May brings many things: the flowers promised by April showers, my annual IRS audit, and a handful of friends still on the physical and financial mend from yet another Coachella. It’s also time to rip another page off our cubicle Chippendales calendars and acknowledge that we’re now one-third done with 2017. It’s hard to believe it’s already been four months since we were decking halls and arguing about year-end lists, but it may be even more difficult to pace ourselves through another three legs of this current race. Carbo-load, everyone.
At least the Grim Reaper doesn’t seem to be stalking artists as he did a year ago – thank goodness. However, when I look into the mirror in the morning, I have that 1,000-millimeter blogger’s stare – the one that tells me that I’ve already seen plenty of shit flash across my computer screen in 2017: 100 days of a reality-television president, major festival announcements and surprises, and the triumphant return of some of the brightest names in popular music. Hell, the only thing I haven’t seen is Lady Gaga hurl herself off the top of a football stadium on live television. <whispers: Wait … what?> Like I said, it’s early, but we’ve seen some shit.
On the music front, we can’t make it a month without royalty reemerging. Still swept up by Lady Lorde once again ascending her pop throne in March? Well, April saw King Kendrick storm the palace gates to reclaim his DAMN. hip-hop crown. Gorillaz vied for kings of the jungle last month with a slew of singles, and April witnessed The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel stake a new claim to the title of kingpin with his latest marathon track. There’s always something to gripe about, of course, but given all that’s gone down, complaints of tedium won’t be taken seriously. To quote the late, great Harvey Danger: “If you’re bored, then you’re boring.”
So, here are 10 songs from April that do far more than not bore us or merely cap off the first third of 2017. These songs raise the bar and set the stakes for everything left to come. Now, let’s pour one out for April and hope that May can live up to the hype. Again, carbo-load, people.
10. Future Islands – “Cave”
It takes some nerve to co-opt a melody, a riff, a harmony, whatever. But, when you make a song as great as “Cave”, who really gives two shits. If you’ve heard Future Islands’ latest album, The Far Field, you’ve likely made the connection that the bass line behind track five is curiously similar to that of U2’s “New Year’s Day”. It’s not exact, but enough to raise eyebrows. Again, those eyebrows don’t stay up for long, namely because they spin it around enough to find a new identity and, well, it just so happens to be the strongest track on the album. Bathed in steamy synths and jogging at the pace of Haile Gebrselassie, “Cave” finds frontman Samuel T. Herring as a total emotional wreck, grieving with volume as he lets go of a past lover. “I don’t believe anymore/ I won’t grieve anymore/ Cuz all we are, is bled and gone,” he sings repeatedly, slamming his fists on his chest or crawling around like Regan from The Exorcist. The best Future Islands songs are the ones that make you feel that carnal emotionalism and this one is a T. Rex of drama. Feel free to roar with him. –Michael Roffman
09. Lady Gaga – “The Cure”
“I will be right by your side,” Lady Gaga declares on her new track, “The Cure”, and she sings it like that’s precisely what she means. The song marshals her indulgent glittery dance musicality from the past: the finger clicking, pristine clean production, anthemic flute-like synth, and her remarkable falsetto, the exact type that tells us she’s figured out how to fail-safe dance music for people who just want to … dance. Besides being a gloriously glowing pop song akin to a OneRepublic track, the track thrives on a simple sense of support and care, particularly in the verses. Gaga is a master of stringing simple phrases together that hint at deeper significance but are equally in place to intensify the mood, to brighten the day. With DJ White Shadow standing in as co-writer and Nick Monson as co-producer, these vital players who also contributed to Gaga’s 2013 album ARTPOP might give us a hint at what to expect from the star next. –Lior Phillips
08. Kamasi Washington – “Truth”
Listening to Kamasi Washington is the most beautiful challenge, an experience that feels like your mind expands to the size of a universe whether sitting next to your record player or coasting in your car on a soft summer day. It conjures up visuals of the life you’ve had in the past and the life you might still have in the future. “Truth”, as the name would imply, pierces from the first note of the piano. Great jazz often works via many individual pieces weaving in and out of harmony, their own unique melodies taking the fore and ducking out, intersecting, supporting each other, cutting against each other — something that Washington calls in the video for his new song “Truth” the “Harmony of Difference”. That chemistry rules the track; upright bassist Miles Mosley lopes into the spotlight at one moment, fading shortly underneath Washington’s tenor sax. Brothers bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner and drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. both take their turns as well, just two more of the 30 (!) hyper-talented musicians who meld their unique perspectives into one amazing amalgam. The stunning video works to that same end, highlighting brief moments of many idiosyncratic lives, eventually finding them all melding together into footage of the ever-expanding universe. Across 14 minutes, “Truth” (both in audio and video form) is at times eye-opening, soothing, pulse-racing, and uplifting, an incredible moment of beauty.–Lior Phillips
07. Girlpool – “It Gets More Blue”
Minimalism has its charms. Los Angeles folk-punk duo Girlpool can point to their debut, 2015’s Before the World Was Big, as an example of how a guitar, bass, and two voices can carry a record. However, the first thing fans are likely to notice about new single “It Gets More Blue” are the drums (!) backing Cleo Tucker’s familiar guitar and Harmony Tividad’s reliable bass. Between this recording and first single “123”, it’s clear that Girlpool’s sophomore effort, Powerplant, will feature an expanded sound and, even more exciting, a new level of songwriting. “It Gets More Blue” may point to poor decisions thematically, but the structure, harmonies, and fuzzed-out finale indicate a duo who are continuing to evolve and find themselves as songwriters. –Matt Melis
06. Waxahatchee – “Silver”
The title of Katie Crutchfield’s new album as Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm, caught my eye right away. As longtime fans already know, a snowstorm that left the songwriter stranded in her parents’ Alabama home led to American Weekend, her project’s brilliant, trembling debut. So, when Crutchfield sings, “I went out in the storm/ I felt the house burning,” it’s easy to read into that line and speculate that her new album might, as her others have, continue to lead further away from not only her debut’s minimalist strumming but the simpler, happy times of youth represented by that familial home. A more fleshed-out, sophisticated piece of pop rock than anything we heard on the excellent Ivy Tripp, “Silver” hints that Crutchfield will not only continue to be an artist who grows but one we can grow with. –Matt Melis
05. Bleachers – “Don’t Take the Money”
Jack Antonoff is hardly the new dude on the block. Between his work in the long-dormant .fun and his pop songwriting for the likes of Taylor Swift and Lorde, he’s already amassed three GRAMMY awards and three Top 10 hits. Still, when it comes to his band Bleachers, a project that most truly is an extension of himself, it’s easy to think that he still has a lot to prove, that he can find the success he has through collaboration on his own, even though that project managed a number 1 alternative single with 2014’s “I Wanna Get Better”. For Bleachers‘ forthcoming sophomore album, Gone Now, any narrative that Antonoff is still on the rise will likely go out the window. Lead single “Don’t Take the Money” is as instantly inviting as pop songwriting gets, the kind of track that has a verse, pre-chorus, and chorus that each represents a hook that could standalone. It’s tinged in moody romanticism, evoking both 80’s teen comedies and a whippet-high distorted fantasy curated by Peter Gabriel. At that, it sounds like nothing else being released right now, which is all the more impressive coming from a guy who makes a living as a pop music chameleon. “Don’t Take the Money” is the paradigm for success, a track that might have to heed its own advice if it doesn’t want to become ubiquitous. –Philip Cosores
04. Kendrick Lamar – “DNA.”
Get a couple of kings like Mike WiLL Made-It and Kendrick Lamar into a room, and some beats are going to get destroyed — and that’s exactly what happens in DAMN. highlight “DNA.”, according to a new interview with Mike WiLL on NPR. Apparently, the duo had only planned on setting Dot’s first verse to tape, but then Kendrick refused to stop, letting intense rhymes tumble out and explaining that the beat would need to be built around them, to have the instrumental capture the chaos of the world he was describing. Kendrick starts on the molecular, describing the complexity in his DNA (“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA”), though weaving in a FOX News clip and looking out suspiciously at the world around him starts to hit home the claustrophobic, urgent intensity that the world feels full of today.–Lior Phillips
03. Prince – “Deliverance”
For years we bowed down to the gospel of Prince, hanging onto every falsetto peak, electric guitar screech, and mischievous smirk, and as he declares during his new controversial track, “Deliverance”: “All in favor say I!” There are some potentially untoward ethical issues surrounding the song’s release — it comes from an EP of unreleased Prince songs called Deliverance that’s being released by an engineer who had worked with the legend, and the Purple One’s estate is attempting to shut that down. The single went up, got taken down, and now is back up in a legal gray area while the courts figure out what comes next. I felt uneasy about clicking that purchase button, unsure as to where the money would go. But hell, it was a new Prince song, and it’s so difficult to say no to that. And the burnished choir vocals, bluesy electric guitar arching, and iconic falsetto make for a classic blend. “This is not religion, but common sense,” Prince calls, a slow-swaggering rhythm underneath. “It’s time for you to get down, get down, get off the fence.” If you can quiet your internal concerns, the track is a thrilling return from the gone-too-soon guitar god. –Lior Phillips
02. The War on Drugs – “Thinking of a Place”
Let’s say you release a career-best album, and that album tops numerous year-end lists (cough), and allows you to play the biggest music festivals in the world, and you ultimately land a two-record major label deal out of the endeavor. What do you do next? If you’re The War on Drugs, you release an 11-minute epic for Record Store Day as your first bit of new original music in years. It’s not so much a bloated song as it is one that takes its time, much in the way The War on Drugs aren’t rushing into a follow-up for Lost in the Dream. It’s a song that doesn’t seek the fastest way between the points. It’s the audio version of the scenic route. Fortunately, these leg-stretching diversions are one of the band’s great strengths. With melodies this direct, their relaxed delivery is often what sets them apart, mixing musical precision with windows-down, tire-spinning rambling. If anything was needed to solidify the identity of the Philadelphia rockers, “Thinking of a Place” is a calm hand on the shoulders of its fans, comforting them that the connection between the future and the past will be fluid. –Philip Cosores
01. Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”
The music video for “HUMBLE.” opens on Kendrick Lamar standing in a papal robe, bathed in a concentrated ray of light as if God Himself — not the critics, not the fans, and certainly not lesser rappers — has anointed him the Chosen One. The track’s lyrics, rapped over a jarringly straightforward piano riff and 808 bass line courtesy of Mike WiLL Made-It, seem to support this narrative at first. This is hip-hop braggadocio at its finest, a guided tour of the good life presented by the one man who knows it best. “Be humble,” demands Lamar, tsk-tsking at his inferiors like a disappointed father. “Sit down.”
But that’s only half the story. (As Lamar himself would say, “it’s levels to it.”) Because part of what gives “HUMBLE.” its supernatural charge is the growing suspicion that we’re not being scolded at all, but rather paying witness to a tortured internal monologue. Look past the Holy Trinity of money, fame, and power, and you’ll bear witness to the insecurities lurking in the shadows. After all, what’s the actual difference between a sandwich made with syrup and a sandwich made with Grey Poupon? A couple bucks, and they don’t make condiments fancy enough to hide a person from his real self.
Ironically, this forceful willingness to interrogate himself and metastasize his own raps is what truly separates Lamar from his would-be peers. On one hand, “HUMBLE.” registers as a sharp, pointed, and direct single from an artist prone to more experimental flourishes. On the other hand, it couldn’t be more slippery, its target shifting back and forth with nearly every line. The only proper way to react to a track with this kind of power? Well, friends, you heard it in the chorus. –Collin Brennan