#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
Mexican Summer YouTube

Where do you go when you're 18 albums into your career? For the Orlando duo Tonstartssbandht, playing show after show reveals the answer. Onstage, brothers Andy and Edwin White ask new questions nightly, pulling clues from the great improv-based traditions of jazz, blues and psychedelic rock. Songs and styles melt into one another. The brothers can sound as if they're constantly attempting to collapse space and time into their own version of music history.

So maybe it's surprising that, after so long without any shows, Tonstartssbandht would return with something new to say. "What Has Happened" blends yearning harmonies with the kind of shimmering guitar explored by sonic searchers like The Durutti Column and Manuel Göttsching. The ingredients are strengthened by their friction: The rock influences transcend their usual station, while the electronic pulse breathes beyond the grid. Tonstartssbandht sounds like it's discovering folk music beamed in from another galaxy — and ready to follow wherever it leads.

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Calling Kadhja Bonet's music any one thing does her kaleidoscopic idiosyncrasies a disservice. That was especially the case on 2018's Childqueen, a low-key stunner that was never showy, but dazzlingly ornate. "For You," similarly, is deceptive in its synth-forward arrangement, but comes about Bonet's genre-less explorations with an ear towards a self-sensuous hook that curls up inside your psyche. The sonic palette – sparkling synths and drum machine draped in dreamy atmosphere – screams neon '80s, but the instantly hummable melody has all the gothic drama of The Cure's "Lovesong."

Roc Nation Records YouTube

Every year, the last of frost thaws, a warm breeze caresses an ankle and the Mecca of the Midwest transforms with the promise of summer; it always begins too late and ends too soon. For that brief, inimitable three-month period, Chicago is in explosion. Frequent collaborators Vic Mensa and BJ The Chicago Kid teamed up to put on for their city and celebrate the season's euphoric excess with "The Taste," an ode to the particular beauty and magic of urban summertime.

"You taste like Chicago," announces a cooing refrain, delivering an immediate sensation of speeding down Lake Shore Drive with childlike delight, wind roaring in ears. Sunny and soulful, "The Taste" features a nostalgic, stank face beat, heavy on guitar and synth drums, courtesy of Chicago producers Papi Beatz and Stefan Ponce. If you love summertime in Chicago as much as I do, this one's for you.

Transgressive Records YouTube

Before childhood friends Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth turned their attention toward stretching the constraints of and reshaping pop music as Let's Eat Grandma, the duo undertook a number of creative pursuits together, from treehouse construction to amateur filmmaking. "It's our way of processing the world," Hollingworth told NPR back in 2017.

On "Hall of Mirrors," the duo prismatically processes pristine pop the same way the mind's eye reflects and refracts images; what's real is nearly indistinguishable from the imaginary. With a stuttering synth chorus accented by shimmering flourishes, the track is a welcome return for Walton and Hollingworth, who despite the period of dormancy, still seem to be at the top of the pop game.

12 HRS AGO

Ovlov, 'Land Of Steve-O'

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A comfortable and familiar aura surrounds Ovlov's fuzzy, shoegaze-tinged indie rock, like meeting someone for the first time and feeling like you've known them your whole life. This sense of security is a bit ironic, considering the Connecticut crew led by Steve Harlett is known for constantly breaking up and getting back together. "Land of Steve-O," the first single from the group's forthcoming record Buds, marks the group's return; the title alone invokes the aforementioned divine déjà vu with the reintroduction of the endearing character Steve-O, who last appeared in 2017's Greatest Hits, Vol. II with "Strand of Steve-O."

"Land of Steve-O" utilizes one of the band's usual song formulas: steady verses followed by an explosive chorus with staticky riffs and Harlett's inviting intone: "Don't feel crazy / When you walk around your town / Just call your friend Steve-O," he sings. Intensifying at the end, the track transcends into an unhinged, euphoric catharsis before fading and forcing us back into reality.

Julie Doiron, right from the jump, captures the shrugging optimism of a blank slate: "There was never a plan / No need to explain / And here I am starting over again." The singer-songwriter's first solo album in nine years, I Thought of You, opens with this top-down road-tripper of an easy rocker – the kind of song heard as the credits roll, our protagonist heading nowhere in particular. "You Gave Me the Key," with its shufflin' rhythm section and a bendy line harmonized by double guitar, choogles along to Doiron's bright rasp tinged with a touch of life's uncertainty.

BBCRadio1 YouTube

This had to happen. Lil Nas X wraps his salty baritone around the ascending scale that Dolly Parton made indelible and history shifts (again) to accommodate his world-conquering charm. Here is the logical end of the arc that began with "Old Town Road," a song that undid country music's seemingly intractable conservatism with the careless force of a stream overflowing its banks, and which kept building with every outrageous video and deeply sincere self-revelation as Montero Lamar Hill simply kept insisting on being himself.

"Jolene" has already been queered (by Nadine Hubbs, on the Dolly Parton's America podcast), retold from the antagonist's point of view (by Cam, in "Diane") and made into a pro-vaccine anthem (by Dolly herself). But in his canny, casual way, Lil Nas X renews its subversiveness. His voice couldn't be more different than those of most singers who've taken on the anthem: where they soar and claw, he murmurs. His cool approach throughout the song recalls the almost-interior monologues of Billie Eilish or that other country music game-changer, Kacey Musgraves. It's a new way of being expressive about a well-traveled emotional crisis, as playfully challenging as it is sincere.

American Dreams Records YouTube

When he's not collaborating remotely with the ambient-jazz quartet Fuubutsushi, L.A. composer Patrick Shiroishi makes all manner of exploratory music: drone, ambient, free-jazz, black metal and noise all sorta live and breathe together. "To Kill A Wind-Up Bird," off his upcoming solo album Hidemi, layers saxophone and woodwinds in a frantic, yet controlled splatter. (The album is a tribute to his grandfather, named Hidemi, a survivor of the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII.) Staccato sax shakes down the melody's twittering counterpoint, leading to a mournful adagio and the closing, a Peter Brötzmann-like blast of bravado. The song's heightened antics are rather like a classic cartoon — pride before fall, restoration — which is fitting, given music video director Dylan Pecora's slightly unsettling (but funny) beat-for-beat puppet show.

Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out — a 1987 documentary — introduced the world to a music scene surrounding R.E.M. and The B-52s, most surely, but more importantly gave insight to the excitable, eccentric and earnest characters of the Southern college town. One character, poet John Seawright, wrote the words to Love Tractor's "I Broke My Saw." When originally released on 1988's Themes From Venus, it was after the instrumental rock band decided to add vocals to its jangly, surf-y New Wave sound. Seawright's melodic drawl — deeper than a shade of over-steeped tea — and similar sense of language was a perfect fit for the languid, yet catchy, Love Tractor. Mitch Easter's (Let's Active) extended mix, too long for the album's first vinyl pressing, has been uncovered for a reissue, adding a middle section that plays up Love Tractor's affection for doe-eyed '50s rock and roll.

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Think of your favorite pop song. Will it still be a crowd-pleaser 300 years from now? That's a question J.S. Bach probably never thought to ask when he presented his set of six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg in Berlin in March of 1721. These so-called Brandenburg Concertos have endured three centuries because of their sheer effervescent beauty and bold innovation. The opening movement of the Fifth Concerto, with its virtuoso harpsichord part, complete with a thrilling cadenza, is nothing less than a blueprint for the flamboyant Romantic piano concertos that would come 100 years later. These concertos have been recorded hundreds of times, but this new full throttle performance by Berlin's Akademie für Alte Musik sizzles with white hot intensity.

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Brooklyn-based R&B duo Cool Company — comprised of vocalist Yannick Hughes and producer Matt Fishman — sumptuously blends hip-hop, R&B, electronic, pop and funk. (Fishman is no stranger to NPR Music: he produced Linda Diaz's 2020 Tiny Desk Contest-winning entry "Green Tea Ice Cream.") Cool Company's sound is dynamic and playful — something you can dive right into. "Switch Lanes," from Bless You (out Sept. 17), is a bubbly song about a love triangle, complete with harmonies and high falsetto swagger. It reminds you to let go of what is not meant for you.

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"Outside," the opening track on Injury Reserve's new album By the Time I Get to Phoenix, sets the tone for a deeply claustrophobic, delightfully warped experimental hip-hop album. The six-minute song seems to have been beamed in from an alien dimension; listening feels as if your ear is pressed to a two-way mirror, as you attempt to make out something vaguely unsettling from the other side. Parker Corey's production stands out; a nightmarish soundscape hangs like a dark cloud — not only here, but on the album at large. It bobs and weaves through theremin-like synths and muted frequencies, and by the time a short synth melody crops up in the song's latter half, under heavy labored breathing, the urgency is clear.

Cynic's Paul Masvidal once somewhat jokingly described his band's music as "Rothko metal": "It's like this endless search for the perfect balance of deconstruction and layered complexity," he told NPR in 2011. Listening to this single from Cynic's first album in seven years, Ascension Codes — which follows drummer Sean Reinert's public split from the band in 2015, then his sudden death in 2020 — it's easy to hear subtle shades of translucent fusion, but also waves of grief.

In "Mythical Serpents," tremolo-picked riffs undulate with ambient synths and Matt Lynch's aerobic drumming, billowing but never blowing up the melody, as if to sit inside and meditate on the music. New member Dave Mackay doesn't replace the inimitable bass playing of Sean Malone (who also died in 2020), but he does reshape and reinforce Cynic's jazz background through keyboards that groove and glide. Exist's Max Phelps is credited with providing "holographic reptilian voices," but the track also welcomes back Masvidal's heavily processed coo. In its alien falsetto, it both softens and amplifies the pain.

This #NowPlaying discovery comes from today's episode of All Songs Considered.

Matador Records YouTube

Snail Mail's "Valentine" finds a pair of lovers at circumstantial odds: one followed by a spotlight, and the other on the threshold of departure. Through buzzing synths and rocking bass, the song dwells on this separation — between a servant and the lady of the house, as per its music video — hindered by an overwhelming desire to remain, to stay together regardless of the outcome: "As long as it's us two / F*** being remembered / I think I was made for you." Guitars crest and crash in the chaos of her heartbreak, trying to understand why she was left behind. She bargains her own destruction in service of her lover, swaying with the melody, waiting for the day to come: "You always know where to find me when you change your mind."

September 14

Cleo Sol, 'Spirit'

North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

Forever Living Originals YouTube

Cleo Sol may best be known for her vocal contributions to the mysterious and prolific neo-soul/funk band SAULT, but on Mother, her second solo record in the last two years, we truly get to know the artist and the scope of her ambition. It's an immense and personal record that comes to a conclusion with "Spirit," a song that leans heavily and wonderfully on gospel instrumentation and '70s soul production. Starting off with a simple arrangement of piano, drums and Sol's amazing voice, the track builds slowly into something grand and ecstatic, bringing to mind Minnie Riperton's psychedelic soul classic "Les Fleurs."

Run For Cover Records YouTube

Makthaverskan's music sounds like dreaming — not the blurry memory post-slumber, but the act itself. There's a spectral presence to the Swedish post-punk band; songs pull from the subconscious to make sense of reality through a haunting, yet gauzy, dream logic. Maja Milner's voice, once a force of King Diamond-like wailing, hasn't necessarily cooled, but tenders itself to the forlorn "This Time," a heartbroken lament from Makthaverskan's forthcoming För Allting. A drum machine-beat mingles with an organic kit as a jangly guitar melody bounces through misty synths, creating a liminal space to process loss: a spiraling nightmare of regret that is oh so pretty.

Dreamville/Interscope Records YouTube

Following the release of her highly-anticipated debut album, 2019's Shea Butter Baby, vocalist Ari Lennox has returned with another single, "Pressure" – a half-Motown, half-808s fantasia about being the center of attention during foreplay. Lennox's vocals slide over a bouncy, playful groove courtesy of a simple bass line sampled from Shirley Brown's 1977 single, "Blessed Is The Woman (With A Man Like Mine)." (Behind the fresh soundscape is R&B superteam The Ocean Boys, featuring producer Jermaine Dupri with songwriting titans Bryan-Michael Cox and Johnta Austin.) On "Pressure," the Dreamville Records signee elevates her status as a neo-soul touchstone, referencing the soul divas before her and leading the way for those to come with fearless, intoxicating charm.

Take This To Heart Records / Warner Music Group YouTube

Girl K's Kathy Patino likes to have fun. It's evident in her ability to infuse a somber ballad about leaving someone with the eager feeling of possibility. Whether or not the paths of star-crossed lovers ever merge again, the Chicago indie pop rocker — along with drummer Tony Mest, bassist Alex Pieczynski and guitarist Kevin Sheppard — has "Departures" to hold on to during the wait. Off Girl K's latest release, a six-song EP by the name of Girl K Is For The People from Take This To Heart Records, "Departures" draws strength through its resistance to stability; the EP's closing song never stays still, rippling and morphing through melancholic synth-soaked '80s melodies, rocking jam sessions and cooing vocal breakdowns.

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Is it me or has been a minute since Mastodon ripped? You know, tear-open-the-sky-and-scream-like-a-bionic-lizard rip. The frenetic push and pull of "Pushing the Tides" scratches that old itch for me, yet injects the three-minute song with lessons learned from the arena-sized rock and roll of the band's most recent albums. Riffs escalate and clang with a swaggering bombast, but are grounded by the soaring vocal hook from drummer Brann Dailor. As much as I've respected the forays into not-so-metal projects, this is the Mastodon that I've missed, so count me in for the upcoming double-album Hushed and Grim.

This #NowPlaying discovery comes to us from this year's Tiny Desk Contest and NPR Member station WFAE.

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Following a friend's encouragement to participate in the 2021 Tiny Desk Contest, Charlotte-based DALIA quickly put a plan together to submit its first original song for an entry. Now acting as the bilingual band's debut single, "No Volver a Sentir" (Spanish for "to not feel again") finds lead vocalist Dalia Razo addressing the overwhelming nature of human emotions and the wounds that occur from feeling too much all at once. With instrumental support from Tony Arreaza on guitar, Edgar Marcano on drums and Juan Pablo Chávez on bass, DALIA uses Latin alternative pop to embrace the vulnerability of emotional overload and encourage empathy therein.

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Recently Lana Del Rey seems to perform best when she keeps it simple. She's distanced herself from the aesthetic-driven persona (a dirty word for Del Rey, but a true one) of 2012's Born to Die with each passing record, and on her new single "Arcadia," she is not speaking of existential questions or relationship grandeur, but rather, holding the focus on herself. Her body is "a map of L.A.," her "chest is the Sierra Madre."

The song, from the upcoming Blue Banisters, evokes her two strongest left turns, 2017's Lust For Life and 2019's Norman F***ing Rockwell. She sings in perhaps her most mature tone yet, in front of strings and a muted horn line, taking her time as her lyrics carefully construct the very landscapes she describes. Lana is an artist who has been trying to situate herself firmly in the pantheon of Californian Americana, and on "Arcadia," she seems to connect fully with her desired ethos.

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It's fun when an artist turns what others have called out as flaws into elements of empowerment. The debut solo single from Chlöe – half of the Beyoncé-mentored, industry-beloved sister group Chloe x Halle – does just that. A pristine-voiced, technically brilliant ingenue who, at 23, is publicly evolving from sweet and neat adolescence into erotically expressive adulthood, Chloe Bailey has endured recent callouts for her online dance moves and unabashed booty positivity. "Have Mercy" puts her fully in charge of that Laffy Taffy with lyrics that have her flossing like a rapper ("It's on purpose, I'm doing it big") over a cleverly manipulated sample from the Jersey-to-Baltimore club hit "Girls Off the Chain."

The video for "Have Mercy" further proves what a good student Chlöe's always been. The latest entry in the current spate of '90s teen genre culture reference fests, it shows Chlöe, whose dance moves might cause Normani to sweat, presiding over a sorority house full of siren-like gorgons who – in a sweet flip of horrifically common frat party #metoo narratives – turn their slack-jawed lettermen boy toys to stone. House of Deréon matriarch Tina Knowles-Lawson cameos as an elder daemon, but the real presiding spirit here is Aaliyah, whose Queen of the Damned movie-star turn Chlöe respectfully and ardently invokes.

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#NowPlaying

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