Callahan – “What Comes After Certainty”

Magic is for rom-coms. The real shit, the chills-up-your-spine shit, is knowing, without a doubt, that you have found your person.

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3. Charli XCX – “Official”

“You know the words to my mistakes / You understand because you made ’em too,” sings Charli XCX on this jaw-dropping ode to the interlocking connections and somehow-perfect imperfections of a loving relationship.

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2. Denzel Curry – “Speedboat”

As partly-cloudy piano notes do their best to dampen the mood, this gifted Florida emcee clusters his syllables in irresistible ways, all while completely subverting what most of us would expect from a Miami rap song about an expensive sea vessel.

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1. Lizzo – “Cuz I Love You”

Lizzo reminds us that love is the best kind of devastating, singing with real, visceral, mascara-streaked joy. An instant classic.

Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz (ft. Lil Wayne & E-40) – “2 Dollar Bill”; Anderson .Paak (ft. Brandy) – “Jet Black”; Bleached – “Hard to Kill”; Caribou – “Home”; Carly Rae Jepsen – “Everything He Needs”; Charli XCX (ft. Christine and the Queens) – “Gone”; Coldplay – “Cry Cry Cry”; Cupcakke – “Squidward Nose”; Czarface – “Call Me”; Danny Brown – “Theme Song”; Donny Benét – “Second Dinner”; Gang Starr – “Bad Name”; Haim – “Summer Girl”; Hatchie – “Obsessed”; Iggy Pop – “James Bond”; James Blake – “I’ll Come Too”; Jamila Woods – “Muddy”; Lana Del Rey – “Love Song”; Lil Nas X (ft. Billy Ray Cyrus) – “Old Town Road (Remix)”; Maren Morris – “The Bones”; The Mountain Goats – “Clemency for the Wizard King”; Neil Young – “Eternity”; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Waiting for You”; Nicki Minaj – “Megatron”; Sudan Archives – “Glorious”; Tanya Tucker – “I Don’t Owe You Anything”; Tyler, the Creator – “Earfquake”; Vampire Weekend – “Sympathy”; Van Morrison – “Dark Night of the Soul”; Wiki – “Fee Fi Fo Fum”; YBN Cordae (feat. Anderson .Paak) – “RNP”; Young Thug (ft. Lil Baby) – “Bad Bad Bad”

March’s Bestest Songs

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Spring has sprung! Daylight has been saved! Beef has been corned! Something about basketball! Hey gang. March 2019 sure was fun, and it was a heck of a time for new music. Here are the tracks that came in like a lion for me.


1. Angel Du$t – “Big Ass Love”

This supergroup of moonlighting hardcore screamers happens to be incredibly good at writing catchy power-pop love songs.

2. 2 Chainz (feat. Lil Wayne & E-40) – “2 Dollar Bill”

It doesn’t matter how many times the youngsters shame online braggarts with their uncool-now-that-I’m-referencing-it meme, “Weird flex but okay.” They cannot stop 2 Chainz – a walking, talking weird flex who might be the most purely entertaining rapper working. To wit: “I’m rare / Like Mr. Clean with hair.”

3. Vampire Weekend (feat. Steve Lacy) – “Sunflower”

This riff just isn’t fair.

4. Solange – “Way to the Show”

Solange has followed up her 2016 masterpiece A Seat at the Table with an even looser R&B hang-sesh, full of tracks that pulse with authenticity. Like this homage to Houston night life, heavy with the syrupy air of a perfect summer Saturday.

5. Partner – “Tell You Off”

Remember when people yelled at each other in person?

6. The Comet Is Coming – “Summon the Fire”

The latest twist on the post-Stranger Things horror synth revival comes from these Londoners, who pepper their ominous atmosphere with distorted sax leads, like Kamasi Washington being chased by Michael Myers.

7. Little Simz – “Boss”

We stay in the UK for this blast of raw, Neptunes-inspired swagger. Take a goddamn seat, Bruce Springsteen.

8. Helado Negro – “Imagining What To Do”

Calypso Nick Drake.

9. Mykele Deville – “Free Soul”

Beginning with a shoutout to Digable Planets’s Blowout Comb (the 59th best album of the 1990s), this Chicago emcee delivers a mix of jazz loops and positive vibes that lights up my nostalgia centers like a Christmas tree.

10. Quelle Chris – “Obamacare”

Over a swirling cold front of scary-ass piano loops, Quelle Chris raps about how his music is for everybody.

11. Honey Oat – “A Stranger Spring”

Electric piano vamps and jazz drums should be the recipe for a Holiday Inn lounge set, but Honey Oat uses them as the base ingredients of an effervescent, experimental stew.

12. Brutus – “War”

The lead single from this Belgian post-metal trio’s forthcoming LP has a lot in common with Metallica’s “One” – a simple title; martial lyrics; an extended dramatic intro; a thrilling, headbanging flashpoint. But Stefanie Mannaerts is a better singer than James Hetfield, and a better drummer than Lars Ulrich. “One” was a ground battle. This is an airstrike.