#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
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Megan Thee Stallion has many dismissive modes, but she is often most effective as an intimidator. The Houston freestyler turned Grammy Award winner has maintained an air of presupposed superiority throughout her ascent, and when she uses her lashing lyricism to browbeat ill-wishers (both real and faceless) she reasserts her own star power.

On "Scary," an Avedon-produced standout from her new album Traumazine, she once again embraces presence as a means of intimidation, reimagining Swishahouse as a haunted house in the process. Alongside the ever-flippant Rico Nasty, she presses forward relentlessly like a slasher villain, embodying both connotations of a baddie, as both a heel and a confident, independent woman, each bar enunciated with bite. Rico, like Megan, is usually the alpha within the universe of her songs, but where her Texan compatriot plays the dominatrix, she is a taunter. "He talkin' on my name and we gon' dig a grave with you / Zombie-ass bitch, n**** gave me brain for dinner," Rico snaps. Playing with the horror theme, she zips through references to a little terror kingdom of her own making. As the song's spooky music-box chimes and Halloween synths build out a jam fit for slab music, two of rap's premier smack talkers find a demented glee in menacing those who might otherwise belittle them.

Relapse Records YouTube

You're on a desert highway at dusk, windows down with long locks whipping 'round the leather headrest. Endless pavement carves sand, but only an abandoned gas station and bleached skeletons break up the scenery. You barrel towards the unknown with little else besides a Big Gulp (caffeinated fuel) and a bottle of water (gotta stay hydrated) — oh, and the power of heavy metal. You need Randy Rhoads-era Ozzy, you need Dio-era Black Sabbath, you need Scorpions.

Sumerlands leans into heavy metal traditions with a big dang heart. The riff that girds "Edge of the Knife" not only wraps its claws around the moment of crisis, but hugs your neck in solidarity. As with other metal bands that look to the '80s (see: Haunt; High Spirits; Eternal Champion, with whom Sumerlands shares members), there's a battle jacket familiarity here: palm-muted chugging, copious-but-tasteful reverb, guitar solos that extend the melody and sky-high pipes. This is a high-impact power ballad with a heightened sense that every word may be your last.

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Vieux Farka Touré has been associated with "desert blues" ever since he released his self-titled debut in 2007, but he absorbs more styles than this Mali-meets-Mississippi-Delta moniker suggests. Enter Khruangbin, the Texas trio whose sonic alchemy starts with a base of soul and R&B, then adds styles from locales like Thailand, India and Iran to make for a spellbinding musical brew.

Together, they pay tribute to Vieux's father, the late Ali Farka Touré, in the collection simply titled Ali (out Sept. 23). "Savanne" is their first offering, a loping, labyrinthine fusion of dub, blues and Malian grooves. Vieux's vocals, sung in French, add to the simmering, hypnotic effect of the music. Even when translated, lines like "I left my country and my Louisiana / But in other countries, goodbye Savanne" portray a scene of being lost in a parched, strange land while thirsting after the illusion of water in the distance.

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An ode to the heroine spirit braving a man's world, "Dog Eat Dog" by Tommy Lefroy is a confrontation of masculine power structures and the constrictive hierarchies they impose. Featuring garage-grunge flair and layered vocal harmonies, the track is a rallying cry for those who have been made to feel guarded in their otherness. The song unpacks this feeling through medieval imagery in its lyrics and video, conjuring shields, armors and arenas: "​​Looking around the arena / Thinking I'm just like you / But a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do."

The duo — who fittingly adopted its moniker from a real-life love interest of Jane Austen — subverts gender norms in the track, playing with notions of masculinity — the access it offers and the doors closed when you seem to lack it – ultimately aiming to reclaim power in the members' womanhood and queerness.

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Rival Schools' 2001 debut United By Fate was high-definition rock music made by New York hardcore vets. The album's combination of glossy production and gritty songwriting wasn't new, per se, but the band — led by Walter Schreifels and featuring members of Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand, CIV and Youth of Today — brought more experience than most major label grabs from young punk scenes. In an effects-driven panoply that wasn't emo, hardcore or indie rock, Rival Schools offered another way into stadium-slammed riffs sourced from underground sounds.

That's what makes this acoustic version of "Holding Sand," from a deluxe edition of United By Fate out Oct. 28, such an unexpected flip on Rival Schools. In the original, sampled drums from My Bloody Valentine's "Soon" gave the track's anthemic thud a breakbeat edge straight out of The Prodigy's playbook. But here, Schreifels, who's regularly made a habit out of presaging punk's next moves since the early '90s, proves his songwriting mettle by going solo. Stripped down but strummed urgently, "Holding Sand" reveals something like Alice in Chains' MTV Unplugged performance: turning the sour into something soulful, but still heavy.

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There's nothing like getting compared to your idols. "Celine," from Quinn Christopherson's forthcoming debut album, is a song about measuring up to your heroes — but rather than a tribute to the beloved Canadian diva, the track is actually a touching ode to Christopherson's mother. In particular, "Celine" is about one especially memorable karaoke experience she had. "You came back so proud," Christopherson sings, then quotes his mom after she'd received the ultimate compliment on her performance: "'They said I sounded just like Celine.'"

Many of Christopherson's best songs focus on tiny, shared moments with his family, and he describes them with an impressive depth of tenderness and care. Here, he's watching his mom do her makeup in the mirror before she heads out; even if she's going to a "little hole in the wall," as he describes it, you get the sense that this matters to her, and so it matters to Christopherson, too. As he lists these details in the verses over minimal production, his voice is delicate and restrained — but once he invokes Celine at the chorus, his singing radiates joy. There are layers to that happiness: more than just being proud of his mom, you can hear him showing off that he, too, has learned how good it feels to give it your all behind the mic. He learned it from the best.

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Since 2005, the Imaginational Anthem series has uplifted young talent and uprooted lesser-known vets who primarily perform solo guitar. For the 11th volume dubbed Chrome Universal, Nashville's Luke Schneider curates beyond the acoustic guitar to feature nine pedal steel artists who work across country, folk, ambient and improvised music. "I think it's an instrument that begs to be used texturally," the artist Chuck Johnson told NPR in 2020, "and outside the way it was originally designed to be used."

Maggie Björklund is a Danish pedal steel guitarist who spent the '90s with the country band Darleens, and has studio credits on albums by Jack White and Giant Sand. It's her contribution, "Lysglimt," that truly stokes the imagination's fire. What begins low and slow, drawing dusky blues across a glowing sky, transforms her pedal steel into a throbbing, industrial instrument by pitting staccato feedback against a mourning melody. The effect is reminiscent of Daniel Lanois' own dubbed-out experiments, but Björklund gathers the pedal steel's dust like stars worth preserving.

These days, it can feel like an achievement to just make it through the day; arriving at the weekend, a little victory. Vacillating between wanting a diversion and needing to feel present has become a familiar rhythm. Friendship frontman Dan Wriggins lays out this modern way of living in "St. Bonaventure," a languid country tune with slide guitars stretching off into the horizon a long way, like the distance from Monday to Friday. Checking out by learning animal facts from nature show episodes feels like a necessary distraction from the world, but then, just experiencing life in the moment has an urgency underneath, a rush to not let go too much: "Meant to write down / What I was feeling in the moment / Thinking, 'Man, you better get it just like it was / Or else you're gonna forget it,' " Wriggins tells himself. A local cathedral's demolition looms, an unforeseen event missed by phone-assisted musing. Friendship's sweeping alt-country shows us the way of staying afloat through daily life, steady in its discovery and uncertainty.

Attacca Quartet and Caroline Shaw / Nonesuch YouTube

Have you ever fallen through a musical trap door? This piece contains a few of them, along with other compositional entanglements, according to its composer, the Pulitzer-winning Caroline Shaw. Part of her inspiration, she says in the notes to her forthcoming album of string quartet music, is the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where God scattered the peoples and confused their languages.

Here, Shaw's musical language begins with a sprightly tune, but soon splits off into "tumbling fragments and unexpected repetitive tunnels." No matter. While this eight-minute funhouse might be tricky to play for the cunning Attacca Quartet (this is the band's second Shaw album), it's easy on the ears. As you move through the maze, look out for lyrical solos, feverous cresting waves, moments of shimmering repose and perhaps a nod to Beethoven. At the end, we find a raw, slippery chord that slides through one more trap door.

Dora Jar YouTube

Don't expect a Dora Jar love song to sound like anything less than a riddle of Carrollian proportions. The 24-year-old artist – who has only a couple of EPs to her name but also a spot on Billie Eilish's tour – possesses a fun, surrealist streak for describing her somewhat pained affections: "My heart is a crustacean, could you come and crack it open?" she cooed in her song "Lagoon" from earlier this year. Her maximalist pop songs swoon with theatrical whimsy, their gushing, hyperactive choruses laced with bits of nursery rhyme and rapped nonsense.

Her latest, the bright "Bumblebee," joins her canon of romantic absurdity. "Obviously, you're already over me," she begins over sunny, samba-evoking guitar and percussion. "So I'll become a bumblebee." It's the sort of song, with its twee, "Ring Around the Rosie"-quoting chorus, that might not work if it weren't for Jar selling her larger-than-life, psychedelic pop vision with such undeniable magnetism. "I'm in love with everyone," she confesses. For most, that'd be a curse. For Dora Jar, it's her superpower.

Eli Winter fell in love with fingerstyle guitar while watching Steve Gunn's Tiny Desk concert, sending him down a path trod by the late guitarists Jack Rose and Michael Chapman. Ever since, the Chicago-based guitarist has released promising solo and duo records indebted to these forebears. Winter's forthcoming self-titled album, however, clears the briars and rose petals of history to make his own — by, somewhat paradoxically, stepping back.

"Davening in Threes" begins as brisk, countryside choogle, churned by Tyler Damon's drums, electric guitarist Cameron Knowler's nuanced countermelody and Sam Wagster's bright pedal steel ornamentation. Winter matches the band with a jubilant melody fingerpicked on acoustic, getting off a few dazzling licks, but never showing off. A little over two minutes in, Yasmin Williams sprinkles some harmonics, but the brief respite only spurs Winter and Co. into a 6/8 ramble that kicks up some serious dust. Like old friends shootin' the breeze, it's a musical conversation that takes a breath, but roars back with laughter.

August 2

Plains, 'Problem With It'

North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

Plains / ANTI- Records YouTube

Last week, two songwriters — Jess Williamson and Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield — announced I Walked With You A Ways, their debut and also allegedly swan song under the moniker Plains. "Problem With It" is the lead single and it's a stunner. Produced by Crutchfield's recent collaborator Brad Cook and backed by a band consisting of Phil Cook and Spencer Tweedy, Crutchfield and Williamson have said the song was inspired by the country music both artists were raised on. It's a breakup song, sung with conviction, especially on the chorus, as the song builds and the duo harmonizes, "If it's all you got, yeah, it's all you gave / I got a problem with it." With driving electric and acoustic guitars, "Problem With It" is the type of song built for road trips — it's meant to be turned up loud and will have you singing along before it's over.

Nick Leng / SOTA Records YouTube

If the sun is out when you are listening to this song for the first time, hit pause. Spirals, Nick Leng's sophomore record (and this track in particular), is best enjoyed staring out of a window at twilight as the sky begins to change — it's the best way to appreciate the transition between the plaintive piano on "Morning" and the gloomy kick drum heartbeat on "Midnight." These tracks have the frantic energy and deep loneliness of Radiohead circa Kid A; Leng takes the unease of that pioneering era of rock and runs with it.

It's no wonder, then, that when he begs, "Don't leave, baby, I'm a reasonable guy," you don't believe him and can't quite put a finger on why. It's the same reason you sound hollow saying "I'm fine," when that couldn't be further than the truth. Leng sees that deep distress and sings through it with an immense talent for transmuting heartbreak into a cathartic climax. Sit through the ripping instrumental breakdown on "Midnight" on a bad day and you might find your heart's bleeding staunched, padded up with gauze — even though the song resolves not with a grand resolution on suffering but with the strength to start again, on "Monday when the morning's bright." That'll do, at least for now.

Cakes Da Killa / Ingrooves YouTube

While it seems like we're in a world-is-over-let's-party revival (see: Bey's Renaissance), there's been a hip-hop and house crossover building for decades that deserves recognition. And what better to serve at an apocalypse party than a variety platter of authentic bars and beats that delight? Enter "Drugs Du Jour," the latest single from queer hip-hop innovator Cakes da Killa. At the forefront of New York's house-rap scene since 2011, the introspective Cakes toes the line between bounce and thought. And as for the growing visibility of a sound he helped craft? He questions listeners and artists alike, asking: "Do you really speak the language? Do you know what you're here for? Can you see the things that they ignore?"

Palm / Saddle Creek YouTube

Palm's inventive art rock is dizzying, unpredictable and, especially in its live incarnation, occasionally transcendent – in the band's best moments, it makes discordance sound sublime. "Feathers," Palm' first new track in 4 years and the first single from its forthcoming record Nicks and Grazes, is a promising return for the Philly group: off-kilter and restless, but cleverly reined-in just before devolving into chaos. In a press release, bassist Gerassimos Livitsanos calls the track an "undanceable dance song," and its lyrics could almost be mistaken for a creative statement of purpose for the group: "I don't wanna be a passenger," guitarist Eve Alpert sings, "Imma make it up as I go." The impulse suits Palm just fine.

Krill / Redeye Worldwide YouTube

By the time Krill broke up in 2015, its grungy rock songs — careening and claustrophobic, anxious and self-deprecating yet slyly philosophical — had become the stuff of legend in the tight-knit Boston indie-rock scene. On the band's very first record, Alam No Hris, you can hear the seeds of the sound Krill would perfect over the course of its too-short run, though you can't currently find those tracks on streaming services. That's soon to change: Today, the band has announced a remastered 10-year anniversary reissue of the album coming out next month, alongside the album's first pressing on vinyl later this year. (In the meantime, though, you can hear the original release on Bandcamp.)

"Solitaire," a fan favorite from Alam No Hris, is proof of the band's early knack for making a song about malaise feel nearly anthemic; it highlights songwriter Jonah Furman's strength in crafting songs about the tiny personal anxieties that can often feel so big they blot out the sun. But it's also a song about how great music can be a weapon against all that stress. After musing over a broken heart and low self-esteem as the band alternately thrashes and retreats, Furman admits he knows just the thing to turn it all around: "I can be in a bad mood / everyday all day," he sings, "Put on some Arthur Russell, see how fast I change / It's embarrassing." If it's embarrassing, it's a shame many of us share; I wouldn't be the first to say a Krill song has done the same for me.

Charley Crockett / The Orchard Enterprises YouTube

Charley Crockett leans into his R&B influences on "I'm Just A Clown," the first single from his newly announced album The Man From Waco. That album marks Crockett's first time recording in the studio with his live band, The Blue Drifters — and on a casual listen, you might assume this music came from Memphis or Muscle Shoals in the early '70s. Punchy horns help drive the chorus of "I'm Just A Clown" as Crockett sings the story of a sad clown, a timeless metaphor that Crockett's laidback and convincing drawl gives new life. Reminiscent of early crossover artists like Charlie Rich and Ray Charles, "I'm Just A Clown" feels like a step forward for the prolific Crockett, and one that might help him cross over to a larger audience.

Flo Milli / SME Records YouTube

If there were any lingering suspicions or questions about Flo Milli's vision, lyrical ability or prowess, You Still Here, Ho? is the response to shut them all down. It takes an OG to make an OG and from the top, Flo enlists the help of none other than Tiffany Pollard, the undeniable HBIC of reality television, to help set the tone in the album's introduction. This makes sense as you take in Flo's infectious confidence on "Bed Time."

Produced by Young Fyre, "Bed Time" is an unapologetic proclamation to any hater or critic looking to intimidate her. She knows the game and is unshaken by naysayers as she calls them out: "Made a mill' at 20 years old, you never would guess it / How you hatin' and you dead broke, that s*** is depressin'." Over a beat that recalls Pussycat Dolls' "Buttons," Flo Milli displays her Y2K upbringing with flair.

If you did not know already, "Bed Time'' serves as your reminder that Flo Milli is in her own lane. Do not be fooled or disarmed by her girly aesthetics, consistently viral TikToks or "mean girl" bars. Flo Milli is as intentional as she is incisive, and more than aware of what she is capable of.

Jessie Ware / Universal Music Group YouTube

"Free Yourself" is the soundtrack of the best party you'll find this summer. If you're running in the right circles, you might even spot Jessie Ware there. This track is all sequins, with an ABBA-meets-Jellybean type of sparkle to it. When you hear the pounding, rhythmic keys, you might be inspired to, perhaps, bob your head or shake a leg. But when you arrive at that scientifically precise dance breakdown in the last third of the song? That's when you're bound to boogie.

If you're wondering why "Free Yourself" sounds like pop perfection, you can at least partially credit fellow Brit Dua Lipa, who produced the track with Ware and knows a little something about making music for our pandemic nu-disco era. There's something about disco that feels primed to punctuate our present moment as we crawl in and out of quarantine, from COVID infection to re-infection. Perhaps that's because we all need dance floors – in our bedrooms or otherwise – to shake off the strictures of the world. "Free Yourself" suits these times perfectly, whether you're out and about or home in your pajamas.

Johnny Gandelsman / Music Video Distributors, Inc. YouTube

Countless musicians have cut songs and albums in response to the treacherous past few years, but few have created a body of work as profound and engaging as violinist Johnny Gandelsman. He commissioned 22 new works for violin, asking a broad range of composers to focus on 2020, the year that gave us the COVID-19 pandemic, a steep rise in racist violence and an increasingly polarized nation. He calls the new triple album This is America.

Clarice Assad's O, scored for violin and electronics, stands for oxygen – or lack of it, to be precise. Oxygen that was needed by nearly 400,000 Americans who died in 2020, gasping for breath from the coronavirus, and oxygen George Floyd was deprived of as he pleaded, "I can't breathe." Assad herself said, in the booklet notes, that she experienced panic attacks that year, feeling a "sense of entrapment in my own body."

Still, there's an airy – and dare I say hopeful – quality to the music. Gandelsman's fiddle soars and swerves around Assad's diaphanous vocals, lifting the piece above that dark, deadly year and into the light.

Sour Widows / Exploding In Sound Records YouTube

Sour Widows writes songs that match sprawl with sweetness, its soothing vocal harmonies and interlaced guitar riffs often building to dramatic climaxes. The Bay Area trio's latest single follows this path: "Witness" starts off languid and pensive before the desperation ratchets up, its beautifully tangled guitars turning menacing. Songwriter Susanna Thomson says "Witness" is about "monumental loss," and how it can create "a very clear divide between those in your life who can understand the depth of that kind of pain and those who can't" — it's the first song the band finished since the death of Thomson's mother. "I can't show you / How to reach through / To the feeling," the band sings at the song's climax, alluding to that chasm, "It would kill you." But after this catharsis, the song reconsiders its position. After a brief pause, the tempo slows and the tension recedes. "The moments repeat / And feedback into and endlessly," the band sings, the members' voices overlapping. It sounds like the supportive presence of an understanding friend, or maybe just a cycle through a new stage of grief.

If Ruston Kelly can call himself "dirt emo," then Big Rig's got a decent claim on country music's twee cousin "twangmo." Big Rig is Jen Twynn Payne, drummer/singer in The Courtneys. After the bubblegummy rock trio finished its third, still-unreleased album just before the pandemic, Payne taught herself the guitar and found a new musical partner in banjo picker Geoffo Reith. Her songs as Big Rig are short and sad, but lope along with a punky, clipped rhythm like you might expect from an emo kid raised on Elliott Smith and early Wilco. With the evocatively titled "Crying in a Corn Maze," Big Rig turns the tear-in-my-beer trope into a one-inch button affixed just-so to a denim jacket pulled tighter.

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