Well, May is kicking off with a bang. As has become the tradition of the last couple years, Radiohead have turned their trolling into the rollout for a new album; luckily, their stunt gave way to an actually great album. Others trying their hand at this online attention game were careless and immature in the process. So, we turn our attention toward others who are focusing on, well you know, making great music. Some of these selections might not have gotten as much attention, but they are worth listening to on repeat, whether you stick around for a single song or an entire album. 2016 might be full of bad things, but it is important to remember it is equally full of the good. Here are some flickering lights for when all around seems dark.
Radiohead — “True Love Waits,” off A Moon Shaped Pool
This song is like a friend you grew up with, watching and waiting for them to realize their full potential. It first appeared back in 1995 in live form, and then later as a live recording in 2001. Radiohead are a band known for obscure, slanted songs that tip toward the cryptic, but here, here was a traditional love song–a ballad about candy and feet and how your world is suddenly contained in a smile. Gone are the heavy-handed, brassy Pablo Honey guitar strokes, replaced by melting, icy synths that drip like icicles across the melody. True love might wait, but that interlude can also end up becoming the main affair. Those who grew up with the “True Love Waits” imprint of imposed virginity-before-marriage stamped on our brain might chuckle more at the irony of the song’s title, but it sounds truer in this stark, almost hopeless context. Yorke has made loneliness sound beautiful, worth honoring. When he begs “don’t leave, don’t leave,” we already know how this one ends. But we listen anyway, just in case. Maybe one day it will be worth the wait. And if love never is, then at least the song was.
James Blake — “I Need A Forest Fire (Feat. Bon Iver),” off The Colour Of Anything
If anyone understands the implications of our mediated existence, it’s James Blake. Most of the songs on his new album The Colour Of Anything obsess over the intersection between technology, love and loss, a topic that’s all too resonate for the ghosted and ghosting generation. A brief respite from the almost eternal grief on Blake’s latest record comes in the form of friendship’ “I Need A Forest Fire” features Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver’s lightning rod harmonies, they make this track sizzle with hope and desire in a sea of songs that are mostly about love that’s already smoldered. It’s the rare track here, too, that’s centered around the natural world–hope in things that grow, or in the destruction of them. Sometimes you need to burn it all to the ground so it can grow back stronger.
Drake — “One Dance,” off Views “One Dance” is easily one of the most infectious songs off Drake’s fourth full-length album, Views. It samples a 2008 UK club hit by Kyla called “Do You Mind,” and features Nigerian singer Wizkid, but these disparate elements blend easily into a hit so addicting it quickly became Drake’s first-ever Billboard Hot 100 No.1 hit. On an album where Drizzy is often in his feelings, suspicious and exhausted of being himself, or even unlikable, this track is a heady celebration of the current moment that sounds better ever single time it comes on. Prepare to hear it everywhere this summer, and try to lose yourself in the joy of it, at least for the brief three minutes run time.
Anohni — “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” off Hopelessness Anohni’s latest album Hopelessness is a stunning monument to the way music can function as cultural criticism. If you’d like to read a fantastic review of it, check out Jenn Pelly’s missive on the record over at Pitchfork. Here, we’re lasering in on one track in particular though, the obliterated, obliterating “I Don’t Love You Anymore.” It’s a song about realizing that someone you once loved is no longer worthy of your love, that they’ve mistreated and hurt you to the point that you fully let go of all the care you had in your heart for them. It’s about seeing a face that once felt familiar and safe and knowing it will never again inspire trust in you. I want a whole catalogue of songs that are constructed with the care and elegance of a love song, replete with details and memories, about falling out of love. Anohni delivers this loss with a particularly composed sense of rage, even when she remains precise and calm we are spared none of the feeling.
White Lung — “Below,” off Paradise Vancouver punk outfit White Lung is fronted by the inimitable Mish Barber-Way (shouts out to marital bliss), and on their latest album Paradise they’ve honed their sound into something that could be called pop-thrash–and it fucking rules. This is music for screaming your face off, but instead of disappearing into a wall of unquenchable, raging sound, it reappears as melodic and structured, a testament to Barber-Way’s plush, powerful vocals. “Below” is my favorite on the record, a song about being submerged, and finding value in both the possession and the loss of surface things you once valued.
Juliana Barwick — “Beached,” off Will Will is a collection of nebulous, dreamy songs that seem to float just beyond traditional melody structure, looped like memories that never quite finish, and never quite reach their potential, either. That sense of the unfinished–the could’ve been–inhabits “Beached” with particular poignance. It’s hard to make a song about feeling stuck seem hopeful, but Barwick does it. Listen in the moments when you are losing faith in yourself, when you feel like you’ve lost control of your ability to move forward, and take heart that one day, you will float back out. You will swim again. You will.
Skepta — “Man,” off Konnichiwa Kanye has a knack for lifting worthy artists up out of their current echelon and catapulting them into a new one. Whether or not Skepta deserved accolades prior to Mr. West’s brief brush with grime on “All Day,” (he did) that spectacle helped make this British rapper’s next album resonate in the U.S. in a way it might not have before. Konnichiwa is Skepta’s first album in five years, and it’s a dark and blazing collection of gloomy, intense raps. “Man” is basically an evisceration of all those who might be trying to cash in on Skepta’s fame while he’s on top. Throw it on whenever those people who weren’t down for you when you needed help come asking for favors. Because you know they will.
Keith Urban — “Gettin In The Way,” off Ripcord One of the other standouts on Keith Urban’s latest album, Ripcord, features the musical guests Pitbull and Nile Rodgers. If that doesn’t speak to the assimilation of the southern trucks-n-grit genre into the mainstream field, I don’t know what does! And while that collab is great, Urban is in full Keith mode on “Gettin In The Way,” a song about sitting in a car late at night making out with utter abandon, unable to pry yourself away from the objection of your affection. It has a high-octane chorus, addicting back up singers belting “oooooh” with the kind of conviction that will have you singing along, and sky-high production that some detractors would call “too pop.” I just call it the sound of falling in love. Please believe me, Keith Urban will fit into your life in ways that you never even imagined. If you let your guard down, you’ll be a convert before the first chorus is over. Don’t believe the haters about mainstream country not being viable, don’t let your preconceptions get in the way of an entire genre full of good music.
Aesop Rock — “Get Out The Car,” off The Impossible Kid This album was unfairly maligned earlier this week, but don’t be fooled by careless trolling, The Impossible Kid is a fucking awesome representation of all the things that make Aesop Rock tick–tightly packed verses that fit neatly together like Tetris blocks, a vocabulary so top heavy it spills over the beat and hijacks your attention, and the ability to tackle topics as gut-wrenching as death and as light as sitting in a car stoned. This song was the source of the album title and originally shared a name with the album, but Rock took the line for his album name and renamed the song “Get Out Of The Car.” It’s a jittery, almost playful reminder that grief can be a paralyzing force, or it can be a catalyst that brings out the best in us. Luckily, Rock has arrived in a place where it’s had the latter effect in his life. The Impossible Kid is a testament to that, and assuredly, the friend he lost is bobbing his head somewhere, smiling at Rock’s progress. Sometimes getting out of the car is more than half the battle, it’s the whole fucking war. Rock is still fighting, so he’s victorious.