#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
Deutsche Grammophon YouTube

Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson might be a little mystified by being called "Iceland's Glenn Gould," but the Reykjavik native's approach to Bach's Goldberg Variations not only lives up to the hype but exceeds it. His full album of Bach's Goldbergs is out on Oct. 6, but the label has released a few "singles" ahead of time.

The "Variation No. 1," like Gould's groundbreaking 1955 recording, is fleet, even speedy, but that's where the association ends. Gould's sewing machine precision is impressive, but the overall feeling is aloof and unnecessarily rushed. Ólafsson's performance has pace, but shines in its crystalline transparency of voices, lyrical in how split-second notes are connected, and above all exudes pure joy.

As far as the Gould comparison goes, Ólafsson says while he doesn't buy into it, the results might have value. "It really divides people," he told NPR in 2020. "And in a way, that's what great art should do. Because I do think art does need instability sometimes."

Many major pianists, at some point in their career, confront the Mount Everest that is Bach's Goldberg Variations. And if the music — beyond its intellectual rigor and exuberance — is a measuring stick for greatness, then Víkingur Ólafsson's probing, jubilant and often danceable performance, ranks among the most satisfying.

!K7 Music YouTube

Laurel Halo's most memorable tracks tend to be desolate and unnerving. Across propulsive club bangers, uneasy experimental compositions and apocalyptic dirges, the Los Angeles-based musician, DJ and academic has used sound to convey a sense of barrenness.

But Halo seems to have perked up in the five years since she put out her last album, Raw Silk Uncut Wood. "Belleville," from Halo's upcoming record Atlas, finds her pushing into uncharacteristically serene terrain. Recorded in one take, the instrumental is carried by sparse, balmy piano noodling. Midway through, digitally manipulated vocals from British musician Coby Sey briefly emerge from the ether, breaking the spell but heightening the beauty. If Halo's work before this seemed cast in the fluorescent glow of an underground bunker, "Belleville" lounges in a sun-drenched meadow.

Fat Possum Records YouTube

Fievel Is Glauque puts a gritty spin on jazzy, psychedelic pop. It ​​doesn't seem like the type of sound that would land a band tour dates with Stereolab or a newly announced deal with Fat Possum. But, against all odds, the wonderfully wacky New York City/Brussels band is breaking out of its experimental niche.

Fievel Is Glauque's new single, "I'm Scanning Things I Can't See," is its first for the aforementioned Mississippi label. It was recorded using a vintage Tascam cassette machine and possesses a lo-fi, homespun quality. Over 2 1/2 minutes, blocky piano chords and a shuffling drum groove are peppered with proggy synth and guitar flourishes. Even at its busiest, the cut pushes back on the carnivalesque maximalism explored on last year's Flaming Swords. "I'm Scanning Things I Can't See," along with the music video's addition of "Dark Dancing," reinforces that Fievel Is Glauque's music is baffling and eclectic, even at its most simplistic.

Ninja Tune YouTube

As yeule, 25-year-old Nat Ćmiel processes their voice to sing the cries of a wounded robot. The effect was beguiling when combined with indie rock and dream pop on last year's Glitch Princess. "Dazies," the lead single from their upcoming album, softscars, is in turn much harder and more immediate. A searing lead guitar cuts through an explosive grunge instrumental, which clears away to reveal our android protagonist. Ćmiel's verses dive into the blood and guts of a broken relationship, almost literally. "These rotten daisies look just like you," they blurt out. The band slows down as yeule dictates the chorus, threatening to shut down altogether. Instead, they settle into a gentle rock groove, which dissipates into an unadorned and hushed Ćmiel. Co-produced with fellow Singapore native Kin Leonn, it's a spell-binding blend of '90s rock, cyberpunk and above all, very vivid imagery.

Tiny Engines YouTube

I, for one, welcome the Gin Blossom-ing of emo (e.g. Camp Trash, Broken Record). It's not only a specific sound (jangly twang by way of '90s power-pop) but songwriting built around melodies that circle in on each other. The San Jose, Calif., band awakebutstillinbed has had poppy inclinations before, but nothing quite like this.

As one of two singles that announce chaos takes the wheel and i am but a passenger, out Oct. 20, "airport" is the happy-go-lucky-but-actually-crying pop-rocker to the screaming, bleeding heart of "redlight." Shannon Taylor, the band's primary songwriter, clearly understands the assignment of the former: Give us a sweet-and-sour sensation of movement that sticks around a few chords and tricky slights of hand, but punctuate every damning self-reflection with a hook to remember. There are even requisite doot doot doo's, followed by a descending chord progression into the climactic bridge that earns her signature scream. It's in the coda where Taylor reminds us that this is very much an emo band: lonely, strumming a guitar and wondering about her disconnection from the world.


Arizona's Injury Reserve was expanding the borders of their jazz-inflected sound when member Stepa J. Groggs died in 2020 at only 32 years old. It was a foundational blow to the group, punctuated by the release of the abrasive By the Time I Get to Phoenix the following year. But it was unlikely that the group's surviving members — vocalist Ritchie With a T and producer Parker Corey — would stop traveling the path they charted with Groggs.

"Double Trio" is the duo's first release since retiring the name Injury Reserve and reforming as By Storm (a nod to the closer on By the Time I Get to Phoenix). For seven minutes, they mourn their friend, pushing both for his liberation and their own. "It's time to break the silence, only time can wait," Ritchie sings in between wails. Corey, a proven and talented producer, uses a sample of a jazz combo to punctuate the song's two acts. In the second half, he chops it into a footwork instrumental. Like Ritchie's moans, it's his form of release.

Polyvinyl YouTube

Can you tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue? On Ian Sweet's latest single, "Your Spit," it seems like singer Jilian Medford wants to know. The song "is about the joy and fear that surrounds new relationships. The excitement that's also accompanied by doubt," Medford says. "But I'd be lying if I didn't say the song is just mostly about making out."

"I need a minute / Or a million / To tell you how I'm feelin' now," Medford sings, devotion dripping from her lips as she drags out the breathy aforementioned "million" over the pop synths that characterize much of her music. In the music video for the song — which features concession booth cameos by Saturday Night Live's Sarah Sherman and Martin Herlihy — Medford sings from a movie theater filled with couples making out on velvety seats, tossing buttery popcorn and (69 cent!) movie theater candy in one another's mouths. In contrast to the messy makeout sessions, the song's production is sharp — and it accompanies the announcement of Ian Sweet's promising forthcoming album, Sucker, out Nov. 3. Medford's sipping from a soda labeled, of course, "your spit." Perhaps, in the refuge of an air-conditioned theater, the moviegoers are trying to escape the sticky summer heat — only to get caught up in something hotter inside.

Sargent House YouTube

Fans of The Armed have come to expect the unexpected from the Detroit hardcore collective. The band's breakthrough album, 2021's ULTRAPOP, packed more riffs, blast beats and power vocals than the oversaturated tracks could contain. So when the band announced its follow-up record, Perfect Saviors, was mixed by Alan Moulder — the guy behind the decks for albums by Nine Inch Nails and My Bloody Valentine — the hope was that he would give us a clearer picture of who The Armed really are.

In "Liar 2" (perhaps a sequel to one of the band's earliest songs), Moulder tones The Armed's sound into muscular dance punk. A squelching synth, rumbling bass and four-on-the-floor beat drive the track, and the song's lead vocals are processed with the same crunch of another Moulder client, The Killers. But we're in The Armed's universe, where anything that's worth doing is worth doing spectacularly. "The brightest stars shine through darkest clouds," the lead singer utters before a miraculous breakdown halfway through the song. It's clear they're talking about you.


After two decades singing for the Argentine electro-pop band Miranda!, Juliana Gattas' debut outing as a solo artist is a camp life crisis. Out at some club, dancing to nothing in particular, some guy cozies up to the singer and asks why she's so made up? Her first impulse is to balk, but then the question truly hits home: Is she actually expressing herself or is her own face a kind of glamorous mask?

Over a slinky disco beat galvanized by dramatic string arrangements, Gattas weighs the dilemma: To be emotionally naked or impermeable-but-chic. Just then the track turns noirish and arrives at a truly stunning couplet: "Quiero que sepas quién soy a la mañana siguiente, amor / Ya ni sé quién soy yo (¿Quién soy yo?)" [I want you to know how I am in the morning, my love / Yet I don't know who I am (Who am I?)"]. It's a compact serving of psychodrama with a flawless exterior unsettled by Gattas' doubt.

July 27

Viv & Riley, 'Is It All Over'


Free Dirt YouTube

"Is It All Over" is a folk anthem for a dystopian near future. Viv & Riley contrast a science-fiction backdrop with the decidedly analog experience of the people inhabiting it. Taking a spare, fingerpicked guitar melody and layering reverb, steel guitar and effects via MPC, Riley Calcagno sings lead as Vivian Leva adds harmony vocals in this futuristic tale that doubles as sardonic commentary on our current day.

Produced by Alex Bingham of Hiss Golden Messenger, Viv & Riley took inspiration from the recent space race of billionaires like Jeff Bezos and imagined its logical progression, singing, "Yes sir I can't wait to mine / For lithium in the name of Prime / Yes ma'am if I get enough / Then I'll come back and I'll make you mine." A future with mining operations on the moon or Mars may still seem far away; however, Viv & Riley bring it into plain view, making the scene all the more believable for its foundation in our current narrative of widespread exploitation and inequality.

Pampa Records YouTube

DJ Koze's music is typically summery and patchouli-scented. But what happens when the eccentric German-born, Spain-based house producer veers into moodier terrain? The answer is "Wespennest," the first single ahead of a still-undetailed 2024 album. Over eight minutes, bone-dry drum machines and a massive bass line support noisy leads that buzz like a beehive struck with a stick. Grandiose synth chords and smokey vocals from Pampa labelmate Sophia Kennedy harken back to brighter Koze tracks like "Magical Boy" and "My Plans." But even in its most uplifting moments, "Wespennest" teems with mischievous energy. As always, Koze's signature, impish smile is on display. However, an alluringly sinister glint flickers behind his eyes here.

Dead Oceans YouTube

Mitski writes songs that cut straight to the bone. Ever since 2013's break-out album Bury Me at Makeout Creek, the singer-songwriter's sound and style has continued to widen with her star power. On 2018's Be the Cowboy, she served up high concept, character-driven narratives; on 2022's Laurel Hell, she flirted further with danceable pop and dramatic '80s synth rock.

From the album The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We, out Sept. 15, "Bug Like An Angel" transforms Mitski's soundtrack of loneliness and brokenness into something almost hymnal. "Did you go and make promises you can't keep?" she sings, strumming an acoustic guitar, backed impressively by a choir. "Well, when you break them, they break you right back." It's a quiet little song, but it also embodies Mitski's specialty: turning the lowest lows into little moments of beauty.


In the classical violin world, there are three great mountains to climb for the solo fiddler: J.S. Bach's six Sonatas and Partitas, from 1720; Paganini's 24 Caprices, completed in 1817; and the Six Sonatas by the Belgian master Eugéne Ysaÿe, who was busy composing them exactly 100 years ago.

To mark the centenary, Hilary Hahn has trekked to the peak, releasing a new album of all six of Ysaÿe's thorny works, each with a distinct personality, each reaching treacherous and sublime heights. Ysaÿe is credited with ushering in the modern mode of violin playing that emphasized virtuosity (but not empty exhibitionism), bold sounds and free-wheeling imagination.

All of that is rigorously packed into the Third Sonata, subtitled "Ballade." Just getting to all the notes is a major feat, but Hahn, with a big, burgundy tone and pinpoint accuracy, finds a narrative arc amid the composer's thicket of double stops and broadly colored harmonies. The piece opens with a sober plea, rising upward, braking suddenly, as if delivering a warning. A jagged theme emerges, worked out in passages calm as a whisper or turbulent as a gale force cri de coeur. Ysaÿe closes with a daredevil finish that would make Paganini tremble.

While the music was once considered mainly grist for violin geeks, over the decades Ysaÿe's sonatas have slowly secured a foothold in the repertoire. Hahn's new performances guarantee the fascination with these beautiful, inscrutable pieces will not soon fade.

July 12

Protomartyr, 'We Know the Rats'

Domino YouTube

Within Protomartyr, Joe Casey's viciousness is often a tongue-in-cheek act, but it rings frighteningly true on "We Know the Rats." "Did the Christ feel bad for the gibbering swine he threw those demons in?" he spits, like he wants to kill: "I doubt he bat an eyelid." The targets of his ire are the thieves who repeatedly burglarized the home he's lived in since childhood, robbing him of crucial family artifacts and his personal security. Casey paints a series of sleepless vignettes across a glacial, shoegaze-textured backdrop — going to the cops and realizing they're even less helpful, guarding himself fitfully at night with a baseball bat signed by a Detroit Tiger. Bitter tautness ratchets up in the song as Casey attacks the titular rats' "avarice" and "cankered wealth," his sound and fury biblical.

But in the end, the conflict dissipates. The building wall of tension abruptly drops away until there is only a delicate, beautiful pedal steel riff, against which Casey's voice sings a far gentler melody: "So collect those tears, and wash your face / The house is empty, but the work remains." Formal Growth in the Desert is largely an album about what happens after loss; in "We Know the Rats," Casey sequesters hope in the act of rebuilding and then moves out to make a new home.


Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová's creative partnership led them to stunning success: Their acting debut in the 2007 film Once won them a best original song Oscar (for "Falling Slowly"), made left-field hits of the film and its soundtrack, and made the pair a touring sensation. Hansard and Irglová released a 2009 follow-up album called Strict Joy under the name The Swell Season — and performed a record-setting Tiny Desk concert together — but eventually split up and embarked on solo careers.

Now, with a 15th-anniversary reunion tour scheduled for later this summer, The Swell Season has just released its first song in more than a decade: an Irglová composition called "The Answer Is Yes." A natural companion piece to "Falling Slowly" — this time with Irglová singing lead and Hansard joining as the song's second voice — it's a sweepingly sentimental celebration of lives lived in gratitude, without regret.

For those who've lost track of the singers in the 15-plus years since Once — and there are loads of dynamite songs on their respective solo albums — "The Answer Is Yes" fills in a fair bit of context, celebrating the pair's recent triumphs (including a wedding for Hansard) and the endurance of their hard-earned friendship. Here's hoping the song isn't just a lovely coda, but merely the latest chapter among many.

June 22

Dream Sitch, 'Sideways'



Dream Sitch is the collaboration between Michael Nau (Page France, Cotton Jones) and Seth Kauffman (Floating Action). From his home in Maryland, Nau sent vocal tracks to Kauffman in North Carolina, who then played all the instruments on the songs in turn, improvising on the spot as he heard Nau's vocals for the first time, and giving himself only one take on each song. In just one day, the duo finished "Sideways," a languid, hallucinatory shuffle that is the title track to their second album.

The fact that the song came to life so quickly stands in sharp contrast to its downtempo, stylized retro soul, which hits like a doo-wop ballad on psychedelics. With Kauffman playing guitars, bass, conga and drums, Nau's acoustic guitar and stream of consciousness lyrics draw us deeper into the musical mirage: "Free as the sky / With something so high about you / Winding all the reels around / Sideways, sideways."

light-years YouTube

In the past decade, Italian composer Caterina Barbieri has been in deep communion with the ghost in the machine. Utilizing an array of primarily analog synthesizers, the Berlin-based Barbieri excavates a depth of consciousness and intelligence through artificial means.

Initiated with a set of five-tone patterns that ballast and anchor the performance, Barbieri's "Math of You" builds upon a canon-like call-and-response as layers of delayed-and-looped arpeggios extend, gently distort, examine, discard and return to the source melody. Contained within the circuits, sequencers and woozy algorithms of Barbieri's music there is a steady humanness to it all. At midpoint, the momentum of the electronic swirl softens to a cathedral-like echo, with the alternating scales offering a smoothed and muted quality that harkens back to the early '70s mystic-minimalism of Terry Riley's Persian Surgery Dervishes. The whooping analog glissandos and pitch slides that dot the end of "Math of You" are closer to human jubilation than any robotic command-codes.

June 21

Nat Myers, 'Yellow Peril'


Easy Eye Sound YouTube

Blues music can be raucous and ready to party, but can also speak directly to struggle and social inequality. Nat Myers, a Korean American poet raised on hardcore and hip-hop, adds to the canon of songs that sound off on racist stereotypes. From his album of the same name, "Yellow Peril" is an up-tempo number that takes on the waves of Asian hate surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a swagger that leaps out of the speakers, Myers plays slide on his resonator guitar to a rhythm straight from the Delta. "Everywhere I been somebody being abused / Never gonna win some of us are born to lose / Just wanna have a little fun before we die / There never ever was no difference 'tween you and I," he sings, punctuating his message with finger picking that is as precise as it is intense.

Dead Oceans YouTube

The deeper Slowdive gets into its career, the more it embraces clarity. The English shoegaze act pioneered a murky strain of rock on '90s masterpieces like Souvlaki and Just For A Day. But it displayed a newfound command over pop songwriting when it put out its first new music in 22 years after reuniting in 2017.

The first single from everything is alive, out Sept. 1, pushes things into even more direct terrain. The suave "kisses" is carried by jangly guitar strumming, eerie lead lines and a surfy groove, which support calmly-delivered lyrics about romance and new-beginnings. It's a song that begs to score some cathartic afternoon drive down a mossy coastline.

Matador YouTube

Archy Marshall, an artist once synonymous with misery and teen angst, has perhaps mellowed out a bit. Now 28 and a father, the U.K. musician's recent output as King Krule still thrums with its signature jazzy dissonance and mangy punk snarl. But things feel airier than ever before on this month's Space Heavy.

"Our Vacuum" is placid, but deceptively vulnerable. The understated track is carried by just a muted guitar riff and Marshall's deep vocals. "From our thoughts far away / I leave, I don't stay / But the space between us is dark / In the cage of your heart," he half-sings on the first verse. The melodrama that defined King Krule's early work has been refinished in a lullaby-like hue.

Tenor saxophonist and flutist Zoh Amba blends dazzling proficiency with the divine through free jazz. Taken from her latest album, O Life, O Light Vol. 2, "Dance of Bliss" is an otherworldly symphony contained within three players: Amba, William Parker on upright bass and gralla (a double-reeded Catalan woodwind) and drummer Francisco Mela. The 19-minute track is in a constant state of forming and reforming — with undeniable skills the trio deliver and discard ideas as quickly as they arise. Amba and Parker shift from simple intervallic motifs on horn and bass to extended, rapid lines. Mela might win MVP for keeping things in consistent and forward motion with his percussive commentary. Once Parker shifts from bass to gralla, the band neutralizes the preceding foundational ideas to fully lift the veil: vocal yelps are heard and then fade in the freeform flow and, near the song's end, Parker plucks out a dense ostinato bass figure as Amba emits a sad cooing, even weeping, through her horn. It's a tender and unsettling closer for "Dance of Bliss," opting for sheer emotionality and vulnerability that plays like pure honey in the rock.

Secret City YouTube

When Jeremy Dutcher pushes his prodigious voice to the extreme in the line "Where do they go?" he's singing about the youth suicide crisis within Indigenous communities across Canada. Hence the title, "Ancestors Too Young." It's a new single released from Motewolonuwok, the upcoming album by the classically trained tenor, composer, pianist, activist and scholar from the Tobique First Nation on Canada's east coast.

Dutcher's 2018 album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa was a runaway critical success, which earned him Canada's Polaris Music Prize, an annual award given to the best Canadian album regardless of genre. There, Dutcher honored his ancestors by singing in Wolastoqey, an endangered language which less than 100 people are fluent in from birth. The new album, while still acknowledging the ancestral song traditions, finds Dutcher singing in English. Understanding the words opens another window into his robust, expressive phrasing, supported by a handsome, tightly wound vibrato.

"Ancestors Too Young" is an urgent rocker, sung from the perspective of a parent devastated by the loss of a daughter. Amid guitar squalls and jittery brushes on the drum kit, tastefully arranged strings by Owen Pallett offer touches of solemnity. Near the end, Dutcher asks: "And if I go too, will I see the ones we've lost? / Life is over before it's begun / Ancestors too young." A primal scream from a trumpet signals a plea for the pain to stop before the music settles down and we can all take a breath.

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