#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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Eli "Paperboy" Reed grew up immersed in the country music of his father's extensive record collection, learning names like George Jones and Waylon Jennings. Among all the albums, one artist stood out: the outlaw Merle Haggard. "He could get to the heart of these extraordinarily complicated emotional sentiments in two-and-a-half minutes, and that was something that really stuck with me as I began to find my own path as a songwriter," says Reed. "Mama Tried" is the first single from Reed's new tribute to Haggard called Down Every Road. It faithfully retains the original melody and even much of the personality of the 1968 hit, but Reed ups the pace with his own take on Memphis soul and gives it a modern rendering you could almost imagine Haggard delivering himself.

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Today, Japanese Breakfast dropped a Yoko Ono cover to be featured on Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono, compiled by Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard. "Nobody Sees Me Like You Do" was first released on Ono's highest-charting solo album to date, 1981's Season of Glass, and then re-worked by The Apples in Stereo for the 2007 remix album Yes, I'm A Witch.

Here, Michelle Zauner processes grief in a dreamlike vacuum. Relying on insistent, grand notes of the piano throughout, Japanese Breakfast opts for a stripped-down ballad, wholly unlike either preceding version. Gone are the wedding bells, the steady pulse of a drum, plaintive strings and show-stealing horns. Where Ono's voice quavered with fragility, Zauner is assured, almost confrontational – in its examination of commitment, there are echoes of "Till Death" from her own Soft Sounds from Another Planet. Her simple rendition highlights Ono's labyrinthine songwriting and grounds "Nobody Sees Me Like You Do" in its mournful genesis.

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To Pablo Picasso, the minotaur became an emblem for forbidden desires — a symbol of violence and lust; the painter, mid-career, used the creature as his own alter-ego. From that work came the inspiration for St. Paul & The Broken Bones' new single, which tackles an issue many face – the concept of trying to control or bury a part of yourself that you fear. For some, that might be suppressing an abusive or traumatic past. For others, it may manifest as staving off addiction or compulsion. The slow groove here was dreamt up by guitarist Browan Lollar on a European tour bus and allows singer Paul Janeway's soulful falsetto to float nicely on a lazy-hazy wash of heavy reverb.

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In 2022, one of the ultimate acts of resistance is simply embracing our existence. That realization came after listening to Maya De Vitry's "How Bad I Wanna Live," from her third solo album, Violet Light. Maya takes the experience of her own harrowing hike on a washed-out trail abutting a severe cliffside and turns it into an anthem for continuation.

In just under three minutes of mid-tempo Americana — that seemingly could have sprung from the songbook of Richard & Linda Thompson in their heyday — De Vitry fends off mortality wielding nothing more than generosity, spirit and the soaring harmony she sings with Shelby Means and Joel Timmons of Sally & George. Whether you have been in danger of leaving the earth suddenly, like De Vitry was, or have like so many simply been cracking under the strain of recent events, this song is the perfect soundtrack for uncorking that emotion and (defiantly) loving life again.

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The chaos of modern life requires choices on how to live; on its new song "Performance," the U.K. band Modern Nature chooses gentleness. Inspired by The Tempest — "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises," writes Shakespeare — Modern Nature creates its own center within the storm.

Here, the musicians draw on jazz's dance with silence — think Chet Baker or Miles Davis, only playing the perfect notes at the perfect moment. There's also a love of Talk Talk's later records humming through "Performance." The interlocking rhythm section creates a hypnotic intimacy for the trumpet and saxophone to weave through, building through repetition. The song responds to the alarming disconnect at the heart of the pandemic: profits soaring for big business while thousands get sick or die every day. Songwriter Jack Cooper is a quiet witness, singing "the roar of chaos brings a rhythm / but there's heaven in the hills." It sounds like Modern Nature is building its own vision of home.

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You can always get lost inside Hikaru Utada's intricately designed, deeply felt music. But more than two decades after their teenaged debut, the brilliant J-pop artist stretches out over a side-long groove. There are more immediate tracks on the bilingual Bad ModeSkrillex and A. G. Cook co-produced the chart-leaning "Face My Fears" and "One Last Kiss" alongside Utada, respectively – but "Somewhere Near Marseilles" takes Utada on a hypnotic disco train.

Sam Shepherd, a.k.a. Floating Points, who co-produces the 12-minute track with Utada, understands that their voice has always sounded like a future that glances past – out of time, yet ever prescient in how pop music morphs. Soft-panning bongos, 808 kick drums and funky synths glide in and out of Utada's long-distance yearning for a rendezvous somewhere between London and Paris, where their lover lives. In a way, Shepherd treats Utada like he did Pharoah Sanders' saxophone on last year's Promises – even when we depart or disintegrate their transcendent voice, it's implied in the production's undulating shape, still shimmering in awe of Hikaru Utada's presence.

Songs of regret form their own subgenre within popular music, but only so often does a simple tune capture the nonlinear way memory forms and solidifies, both magnifying and distorting trauma's remnants within the psyche. Fingerpicking singer-songwriter Ruby Landen captures pain's subconscious evolution perfectly in "Front Teeth," a solo track recorded after the release of her haunting 2021 album Martyr, well. "It's getting to be this time last year again," Landen trills in the voice of a lonely woman, once a girl. "Don't want to remember, but I haven't forgotten." Not forgetting is not exactly remembering, and that's the point. Lamenting love's rejection, Landen finds herself caught up in a flash from childhood, then pushed into the bog of her recent heartbreak. Memory circles inside the song's lyric as the arpeggiated chords she plays on guitar do, too. As the sound goes round and round, Landen enters a reverie of crashes and burns, speaking to a lover who is able to move on while she just spins. "I wish I'd never met you," she whispers, but does she really want that erasure? This rumination is what she has left.

Rising U.K. duo Two Shell's "home" isn't technically new — as a vinyl-only release from last year, it popped up in DJ sets by Four Tet and Ross from Friends. Officially available to stream last week, "Home" is a slippery dance track that fizzes over with energy like a vigorously shaken soda bottle. The duo shred a sample of CHINAH's gloomy, 2015 indie-pop song "Away From Me" into ribbons of cartoonishly-pitched, vocal confetti, filling the track with frenzied breakbeat and bubbly, "Percolator"-style synths. I dare you to play it once, or twice, and try to regain your balance.

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We've all been there – the foreboding moment when the person you thought would be the love of your life switches up. Perhaps they were never really that person to begin with. Regardless, Mia Taylor's new single is here to tell you to let that "Mango."

This fun, island vibe drops at the perfect time when we all could use a little extra warmth. "Mango" is an ode to amour propre. The bass comes in hot, provoking a slight hip whine; Taylor's sweet vocals remind Mr. Mango with whom he's dealing: "He ain't ripe, it ain't right / I had let the mango / I had let the man go," the Trinidadian vocalist sings. This reggae-infused groove allows for a nice two step while telling us to stop wasting our time on people who are not ready to be just for us.

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Your basic Mozart piano sonata lasts around 20 minutes. George Walker's Piano Sonata No. 5 clocks in under five. The American composer, who died in 2018 at age 96, compressed his final sonata into miniature proportions, but it's no bite-sized bonbon. The music, played with incisive élan by Steven Beck, is a dense thicket of ideas and episodes, born from a simple, four-note upward-thrusting theme in the opening measure. Walker constantly manipulates harmonic textures and rhythms, interlaces a tangle of inner voices and yet keeps a fluid forward motion. Like a Vermeer painting, you can look at it many times before you grasp every subtle detail.

While Walker was the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize (for his work Lilacs, in 1996) his music has been largely undervalued. This album, containing all five of Walker's piano sonatas, is a welcome addition to rethinking an important body of work.

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Ever since the London octet dropped "Dark blue" in 2020, I've puzzled at how caroline's strung-together influences – Talk Talk's whisper-quiet post-rock, The Velvet Underground's yearning drones and Chamberlain's rootsy noodling – mingle with such ambition. As the band's earliest song just now getting the studio treatment, "Good morning (red)" provides something of a key to understanding caroline's method of piecing together disparate parts. In it, a loping melody yawns alongside sweeping strings and an ascendant guitar figure – there's a pastoral brightness to the overlapping vocals lit by a desperate outburst: "Can I be happy in this world?" It's borderline twee in the way an overeager study group in impeccably matched outfits could cause one listener to recoil and entice another. But halfway through the song, the world shifts as the melody breaks apart in a spacious full-band glitch: Fits of acoustic guitar and strings punctuate the silence as drums thwack the void and a bass line fills out the edges. It's as if the promise of a new morning has been upset by the dawn's revelations.

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A glorious piece of goth hit streaming services over the weekend: Molly Nilsson, a reigning queen of DIY synth-pop, capped her excellent new album, Extreme, with this soaring slice of skeletal melancholia, addressing the endgame of everlasting love. The Pompeii couple immortalized in ash, killed while in each others' arms after the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, serve as inspiration here, and Nilsson doesn't shy away from the macabre implications. "I'd say I love you but I catch my breath," she chants, "Cause whatever I love I always love to death." All the while, an assortment of synthesizers and drum machines churn away, steadfastly growing louder and brighter until all that's left is bittersweet beams of light.

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While self-aware musings about corporate exploitation and the futility of "wellness" bubbled up last year in the music of Top 40 artists like Lorde and Olivia Rodrigo, no musician has yet to dissect the feminine body's currency and pliancy under capitalism quite like Jenny Hval. Across her avant-garde pop music, the Norwegian artist has smartly deconstructed concepts including the societal aims of "self-care" and the vampire as a vehicle of desire, but always with a playful, seductive rigor.

On her new song "Year of Love," Hval deconstructs herself, a married woman, in the midst of shakily assimilating into what she describes as a "normcore institution." "In the year of love I signed a deal with the patriarchy," Hval sings over surprisingly jazzy, upbeat organ and plucky guitar, zooming out to frame her nuptials as a production in which she's merely a stagehand. But by the song's end those cheery, steady instrumentals build and blur together with intensity, a reminder that even the most controlled performances can belie a deeper turmoil.

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By now, Western ears have had plenty of chances to jump on the Amaarae bandwagon. The original version of "SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY" was released in 2020, and the remix featuring Kali Uchis landed on numerous 2021 best-of lists (including ours). So why are we covering it again in 2022? Because it might just be the Trojan Horse we need to introduce amapiano to America. The rising style of dance music out of South Africa is a spacious, mid-tempo form of deep house music that is slow enough to chill to, but dramatic enough to fill dance floors. It's only relatively new, emerging 10 years ago in KwaZulu-Natal and catching fire across the African continent two years ago. The remix here is provided by Vigro Deep, a 20-year-old producer who's already secured a foothold in the U.K. and has said explicitly he's ready for a worldwide audience. We're listening.

Young Turks and Atlantic Records on YouTube

More than two years after the release of her second studio album, the transcendent MAGDALENE, British singer-songwriter FKA twigs has dropped CAPRISONGS, her first mixtape and major label debut under Atlantic Records. Gone is the mournful crooner with haunting, operatic vocals; in her place stands a club rat on a mission of hedonism. A highlight of the mixtape's various hyperpop-adjacent bangers is "papi bones," featuring hip-hop grime master Shygirl.

"We gon' run the dancefloor," a boisterous DJ shouts over a heartbeat pulse before alarms sound and the steel drums begin. Co-produced by twigs, El Guincho, Fakeguido and Jonathan Coffer, the Afrobeat-dancehall track is addictive, cathartic in its physicality. twigs' usual operatic soprano has been updated for a digitized rallying cry, accented with the lilt of a chiming bell. A song equally suited for spilling bronzer in the sink during the pre-game and whining on the floor, veiled in haze, "papi bones" raises a glass to all the Champagne bubble girls around the world.

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RuPaul's 2022 album Mamaru is the final death knell of bubblegum hyperpop. Throughout the thirty-minute record, Ru somehow manages to commodify and repackage the sounds of almost every single musician who has made an impact on queer internet communities over the past several years, including but not limited to Shygirl, Kim Petras, Namasenda and the late SOPHIE, who is rolling in her grave at the familiar fruit production on a song named "Pretty Pretty Gang Gang."

The most egregious rip-off comes in the form of the third track, "Smile," a song that could be mistaken for a karaoke version of Charli XCX's "anthems" if I heard it from outside of the club. To say the song is exactly the same would be an insult to Charli: It's like if Mamaru's producers heard how i'm feeling now and tried to recreate it from memory after a blackout-inducing hit of poppers. Everything feels lifted, from the overprocessed Auto-Tune to the jittery synth riff in the chorus. Had "Smile" came out in 2019, I would've thought it came with a Dylan Brady production credit — however, in 2022, the scene has already moved on, giving "Smile" the mark of bleak corporate reappropriation. It's a reminder that everything that made the OG hyperpop scene interesting and different is quickly being swallowed up and watered down for a larger audience, particularly one that embodies hegemonic, straight-approved forms of LGBTQ expression.

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Boy Harsher's sinister gothic pop already sounds like it could soundtrack the fleshy body horror of an early David Cronenberg flick, so it's fitting that the band's forthcoming album The Runner doubles as a soundtrack to a short horror movie of the same name. In "Machina," the duo teams up with fellow darkwaver Mariana Saldaña of BOAN (and the highly underrated Medio Mutante) for a pulsing, '80s-inspired synth-pop track that single-handedly demands a fog machine for your listening pleasure.

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Pianist Robert Glasper is rightly known for setting a groove, but he's just as adept at setting a table. A decade ago, he released Black Radio, which put his jazz-honed flexibility in dialogue with an eye-catching guest list — and won a Grammy for best R&B album in the process. He followed it with a sequel, Black Radio 2, as well as all-star collaborations like Dinner Party and R+R=Now. No surprise, then, that Glasper has gone bigger than ever for Black Radio III, which will release on Feb. 25 with contributions from Jennifer Hudson, Ty Dolla $ign, Gregory Porter and others.

In "Black Superhero," the album's third single, Glasper's piano sets a chiming gospel loop, over which Killer Mike and Big K.R.I.T. rap verses about perseverance and positivity; the hook, by BJ the Chicago Kid, affirms that "Every block, every hood, every city, every ghetto / Need a Black superhero." A black-and-white music video by Charlie Buhler underscores that the heroes in question are first and foremost members of a community — and a spoken-word coda courtesy of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, urges both a refusal and a reclamation.

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"Tell Him," the latest single from L.A.-based alternative R&B trio Moonchild, is a bittersweet re-telling of love gone sour. Over a bouncy, drum-heavy groove and dreamy keys, lead singer Amber Navran fights with everything she's got to put things back in order: "I give him the food I'm making I give him the money I'm saving / He won't hear a thing I'm saying / Just wanna make it right." Soon, soul vocal legend Lalah Hathaway joins the conversation, urging Narvan to communicate her discontent with the simple line, "You gonna have to tell him," providing an aching snapshot of a relationship in the midst of collapse.

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Late last May, Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood debuted The Smile, a new musical project with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner. The group surprise premiered eight songs during a livestream of Glastonbury Festival's Live At Worthy Farm, but mostly kept quiet until this week when it dropped its debut single, "You Will Never Work In Television Again."

With heavy drums, angular guitars and Yorke's frantic vocals, it's one of the Glastonbury set's more intense tracks and brings to mind post-punk acts like Mission of Burma and Swell Maps. Yorke delivers his signature lyrical style with lines like "All thosе beautiful young hopes and dreams, devoured by those evil eyes and those piggy limbs." Longtime Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich produces the track with a minimal amount of flair, letting the urgent guitar chords drive home the music's message.

Folk punk, at least in part, is about laying yourself bare – just an acoustic guitar (or an electric turned down low), maybe some ramshackle drums and someone yelling about heartbreak, revolution or identity (sometimes, all three topics in the same song). Released on New Year's Day, Feather River Canyon Blues by Pigeon Pit is as raw as it is rambling, but never reckless in its tender-hearted punk songs.

"Milk Crates" rumbles along like a freight train taking a long curve. Singer-songwriter Lomes Oleander chugs an urgent, three-chord progression ornamented by banjo, drums and a fiddle that flickers around the melody – in its overly verbose punk storytelling, Pigeon Pit recalls Spoonboy and Nana Grizol, but the queer twang owes to Lavender Country. "It feels like survival just isn't enough," she sighs. And that's when the band rallies behind Oleander in gang-vocal counterpoint, overlapping empathetic verses about internal doubt and outward defiance, ultimately knowing, "I've been to a world worth living in."

When he was 16 years old, Daniel Bachman discovered the music of fingerstyle guitarist Jack Rose. "I just kinda followed him around," Bachman told Weekend Edition in 2012, "and he was always really friendly to me." Like the late Rose (who died in 2009), Bachman's compositions have grown beyond the acoustic guitar, heard especially on last year's haunting Axacan.

So consider Lonesome Weary Blues – a seven-song collection of covers that "have brought me a lot of comfort throughout the rolling waves of this pandemic," Bachman says – an easygoing, lived-in return to his roots. One of those covers is "Rappahannock River Rag," a Jack Rose tune that first appeared on Kensington Blues, but Bachman seems to put his own spin on the 7-inch version heard with the old-time group Black Twig Pickers. Bachman retains the chunky chord progression and pass-the-whiskey spirit, but you can feel the strings rattle the wood of his guitar with rowdy reverberation; in the moaning midwinter, it sounds like the rush of spring.

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#NowPlaying

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