The Best Music Of February: NPR Staff Picks
The Best Music Of February: NPR Staff Picks
Every month, we ask the NPR Music staff: What's the one song you couldn't escape? What's the one album to which you'll return all year? In February, rock artists like Aaron Lee Tasjan, Wild Pink and Black Country, New Road had us yearning for live music; New Zealand singer-songwriter Maxine Funke offered a glimpse of her new album; VanJess sang matters of the heart; and velvet-voiced baritone Will Liverman devoted Dreams of a New Day to Black composers.
Follow the Press Pause playlist for the NPR Music staff's favorite new songs.
Aaron Lee Tasjan: "Computer of Love" from Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!
Every so often, someone writes an article proclaiming that ROCK is DEAD. Guitar music is OVER. And, then, inevitably, someone comes along to prove that proclamation wrong. This time, Aaron Lee Tasjan is that artist. A guitar virtuoso who's lent his talents to many bands over the years, Tasjan's latest solo album, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, continues to explore new ways to use his instrument: many of the sounds you hear on the record that you might mistake for synths or percussion are actually him experimenting with different things his guitar can do. And while there are some nods to '60s and '70s rock, that experimentation — along with lyrics that are firmly planted in the present, with themes of anxiety, alienation, isolation and the internet — keep it from veering into nostalgia. —Raina Douris, World Cafe
Wild Pink: "Oversharers Anonymous" from A Billion Little Lights
Whether you're a music-first or lyrics-first listener, Wild Pink makes music for you. A Billion Little Lights, the Brooklyn trio's third album, covers expansive terrain without losing any emotional impact; inspired by Carl Sagan's Cosmos, the American West and the music of Townes Van Zandt, it's an expansive exploration contained to 10 sublime songs. Take, for instance, the incredibly titled "Oversharers Anonymous": Featuring Magnolia Electric Co.'s Mike "Slo Mo" Brenner on pedal steel, plus lush violin and saxophone, the whole thing from unfolds like a conversation you'd tell a friend: there's an observation ("hell yeah, I saw an analog"), a skeptical, even cynical dig (with a Slack reference to boot) and then, a lucid moment of clarity delivered with utter candor ("You're a f****** baby, but your pain is valid, too"). —Lyndsey McKenna
Black Country, New Road: "Science Fair" from For the First Time
It's been about a year since I've attended a concert — and the new band I'm most excited to see when they come back is a group of U.K. art-school kids called Black Country, New Road. Their 2019 single "Sunglasses" is a 10-minute swirl of post-punk, jazz, long blurted spoken-word passages and frenzied klezmer freak-outs. It's a wild song, and it must be incredible to take in live. Now, Black Country, New Road has a full-length album called For the First Time, and it's been my favorite new music for livening up an otherwise gloomy and wind-swept February. It's grand, arty and hypnotic, and for so many reasons, I can't wait to experience its songs in a crowd. —Stephen Thompson
VanJess: "Slow Down" from Homegrown
Nigerian-American sisters Ivana and Jessica Nwokike — better known as R&B duo VanJess — oscillate between flippant cheek and earnest sobriety as they share lessons in matters of the heart on Homegrown. The sisters began their musical journey with a number of viral YouTube mashup videos and covers before releasing their debut album, 2018's Silk Canvas. Equal parts homage and innovation, Homegrown establishes VanJess as an artist to watch; the pair channels their Nigerian heritage into 30 minutes of sonic wonder that recalls '90s R&B singers like Mya and Brandy while embracing experimentation. Highlights include "High & Dry," the Kaytranada-produced "DYSFUNCTIONAL" and "Slow Down," a sultry ballad that features an arresting saxophone sample from Wreckx-N-Effect by way of Lafayette Afro-Rock Band. The EP enlists a variety of collaborators and VanJess' seamless harmonies are made all the better with guest verses from Phony Ppl, Devin Morrison, Jimi Tents and Garren. —LaTesha Harris
Maxine Funke: "Lucky Penny" from Seance
I'm fascinated by super talented musicians who couldn't care less about the size of their audience. I'm thinking of the kind of artists who run their own record labels, record their own music, operate on their own terms, even if those terms mean reaching only a lucky few of us with ears to the ground — artists like Swedish synth-pop auteur Molly Nilsson or the blues-recluse Jandek or ambient-folk singer Grouper — basically, musicians whose fanbase, regardless of their current size, could be much bigger. My favorite song of February is from an artist who falls generally into this category: New Zealand folk singer Maxine Funke. You won't find her on Spotify or Apple, or Facebook or Twitter, but she's been recording gorgeous, skeletal, acoustic guitar music the past 15 years or so and releasing it sparsely on small, do-it-yourself record labels. Imagine a voice that could silence a packed house, but that's happy playing for friends and family, that could fit naturally into the indie-rock zeitgeist of women singer-songwriters, but prefers analogue hiss and field recordings. That's Maxine Funke, and I fell quickly for her new song, "Lucky Penny," which serves as an early glimpse of her fourth album, Seance, which is due out in April. —Otis Hart
Will Liverman: Three Dream Portraits: No. 2, Dream Variation from Dreams of a New Day
The velvet-voiced baritone Will Liverman is out to make the classical music canon more inclusive. His new album, Dreams of a New Day, is devoted to Black composers — not only contemporary composers, but also the pioneers who paved the way for future generations. One of those was Margaret Bonds, who in the 1950s set three poems by Langston Hughes to music. She called them Three Dream Portraits. In the second of these portraits Liverman, a rising young artist, shows supreme control over the dynamic shadings in his voice. He can be stentorian, but listen to how he slims his instrument down to a gorgeous, honeyed tone, perfectly supported by the breath. —Tom Huizenga