#NowPlaying: Best New Songs From NPR Music Today's essential songs, picked by NPR Music and NPR Member stations.
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Today's essential songs, picked by NPR Music and NPR Member stations
June 2

The Handsome Family, 'Joseph'



Listen closely to The Handsome Family and it's as if you have stepped into a strange, shimmering plane. With "Joseph" from the forthcoming album Hollow, husband-and-wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks contrast a foreboding, supernatural scene with the sweet simplicity of their piano-driven, waltz-like melody, complete with a straightforward yet emotive guitar solo.

Known for their songs about tragic historical figures, Brett Sparks says "Joseph" actually came from a dream: "It was a bleak winter during the middle of the pandemic. One night around 4 a.m., Rennie started screaming in her sleep. She screamed, 'Come into the circle Joseph! There's no moon tonight.' Scary as it was, I thought, 'Man, that's a good chorus!' " They garnish "Joseph" with what sounds like a sitar throughout (actually an overdriven electric guitar), but especially at the song's close, putting a bow on the otherworldly vignette: "Crawl under the bed / Whisper my name / It's time to begin."

Fluff & Gravy YouTube

I love songs about plane-spotting more than better-known hits about actually being in the air. Props to "Leaving on a Jet Plane" for elevating heartache and "Eight Miles High" for reaching peak altitude, but I'll always prefer a heart-worn tune and some lyrics about dreaming, wishing and never quite getting off the ground. A plane-spotting song can turn joyful, but more often it lingers in that all-too-human space of tenuous hope: not quite letting go of someone leaving, almost managing to take a next step yourself.

Portland, Ore.-based singer-songwriter Kassi Valazza captures a fluctuating melancholy perfectly on "Watching Planes Go By," a standout track from her enrapturing second album, out now on the West Coast's finest little label, Fluff & Gravy. Kassi Valazza Knows Nothing sees the Arizona-born artist trading in her twang, equivocally, for a hazy psychedelia highly evocative of late-1960s English folk music and its Laurel Canyon counterparts, especially early Joni Mitchell. "Watching Planes" invokes Mitchell's "Michael From Mountains" with a main character who's longing for vistas beyond his window. In the song, Valazza's Michael is, like Mitchell's, a free spirit — but he's been grounded by a broken foot, a mundane calamity that inspires a reverie about accepting limits and maintaining perspective. The magnificent swirl of sound and lyrical poeticism that Valazza and cosmic Americana band TK & the Holy Know-Nothings build around this glimpse of a guy looking skyward turns the song transcendent. To quote another heady kid who loves aerial metaphors, if flying on the ground is wrong, Valazza's gonna make it right.

Hyperdub YouTube

One of Jessy Lanza's strongest assets as an electronic-pop musician is her ability to build a distinct sense of time and place. Her debut from ten years ago, Pull My Hair Back, is perfectly suited for a late-night lounge, while 2020's All the Time envisions a breezy drive along the coast as the sun sets in the horizon. The latest single from Love Hallucination, out July 28 on Hyperdub, is clear about the setting it wants to evoke: "Midnight Ontario." Much of that is due to its production, done with fellow Canadian artist Jacques Greene. A knocking 2-step beat buoys deep piano chords and Lanza's breathy, heavy-lidded falsetto. Between coos, she sings of falling in love "like tears in rain," quoting a dramatic monologue from the sci-fi film Blade Runner. In the midnight hour, it's unclear if her message and feelings will be returned.

From the Miami noise trio Harry Pussy to solo and quartet music, Bill Orcutt has spent decades fire-bombing conventional acceptance of what we consider to be guitar-based music. But adherents hoping for any of Orcutt's steel-string immolations might need to swing at a curveball with The Anxiety of Symmetry.

Like previous "counting albums," including one featuring Joey Ramone's instantly recognizable count-off, Orcutt returns to his open-sourced Cracked software to craft something mesmerizing. On "The Anxiety of Symmetry II," female voice samples sing the number of the corresponding notes of the first six tones of the major scale. Akin to 20th-century composer Morton Feldman's vocal-based works, the 16-minute track demands more from the listener than mere ambient music, yet somehow soothes with its robotic, canonical rounds — a mashup of esoteric mathematic-based compositions and OCD.

Twenty-five years ago, Orcutt co-created a similar, albeit more blunt study in electronics and the human voice with Harry Pussy's Let's Build a Pussy, which featured four sides of a sampled scream bellowed out by drummer/vocalist Adris Hoyos. "The Anxiety of Symmetry II" is less barbaric, yet is still an engaging exploration of what is arguably the universal instrument of our species: the human voice.

May 31

Annie Bartholomew, 'Mountain Dove Song'



When the gold rush was on in the Yukon at the close of the 19th century, tens of thousands of prospectors flooded into Alaska and Canada to seek their fortunes. With them came women who sought a better life, but whose options were often limited to sex work; Juneau-based songwriter Annie Bartholomew tells their stories throughout her debut album Sisters of White Chapel.

"Mountain Dove Song" sketches a character who refuses to be silent about this, at turns, dark and largely untold chapter of the Last Frontier state. Bartholomew begins by playing a steady and airy clawhammer banjo melody, an instrument that she learned specifically for this project, and then adds mandolin, acoustic guitar and upright bass as she exposes the hypocrisy of her subject's clientele and the secrets she will not keep. In a soft, clear alto, she sings, "They think they can buy my silence / They think 'What can't money buy?' / If they tried to sell me back my virtue / I wouldn't waste a dollar thinking about the price." Ultimately, she reveals that her character would choose instead to spend that dollar on escape. [Editor's note: Annie Bartholomew was an intern for NPR Music almost a decade ago.]

Atlantic Records & Warner Bros. YouTube

"Do you guys ever think about dying?" asks Barbie. In the trailer for Greta Gerwig's forthcoming blockbuster, the all-too-familiar blonde bombshell (played by Margot Robbie) says this line in the middle of a dance floor and all of the dolls turn around in shock. Death? On the dance floor?!

Such is the crux of the movie's plot, the idea that a toy like Barbie — the mass-produced miniature embodiment of America's feminine ideal for, what, how many decades now? — might be changing, contemplating more existential horrors in her newly animated rubber brain. That's an alien mode of thinking in Barbie world, where every moment is only ever fizzy, fun and highly accessorized. What more could you ask for?

And who better than to capture what that world might sound like than Dua Lipa, our early quarantine pop savior, in the big single "Dance the Night" from the movie's forthcoming original soundtrack. "My hеart could be burnin', but you won't see it on my face," she sings, on a sparkly disco-pop number that falls neatly in line with her former discography and recent, peppy genre-reviving peers Lizzo and Jessie Ware. "I'll still keep the party runnin', not one hair out of place." It's familiar, but undeniably glamorous, whether you're 6 years old or 30. And it's a song that certainly wouldn't soundtrack a single tear falling on a dance floor, because, girl, we do not produce tears here in Barbie world. Don't you forget it.

Domino YouTube

There's a boundary-averse quality that makes Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished so rewarding to revisit all these years later. Animal Collective's debut album, originally released in 2000, has been remastered and reissued with A Night at Mr. Raindrop's Holistic Supermarket, an EP of five previously unreleased tracks, including an inexplicable cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams." The sluggish rework finds Avey Tare's drippy, filtered singing resting atop West Coast rap-indebted mono synths and clattering sound effects. He reimagines the timeless refrain in an elongated, broken-sounded way, making the band's gnarled spin on the emotive soft-rock classic more likely to leave one wide-eyed than teary.

In 1976, reeds players Arthur Doyle and Hugh Glover joined drummer Milford Graves in his studio-workshop in Queens, NYC, for a surging history lesson that rearranged Black American Music. Children of the Forest, previously unreleased until now, was the result.

The opening 12-minute track "March 11, 1976" seems to ask the listener: "How free do you truly want to be?" Before anyone could possibly respond, Graves unrolls polyrhythmic and roiling drum patterns and, within moments, Doyle detonates the brass plating of his saxophone through sheer force of his berserk lung power. Graves' drum-and-woodblock-heavy percussion ballasts and coaxes the trance-born blasting of Doyle. Roughly a minute from the end of the performance, as Glover growls out a gut-bucket epiglottal drone on the vaccine, a single-note Haitian bamboo trumpet, Doyle evokes a bluesy, Coleman Hawkins-style snarl — just a microsecond of jazz tradition in a purifying, holy flame of post-Coltrane and -Ayler fire music.

Forged Artifacts YouTube

On Greg Mendez's eponymous new album, the Philadelphia singer-songwriter paints reflections on sobriety, heartbreak and necessary growth in a honey-tinted sonic glow. "There were a couple of years there where I was really unable to hold a job. There were long periods of couch surfing," he told Bandcamp Daily in a recent interview, looking back on the period of houselessness and addiction that shaped this batch of songs.

"Goodbye / Trouble" is the liveliest track on the album. An uptempo drum beat, major-key electric piano motif and fluctuating vocal melody contrast raw subject matter. It finds Mendez recounting seedy tales, compassionately writing off an old partner in crime in the process. "I sold some s*** to some shady bros / You took the money but you left me their clothes and / Your pain and trouble / Stayed in trouble," he sings in the final verse, somehow sounding matter-of-fact and on the verge of tears all at once. In Mendez's hands, coming to terms with the worst of times has led to music so grippingly human, you'll want to hear him grapple with his demons on an endless loop.

Arrowhawk Records YouTube

Loosely speaking, there are two types of Jeffrey Silverstein song: freewheeling instrumental jams and cosmic folk ballads. "Sunny Jean" lands squarely in the latter camp. The ode to his wife is awestruck and psychedelic. Silverstein's gruff, spoken vocals rest atop an airy instrumental, which is carried by an earthy rock groove peppered with acoustic and slide guitar flourishes. "And if your blues slip away / You're in your natural state / A quiet confidence / A sense of permanence," Silverstein placidly intones on the cut's chorus. It all comes together to evoke a reflective drive down an expansive desert highway with no end in sight. If the Grateful Dead existed in an alternate universe where it operated adjacent to the 2010s Brooklyn surf-rock boom, that band would probably sound something like this.

Carpark Records YouTube

In less than three years, Foyer Red has carved out a wonderfully weird niche for itself in the New York City rock scene, merging pastel-tinted psych pop and hectic prog. Foyer Red initially cut its teeth as a trio, but recently expanded the lineup to include five people. The band's new single, "Pocket," reflects this increased potential for maximalism. It takes an already wonky formula and kicks the quirkiness into hyperdrive. Frantic woodwinds and electric guitar flourishes are supported by a barren, motorik groove and lyrics that ponder everything from time travel to capitalism. "They say / You can touch the sky / Passing by / All the other places in my mind," multi-instrumentalist Elana Riordan spunkily talk-sings on the song's final verse. "Pocket" plays like the soundtrack to a high school musical beamed in from some alternate reality where everything is made of Playdough.

May 4

Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, 'People's Park'

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Brian Blade's Fellowship Band introduced a magnetic new musical synthesis on its self-titled 1998 debut: jazz-inflected, gospel-rooted music suffused with a glowing consonance. All of these qualities coalesce again on a new song titled "People's Park" — the first single from a forthcoming album titled King's Highway, due out on Blade's own Stoner Hill Records on July 7.

Blade, a peerless drummer with a gift for subtle shading and flowing undertow, has always had a crucial partner in Jon Cowherd, the band's brilliant pianist, who presumably titled "People's Park" after a storied plot of land in Berkeley, Calif. There's a spirit of hope and humanity in the song's drifting waltz time, which Blade and Cowherd carry aloft with help from bassist Christopher Thomas.

King's Highway features one more composition by Cowherd, alongside four by Blade, including the epic title track. The band's personnel features two saxophonists — Myron Walden on alto, Melvin Butler on tenor — as well as the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. It's an all-star lineup that functions more like a harmonious congregation, ebbing and flowing as one.

MIlan YouTube

Ryuichi Sakamoto was many things during his wondrous life. He was an electronic pop pioneer with his group, Yellow Magic Orchestra; an Oscar-winning composer of some of the most beloved soundtracks in movie history; and, later in his life, a collaborator of minimalist pieces with musician Alva Noto. Perhaps the most important relationship he had was with his piano, an instrument he treated with respect, adoration and limitless potential.

Sakamoto honored that relationship in his album, 12, released two months before his death at 71. The album, he said, served as an "audio diary" of his final years, its songs titled by the dates they were written. In "20211201," pensive piano notes emanate from his fingertips as an angelic voice beams softly from above. The celestial scene is countered by the sound of Sakamoto's own breathing, fast and nasal and sucking in air. The recording is intimate and physical, a harsh reminder of the pain he endured while battling cancer. Heard after his death, it comes across as one of the greatest modern composers pondering the afterlife.


Just a few days after a headlining slot at Coachella alongside fellow superstar DJs Skrillex and Fred again.., Kieran Hebden released a new Four Tet single called "Three Drums." Over the past few months, the seasoned producer has branched out into wildly accessible terrain on tracks like hyperpop-leaning "Looking At Your Pager" and club-friendly "Baby again..." (the latter of which was released in tandem with those two aforementioned collaborators). But "Three Drums" reinforces that Hebden is still in touch with his wonderfully oblique side.

Across the track's eight-minute runtime, organic drums lope beneath sumptuous pads and opaque synth leads. The sophisticated downtempo cut starts off at its rhythmic peak, gradually disintegrating into a sustained, blissful ambient outro. Now in his late 40s, it's becoming increasingly challenging to tell whether Hebden wants to be viewed as a raucous party starter or a legacy artist relishing the quietude of stability. A gorgeous standout in an ever-unpredictable handful of recent releases, "Three Drums" suggests that this restless energy may also be current-day Hebden's greatest creative asset.

April 25

Irreversible Entanglements, 'Nuclear War'

WRTI Your Classical and Jazz Source

Red Hot YouTube

Brace for impact, not that anything can save you: "Nuclear War," the apocalyptic, Reagan-era cult jam by the Sun Ra Arkestra, has found a potent new delivery system. Irreversible Entanglements more than doubles the original dimensions of the song in its incendiary performance — the title track to a new tribute, Red Hot + Ra, due out on May 26. (A previous single, Georgia Anne Muldrow's "Nuke's Blues," was released last month.)

"If they push that button," declares Moor Mother, with a grounding menace, "Your ass gotta go." There's little trace of the festive absurdity that Sun Ra brought to that line, which suggested a party at the edge of apocalypse. But just as the threat of nuclear deployment has screamed back to relevance, Irreversible Entanglements gives "Nuclear War" a heavy-gauge upgrade — shape-shifting in and out of a groove, but always rooted in the terrifying hypothetical at hand. Bringing Sun Ra's tune back into our orbit, the band creates a mutually assured apprehension.

Nonesuch YouTube

Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy, now over 700 years old, continues to inspire greatness. From Botticelli and Rodin to Gogol and Woody Allen, artists of all stripes have been drawn to Dante's vivid depiction of his journey down into hell, guided by Virgil, and back up through purgatory to heaven.

Now, British composer Thomas Adès has responded to the Italian masterpiece with one of his own, a 90-minute ballet titled Dante. This music, in its debut recording by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with conductor Gustavo Dudamel, ranks among the most fantastical and kaleidoscopic orchestral works of our time. The music pivots from boisterous grotesquerie to delicate lyricism, all in a sweeping, Romantic-era expression.

From a scene early on in the Inferno section, "Paolo and Francesca — the endless whirlwind" finds us in Dante's second circle of hell, the one reserved for adulterers, where the illicit lovers are perpetually thrashed by an infernal hurricane. Adès' score pounds and swirls with multicolored brilliance and tips its hat to Stravinsky's Firebird.

In Dante, Adès is a connoisseur of musical sins, clearly influenced by predecessors such as Berlioz, Liszt and the Russian ballet masters, yet the cinematic opulence of the language and the rigorous construction are purely his own. With Adès as your Virgil, this vision of the afterlife is truly — and delightfully — out of this world.

Sub Pop YouTube

Not finding the words to describe how you feel can be torture. That unspeakable tension drives "Filosa," one of two new tracks by Hermosillo, México punks Margaritas Podridas. (Literally, "rotten daisies.") Under blasting drums and jagged guitars, bassist and vocalist Carolina Rivera lays bare her dilemma: "No se lo que quiero / no quiero decirte / no lo puedo decir." She doesn't know what she wants and, even if she did, she wouldn't bother telling you. Instead, she growls and barks as the band pummels behind her, the titular character done with being called "bitter," "aggressive" and other adjectives used to demonize women.

Of course, it could also be Margaritas Podridas making a statement to an American audience — the song, along with "Vómito," was released on Sub Pop. Why should they have to speak in English? The feedback noise and Rivera's putrid, guttural scream get the point across just fine: Don't mess with us.

Planet Mu YouTube

Tatiana Triplin, who makes music under the name Nondi_, reimagines footwork, a frenetic and fast-paced subgenre of electronic music that has spread far and wide from the dance halls of Chicago. Flood City Trax, released earlier this month on Planet Mu, was influenced by the historic floods of Triplin's home of Johnstown, Pa. "Sun Juke'' is submerged under layers of filters, a departure from footwork's typically clear and precise drum work. Like the photo on the album cover, the song is smudged and degraded, a mysterious artifact that unearths secrets if listened to close enough. If Traxman was "Footworkin on Air," Nondi_ is searching for meaning underwater.

April 19

Deeper, 'Sub'

Sub Pop YouTube

Since Deeper dropped its self-titled debut album in 2018, the Chicago band has put its own spin on the enduringly trendy post-punk revival sound. While one can certainly trace the echoes of peers like Shame and Crack Cloud in its output, Deeper equally exudes the rowdy influence of The Replacements.

This energetic formula — coupled with an equally commanding stage presence — has led Deeper to a recently announced deal with Sub Pop, which just put out the band's latest single "Sub." Centered on a jagged, faintly psychedelic riff, the track alternates between motorik verses and a sardonically crooned chorus. It all seems smooth sailing until things quickly build to a fiery climax in the track's final 17 seconds. "I found a reason in the enough," singer Nic Gohl bellows on the song's driving outro. "Sub" finds Deeper settling into its most polished sound yet, one that's finally ready for the indie-rock big leagues. But even when the grit that defined its earlier work is toned down a bit, Deeper's music can't be stripped of an angsty zeal.

April 17

Stuck, 'The Punisher'

Born Yesterday YouTube

Which came first: the dystopian rage or the putrid, spit-and-dirt saturated egg? It's the eternal question posed in Stuck's "The Punisher" video, in a deranged kitchen scene not for the faint of stomach. Like the past few years spent waking up to whatever fresh hell awaits, the Chicago unit's brand of urgent, biting post-punk doesn't go down easy.

It's what makes the downward spiral of "The Punisher" a deeply satisfying ride. Stuck has a Devo-esque proclivity for pointing out the absurdity of modern life, with agitated, trance-like guitar and eerily precise rhythms that chip away at your sanity. "It's so sick living in a fanfic," Greg Obis sings, a nod to the delusions people cling to in times of doubt.

Freak Frequency, out May 26, illuminates building fears around surveillance, violence and justice. But "The Punisher," written after the Jan. 6 Insurrection, asks us to look beyond the black void. We might be living through the decline of western civilization — "a whole new dark age," as Obis aptly calls it — but at least we can laugh about it together.

StorySound Records YouTube

They say every dark cloud has a silver lining, but there's nothing threatening about "Cloud," from the upcoming album by yMusic. The piece is all shiny, fluffy lightness — a perfect pop song length track to hum along with as spring comes into bloom.

Disregarding genre pigeonholes, the new music sextet shares stages with pop stars like Paul Simon and John Legend and commissions music by today's top composers such as Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly and Andrew Norman.

"Cloud" offers glistening, metallic strings to open, followed by puffy bass chord beats from the cello, airy trumpet lines and a vocalese groove that propels the piece to cumulonimbus heights before landing safely. With its sunny outlook and sturdy construction, the song, produced by Valgeir Sigurðsson (Björk, Sigur Rós, Ben Frost) wouldn't sound out of place on a Feist album. It's a good reminder that amid pandemics, politics and violence, we could all use a light-filled serenade sometimes to uncloud our heads.

Mexican Summer YouTube

Ten years have passed since a teenaged Hayden Pedigo released a cassette of John Fahey-indebted fingerstyle guitar. As much as Pedigo's skill and songcraft have changed, his tender smirk behind each pluck and strum remains. "Elsewhere," from the forthcoming album The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored, is subtle in its movement. The inquisitive melody slows and picks up speed like an old truck bucking along a gravel road — music that shares the same cinematic awe of Popol Vuh crafting a Werner Herzog soundtrack. And, in fact, "Elsewhere" functions in three distinct acts: first, the uplifting quest; second, a struggle felt tugged on by Luke Schneider's pedal steel; the last, the return and resolution of the melody, brighter yet colored by shades of past doubt.

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