After a fairly sluggish summer, September came out swinging to tip off the fall season proper. What started with The National, Tori Amos, and Rostam continued with Foo Fighters, Phoebe Bridgers, and The Killers. Looking ahead, that momentum doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon thanks to forthcoming releases by St. Vincent, Beck, Kelela, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, Wolf Parade, and yes, I could keep going on and on.
That’s why this month’s list was particularly tough. Hell, we could have done a top 20 and still not even scratched the surface, which means the songs you’re about to hear are really, really, really fucking great. So much that we’re willing to place them on Spotify playlists and keep them around long after our pumpkins have rotted and our Halloween costumes become politically incorrect. Did we miss a track or two up ahead? Of course.
But that’s why we’ve got you to tell us in the comments below.
10. Sam Smith – “Too Good at Goodbyes”
Life’s good when Sam Smith is back in our lives. Sure, we’re emotional wrecks, and shit gets real way too fast, but what good is music if it doesn’t leave you teetering on the edge of depression. “Too Good at Goodbyes”, the first song from the British balladeer in god-it’s-been-too-long, is actually empowering. Kind of. “So I’m never gonna get too close to you/ Even when I mean the most to you/ In case you go and leave me in the dirt,” he sings in that all-too-catchy cadence of his, later concluding: “Baby, we don’t stand a chance. It’s sad but it’s true/ I’m way too good at goodbyes.” Okay, so it’s a little depressing, but c’mon, love is never black or white. For most, love tends to exist in that murky gray area, where the glaring negatives always ride shotgun to the occasional positives. It’s a stupid thing we do as human beings, but it’s necessary, because we’re complicated souls, willing to run away as soon as we’re ready to embrace. What makes Smith’s latest meditation feel so vital is that he’s at that transitional point where he feels strong enough to actually say “goodbye,” and while there are lyrical hints to suggest otherwise, mostly his use of repetition (as if he’s saying this again and again as he’s hurt again and again), we’re willing to bet he’s a few blocks away from badness. Can’t wait to see what else he’s got in store for us. –Michael Roffman
09. Charlotte Gainsbourg – “Deadly Valentine”
Somehow, even the simplest words can gain immense weight and meaning when they’re repeated, time and time again, over centuries. Human beings cherish ceremony and have reserved certain phrases and sentences for the most important occasions in life. On her new song, “Deadly Valentine”, Charlotte Gainsbourg taps into that deep linguistic well, reiterating the language of the marriage ceremony through the arching drama of a grand electropop song. But then things aren’t as blissful and sweet as that might seem; in the midst of all that iconic language, the little tweaks shatter the illusion. We are talking about a “deadly valentine,” after all. This song, and others featuring everyone from Sir Paul McCartney to Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, will be featured on Rest, out November 17th via Because Music. —Lior Phillips
08. Nao – “Nostalgia”
Here in Chicago, the leaves are starting to turn bright orange, and there’s a chill (oh that chill!) coming on, no matter how much we wish it wasn’t. So, when Nao sings, “You feel like summer/ You bring me back to life/ You got me reminiscing ’bout a better time,” on “Nostalgia”, the idea of a happier moment full of sunshine and warmth hits home particularly hard. The self-professed “wonky funk” vocalist showcased what she was capable of on 2016’s excellent debut, For All We Know, and the bubbly, shimmying “Nostalgia” promises that there’s much more to come. The details of the follow-up to that debut haven’t yet been announced, but we’ll be sure you know as soon as we do. —Lior Phillips
07. Maggie Rogers – “Split Stones”
It’s always a positive feeling when we seriously impress our teachers. Not only do we nearly burst with the bubbly satisfaction of seeing that triangular letter at the beginning of the alphabet stamped on our work, but we also get that little nudge of encouragement so critical to someone just starting out. Maggie Rogers felt that nudge from no less than Pharrell Williams at a songwriting master class, and it sparked a 2016 trio of instantly catchy singles, quirky accompanying videos with their own unique aesthetic, and a major-label debut EP, Now That the Light Is Fading, that left us pining for more. Like breakthrough hit “Alaska” and Rogers herself, “Split Stones” finds that casual compromise between a young woman who can’t decide whether she wants to go backpacking and sightseeing or break out into an unapologetically goofy dance in the middle of a public sidewalk. Again, as on prior singles, we hear the poetic singer-songwriter verses spilling into ebullient pop choruses, all delivered with a take-me-or-leave-me sense of self that shines through all her recordings. Rogers considers “Split Stones”, an old song of hers, to be a gift to fans and a signal to the end of one journey and the start of another. Consider our bags already packed. –Matt Melis
06. Ariel Pink – “Another Weekend”
Great songwriting often comes down to dynamics. Whole genres have been built around ideas of loud-soft-loud, launchpad transitions from restrained verses to explosive choruses, and countless other combinations of change-ups that keep listeners both guessing and anticipating. On “Another Weekend”, the dreamy lead single off Ariel Pink’s recent Dedicated to Bobby Jameson album, we waft through the songwriter’s familiar throwback brand of lo-fi radio pop, drifting from hazy to even hazier, electronic glitches, like a flickering light bulb, all that’s reminding us to hit reset and not float away all together. “Another Weekend” spins like a fading photograph or a song taped off the radio and showing wear from being copied hundreds of times. We long for something, or someone, in our past, but time and its toll on our memories has made it impossible even to truly pine for what we once had. We’re left replaying a copy in our minds, a recording that slowly deteriorates with each rewind and longing sigh for something gone for good. –Matt Melis
05. King Krule – “Dum Surfer”
You might think you know what King Krule sounds like, but if we’ve learned anything about the 23-year-old songwriting prodigy, his music defies easy definition. Maybe it’s the fact that he burst onto the scene at such a young age several years ago, but his jazz-infused songwriting gave way to the more electronic-leaning material he released under his proper name, Archy Marshall. With a new album coming out next month, King Krule has rebooted again. “Dum Surfer” sounds ideal for music being released in October — one part fuzzed-out garage, one part monster mash. As a follow-up to the spoken-word “Czech One” from last month, “Dum Surfer” is notable for its commitment within its free spirit. Even if Marshall dabbles in many interests, never does he sound half-hearted in his experiments. “Dum Surfer” is a cannonball into the deep end, with his past standing as a warning to not get to comfortable within its confines. King Krule isn’t trying to find himself. He’s just always moving, like a shark. –Philip Cosores
04. Margo Price – “A Little Pain”
Margo, Margo, Margo. It’s a name on many lips right now — and surprisingly, on the lips of many listeners who never would’ve imagined they’d be singing along with a fixture of the Nashville scene. But with a little help from Jack White’s Third Man Records, singer-songwriter Margo Price appears poised to become one of the few crossover artists who can make rock and pop fans mosey on over to the country section at their local record shops. “A Little Pain”, the first single off her upcoming album, All American Made, points to that being the case in the near future. It’s such a straightforward tune and yet defies simple classification. The retro country pop definitely borrows from rock and pop’s shiny past — there’s even a psychedelic breakdown for a bridge — and Price surprises and wows when she suddenly launches from a small, girlish voice into a hold-my-breath belt-a-thon in the song’s choruses. We may have heard all of these elements before but rarely arranged quite like this or delivered with such irresistable, genre-smashing allure. –Matt Melis
03. The Killers – “Tyson vs. Douglas”
If you didn’t know, The Killers are from Las Vegas, and that’s why we get albums titled Sam’s Town and now a song called “Tyson vs. Douglas”. Here’s a fun fact, though: That match did not happen in Sin City, but in Tokyo, Japan, and it’s considered one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport. At the time — specifically, February 11, 1990 — our Hangover star was undefeated, so nobody expected Buster Douglas to come out on top, which is exactly what happened in the fiery 10th round, which saw the underdog landing a devastating uppercut to the reigning champ. It was a fall from grace that sent shock waves through the industry and apparently a young Brandon Flowers, who sings here: “When I saw him go down/ Felt like somebody lied/ I had to hold my breath till the coast was clear.” Maybe he was a superfan, or maybe he’s speaking collectively for Vegas; it’s hard to tell, but it’s clear that this Springsteen meets War on Drugs anthem is all about the fracturing of a guarantee and the idea that life doesn’t always go as it seems, which is such a hard thing to swallow no matter the situation. And with a chorus like this one — not to mention that blissful breakdown halfway through that screeches with echoes of past winners like “On Top” — it’s hard not to relate to Flowers’ angst, even if you do think Tyson’s a scumbag. –Michael Roffman
02. Young Thug & Carnage: Young Martha – “Homie” feat. Meek Mill
Young Thug’s collaboration with producer Carnage produced a pair of standouts, to the point that it is pretty much pick your poison between them. “Liger” features a floating, relaxed flute backing with Thug’s smooth cadence serving like an pocket of air for your mind, while the Meek Mill-assisted “Homie” is an entirely different beast altogether. In fact, “beast” might be the best description, as Thug’s gravely hook sounds like the rapper might eat you for dinner, storming through the song at full speed. When Meek shows up in the second verse, Thug’s blazing determination is flat-out infectious. Carnage’s contribution gives the song an almost apocalyptic tone, ultimately showing the collaboration between the two to be a surprisingly malleable endeavor. As Young Thug continues his prolific rate of releasing music, this latest run still manages to offer up surprises. –Philip Cosores
01. Rostam – “Gwan”
Dreams fade away. Whether it’s in the moment when you first awake and the visions of your slumber quickly dissipate, or whether it is over years when you slowly compromise what you thought you wanted to achieve, dreams hold a temporary existence, destined to be replaced by reality. “All of these dreams keep coming back to me slowly,” Rostam sings on “Gwan”, reflecting a more profound and rare experience. The act of recalling a dream can be transportive, even nostalgic. It can take you back to a younger self or to a feeling you didn’t even know you had. It’s the source of one of the most memorable lyrics ever crafted, when Otis Redding proclaimed, “I’ve got dreams to remember.” But Rostam doesn’t just tell us about the dreams that he can’t shake, the song’s ray-of-sunshine string arrangement is joyful enough to will celestial bodies into the heavens. Rostam shows his audience how to feel through melody and instrumentation as much as he tells them in his lyrics. In the video for the song, Rostam can’t help but smile as he walks around New York City singing. On “Gwan”, the feeling is contagious, and a world where dreams linger indefinitely seems possible. –Philip Cosores