This past weekend, we witnessed what may have been the worst (and most boring!) Grammys of all time. But, thankfully, on the non-corporatized side of the music industry (with one notable exception), we got more than enough reminders as to why music is worth engaging with beyond awards and artifice. And even that one big-machine entity seems fed up with the Grammys, too (if he’s not getting one). Most of these songs will never take home a Grammy, but they’re still our five best songs of the week, which seems like reward enough.
I came into music through rap at a very early age hearing people debate about whose lyrics were the most genius, potent, and memorable. That emphasis on lyricism stayed with me as I got older, but as I grew more emotionally mature and expanded my sonic tastes I made room for genres and artists that could create and effectively communicate a mood. Lyrical gifts and dexterity are still something to marvel at for me, but to inspire an intangible notion in someone without saying a word (or using a more economical amount of them) is truly incredible. That is what Japanese Breakfast do quickly and excellently on “Everybody Wants To Love You.” The bright, surf-y guitar, crashing cymbals, and intricate drum work capture the sheer exuberance of a budding relationship in transition while approaching the vulnerability needed to allow that joy to happen in the first place. The delicate but raw questions in the lyrics are hard to ask and hard to answer as they can make or break the foundation a relationship is built upon. But, ultimately, that killer guitar along with the harmonized chants of the title overwhelm with hope and optimism in the end. To create this emotional excursion in a little over two minutes is remarkable. –Collin
When we think of one-man metal projects, we usually think about black metal misanthropes, isolating themselves in snowy-forest cabins, blowing all their money on candles, and making hissy, insular, unforgiving music. We usually don’t think about titanic riff-rock anthems that could’ve ripped entire arenas apart if they’d been made by five dudes in 1985. And yet that’s what Chicago’s “Professor” Chris Black does. Working on his own, Black crafts these monumental, thundering old-school metal shit-stompers, songs for storming your enemies’ beaches. “North By North,” thrown onto SoundCloud with zero context, has a bludgeoning riff, a choir-of-howling-vikings chorus, and the sort of solo that demands its own air-guitar routine from whoever hears this. One person made this. One person can do anything. –Tom
Do over. Pause. Reset. Unlike video games, there’s no option for any of these in real life, but we hold out hope that we’ll be able to change and try again. More than likely, however, we’re all just stuck in a series of looping patterns, doomed to never get too far out of our own comfort zone. One of the many appeals of Katie Dey’s debut release was that familiarity, that feeling of being closed-off and insular. But that comfort is also a curse and, as a result, “Hope Reset” sounds contracted and stretched thin and yearning for connection beyond the confines of a hometown. Doing the same thing over and over gets exhausting, but so does going outside of your bubble, which for Dey happens to be Australia, but could be somewhere as claustrophobic as your apartment or as isolating as a crowded party. “Hope Reset” feels out of step and out of time with the rest of the world, but it’s willing to engage. Perhaps notably, but maybe not really, this is the first time Dey has opted to share the lyrics for one of her songs, and they only echo the track’s deep discontent and desire to leave everything behind: “I will change my life to the rhythm of others’ lives/ I can reset myself, I’m hoping/ I can fall in love with the thought of falling in love.” Game over. Play again? –James
There are a lot of people who will listen to this new FKA Twigs single and just think: “Nope.” At least, that was my initial reaction, because my favorite FKA Twigs songs tend to illustrate some sort of power struggle. A push-and-pull. They’re songs about the crippling responsibility of intimacy, about sexuality, about miscommunication. She spits out that monstrous chorus of “In Time” like her accusations are burbling up mid-argument and they just so happen to rhyme. There’s immediacy and anger in that song and in so many others, which means that a song like “Good To Love” might sound too safe in comparison. But I reevaluated that assertion after watching this single’s accompanying video a second, third, fourth, tenth time. FKA Twigs writhes around in a bed completely alone as she yearns to be sharing that space with some unnamed other. It’s self-directed, simple, and totally stunning. FKA Twigs is a titanic star, or at the very least, an artistic force to be reckoned with. She’s a performance artist, a dancer, a singer, a producer. She’s more than entitled to make a beautiful, fermenting, super-sexy song about giving into love. There’s an excess of power in her vulnerability, too. –Gabriela
Kanye West has fucked up a lot lately, so much that you might reasonably conclude Kanye West is fucked up — if not a definitively petty and malicious person, at least deeply unwell. In other words, he’s exactly the type Jesus Christ had in mind when he told his critics, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Saul of Tarsus found himself in a similar condition on the road to Damascus before he literally saw the light, heard the voice of God, and decided to turn his life upside down. If we’re honest, we’ve all been there: corrupted versions of our greatest selves, in need of a fresh start.
That promise of no-strings redemption has always been the appeal of the gospel. It’s the renewable resource that courses though most gospel music. And on “Ultralight Beam,” the opening salvo from Kanye’s Saul-to-Paul splatter The Life Of Pablo, Mr. West and friends conjure that euphoric sense of hope in a way religious music rarely manages anymore. The-Dream finds safety from his enemies. Kelly Price discovers strength in her weakness. Kirk Franklin exults in the promise that you’re never too messed up to come home. It’s as rapturous as God music is supposed to be.
Kanye is there too, setting the scene and curating the barebones futuristic swells that function as the foundation for all this reverie. But no one shines brighter than Chance The Rapper, for whom “Ultralight Beam” serves as a torch-passing of sorts. (When he stepped on stage unannounced at SNL, even though I knew full well he was on the song, my entire being tingled. Kanye rightfully got out of his way.) As usual, Chance’s mere presence elicits joy. He infuses “Ultralight Beam” with generosity, justice, and humor, but he begins as the embodiment of grace: “When they come for you, I will shield your name. I will field their questions. I will feel your pain.” It’s a burst of inspiration that might have even nonbelievers crying “Amen!” –Chris