The biggest song this week brought together three of the biggest names in music; it arrived with no warning and exploded into our lives. We talked about this last week — we talk about it all the time, or maybe we don’t even talk about it at all anymore, because we now take it for granted — but it’s important to recognize that this phenomenon is something special: music just bursting forth without warning — without an extended PR rollout; hell, without any PR rollout — rushing up on us out of nowhere, surprising us. This is a surprise, too: The biggest song this week wasn’t the best song this week. It was the fifth best, and the four that were better? The artists behind those songs are bursting forth, arriving, and exploding, too. They are not anywhere near the biggest names in music. But what they are doing right now is something pretty goddamn special, too.
It’s impossible to strip a song like this away from its context. It’s an event, and a fascinating one. Forget about the unlikely trio of headliners; even the tracks’s supporting players make for a deeply unpredictable gathering of titans. The “FourFiveSeconds” credits list R&B robo-lothario Ty Dolla $ign, lead Dirty Projector Dave Longstreth, and pop-industry lifer Dallas Austin as contributors; imagine those three guys in a room together. But even with all the cultural baggage that the song carries, it’s still, at root, a simple coffeehouse open-mic jam. I’ve seen detractors calling it a country song or a Sheryl Crow song, and that’s sort of the point. There are beautiful subtle touches: The organ on the bridge, the squeaky vocal ad-libs buried in the mix, the ghostly gospel choir flitting through. But this is really Rihanna’s show, and she gives it maybe her best vocal performance ever. She’s in classic brash blues-diva don’t-fuck-with-me mode, using all that open space to throw rough, scratchy charisma all over the place and then cutting the fuck loose on the bridge. Here’s this army of pop-music geniuses, and they’re all there to prop up a star in a starring role. And we need stars, especially stars like this. –Tom
It’s not that we didn’t know Torres could get heavy before the release of “Strange Hellos” on Tuesday. On her self-titled debut she often sounded like a muzzled Rottweiler, holding back ferocity out of some sense of uncertainty. Now, the muzzle is off. MacKenzie Scott has faced down the kind of demons that those of us who have dealt with faulty parents or dysfunctional religious structures recognize immediately. When she snarls, “I love you all the same,” it’s with the resigned distress of someone who has wrestled with love like a slipknot, trying to loosen its inevitable tightening. “Strange Hellos” builds from the sullen, slow chords of its plucked beginning into a torrential upsurge of guitar monstrosity, but the anger also feels like freedom. Sometimes it takes a whole mess of screaming alone in your room to muster up public politeness toward those who only continue to hurt you. And sometimes, you’re still going to hate them just the same. –Caitlin
In 1993, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay titled “E Unibus Pluram: Television And U.S. Fiction,” about the way in which TV programming has shaped the potential for contemporary American fiction narratives. It’s an extensive essay, and Wallace hits on a million different ideas (as he tends to do) that are totally irrelevant to Colleen Green. However, there is one judgment buried in the piece that perfectly echoes the lyrics to Green’s latest single: We watch TV in order to feel less alone, but sometimes it backfires and we end up lazy and sad instead. That being said, TV also has the potential to be the most comforting friend in the world: It doesn’t talk back, and its sole purpose is to entertain you. Colleen Green is a master at intellectualizing life’s inanities, and her forthcoming LP, I Want To Grown Up, is fated to be a ding-dong-ditch on the door of pretension. Green and Wallace both rationalize their affinity for television in the exact same way, but she’s much more forthright: “It keeps me company when nobody else/ Is around and I’m all by myself,” and later, “I don’t have to worry about a conversation/ And I don’t have to worry about being fun.” Anyone familiar with Green’s music would want to hang out with her — she has the presence of someone who has achieved optimum chillness, who walks into a room and knows half the crowd, but doesn’t feel the need to make herself known. It’s a relief to know that even cool, smart people lay around watching re-runs in their free time; it’s an even bigger relief that they would rather do that then look for company in a book of essays. –Gabriela
2013’s The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas was great because Courtney Barnett was using a superb writerly voice to lay out the drifting, aimless confusion that’s such an inevitable part of your early 20s. But on “Pedestrian At Best,” the first single from Barnett’s first proper album, she’s taken that confusion and weaponized it. She’s got knives pointed inward: “I must confess, I’ve made a mess of what should be a very small success / But I digress, at least I’ve tried my best, I guess.” But those knives are pointed outward, too. On the chorus, after she promises to take your money and turn it into origami, honey, she tells you you’re a joke and she doesn’t find you very funny. And she stretches the word “funny” out to at least 15 syllables, which is pretty funny itself. She’s swapped out her old ambling Dylan-damaged folk for serrated guitar-fuzz, equal parts mid-’80s underground rock clangor and mid-’90s mercenary alt-pop hooksmanship. And she’s every bit as pointed as she is lost. If songs like “Avant Gardener” introduced a promising new talent, “Pedestrian At Best” takes all that talent and shoves it down your fucking throat. –Tom
I’ve seen Girlpool live a handful of times now, and my favorite thing about their performances is how they tend to switch it up between new and old songs. There’s no sense of rote familiarity that can sometimes hang over shows — with their dual force of anxious catchiness and confessional-style lyricism, it could be easy to get wrapped up in familiar melodies and lose track of the potent meaning behind their tracks. But by peppering the unknown alongside the known, they create an environment where it feels like each song is being lived through in the moment, and it’s a heart-wrenching and special thing to experience. Basically, make sure that you go see them when they inevitably roll through your city.
So when “Chinatown” landed earlier this week, it already felt like an old friend, even though I had probably only heard it once or twice before. The immediacy that makes Girlpool’s live shows so emotional extends to their recordings, a perfect capsule of a suspended moment in time. It’s maybe the most ambitious song they’ve put out yet, bumming out the nervous energy that crackled on their debut EP into a slow-burn, cautious enterprise. The track is laid out like a mirror image of itself, projecting outward for the first half and then reflecting inward. “And if I told you I loved you, would you take it the wrong way?” vs. “If I love myself, would I take it the wrong way?” There’s a magnetism at play that makes you want to hold onto every word. My favorite part is when their voices come together toward the end of the track in a blunted ferocity: “I am nervous for tomorrow and today.” It’s a hesitant step forward in any direction, feeling rudderless but forced by time to keep moving. “Do you feel restless when you realize you’re alive?” they ask, unsure that any answer could possibly suffice. –James