10 Songs For An Anxious Moment: A Fall Pop Playlist : The Record As summer turns to fall, the boldfaced names returning to the world of pop might not be offering explicitly political songs, but each makes a big statement in its own way.
NPR logo 10 Songs For An Anxious Moment: A Fall Pop Playlist

10 Songs For An Anxious Moment: A Fall Pop Playlist

Bruno Mars has released the first single, "24K Magic," from his upcoming album of the same name. Kai Z Feng/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Kai Z Feng/Courtesy of the artist

Bruno Mars has released the first single, "24K Magic," from his upcoming album of the same name.

Kai Z Feng/Courtesy of the artist

It's easy to read too much into a hit song. Popular music is made that way: Its surface meanings are broad and inclusive, while its idiosyncrasies are vehement, upheld within a startling rhythm or a novel sample or a highly relatable voice. It's this mix of the familiar and the seemingly unique that allow for pop hits to reach millions of often very different people in ways that feel direct and personal. The two best-selling albums of 2016 so far — Drake's Views and Adele's 25 — exemplify their makers' ability to refract pop's classic themes in ways that strike listeners as fresh and real. Drake follows his search for self and meaningful love into the Cheesecake Factory and onto the dance floors of the Caribbean diaspora. Adele embodies sadness, solitude and eventual healing through her North London working woman's accent and slightly rough vocal cords. These artists are others' role models now because they've perfected the art of being timeless in the here and now.

10 Songs For An Anxious Moment

This fall brings a bumper crop of new music from major artists who've long traded in the art of relevant timelessness. From Lady Gaga to John Legend to Bon Jovi, they're returning to the pop arena in hopes of dominating it. All mentioned here are going the conventional route, eschewing the increasingly popular, Beyoncé-defined strategy of surprise in favor of more measured approaches that play on their established strengths. With their devoted audiences already established, they're trying to figure out how to stay relevant without necessarily seeing their songs ascend up charts dominated by producer-driven EDM and other beat-driven styles of music.

Despite their disparate sources, these songs add up to a playlist that reflects and sometimes seeks to remedy the unrest that plagues our nation this season. In most cases, this isn't political music, even by generous definitions. Yet perhaps unintentionally, in their efforts to regain ground in an ever more-crowded pop arena, these artists have created a soundtrack to the anxious present day. Each would-be anthem or soulful confession comes with a story attached: about the need to change, the desire to get back to basics, the importance of claiming the self and living in the now. From the classic to the corny to the unexpectedly poignant, these 10 songs predict a musical season full of loud declarations, strong stances and plenty of chances to over-relate.

A Fall Pop Playlist

  • Lady Gaga, "Million Reasons"

    Gaga wins the prize for inadvertent cultural relevance. During her recent short appearance at Nashville's tiny bar The 5 Spot, the singer directed this plaintive piano ballad about not quite being able to let go toward "all these men — my dad, my boyfriends, all the men in my life." With current events persistently raising awareness of sexual abuse, Gaga's song stands as a powerful follow-up to her Oscar-winning plea for compassion toward sexual assault survivors, "'Til It Happens To You," and indicates that her upcoming album Joanne will indeed convey the relatable earthiness she's said she hopes it communicates.

  • Mary J. Blige, "Thick of It"

    Co-written with perhaps her worthiest hip-hop soul successor, Jazmine Sullivan, Blige's first volley from her as-yet unscheduled 14th album Strength of a Woman treads the same ground as does Gaga's ballad. From deep within an arrangement that blends pounding Motown-style drums and keys with subtle hip-hop samples, Blige first entreats, then confronts, then walks away from a miscreant lover, declaring that she'll "make it through hell" to thrive another day. Arriving just as news of her 12-year marriage to former manager Kendu Isaacs was kaput, "Thick of It" is a remarkable expression of inner conflict whose liberatory climax doesn't take away from the struggle expressed. Blige's fans always crave that instant in which she grabs a fistful of freedom; considering the tone of conflict that fills public discourse these days, it should be welcomed by all.

  • OneRepublic, "Let's Hurt Tonight"

    Ryan Tedder is a remarkable character who's often hardly noticed by chroniclers of the pop zeitgeist; a songwriter in the Brill Building tradition who can churn out hits across genres (including for this Denver band he cofounded) but who rarely gets credit as an artist in his own right. OneRepublic's just-released fourth album, Oh My My, sees Tedder showing off his Crossfit-style musical versatility in an hour's worth of music — "recorded in 26 countries!" the overheated promotional material exclaims — that spans EDM, hip-hop, folk-pop, and East Village post-punk. Yet Tedder smartly frontloaded Oh My My with sing-alongs, starting with this strummy one that sounds very much like the Lumineers. Like Blige's song, it arises from the thick of a romantic emergency. In this story, however, love wins. Though "worn to the bones," he persuades his partner-slash-enemy to stick with the fight until it alchemically produces harmony. If only politics, or most relationships, actually worked that way.

  • Brad Paisley, "Today"

    Just as immediate at Tedder's plea, but focused on joy instead of anger, the latest power ballad from country's amiable all-star utility player emanates from an unnamed magical moment — it's inferred that it's the singer's wedding — as a way of arguing that a few great moments can make up for a lifetime of boredom and anxiety. Musically, it's similar to "Million Reasons," beginning with an introspective piano line and building to an arena-filling climax. The accompanying video gathers up what used to be called "Kodak moments" in a pastiche with a patriotic slant. Myriad returning soldiers greet their weeping children in their elementary school classrooms, intercut with wedding proposals (several at Paisley shows) graduation shots and football touchdowns. "Bring on tomorrow!" Paisley enthuses over a hot guitar lick. "I've got today!" It's a hopeful message that creates its own joy when those "todays" seem hard to come by.

  • John Legend, "Love Me Now"

    R&B's favorite sophisticated family man seizes a less G-rated moment in the first single from his upcoming fifth studio album, Darkness & Light. Over a rolling carnaval beat that suggests a certain awareness of Drake's accomplishments (as well as Enrique Iglesias' — remember "Bailamos"?), Legend wails open-throated about seizing the sensual moment despite many uncertainties: She may leave, it may kill him, they may not be able to "turn darkness into light, turn evil to good." That mysterious line in the middle of the song suggests a moral battle that goes beyond one night of bliss; maybe this is actually the theme to an as-yet-unannounced sequel to The Hunger Games? Everything feels fraught in 2016, even a good time.

  • Bon Jovi, "Born Again Tomorrow"

    Time is really a pop obsession this fall. "If you were born again tomorrow, would you live your life like yesterday?" Jon Bon Jovi aggressively muses in this latest single from its 13th studio album, This House is Not For Sale, to be released Nov. 4. It's the first album without longtime guitarist and Bon Jovi right-hand man Richie Sambora, and the almost-EDM undertone of this otherwise typical anthem signals that these stalwart New Jersey manufacturers of uplift are ready to try some new tricks. (The chorus's phrasing borrows, perhaps unintentionally but charmingly, from Ellie Goulding's "Burn.") In one breath, Bon Jovi assures listeners that they can learn from their errors — "bones grow stronger when they break," he insists, casting into doubt the medical expertise he demonstrated in the 1988 classic "Bad Medicine." In the next, he's saying he himself wouldn't do things any other way than how he's already done them. It's a jovial spin on the American dream that manages to communicate both forgiveness and stubborn self-assurance.

  • Miranda Lambert, "Vice"

    Every ounce of regret that Jon Bon Jovi sloughs off in "Born Again Tomorrow" is one that Miranda Lambert takes up and lovingly warms in her hands in "Vice." The first single from her double album The Weight of These Wings, to be released Nov. 18, "Vice" is actually a hit, having reached the No. 2 slot on the Billboard country chart back in midsummer. It's a beautiful feminine twist on the honky tonk theme of bad habits defeating good intentions, with Lambert singing a litany of missteps over a rock beat, in a voice tender enough for a lullaby. There's a little tint of 1980s rock in the production, with a flanging guitar instead of one that twangs and an organ part that Danny Federici would have found enticing. But instead of the cathartic tone of a rock anthem, Lambert captures the slow burn of gradual self-awareness, and sits with it in an echoing climax that communicates something more realistic than triumph but more complicated than defeat. People will be scrutinizing Lambert's music for signs of the aftermath of her very public divorce from fellow country royal Blake Shelton. They might go low, but she's going high, which sets a fine example for all of us.

  • Alicia Keys, "Blended Family"

    Also striking a blow for compassion is Keys, who makes a subtle and powerful political statement with her latest song from Here, her first album in four years. Like Lambert, she dealt with fallout from tabloid scandal when she became involved with the producer Swizz Beats, who was still embroiled in a messy divorce, in 2010. The lilting, Babyface-influenced "Blended Family" is in some ways a reckoning with that past, but in the most tender way possible: It's addressed to a partner's child from a previous relationship, wrapping that anxious young heart in love and acceptance. A rap from A$AP Rocky extolling the many layers of his own family gently reinforces the progressive message of tolerance behind Keys' motherly assurances of love. It's a subtle move for Keys in a year when she's been visible as a political force, too, supporting Hillary Clinton's candidacy, an artful way of walking her talk.

  • The Rolling Stones, "Just Your Fool"

    This Little Walter cover from The Rolling Stones makes no particular political or personal statement, but it's also a great example of artists walking their talk. After more than half a century, the band remains emblematic of classic rock, attracting tens of thousands of top-shelf ticket buyers to massive festivals like Desert Trip, the baby boomer festival held over two weekends at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif., also home to Coachella. Maybe it felt like time to give back, or at least shed awareness, for a possible new generation of listeners, on the music that make the Stones possible in the first place. Always champions of the African-American artists they nonetheless eventually exceeded in riches and renown, the Stones revive core repertoire on Blue & Lonesome, which will be released Dec. 2. Little Walter, who authored this first single, is represented by four tracks; other titans honored include Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Slim, Jimmy Reed and Otis Rush. On "Just Your Fool" the Stones sound as shambolic and diabolically effective as they were as England's Newest Hitmakers in 1964, with Mick blowing harmonica as if he'll never run out of steam and Keith reminding the world where he got his rhythm chops. It's a history lesson grounded in good feeling, and one can only hope it returns some ears to a musical legacy that deserves to be centrally celebrated.

  • Bruno Mars, "24k Magic"

    And then there's Bruno Mars, who seems to float above any national mood of anxiety or distress, making music that's not so much timeless as completely unconcerned with other people's ideas of relevance. "24K Magic," the first single from his upcoming album of the same name, revisits the formula that made Mars a certified superstar: the decades-jumping pastiche that characterized his 2014 smash with producer Mark Ronson, "Uptown Funk." There are some unfortunate lyrical choices in this new party anthem. "I'm a dangerous man with some money in my pocket," Mars raps as his crew yells kudos behind him. "So many pretty girls around me and they're wakin' up the rocket." Not exactly the image of potent masculinity America needs right now, perhaps. But this song will likely outlive any mood that defines 2016; it'll probably still be around next summer, and next fall. Mars may never seem that relevant to serious-minded listeners, but his songs, like so many that dominate the Top 40, may gather the moss of relevance over time. Until then, "24K Magic" will just keep rolling down the road.