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

#NowPlaying

Today's essential songs, picked by NPR Music and NPR Member stations
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Hit play on any random song from Alex Giannascoli's prolific output as Alex G and you're equally likely to hear freaky pitch-shifted vocals, an affecting acoustic ballad, squeaky electronic production or sturdy rock. Even when you've been trained to expect this kind of sonic shapeshifting, though, the Philly songwriter still knows how to surprise. "Blessing," his latest release, is exactly that kind of curveball: delightfully weird, minimalist and dark, it doles out many curiosities over its three short minutes. Cavernous synths give way to whispered vocals that are eventually overtaken by a guitar freak-out which shifts again in the direction of a foreboding synth-heavy outro. "Every day is a blessing," Giannascoli deadpans; he's got a knack for making good fortune sound dangerous.

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If you don't know BabyTron, trust that you will very soon. A scam rapper turned one of hip-hop's rising superstars, the Crocs-wearing 21 year old with a distinct Detroit drawl has become a unique presence in the industry. His flow is hard to imitate, jumping on and off the rhythm with an intentional deftness, both in his solo work and his collaborations with his similarly ridiculously named trio S*****Boyz. He's created his own unique, carefree language in his songs, filled with Detroit slang, basketball references and callbacks to freestyle sounds of the '80s.

He also has an affinity for beat-shifting whirlwinds that showcase his flow's versatility. "Emperor of the Universe" is a behemoth that finds BabyTron tackling 21 beats over nearly six minutes. He's done this sort of thing before, namely on "King of the Galaxy" and "Prince of the Mitten," but much like an emperor to a prince, this version manages to supersede them all. He raps over decades of the best beats, taking left turns from last year's "SORRY BOUT THAT" by Yeat to Waka Flocka Flame's "Hard in Da Paint" to the classic "Still D.R.E." piano riff. Part of BabyTron's appeal is his personality and memeability — on tracks like this, it's clear that, in an era of self-seriousness in hip-hop, we just simply need someone to be goofy and rap about scams over OutKast's "Ms. Jackson."

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When books are eventually written about music made during quarantine — and they will be — creativity and connection must center them. Somewhere between how i'm feeling now and FLOWERS for VASES / descansos there should be mention of West Kensington. Recorded early in the pandemic, Philly neighbors and friends Mary Lattimore and Paul Sukeena capture both isolation's bleary uncertainty and intimate camaraderie with ambient music that wonders and wanders.

With an absurd song title that feels like an inside joke, "Hundred Dollar Hoagie" creeps at the corners of consciousness. Lattimore, known for her work as a harpist solo and in studio sessions, here applies her astral explorations to synths. In close quarters, her bombastic synth melody — not unlike the late Vangelis — yearns to bound the spaceways of her confines. Sukeena, who's played on records by Steve Gunn and Rosali, echoes the stately chord progression with a weeping guitar — lost, but girded with a belt of feedback.

Universal StudiosYouTube

Diana Ross and Tame Impala have dropped the first taste of the soundtrack for Minions: The Rise of Gru, which will feature covers of 1970s hits produced and curated by Jack Antonoff. And though Ross and Tame Impala seem like quite the peculiar pairing, their song "Turn Up the Sunshine" is a bop that just feels right. The song grooves with funky, rhythmic percussion, an energetic string arrangement and bass that just rips through. Ross effortlessly delivers inspiring vocals and lyrics, singing: "We gotta keep it movin', make a change so it don't change back / So hard to lose like that." What else should we have expected from "The Disco Diva" and modern psychedelic legend Kevin Parker?

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In that glorious late '90s and early '00s R&B mini-canon of women singing about kicking shady broke boys to the curb, 3LW's "No More (Baby I'ma Do Right)" always sounded a bit subdued. The hit didn't have the swagger of a "No Scrubs," the breakneck interrogation of a "Say My Name," the maturity of an "It's Not Right But It's Okay." 3LW's "No More (Baby I'ma Do Right)" had a teen pop sheen and a schoolyard charm.

But in the skittery "Looking At Your Pager" from Four Tet's side-project KH, the deft producer loops a sample into a siren song of built up tension. Kiely Williams' lisp-y delivery — "getting a lil' tired of your broken promithes, promithes" — gets increasingly stressed with each repeat, buoyed by a vibrating, deep bass synth that sounds almost like a revving motorbike threatening to go full throttle. And yet, in waves, an airy, twinkling melody washes over the "Looking At Your Pager," breaking through its hard, club-worthy exterior as if to remind the subject of 3LW's disappointment: this could be sweet, if only you'd let it be.

Dirty HitYouTube

Let's go, girls. The first single from Rina Sawayama's forthcoming album Hold The Girl manages to pack a Shania Twainreference, an over-the-top guitar solo, a rebuke of paparazzi callousness, a kiss-off to haters and Paris Hilton's iconic catchphrase into the space of a single song. A glammy, country-pop inspired banger, "This Hell" is a celebration of community in the face of hardship — flippant towards self-righteous adversaries and earnest about the benefits of sticking together.

Sawayama says she wrote the song while thinking about recent religiously motivated attacks on LGBTQ rights: "When the world tells us we don't deserve love and protection," she said in a statement, "we have no choice but to give love and protection to each other." I, for one, look forward to hearing "God hates us? Alright then! / Buckle up at dawn we're riding" at Pride parties all summer long.

New Amsterdam RecordsYouTube

To create a definitive performing version of Julius Eastman's Stay On It, from 1973, is next to impossible. Since the brilliant, forward-thinking Black and proudly gay composer met an early death in 1990 at age 49, no manuscript for Stay On It has been found. And judging from the highly improvised nature of the work, and those musicians who recall their parts delivered on a single sheet of handwritten instructions, Eastman may have never created a complete score in the first place.

Thank goodness, then, for Wild Up, a group that has jumped on the recent Eastman bandwagon, done extensive research, and come up with its own rapturous rendition. The opening stammering rhythm is the lodestar of the piece which gradually devolves into a raucous house party — with caterwauling saxophones and frenzied vocals — then chills into tranquility by the end of its glorious, exhilarating 10 minutes. Look for a full album in June.

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"Savior" isn't the most explosive song you will hear from Kendrick Lamar's Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. (That honorific could go to "We Cry Together," "Auntie Diaries" or any appearance by Kodak Black, who has thrived despite a sexual assault charge for much of his career.) But it is where the artist behind "Alright" most succinctly rationalizes why his current sociopolitical views are more "Kodak Black'' than "pro-Black." "Kendrick made you think about it," he raps, "but he is not your savior."

Not he or anybody can be our savior, but this dynamic forces artists like Lamar, J. Cole and Future to "bite they tongue in rap lyrics / Scared to be crucified about a song." To wit, the second verse features a parable about a Christian who, after catching COVID, "started to question" Kyrie Irving and the NBA player's protest against New York's vaccine mandate. But even that story ends on a cliffhanger ("Will I stay organic or hurt in this bed for two weeks?"). Either Lamar thinks what happens next is besides the point, or he realizes how he'd be held accountable for a more conclusive ending.

"Savior" answers a question that Lamar poses on "N95": "What the f*** is cancel culture?" To that end, as Sam Dew's wordless vocals pulse throughout and Baby Keem takes the hook ("Bitch, are you happy for me?"), Lamar wades into that contentious debate by lobbying to be seen as human. Whether listeners will forgive him — or wonder why his strongest stance in Mr. Morale seems to be against "cancel culture" — remains to be seen. And whether we're ready to hear it or not, the elusive Lamar isn't holding back.

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Before the albums Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys and The Black Parade, and certainly before the band sang "I'm Not Okay" — giving a mute generation license for honesty and a language for their post Sept. 11 collective trauma — My Chemical Romance wrote comic book narratives on death. The band had to. Unlike the urban, subcultural bands that predated third wave emo, MCR was born in the suburbs, in the shadow of New York City's skyline, deeply uncool and escapist. A refuge from the rumble of the Twin Towers was found in the narrative mind of frontman Gerard Way and the band's crude guitar tracks, informed by local emo heroes Thursday as much as Morrissey, Queen, musical theater and Fangoria. In VFW halls and New Brunswick basements, they became vampiric superheroes, ready to give teens credence and optimism in their pain.

"The Foundations of Decay," My Chemical Romance's first new song since 2014's "Fake Your Death," recalls that time, sounding like a lost relic from its first album, 2002's I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, amplified by six-minute long proggy production. Beneath the programmed static, a mournful guitar line rings out — nearly identical to the one in "Demolition Lovers" — with explosive drums that build in the pre-chorus. Ray Toro's lead guitar is full of sticky staccato, and Gerard's rich, nasal tenor oscillates from reserved near-sprechgesang to screaming belt, strained but wiser now.

"He was there, the day the towers fell," he sings out to those early days, "Take his body as a relic to be canonized now / And so he gets to die a saint / But she will always be a whore," he contorts in the chorus. Instead of the navel-gazing, easy misogyny of emo-pop, Way and his band identify everyday injustices and perform them. How else could you exorcize a demon? Foundations decay, but in the debris is something beautiful.

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Mary Halvorson's first instrument was the violin. Given the way she swoops and pecks at her electric guitar, a craft honed over two decades, her first foray into string quartet composition, Belladonna, comes with a similarly determined and dramatic precision.

There are moments in the title track — from one of two companion albums out today including Amaryllis — that will sound familiar to anyone who's followed Halvorson's not-too-easily-confined career, namely a thick, hollowbody guitar tone and an effects pedal array that suddenly jumps like a humpback whale out of water. But it's the way that Halvorson's guitar hides in plain sight that excites, as she speedily tremolo picks alongside the Mivos Quartet's pizzicato strings or playfully echoes the cello's furtively struck notes. The piece itself is both beautiful and ravenous, perfectly named after the poisonous plant commonly known as deadly nightshade, blooming with danger.

May 12

Marcus King, 'Hard Working Man'

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American RecordingsYouTube

As far as we know, Marcus King never went to the crossroads at midnight, but he did have a guitar in his hands about the same time he learned to walk. Being the fourth generation in the family line of musicians, King thrived early in the roots, rock and blues scenes of Greenville, S.C., and fully arrived upon teaming with Dan Auerbach for his 2020 solo debut, El Dorado.

King and Auerbach's second act brings us Young Blood out August 26. "Hard Working Man" stomps the accelerator immediately, taking you back in time as King's tempered growl and guitar chops race around a Nashville dirt track blasting Edgar Winter Group and Tony Joe White at stadium volume.

May 10

Kendrick Lamar, 'The Heart Part 5'

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

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Kendrick Lamar has, at last, announced his next album (and last for TDE records), Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, via the minimal website Oklama and the release of a powerful new track: "The Heart Part 5." Each release in the "Heart" song series has signaled both an imminent new project and a new artistic beginning for Lamar. Here, Lamar illustrates how he has grown as an artist and as a Black man.

Enveloped in a sample of the sultry "I Want You" by Marvin Gaye, "The Heart Part 5" addresses relationships – between Lamar and his fans, between the cultures, between a Black person and this country. Kendrick conveys this complexity in a minimalist video featuring only a single shot held on Lamar, his face intermittently deepfaked into O.J. Simpson, Will Smith, Kanye West, Jussie Smollet, Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle.

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"Too foreign for here, too foreign for home" is how Hubei-born rapper Bohan Phoenix describes straddling two different worlds; he moved to the U.S. at age 11. Undeterred, he's spent the last decade cultivating a bicultural audience by deftly weaving between Mandarin and English. Phoenix has made a name for himself collaborating with Chinese hip-hop group Higher Brothers and, during 2020's Black Lives Matter protests, voiced the rallying cry for Chinese rappers to give back to the culture that had launched their careers.

Under a cascade of funk and with a charismatic presence, "New York Made Me" celebrates Phoenix's immigrant experience. The SPUDNYC-directed video features a montage of New Yorkers who represent the eclectic and international fabric of the city that's influenced him. The rhythm of his words are both leisurely and confident as he makes it clear that he hasn't lost that scrappy hunger that's pushed his work towards recognition: "给我 / That's the attitude / This city got me feeling like I gotta prove."

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A Carly Rae Jepsen song always promises a few signatures: '80s-inspired synths that set off like a fireworks display; a giddy, girlish romanticism; the same reliability for getting a party going as a disco ball over a dancefloor. But on "Western Wind," Jepsen shakes the glitter of her last few albums out of her hair, ditching her studied electro-pop for "Thank You"-biting bongos on this relaxed song about finding love in the wilds of California.

"Western Wind" builds on a slightly hippie-dippie, granola trend of pop girl restraint working its way through music over the last few years — think folklore's acoustic cottagecore, Solar Power's off-the-grid optimism, the mid-'00s, Starbucks check-out CD minimalism of HAIM's jazzy 2019 single "Summer Girl" (which, as with "Western Wind," was produced by Rostam Batmanglij). This is music that turns away from the synthetic dance-pop possibilities of the Los Angeles studio for a sound better suited to catching fireflies in a jar on a balmy Friday in Big Sur (while likely mellowed out with the aid of a Cali-legal edible, of course). So lay back, chill out and embrace the vibes of a quieter CRJ era.

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Lady Gaga has always loved theatrics. Ever since the release of her debut The Fame — a dedicated thesis statement that pushed pop music to a highly conceptual level — her artistry has skewed more towards performance art, with the highest possible level of drama and transgression. This is a woman who once created a flying helicopter dress, challenged the Catholic Church through repurposed iconography and performatively murdered herself onstage in her inaugural MTV VMAs performance.

Now, nearly 15 years since the start of her career, Gaga has mellowed out significantly. She's gotten older and generated critical acclaim in the jazz and traditional pop worlds. The space that she's found herself in post-Joanne is that of an anthemic, stadium-filling yet palatable pop star, best exemplified by the new single "Hold My Hand," her tie-in for the upcoming film Top Gun: Maverick. On paper, the choice of Gaga to carry the Top Gun sequel's soundtrack is maybe an obvious one: the film's lead Tom Cruise and Gaga both embody the extremes of their respective fields. But in practice the song falls victim to Late Career Gaga Syndrome, as it fails to push boundaries in favor of a motherly, catch-all message of allyship.

It's a tribute to the cheesiest of '80s ballads and one can't help but draw a comparison between "Hold My Hand" and the original Top Gun ballad: Berlin's "Take My Breath Away." In that tribute, it succeeds, and would probably work perfectly as the soundtrack to patriotic GoPro footage of fighter jets swan diving over a rocky gorge. But Gaga has proven that she can do better than a mediocre movie soundtrack — see the highs of A Star Is Born. And this song, much like a nostalgia-propelled sequel, is entertaining in this moment, but leaves a yearning for the way things used to be.

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Since they first started breaking the internet with their hyperarticulate strain of beat music, DOMi and JD Beck have gradually burrowed their way into the jazz mainstream. Or maybe it's that the mainstream has sidled up to them? However you want to put it, there's no doubt that DOMi, the ponytailed keyboard savant born Domitille Degalle (in Metz, France) and Beck, the mop-headed drum virtuoso (born and raised in the suburbs around Dallas, Texas) are now turning heads beyond the funhouse perimeter of viral stardom.

"SMiLE" is the first single from their full-length debut as a joint release from Blue Note and Anderson .Paak's label, APES*** INC. It's a sharp distillation of the DOMi & JD Beck ethos, which skews toward a technical aplomb so nonchalant as to feel cocky, and a youthful insolence that might be offensive if it weren't so obviously playful. DOMi's synth melody, with its blippy Nintendo flair, melds seamlessly with Beck's drumming, on the slouchy end of the pocket, à la J Dilla. A video for the tune — directed by .Paak, who puts in a cameo — imagines Mac DeMarco as a profanely cantankerous 100-year-old jazz legend. You'd think Beck and DOMi would approach him with all due irreverence, but what's on display is a form of love: not a smirk, but a smile.

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There was a move at '90s emo and hardcore shows that could only be called "chest drumming" — air instrumentals that mimicked the musicians onstage in real time. The people doing it were almost always wearing too-tight black t-shirts of bands submerged below in the emo iceberg meme. Listening to RLYR's "Real Air," I suddenly found myself in some basement, subdividing beats with open palms, mopped hair in face.

RLYR is instrumental post-hardcore elevated. A trio of musicians from Chicago's experimental rock scene — including members of Pelican, Locrian and Bloodiest — operate at a high level of musicianship and composition. Three albums in, RLYR could easily take a turn for the brainy, but a heightened sense of rock euphoria accompanies every new track. "Real Air" contains, in parts, Foo Fighters' arena-sized emotionalism, epic headbanging riffage, dizzying time signature switch-ups, blast-beaten grace and brawny-but-swaying guitar twinkle. If I wasn't so sure the sprinklers in the basement of my imagination would go off, I'd flicker a lighter in response.

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The fact that the members of Third Coast Percussion are banging on various types of metal on "Derivative" makes a curious connection to its composer, the electronic music producer Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton). In 2015, when she released her debut album, Dark Energy, she was working in the steel mills near her native Gary, Ind. Jlin has come a long way since, taking her lightning quick pulsations, inspired by Chicago's footwork music scene, worldwide and collaborating with artists such as William Basinski, Holly Herndon, and this Chicago-based percussion ensemble.

"Derivative" is part of a 30-minute suite called Perspective, and it uncorks a major, if sometimes woozy, groove, fueled by metal bowls filled with water, various gongs and a kick drum-style beat straight out of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks." Jlin created the entire suite as electronic tracks, one layer at a time, without notation. The Third Coast musicians translated her subtle, interlocking patterns into a version they could perform live. This will get your head boppin'.

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Massive Attack collaborator and famed Jamaican vocalist Horace Andy's "This Must Be Hell" opens his new album, Midnight Rocker, with near-catastrophic spiritual urgency. Lamenting the violent state of the world over the song's majestic bass arrangement, Andy's pained chorus says it all: "Lord, this must be hell because there's no peace amongst mankind."

Universal Music MexicoYouTube

On his latest single, Mexican singer Caloncho sings gently over a muted electric guitar and a subtle reggae backbeat. "We are just moments, a little while, nothing more," he sings in Spanish, "fleeting beings that come and go." In a world that continues to one-up itself with devastating headlines, "Somos Instantes" is a respite for the weary-hearted. It's a gentle reminder that we're here — briefly — and it's important to cultivate and protect your joy.

April 28

American Aquarium, 'All I Needed'

WNCW

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Sometimes when you are down, just hearing the right song can bring you back up. For BJ Barham of N.C. country-rock band American Aquarium, he knows this quite well, having recently lost his mother and grandmother — as well as a longtime friend to suicide. As he describes it, "We have all had that feeling of driving around, feeling down and then, out of nowhere, a song comes on the radio that grabs you and won't let go. Almost as if the universe saw you struggling and personally hand delivered a 3.5-minute message to get you out of that rut."

In this case, "All I Needed" clocks in at just under three minutes, delivering a pedal steel-soaked, acoustic guitar-driven major-chord anthem which features Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers singing high harmony. American Aquarium leans into its aesthetic of celebrating the common folk, and will surely draw comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. Barham relishes such observations, though, just as he enjoys knowing that someone will feel less hurt and alone after listening to this song.

Sub PopYouTube

Few singers have a voice that can melt the universe quite like Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg. On the band's latest track from The Great Awakening (out June 10), his transfixing falsetto drifts over a gently pulsing piano and a bed of airy synths that seem to rise and fade. The effect is transporting, as though you're taking flight like the birds Meiberg adores. "Aqaba," in fact, includes a gorgeous interlude of field recordings he made while researching his book, A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey. Meiberg calls the track a love song about the "terrifying feeling that you're being cracked like an egg." Heartache never sounded more beautiful.

#NowPlaying

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