#NowPlaying: Best New Songs From NPR Music Today's essential songs, picked by NPR Music and NPR Member stations.
Now Playing.

#NowPlaying

Today's essential songs, picked by NPR Music and NPR Member stations
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Every October, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are treated to a "hunter's moon." Also called the sanguine moon, the full moon in October is thought to connote optimism in the face of difficulty. This celestial phenomenon serves as the central allegory of "New View" by H.C. McEntire, a song that evokes the winsome austerity of autumn via understated instrumentation reverberating with a warmth and sonic expansiveness reminiscent of Daniel Lanois' Acadie.

McEntire's translucent, lilting voice is as golden and full as the moon of which she sings. Lyrically, she bonds the lunar and seasonal theme to a poetic meditation on inviting love despite the risk (assurance?) of heartbreak: "Bless me and beg me / I'm willing to lose / Catch me and wreck me / I'll take more of you / In the high hunter's moon."

Listening to The Necks feels like plunging into a warm bath. On "Imprinting" — the first track from its upcoming 19th studio album Travel, out Feb. 24, 2023 — the 35-year-old jazz trio continues to craft scenic worlds that are accessible, meditative and otherworldly. The mixing is of special note here, allowing each member to occupy their own space to flesh out a musical phrase or idea. They may not overstep boundaries, but they're in constant communication with each other throughout this 17-minute epic. Listen to how Lloyd Swanton's double bass is played with an alluring firmness that's rounded out by Chris Abrahams' organ flourishes. The only sound that erupts from this homogeneous space is Tony Buck's occasional strike of a cymbal bell; its similarity to that of a blacksmith's hammer is a reminder of The Necks' endlessly irresistible and impossibly tight improvisations.

John Cobbett's riffs speed through the spaceways like a 1968 Fairlane Torino GT rocketship illustrated by Moebius. His catalog spans four decades of forward-thinking metal bands — Unholy Cadaver, Slough Feg, Ludicra and Vhol, to name a few — that have challenged and warped the scene, but with an idiosyncratic guitar style that seems to smile as fingers flash over frets.

For more than 20 years, Hammers of Misfortune has been Cobbett's most reliable outlet; it's maintained an inconsistent roster, but Overtaker, out today, is somewhat of a homecoming. Early member Jamie Myers returns to the mic as the band, an ever-shifting orb of metallic influence, picks up where the smashed-and-reconfigured thrash of the broken-up Vhol left off. "Overthrower," featuring a dueling guest vocal from Slough Feg's Mike Scalzi — yet another former Hammers of Misfortune member — takes King Crimson to the pit. There's hyperactive fury here, of course, but also a brainy blur of blink-and-you-missed-it harmonies and counterpoints that play off every instrument, including an operatic tête-à-tête between Myers and Scalzi, who alternate punk spit and anthemic wails. It's the most fun you'll ever have gunning for the sun in a sick ride.

Father/Daughter Records YouTube

mui zyu's "Rotten Bun," off her forthcoming debut album, Rotten Bun for an Eggless Century, opens with a running piano ballad. The Hong Kong British artist, born Eva Liu, is on a mission to escape. She outstretches her hand, inviting you to come with her into a fantasy world run by sorcerers, witches and lonesome warriors. Clam shells swallow dinosaurs whole, but zyu quells any fear. "Rotten bun, scarred by everyone / Just hold my hand, let's break away from them," she innocently asks, her voice swelling in tandem with the piano.

Perhaps there is no instrument more fitting than an erhu to repeat zyu's haunting calls. In a beautiful solo, the two-stringed fiddle instrument, whose origins can be found in Central Asia, takes on a voice of its own — weeping over a heart pierced by the pain of others. The song ultimately closes with zyu's final demand: "Let them rot away," she desperately pleads over a whirlwind of piano, electronic guitar and pulsating bass. The mourning is over; it's time to get up.

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The members of K-pop group Red Velvet — Irene, Seulgi, Wendy, Joy and Yeri — wield their voices like daggers on the single "BYE BYE," one highlight from a recent mini-album, The ReVe Festival 2022 — Birthday. In line with their recent sampling of classical music, it features a skewed interpolation of "Für Elise" with a mischievous, malevolent tone; when Wendy sneers "I only had love for you," her emphatic, repeated delivery underlines the pent-up anger. The song's confessions — from one or multiple scorned, broken hearts — all trace the same type of turbulent unraveling. The little details intuit the drama: "We're dumb-dumb" is playfully sung just before a cheeky synth mirrors its melody, as if indicating the exact moment one realizes a past relationship was absurd. In the chorus, Red Velvet swears to never fall in love again, with a straight-faced delivery underlined by ferocity and pain. As multifaceted as their best works, Red Velvet's "BYE BYE" is both a sinister kiss-off and an accounting of recovery.

Waajeed's "Remember," the final track off his newest album Memoirs of Hi-Tech Jazz, has something for everyone: the jazz head, the dance-music enthusiast and the casual listener alike. For Waajeed, that's the point: As a beatmaker with roots in hip-hop (as a founding member of Slum Village), R&B, house and techno, the artist is no stranger to musical fluidity. On "Remember," the Detroit-born producer and DJ, born Robert O'Bryant, affirms the relationship between genres often kept apart by emphasizing their connective feeling: freedom.

Piano chords and repetitive 808 handclaps set the track's stage, anchoring the beat like a metronome before ushering in the sweet sounds of horns. Every time a melody begins to take shape, free-form jazz solos are seamlessly passed around — pulling the listener out of their meditative trance and into the present. Play is the puppet and Waajeed is its master, as he gives structure to electronic grooves and sounds that feel boundless. But "Remember" never forgets to thump its beating pulse, which grows ever stronger even as its notes run off, dimensionless.

Joe Rainey's "once the reaper" is a whirlwind of rage, grief and defiance. The powwow singer, an Ojibwe member of the Red Lake Band in Northern Minnesota, released a fiery debut this year with Niineta, crafting stories of Indigenous community and resistance with his triumphant voice, samples of other powwow singers from his personal archive, and blistering production via collaborator Andrew Broder.

Rainey continues to fight for those who've died on this new single — the title underlines his contempt for the grim reaper who takes his loved ones too soon. His voice rises and cuts through an onslaught of booming electronics, steadily increasing in volume and intensity across multiple waves of industrial beats. There are moments of reprieve, too, which provide chances to catch one's breath before the ensuing cacophony. In the song's final stretch, ghastly loops segue into tender ambience as laughing and crying are heard alongside a patriarchal figure's assuring words: "If you want me to be your medicine man, I'll be your medicine man; if you want me to be your friend, I'll be your friend; if you want me to be your daddy, I'll be your daddy — whatever you want me to be, I'll be." Released ahead of Thanksgiving, "once the reaper" is a necessary reminder of the systemic injustices against Native Americans, the perpetuated myths surrounding the holiday and that art can serve as a site for reflection and memorialization.

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Here's a concept driving the sample drill wave currently spreading across New York City: affix the typical drill drum kit to a choice loop and let the uncanny power of the combination do the rest. Much of Kenzo Balla's new project, Mr. Ready to Blitz, functions in this way, with everything from vocal chops ("No Sympathy") to twisting strings ("Don't Panic"), but few songs feel as dutifully assembled as "Krash Out." As the sample gradually uncoils, Kenzo slashes right through the center. A weird phenomenon seems to happen, the rap equivalent of bullet time, where the listener gets an enhanced perception of the rapper's speed relative to the world around him.

In 2011 there was a party near Taharuu Beach in Tahiti, the largest island of French Polynesia. Legend has it that here, on a wooden veranda overflowing with dancing partygoers, the genre "ori deck" began. Also known as sapa'u, this new strain of dance music ("ori" means "dance") has swept the country, and its searing metallic synths and moombahton rhythms can be heard regularly in nightclubs and TikToks made by locals. Some tracks, such as Bozy & Aniheitini's "Maha'u Deck," feature traditional vocalizing that recalls haka performances, bridging Polynesian past and present. That song was the scorching opener to a tremendous mix by TA'A_INO, the DJ alias of Parisian-Polynesian collective QuinzeQuinze. The group takes a thrilling sci-fi tack with its new single, "Reuts."

QuinzeQuinze dedicates the song's first two minutes to kaleidoscopic electronics. Its lumbering beat is as elastic as it is sturdy, and it gets adorned with synths that have both machine and laser-like sonics. The chaos is finally supplanted by vocals, which deliver cryptic lyrics about identity. There's a confidence in the warbling, as lines like "untie the blindfold" and "all I can see is myself" are sung with searing conviction despite crackling static filling the negative space. Clarity and resolve arrive in the final third, when "Reuts" becomes wholly instrumental, letting the spirit of dance back into the fore. Given that European missionaries banned traditional Tahitian dancing in the late 18th century, and that it didn't really become popular again until the 1960s, this extended outro is a fulfillment of the lyrics — "Reuts" treats dancing as a form of liberation, one that needs to acknowledge the past in order to look to hopeful futures.

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Phony Ppl always greets listeners with open arms — serenading them with a warm blend of R&B, jazz and hip-hop sounds. On "been away.," off its newest album Euphonyus, the Brooklyn-based band joins strings and the piano. A swooning, melodic force anchors the song without overwhelming it; drumbeats hold an adagio pace steady, while bass guitar quietly strengthens the track's rhythmic pulse.

"Cause it's, it's been more than ten years now / And I'm still here thinking how you should've stayed," lead singer Elbee Thrie pleads, reflecting on the past and what could have been. The song teeters between yearning and regret, but never falls into somber tones. Instead, "been away." magnificently swells, culminating in a sweeping electric guitar solo that marks the song's finale. There are some things you might never get back; go out with a bang anyways.

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Liv.e (pronounced Liv) places time in the palms of her hands, squeezing and stretching it as she sees fit. Her 20-track debut album, Couldn't Wait to Tell You..., originally released in 2020, was a dreamy introduction to her shape-shifting R&B.

On "Wild Animals," the newest single off Liv.e's forthcoming Girl in the Half Pearl, she wistfully self-harmonizes over a jazzy piano and bass instrumental. It's a self-affirming track with a calamity that only comes with knowing oneself: " 'Cause they always wanna bite when they see mе / And they always got somebody that they seeing / And I hope the girl makes the choice to leave him," she sings. Piano riffs add a touch of delicate ornamentation to a flow that comes and goes at it pleases, swallowing you into its fold before you even know it.

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Laraaji's songs always drift with a patient, resplendent glory. The shimmery "Ocean," which arrives ahead of Segue to Infinity — a four-LP box set highlighting his earliest recordings, out Feb. 10, 2023 — attests to how he's always embodied these gargantuan bodies of water with an arresting thoughtfulness. It isn't just that his meditative ambience ripples with zither melodies or that his liberal use of reverb arrives in cavernous waves, but that he recognizes all people are part of an interconnected web with nature and beyond.

When Laraaji holds his laughter workshops, his goal is to provide a therapeutic environment where people can inhabit their "water body" and when listening to "Ocean," it's hard not to smile; its soft chimes demand you to slow down and, for a moment, it feels like every immediate problem and task can be pushed aside. While the three-minute version is an extract of the full 24-minute behemoth, it takes no time to recognize how immersive his atmospheres are: the different layers of zither feel like they're constantly lapping over one another, their every crest and trough a hypnotic marvel. As with all of Laraaji's best music, "Ocean" makes you feel wonderfully small.

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Rap is youth culture, but, in recent years, older rappers have carved out more and more space to tell the stories of middle-age. 40-year-old Detroit rapper Boldy James has taken it a step further: he has really found his voice in maturity, acclimating to a composed persona, first as an original signee of Nas' Mass Appeal records and recently as a member of the indie stable Griselda. His songs bear the wariness that comes with experience and the poise that comes from a hard-scrabble life navigating obstacles.

James, always prolific, has been particularly productive since 2020, releasing his best music across nine projects, and his streak continues with the Futurewave-produced Mr. Ten08. The standout, "Jam Master J," is full of his patented roiling flows but it is the imagery that elevates them: a plate that looks like shaving cream on a straight razor, a cup of lean so noxious it should bear the health hazard symbol, a lost rap icon as an avatar for achieving greatness.

Secret Sun Recordings YouTube

Beginning with a cold, shallow wash of percussion followed by soft, warm lines from his acoustic guitar, Jesse Harris sets a striking and spare tone for the cabaret dreamscape that follows in "Hummingbird," from the album Silver Balloon.

Through a smoky haze of half-remembrance, Harris coaxes us along his wobbling, shuffle-tempo jazz mutation. His voice, like a transmission through an old phone line, describes the encounter: "Like an angel you will fly away somewhere / In the sky somewhere and disappear / Before you sing me a song / Suddenly you are gone / Hummingbird were you even there?"

Exploding in Sound YouTube

Pile has spent the past couple years in a reflective state. After seven albums of bruising, pummeling rock, the band released a fully improvisational record in 2021; a few months later, singer Rick Maguire put together a record of reimagined, solo versions of previously released Pile songs. This month, the band finished up a 10th-anniversary tour for its breakout album Dripping, playing the entire album, with its original lineup, each night.

Now, the band has announced its new record, All Fiction, out February. And though the record is all new material, you can hear the results of that period of retrospective pensiveness in "Loops," the album's ferocious first single. Maguire says the track is about his relationship with songwriting itself — about the stress of relying on it both as a healthy emotional escape and a fraught source of income. "You are building your brand / You are splitting the difference," he howls at the song's midpoint, sounding fed up yet relentless, "You are making demands / You are begging forgiveness." The song is dense, with the whole band contributing to a menacing intensity, but it turns almost atmospheric in its final minute — the percussion drops out, then Maguire's vocals, then the crunchy guitars, ending on a sweeping and surprisingly beautiful note.

The title track from Svaneborg Kardyb's Over Tage gives the listener a glimpse of the Danish jazz duo's evolving sound. "Over Tage" starts with percussion from Jonas Kardyb, setting up the driving force that keeps the energy flowing for the entire song. On Wurlitzer, synth and piano, Nikolaj Svaneborg adds a series of melodies that dance around each other creating a space to enjoy each one separately as much as together. The album, released Friday, is grounded in the same roots as previous music — influenced by the duo's surroundings and loved ones, and tucked away in the Danish countryside.

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Precocity has become the norm in the TikTok-teened, Disney-fied pop world. But to my ears, none of the self-possessed wiz kids making bank today approach the wisdom and unfettered wit Maggie Roche possessed when she was 17. Roche, who died at 65 in 2017, was the anchor voice and primary songwriter in the scandalously undersung sister trio The Roches, whose catalog remains one of music's most inventive and enriching. Earlier on, she and sister Terre had a high-school duo who toured the U.S. and made an album, Seductive Reasoning, with the help of Paul Simon. Now Terre tells that story in a keepsake-like book and accompanying anthology of recordings compiled from early live bootlegs, studio outtakes and tracks from a tour the two sisters did in 2000.

As she absorbed the influences of master music crafters like Simon and Ry Cooder, Maggie began honing her unique gift for infusing wordplay-heavy magical-realist narratives with shocks of insight, particularly about how family and gender roles shape the lives of even the freest thinkers. She found in her sister Terre (who only occasionally wrote at this point) a mirror and a ballast: Terre's high, elastic voice could do things Maggie's contralto could not, and their intimacy made her interpretations of Maggie's versified thoughts highly intuitive. In a way, bending notes and tracing rhythms, Terre is always an author, too.

The Roches' blend of distinctly slanted harmonies, vaudevillian humor and poignancy is all there in "Moonruns," a Seductive Reasoning outtake that's hardly long enough to be a saga, yet cultivates all those seeds. Terre sings lead; Maggie's words tell the tale. Maggie remembers how, as a girl — already aware of "a world of difference" splitting her off from the boys she admired — she longed to hit a homer with Gary, a dreamy fourth grader on a local baseball team. The song paints the scene in saturated color, of Maggie peering through the dugout fence and watching the balls fly, seeing them as "moonruns," an allusion to the astronauts who also were all the rage then, and all men. "I was a third-grade fan," she puns, "but that was in the days before I was cool." So began a lifetime of pondering how and why some women can become cool and others never will; of thinking about freedom and equality, life's promise and love's cost.

ECM Records YouTube

If you could hire a composer to score your dreams, Evgueni Galperine just might be your man. A Paris-based artist with Ukrainian roots, Galperine describes his style of music-making as an "augmented reality of acoustic instruments." He begins with real instruments but processes them, often beyond recognition, while adding color and texture not found in the natural world.

"Loplop im Wald" (Loplop in the Forest), which concludes Galperine's new and startlingly strange album Theory of Becoming, is inspired by the surrealist paintings of Max Ernst. Loplop was Ernst's alter ego, a kind of bird-king with human features and magical powers. The piece commences with a subterranean drumbeat beneath woozy, swirling strings. What follows is a dreamscape of odd sounds: Morse-code-like bird chirps, a reedy toy train whistle and a real whistler, whose perky tune, in stark juxtaposition to its surroundings, becomes profoundly disturbing.

Galperine understands the suggestive power that wordless music can wield. "It is instrumental music," he says, "which traces a rather complex furrow which, I hope, leaves room for a personal journey."

Like perhaps a fantastical dream.

Republic of Music YouTube

Punk's not dead, and folk ain't either! Hailing from Dundalk, Ireland, The Mary Wallopers have traveled across Ireland collecting ballads, and they open their self-titled debut album with their take on Percy French's ballad "Eileen Óg" (Young Eileen), composed over a century ago and later brought to a worldwide audience by the Dubliners.

But the Mary Wallopers' take on the classic ballad doesn't get weighed down by what's come before; they trust the Irish folk tradition's ability to bear reinterpretation, keeping the best of French and applying their own high energy and sly humor.

The song starts off subdued but quickly turns boisterous, as they tell how "the hardest-featured man in Petravore" seduces a local beauty by pretending to be unimpressed with her. ("He never seemed to see the girl at all / Even when she ogled him from underneath her shawl."). That tactic has certainly never worked on me, but the song's infectious rhythm and the band's unbridled joy make their "Eileen Óg" just as timeless as its final advice: "Boys, oh boys, take heed in what I say / When you're courting, don't make no display / If you want them to run after you, just look the other way."

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Ira Kaplan knows there's power in a hushed vocal. His singing in Yo La Tengo, the long-standing Hoboken indie-rock trio, has been unadorned and conversational for nearly four decades. "Fallout," from This Stupid World — the band's 16th album, out Feb. 10, 2023 — bears the fruits of such consistency. Over propulsive guitar chords and James McNew's fuzzy bass line, Kaplan contemplates the anxieties of contemporary living and the way they've shaped his own thinking. He's disgusted by everything — including himself — and wants to escape; his desire for catharsis is felt in how Georgia Hubley's drums tumble into the occasional cymbal crash. Even more than their previous songs, "Fallout" feels like Kaplan's putting your hand in his, providing comfort amid increasing uncertainties. "Close your eyes, fall out of time with me," he softly asks. It has the intimacy of sitting on a porch with a lifelong friend, relishing the moment.

Moin dissects underground '90s rock like mad scientists. Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead initially formed the group a decade ago as an outlet apart from their drone-y electronic group Raime, then rounded out the London trio with percussionist Valentina Magaletti (Tomaga, Vanishing Twin) in recent years. And very quickly, Moin has uncovered the upside-down of an overly mined era of rock skronk.

If 2021's Moot! was Moin's take on piercing, hi-def post-punk à la Shellac and Unwound, then Paste manipulates and muddies the waters with muted moods. There's an uncertainty about authorship throughout: Are the riffs recycled and reshuffled via software? Are the drums sampled live and then looped? Like The Books' carefully edited collages, it's a musical sleight of hand that thrills in its quiet motions, especially on "Hung Up." Based around Magaletti's hi-hat breakbeat and a harmonic riff that recalls early Mogwai, a woman monologues about a phone call gone wrong. But over minimalist-inspired repetition and variation, a second guitar begins to spiral and sputter, electronics glitch and the cymbal sound reverses in a way that tears apart the simple fabric of the song.

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Do androids dream of electric betrayal? That's just one question looming over this cover of "Jolene," made by the musician Holly Herndon using her "deepfake" digital twin Holly+, built to replicate the artist's own singing voice using machine learning technology.

"Jolene" is a song that's almost primal in its insecurity, and the high, fluttering way in which Dolly Parton delivers her pleas so heartbreakingly desperate. But there's a freaky, almost too well-roundedness to Holly+'s interpretation. It's as if every edge of what was once a vulnerable, living voice has been sanded down into as smooth a surface as possible, like a glinting granite countertop lining the pristine kitchen of a suburban McMansion. Listen closely and the sound of a deep, simulated breath emerges like a vapor in between a few verses, always for just a second too long.

So, Holly+'s "Jolene" is a little creepy. But the possibilities of Holly+ are worth paying attention to, even if the music "she" creates here — or computes — sounds dull. Holly+ joins a growing and often misunderstood landscape of experiments in music and artificial intelligence, many of which tend to overly fetishize mimicry and duplication of other artists' works and likenesses (some living, some dead). What's compelling about Herndon's project is her centering of herself, and the experiments in consent and ownership she's designed in a field where the legality and boundaries of both of those things are still disturbingly in flux, even as celebrities and politicians have their likenesses continually manipulated with frightening accuracy.

Letting listeners inhabit her vocal likeness and make music through her on her own terms, Herndon demonstrates what control for artists can look like when it comes to ever-evolving deepfake technology. And what better way to communicate the perils of taking something that isn't yours than through the words of "Jolene?" If only Holly+, masterful little replicator that she is, could communicate the emotional weight of what that feels like. Maybe one day, with some fine-tuning, she will.

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Today's essential songs, picked by NPR Music and NPR Member stations