Mike Coppola/Emma McIntyre/Guillaume Belvez/Getty Images/Courtesy of the artist
Ariana Grande (left), Offset (middle) and Jessica Pratt all put out albums that made NPR Music's Top 10 list for February.
Mike Coppola/Emma McIntyre/Guillaume Belvez/Getty Images/Courtesy of the artist
Much of the best new music we heard in February was deeply personal, with lots of room for reflection. Ariana Grande delivered the most anticipated album of the month, a highly polished pop diary on the need for hope. On the other end of the sonic spectrum was singer Julia Jacklin's uncluttered call for strength and resilience in a post-Me Too universe that's still very much evolving. The German composer and pianist Hauschka released one of the month's most beautiful albums, a collection of transfixing instrumentals inspired by the vast wonder of nature and humankind's relatively infinitesimal place in it.
Below you'll find an alphabetized list of NPR Music's top 11 albums for February. Be sure to check out our top 11 songs from the month as well, which are also available in our Spotify playlist.
Remember those Music History 101 courses – the ones that stacked centuries of composers into one semester-long sandwich? The deep-thinking pianist Jeremy Denk has compiled something similar on his new double album, where he blithely traces 700 years of music, from sparsely arranged medieval songs to sonatas by Mozart to modern études by Glass and Ligeti. These "sonic snapshots," as he calls them, tell the story of how harmony and counterpoint — two of music's basic building blocks — evolved over the centuries. Compelling performances, fascinating liner notes and no quiz at the end. —Tom Huizenga
thank u, next
Like it or not, we are in the age of Ariana. Last fall, Ariana Grande released sweetener, a sugary celebration, and arguably the best album of her career — that is, until this month. Just six months and endless tabloid headlines later, thank u, next finds Grande and her collaborators exploring the emotional complexities of what comes after high-visibility love and loss, probing the depths of grief ("ghostin") and vengeance ("in my head") with both resilient frustration ("fake smile") and consumerist coping ("7 rings"). —Lyndsey McKenna
A Different Forest
Recording as Hauschka, German composer and pianist Volker Bertelmann is best known for working with prepared piano — in other words, opening up the instrument and manipulating its strings to create haunting new sounds. He's employed that approach in a long string of albums and collaborations (including the Oscar-nominated score for Lion), but A Different Forest finds him closing the instrument back up and turning his attention to evoking the feel of the outdoors. It's an emotional and solitary journey in pieces like the album-opening "Hike," as Hauschka offsets flashy tempo changes with elegant and ultimately calming gentility. —Stephen Thompson
The title of Julia Jacklin's third full-length is a kind of double entendre: She's either crushing the obstacles in her way as she navigates the mine fields of life, or the world is slowly crushing her. Regardless, the singer from Sydney, Australia paints an affecting portrait of a young woman trying to make sense of a post-Me Too landscape while living in a body that is still objectified. The songs are both fragile and bold, sparely arranged and can leave you feeling spent. "I don't want to be touched all the time," she sings on "Head Alone." "I raised my body to be mine." It's a quiet but immovable call to arms, to define boundaries and to speak your mind despite what others think. —Robin Hilton
London-based Alessio Natalizia, who records as Not Waving, is a master of drubbingly Cubist dance music that's suffused with a sneering sense of irony and humor; music for dancing like Spike Jonze and headbanging like a knowing nod. So forgive our surprise when we heard Futuro (Music for The Waldorf Project), a subtle, stratified collection of electronic tone poems as tactile as dirt and smooth as polyester. The record is a compilation of the sonic beds, and ceilings, Natalizia made for the artist Sean Rogg's project of the same name, which both have been steadily iterating upon since 2013, as it has transitioned from "multi-sensory dining experience" into "daring experiment in consciousness transformation." Consider us Aldous Huxley. —Andrew Flanagan
Father Of 4
Swag is dead. Long live Migos. The last thing anyone would've expected from the group that turned trap into anime — complete with colorful "Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace" lyrics and outfits — is a mature solo spinoff. But that's exactly what member Offset has delivered with Father Of 4. Following solo debuts from Quavo and Takeoff in 2018, Offset came through dripping with the most personal trap confessional in a good while. He forgoes the flashy hooks for vulnerability as he raps about growing up fatherless, and he holds himself accountable for his own faults and failures. If anything, Offset sounds dead-set on digging himself out of the trap. —Rodney Carmichael
African American Legacy Recordings
Our Native Daughters
Songs Of Our Native Daughters
When NPR Music premiered Songs Of Our Native Daughters in our First Listen series, Jewly Hight wrote this:
"Lately, songwriting women across the roots-to-indie-rock spectrum have exemplified the power of solidarity — an understanding that teaming up will lead to shared insight, buoying empathy or freer, brasher expression. Coming together under the name Our Native Daughters proved to be an especially significant move for Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla, who've shouldered a particular burden as banjo-playing women of color: They've not only been called upon to deliver compelling performances, but also to explain their connection to string-band lineages falsely presumed to be the historic domain of white men. The four collaborators brought distinct voices to the affair, with McCalla's delivery characterized by willowy sereneness and subtly jazzy phrasing; Russell's by feathery, softhearted trills and curlicues; Kiah's by flintily soulful resonance; and Giddens' by lithe expressiveness and regal bearing. All are multi-instrumentalists, and even their approaches on banjo differ in rhythm, register and texture; Giddens plucks minstrel banjo, an earlier, fretless form, while the others play five-string or tenor. The resulting 13 tracks are a loosely woven tapestry of the members' contributions that's also strikingly sharp in vision."
Quiet Signs is the first of Jessica Pratt's three albums to be professionally recorded in a studio, but it still exudes a kind of lo-fi, 1960s feel — as if Donovan had a secret little sister who made brilliant records. Pratt's delicate, girlish voice — perhaps an acquired taste — whispers inscrutable lyrics straight to your ear as long strands of melody float on her nylon-string guitar, an occasional flute, piano or retro synth. The album's hazy, spacey vibe is genuine and unmanufactured. Its simplicity is its strength. If songs like Leonard Cohen's "Winter Lady" or Buffalo Springfield's "Expecting to Fly" turn you on, Quiet Signs is your new treasure. —Tom Huizenga
Hollie Fullbrook, the songwriter and singer of Tiny Ruins, makes music that resembles her nom de plume in a couple of ways. The New Zealand musician's orchestrated folk can feel timeless and inconspicuous at once, content to lie unnoticed in an understated grandeur all its own. But there's also an uncanny quality to many of the 11 songs on Olympic Girls that resembles a spectral presence when experienced between two high-quality headphones. It may take three or four spins through this record before Fullbrook's spell takes hold, but your efforts will be repaid tenfold. —Otis Hart
Yung Baby Tate
The time of Yung Baby Tate flying under your radar is officially over. After years of dropping music that earned her notoriety among the vanguard niches of the Internet, the Atlanta-hailing rapper/singer shared GIRLS, a well thought-out and even better executed 11-track project depicting the multi-facets of modern millennial womanhood. From the store clerk to the student to the striptease artist and everyone in between, GIRLS includes a song with your name on it. Tate even works in an acapella rendition of a Good Charlotte song and recruits contemporaries like BbyMutha, Baby Rose and Kari Faux to double down on the shoulder-shimming bars and bravado. Like an impulse purchase of a Fenty Beauty highlighter, the music of GIRLS gives you that extra pop of glimmer and gloat, to which your inner soul whispers, "You need this. You deserve it."
Yung Baby Tate writes, produces and arranges her own music. A couple days before the album's release, she acted in a short film named after the album and introduced fans to personified versions of the album's tracklist. Check out GIRLS and then do a deep-dive --- or clickhole cannon ball — into Tate's back catalog for more meme-worthy measures. —Sidney Madden
Music Inspired By The Film 'Roma'
The Mexican film Roma has become quite a sensation on both sides of the border. An existential crisis, deeply emotional class issues and a sympathetic stand out central character has combined to create that rare work of art speaks a human truth that has transcended cultural differences. Roma is also that very rare film in which music made for the film extends the movie's themes into the realm of the aural. Music Inspired By The Film Roma is not really a soundtrack but more of a companion work: Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón made a list of his favorite artists, screened the film for them then asked them to make music based on their emotions. The album is just as deeply moving and emotional as the film. Songs by artists like Patti Smith, the Cuban/French sister Ibeyi, Beck, Café Tacvba bassist Quique Rangel and T Bone Burnett make listening to the album just as emotional and moving as seeing the film. The stand out track is Smith's "Wing," a haunting take on the pain of isolation set amidst a sonic backdrop that is just as stark as the film's black and white cinematography. —Felix Contreras