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

Today's essential songs, picked by NPR Music and NPR Member stations
Tender Loving Empire YouTube

"Dibujos de Mi Alma," the lead single from experimental folk band Y La Bamba's upcoming album, Lucha, captures how it feels to yearn for someone while trying to avoid the pitfalls of toxic love. Lead vocalist and producer Luz Elena Mendoza Ramos offers a glimpse into her soul, singing in a whispery tone that conjures a long-lost lover's type of despair: "Tanto tiempo sin hablar contigo / Sin saber de tu bienestar / Extraño la manera cuando andabas conmigo" ("So much time without speaking to you / Without knowing how you have been / Missing the way you walked with me"). Her words float over lucid guitar and whirling synth, backed by a conga beat and punctuated with buoyant trumpet and reverberating sighs. The track builds into a disorienting wash of delay, blending romance with feelings of dissociation and loneliness, until the lyrics resolve the story in an ambivalent place: "Se ven como se ven."

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"If we drink ourselves to death, would you know how much you mean to me?" songwriter Nick Carpenter asks tenderly in the chorus of "Especially Me." It's a sobering question — but it's apt for the Alaska-based songwriter, who performs as Medium Build and who takes his friendships seriously. Carpenter describes his relationships with three different friends in the song, recounting the bonds their shared loneliness created, the ways they'd pass the time doing drugs in a parking lot or dancing on a back porch. Sweetly enough, Carpenter said on Instagram that the first verse is about going on tour with Quinn Christopherson (who won the 2019 Tiny Desk Contest) — and Christopherson's "Take Your Time" was written in response to "Especially Me." The embellished production that characterizes much of Medium Build's music washes away here, leaving listeners with Carpenter's vivid storytelling, steady voice and a gentle reminder: Tell your friends you love them.

Sub Pop YouTube

King Tuff's Kyle Thomas gave himself license to be weird on his latest album. He also recognized that filling your band's ranks with a calvary of women only makes it better; housemate and connoisseur of didn't-think-that-was-going-to-work rock mishmash SASAMI co-writes, co-produces and harmonizes across the board on Smalltown Stardust.

The album's beating heart is Thomas' love for his hometown of Brattleboro, Vt., set alight on the foot-tapping deep cut, "Rock River." With guitar lines that race and tumble like water over rocks in the song's eponymous river, King Tuff conjures a season spent enveloped in foliage, skinny-dipping and staying up late laughing with friends. One can imagine an old boombox planted on the silty bank and hot to the touch, dialed in on an oldies station; "Rock River" sounds like Creedence Clearwater Revival filtered through a memory, as if you rewrote your own story on top. Sometimes you're looking for corny in your life; King Tuff makes it sound like summer sun in a song.

The Norwegian singer-songwriter Siv Jakobsen has always had a knack for amiable storytelling, but her pretty, plainspoken singing is deceptive across "Blue." A highlight from her new album Gardening, it has a stunning arrangement of brass, harp and strings — the sort of atmospheric bliss you could spend an afternoon luxuriating in. In reality, Jakobsen is revealing how an abusive relationship can slowly and suddenly feel inescapable. When speaking as the man, her soft voice highlights the manipulativeness of his excuses ("I didn't mean to lose my cool / I didn't mean for my fist to leave you blue"). When she takes on the role of a narrator, she sounds like a mother imparting wisdom to her child via bedtime story. But there's no chance for the victim to speak, and that absence weighs heavily throughout "Blue." The subtext is clear: Abusers silence others to maintain control, to make harrowing situations seem normal. The cognitive dissonance that arises when hearing Jakobsen's dark lyrics and beautiful instrumentation is stark and excruciating.

Rough Trade YouTube

In her incantatory masterpiece A Ghost in the Throat, the Irish writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa unearths the spirit of Eibhlin Dubh Ní Chonaill, who wrote the famous 18th century lament "The Keen for Art ó Laoghaire." In it, Eibhlin Dubh mourns her husband, murdered on a country road; its preternatural fierceness has made it an immortal text. Ni Ghriofa loves the poem and is determined to put flesh back on its author's bones. At one point she stands before the decrepit crypt of Eibhlin Dubh's mother, also a ferocious matriarch, shouting her name, Maíre; she wonders if her own keening for this ancestor might reanimate her. The wind through a glassless window "rises to lash my hair against my cheek, sharp as a slap." In that moment the wall between the living and dead crumbles, as it does so often in people's hearts.

This scene came to my mind when I first heard the Irish experimental folk band Lankum's version of the traditional song "Go Dig My Grave." It's not a keen (in Irish, caoineadh) but a suicide ballad that's connected to more familiar songs like "Barbara Allen"; the best known earlier recording is by Appalachian legend Jean Ritchie, who rides it like a locomotive going over a cliff. Lankum slows the tempo to a dirge as singer Radie Peat enunciates every syllable — this time, every word of the woman who hung herself for lost love will be heard and be judged sane. Layer upon layer of drones surface like water weeds behind Peat's clear delivery; then the words fall away and the din continues for four more minutes. Peadar Gill's stunning video shows hands entwined with rope and ghosts, played by Peat's band members, silent in their vigil. The images disturb; the sound is like little in folk music, closer to the Velvet Underground's "The Black Angel's Death Song." The gale force of a stirring afterlife echoes through the song, and that old reason for keening — to reveal the miracle of grief, that it can bridge death's barrier, if only for the span of a mourner's cry — is revealed.

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In music, very few people can really be loners. Crew, champions, influences, fans, peers: These connections lift strivers beyond their own bedroom dreams and create the context in which music becomes audible. Zach Bryan has risen rapidly in the roots/country/Americana realm, in part, by presenting himself as a relatively solitary self-made man: Standing alone in front of increasingly huge crowds, he sings his raw, red-dirt ballads in a voice that feels unfiltered. But his exercises in immediacy still reflect the work of others — including the powerful cohort of women singer-songwriters who've been refreshing the form using his favorite strategies: immediacy, vulnerability and maverick attitude.

That's why it's great to hear Bryan duet with Maggie Rogers, one of those daring women, on his new single "Dawns." The addition of a woman's voice allows the duo to play with perspective and, in doing so, refresh the template of Bryan's laments. Again he stands on an ex's front porch, somewhat angrily begging that she return his stuff and his dignity; that scenario expands to include a memory of a mother to whom he can't run because "I lost her last July in a heart attack." So far, affecting but standard masculine heartbreak. Bryan's vocal, particularly rough-edged, amplifies the story's howling pain.

But then Rogers enters the picture. Her verse flips the song's angle and cleverly changes the meaning of its hook. In her words about missing "going out to bars, shooting stars and not worrying about what's left of us," Rogers reveals that one person's ideal romance can be another's cage. When he sings, "Give me my dawns back," he's longing for intimacy, but in her mouth the phrase signals the confinement she felt in those close quarters. There's no reconciliation as the song ends, but their voices intertwine in the end — two loners not forgetting that the one they once turned to will always remain in the rear view.

drink sum wtr YouTube

Alongside the announcement of his sophomore album adultSW!M, Queens-raised rapper deem spencer, drops an introspective new single, "27" featuring singer DaVionne, that vulnerably depicts the heartache of loss and the power of living fully and making it to the age of 27.

In the track he floats from one bar to the next, unbottling the feelings that come with being young and facing an uncertain but boundless future. A steady beat, warping guitar and scattered reverberations bubble into ambient mediation as deem reconciles the loss of his grandfather with his own mortality, as he approaches the foreboding age of the song's title. (It's an age at which many preeminent artists have died, including Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, a group morbidly referred to as The 27 Club.) But the listener can be spiritually stimulated through deem's lyricism, "Ima be back in the form of an ever-flowin river / All facts / I believe in a God and a Goddess / If anybody asks / Comma fall fast / When I'm involved less / I'm what God blessed."

XL Recordings YouTube

In Britain in the late 2000s, Tom Russell and his brother Ed were still forging their identities as dance-music producers — it wasn't until the following decade that they really found themselves: Tom would work in prismatic industrial modes, while Ed found himself part of the thriving post-dubstep scene known as U.K. bass. The pair eventually joined forces as Overmono, bearing the same name as one of Tom's early songs, and ever since have been tinkering with and building on their country's rich history of dance music.

Ahead of a debut album, Good Lies, out on May 12 via XL, the Russells have delivered an unassailable scorcher with "Is U" — like their hit "So U Kno," it has the makings of a classic. The vocal sample is addictive, its skittering 2-step beat nimble but tough, while layered synths suffuse everything with dynamic energy. Vocals come courtesy of English singer-songwriter Tirzah, whose contributions are dragged through a series of reverberating synth pulses, some bright, others moody — but the overarching effect is that of transformation. Her homespun confessional suddenly becomes an assertive declaration of longing; "All I want is you," goes the refrain. As the bass rumbles underneath, the pangs of desire become unmistakably physical.

Anti- YouTube

How many hundred-plus-year-old pieces of technology still have songs written about them today? No matter how fast the world progresses and expands, or how many times the device's whole design changes, the telephone call, with all its immediacy and intimacy, is still as fruitful and rich a songwriting subject as it's always been. Andy Shauf mines that one-on-one connection (or lack thereof) in "Telephone," a yearning ode to communicating.

Shauf brings us into the mind of his subject, a caller dreaming of the days they'd listen endlessly to the musings and updates on the other line, now a lost contact. Are they missing an old flame? A faded friend? We're left to wonder among piano plinks, dial-tone clarinet hums and searching synthesizer lines, a new addition to Shauf's sound palette. Our lone dialer counts days and recalls memories since the last time they heard the voice they're seeking through the receiver, longing to listen again, if only the wires or satellites could transmit a gentle plea: "Pick up your telephone."

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If you're not hip to U.K. born Nigerian-Jamaican artist Kasien, his latest EP, FOLLOW ME, will have you trying to keep up — track after track, bar after bar. His lyrical conviction is contagious, revitalizing the listener through a robust global soundscape. Kasien is the life coach we didn't know we needed, rapping, "See no limits like Bezos, like Musk, you know / I'm an Afrikan Rebel like Pa, you know / Don't give up, I don't care if I'm last / Got too much trauma in my past to fuss, you know."

Opening with a solitary bark, "BREATHE (SLOW IT DOWN)" feels like an anthem for 2023, a retribution for the time we've lost. The beat is kinesthetic, making the listener chase after each buzzing chord progression as the track swerves and pulses. It is a track for late night drives, high intensity workouts and absolute ragers. Kasien structures the industrial sounds that are the basis for hyper-pop in a rhythmic, Afrobeat-like tempo, intersecting UK drill with a Southern trap style to produce an original flow. But ironically the track is fleeting, its energy lasting not much more than a minute — barely enough time to breathe it all in

JYP Entertainment YouTube

TWICE has always had traces of Atlanta bass in its DNA, but the K-pop girl group fully embraces the regional style on "MOONLIGHT SUNRISE," a new English-language single. Glossy synths and warbled vocals begin the track with a beguiling charm, and then singer Sana arrives to capitalize on the hypnotic mood: "I guarantee I got ya." Such confidence is the prevailing spirit here, with every thwacking kick a sign of TWICE's insistence. The members sing as if on a mission — they want this relationship to move faster — and so when the beat slows down, it becomes a chance to reveal vulnerable confessions.

Given K-pop's history of cribbing from Atlanta bass, "MOONLIGHT SUNRISE" stands out for sounding like its most faithful interpretation (notably, it was co-written by members of American girl group Citizen Queen). It's also one of the most thrilling English songs from a K-pop group ever. Other attempts often sound trite, reducing Korean acts to their most simplistic or mind-numbingly banal. As on their previous single "The Feels," TWICE sounds comfortable in this different register, bringing the bubbly infatuation and poised assurance of past works into a straightforward genre exercise. "This feeling's so hard to explain," sings Chaeyoung. Luckily, TWICE has always been masters at translating the feverish ecstasy of crushing hard.

Interscope YouTube

Julien Baker wanted one particular thing for her trio with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus: more sick riffs. (See also: "Salt in the Wound.") The riffs she delivered on "$20," a new track from boygenius' forthcoming album, are propulsive and muscular, while the lyrics tend toward classic Baker themes: self-destructive tendencies, messy relationships, reaching your breaking point. But it's still unmistakably a boygenius song; Baker's delivery is buoyed by Bridgers' and Dacus' harmonies. You can picture the three songwriters in the studio headbanging in solidarity between takes — especially in the song's back half, where each voice emerges as distinct.

But often the magic of boygenius is the way its songs don't force the three songwriters to conform to a single vision, but synthesizes their strengths and draws meaning out of those multiple points of view. When that approach shows up across "$20" — as Dacus croons, Bridgers screams and Baker shreds — it gives the song a wonderfully chaotic, multifaceted character, like hearing your best and worst impulses battle it out in your internal monologue and coming away better for it.

College radio lives in its own world. When I was a music director at WUOG in Athens, Ga., we paid attention to and sent in charts, kept up with blogs and read magazines, but for the most part we made our own proclamations about what music we'd play. Beauty Pill's The Unsustainable Lifestyle hit heavy rotation in 2004 and didn't really leave our airwaves. To our DJs, Beauty Pill was on to something fiercely, intricately unique: punkish indie-rock invested in unconventional hooks, slanted electronics and Brian Eno-level production.

So imagine my shock when, years later, I discovered not everyone felt the same way. The Unsustainable Lifestyle was panned by high-level publications; primary songwriter Chad Clark says people told him the album "was a mistake." He wouldn't release another until 2015's remarkable Describes Things As They Are.

Blue Period — which collects The Unsustainable Lifestyle, the You Are Right to Be Afraid EP and unreleased outtakes and demos — feels like justice for Beauty Pill. "Such Large Portions!" appeared on that debut album and was, by far, WUOG's most played song for months. It's not hard to hear why: Nothing's obvious, yet every sound sticks out. That whammy-bar riff — reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine, minus the noise — presaged the pedal-board revival by a good decade. Bouncing off a wash of aqueous dub, the drumming stutters and breathes in the verses. In a bossa nova sotto voce, Rachel Burke smirks as she sings Clark's darkly funny turns of phrase ("The food is poison here, you can't eat it / But in such large portions!"). A light touch of Fender Rhodes adds some electric Miles cool. Nothing sounded like it then, or since.

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Some singers train their voices to wrap around whatever trend is hot at the moment. Others build a vintage vibe. Rickie Lee Jones' voice, cultivated over a 45-year recording career, is its own thing. Her singing feels so immediate, so in-your-ear emotional, that it can encapsulate many eras while transcending such boundaries altogether.

Having released countless unforgettable original songs and inventive, award-winning covers, Jones finally turns to the jazz standards she's loved since childhood on Pieces of Treasure, out April 28. Reuniting with Russ Titelman, who produced her first two classic albums, Jones applies her deep understanding of jazz craft to these songs while rendering them as fresh as a hello (or, in the sad ones, goodbye) kiss from a close friend. Recorded in just a few days with a small band and only a few guests — here the legendary vibraphonist Mike Mainieri provides an easy-stepping counterpart to Jones's floating vocal — Pieces of Treasure has a live feel that supercharges its intimacy.

Her laid-back yet meticulous artistry comes through in this version of the Styne-Comden-Green song "Just in Time," previously rendered in jaunty colors by the likes of Dean Martin, Judy Garland and Nina Simone. In her version, Jones lets the sun shine in, but she maintains a pensive undertone as she offers the realistic perspective of someone who's been around a few blocks. "When we were recording, this other woman stepped up to the microphone and started to sing," Jones has said of her take. "It was as if she were waiting for me to turn 69 to make herself known."

Happy to meet you, new Rickie Lee — as great as all the ones who've come before.

Interscope YouTube

Emily is a name destined to come alive in song. Its sonorous syllables have fallen from the tongues of Frank Sinatra, Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett and Art Garfunkel, to name just a few; the name invokes dreaminess, whether the reverie is happy, paranoid or psychedelically dissociative. In this beautifully elliptical ballad, songwriter Phoebe Bridgers claims the name for sorrow as she and her musical siblings in boygenius spin out a story of the kind of love that gets you lost and keeps you that way.

"She's asleep in the front seat lookin' peaceful," the lyric begins over a propulsive guitar strum, but this trip soon turns perilous, with the song's namesake sharing a dream of "screeching tires and fire." Inhabiting the persona of a lover in way over her head, Bridgers plays out the car crash metaphor as she describes herself a "wide awake, spiraling," unable to remove herself from a wreck that still feels like the only relationship for her.

When the voices of Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker come in on the song's chorus, providing a countermelody that pings against Bridgers' breathy lead and only sometimes resolves into one harmony line, "Emily I'm Sorry" fully captures that feeling of being both carried forward and entrapped by love. As the verses wear on amid dreams of stability that feel both hopeful and regretful, a flanged guitar expands the sensation of an inner monologue wildly unspooling. "I'm 27 and I don't know who I am, but I know what I want," Bridgers sings, doubling down on desire even though she knows it will never lead to real satisfaction. In a way, this song captures the long day after the dreamy scenario of Simon and Garfunkel's "For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her," a dream in which a man conjures his ideal woman, too good to be true. This Emily is real, a problem as well as an irresistible pull, and waking up is the hardest part.

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Illuminated by flashing images of hip-hop legends Pop Smoke, Mac Miller, DMX, Drakeo the Ruler and others, A$AP Rocky dedicated "Same Problems?" to "everybody we've lost and anybody who ever lost somebody" last month in a compelling performance. Now available as a studio track, it serves as a solemn introduction to A$AP Rocky's upcoming album Don't Be Dumb.

Floating on a euphoric synth like smoke on water, A$AP Rocky pulls us into a reverberating hook and a rich bass line. The angelic sigh of vocal harmonies melt off the tip of Rocky's icy rhymes — his words are strung together like crystals sending chills up the listener's spine. Built on an interpolation of Kid Cudi's introspective "Day 'N' Night (Nightmare)," the track features scattered voices that respond to Rocky's call: "How many problems get solved? Am I a product of things in my songs? / How many problems get solved? Am I a product of all of my flaws? How many problems get solved? (If we don't get involved)."

Interscope YouTube

Indie-rock supergroup boygenius — featuring Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus — can be seen as a labor of love. The artists became friends through mutual admiration of each other's work, which can be heard through their thoughtful accompaniments. The trio comes back with the record, out March 31, and three singles that highlight each member's unique, yet interwoven style: "$20," "Emily I'm Sorry" and "True Blue."

"True Blue" tracks a loyal love, one where someone else knows you better than you know yourself. One of Dacus' greatest strengths as a songwriter is how she demonstrates her connections with others through specific moments and feelings: a sweaty upper lip, freezing Chicago weather and the vulnerability of sharing yourself with another person. Baker and Bridgers support Dacus in both vocals and production with care and attention. "It feels good to be known so well" is a sentiment shared in "True Blue" to a friend or partner, but perhaps the same can be said about her bandmates.

Dead Oceans YouTube

How long into a relationship before you start telling the really embarrassing stuff? "We always started by tellin' all our best stories first," Karly Hartzman sings at the opening of Wednesday's new single, "Chosen to Deserve." But "now that it's been awhile," she's ready to recount the less savory memories: tales of skipping class and sneaking around, of drinking too much and watching her friends trip on Benadryl hard enough to warrant a hospital visit. Hartzman says that she wrote "Chosen to Deserve" — released alongside the announcement of Wednesday's forthcoming album, Rat Saw God — as an homage to Drive-By Truckers' "Let There Be Rock," but with Hartzman's own "experiences from growing up and f***ing around and getting into stupid s***," as she explains.

Wednesday's best songs are filled with quotidian details that give them a sense of place, and the Asheville-based band has a knack for infusing its shoegaze-indebted rock with classic country twang; here, the band channels a country-rock sound that lends a wistful sweetness to Hartzman's admissions of youthful recklessness. By the song's end, Hartzman makes the disclosures feel nothing short of romantic: "Thank God that I was chosen to deserve you," she sings, "'Cause I'm the girl that you were chosen to deserve."

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With a voice that melts over each track, Sylo's new blanket EP ranges from a simple interlude with acoustic guitar and vocals to a song that features strings — a first for the R&B artist's sound. On "October," Sylo effortlessly transitions from quiet melody to hushed falsetto, keeping up with the cadence of muted drums and guitar. It's a brief introduction to everything there is to love about Sylo — his music feels like a refuge of cozy moments you can bask in.

January 17

Stella Kola, 'Rosa'

WJCT News 89.9

The eponymous debut from Stella Kola is a curveball from an already-unpredictable roster of underground U.S. musicians who are as provincial — in this case, the weird grottos and orchards of Massachusetts — as they are inscrutable. Led by Robert Thomas (Sunburned Hand of the Man) and Beverly Ketch (Bunwinkies) the album opens with "Rosa," a ballad that digs deep into the psychedelic-folk tradition until it takes root in a freshly sporous permaculture.

Glancing at the collected dozen-strong guest players — culled from bands including Tower Recordings, Wet Tuna, Six Organs of Admittance, Weeping Bong Band, Pigeons and similar ilk — one might expect a brutal blast of acid swirl. Instead, "Rosa" is a delicate thing, a mythical story-song that is tenderly brought to life with acoustic guitars, woodwinds and strings delivered through the musicians' casual proficiency. The masterful restraint of "Rosa" and the rest of Stella Kola's shimmering debut evokes Anne Briggs, C.O.B., Pentangle and similar ancestors that knew the best way to honor traditions was to widen the heritage even further.

Jagjaguwar YouTube

It's hard to imagine someone angrily shouting, "Oh me, oh my." Far from a "no way" or "what the ****," it's a statement of surprise that arrives with contemplation. Septuagenarian Lonnie Holley repeatedly croons it across this track of the same name, which bears an identical title to his forthcoming album out March 10.

As graceful piano chords and atmospheric synth pads channel a spiritual aura, Holley sing-speaks as if he's an oracle. "Humans, please listen," he begins his decree, his craggy voice revealing decades of wisdom. "It's alright to wonder a little deeper." He recounts his grandma's love for the famous hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing," of the beauty in community, of the miracle that is our one short life. As the song gets buoyed by gliding double bass, its thalassic ebb and flow is a call to be patient with others — something that's symbolized by how R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe intertwines his voice with Holley's. There's no climax, just an opportunity to experience beauty moment by moment.

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Lætitia Tamko is ready now. The songwriter who performs as Vagabon returns with her first single in three years, following her exceptional 2019 self-titled album. On "Carpenter," which Tamko co-produced with Rostam, she continues to push the boundaries of genre as her sound is effervescent yet grounded. She sings: "I wasn't ready to hear you out / I wasn't ready to move on out / I wasn't ready for what you were saying / But I'm more ready now." And then, more assuredly: "Yeah, I'm all ready now."

The Brooklyn-based artist says the song is about "that A-HA moment, when a lesson from the past finally clicks and you want to run and tell someone who bore witness to the old you, 'I finally get it now.'" Tamko welcomes listeners into the new era of Vagabon with cleansing self-awareness and newfound perspective — and a good reminder that sometimes a devoted desire to grow is the key to seeing more clearly.

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#NowPlaying

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