We’re officially five full weeks into 2015, so where do we stand (besides shin-deep in gray-curb slush puddles)? From the sounds of this playlist, we might not be standing at all. We could be bounding through aquariums, huddling in storm-wrecked caves, kneeling in funereal cathedrals, feasting in royal courts, or traipsing around the woods. This week’s 5 Best Songs offers a comprehensive peek into the year’s promising, polychromatic musical landscape. Why not investigate the whole expanse?
Ruban Nielson’s magnificent, porous voice is immediately arresting simply because of how open it is. When he sings, it sounds like there’s all this space inside of his vocals — like you can fit your own noise in there. So when it’s taken together with the rest of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s wriggling, funky psychedelia, listening can be an unsettling experience. People bring the patterns of water into their listening experience all the time, but when I’m listening to UMO is the only time it feels like I could actually swim in what I’m hearing. In the interview about his new record, Nielson explains the concept behind the the song’s title: “A new kind of futuristic multi-love. Not some hippie bullshit, but a hard-edged, cynical, and sharp kind of love.” Since love is something that we generally hypothesize about as a round, warm, and earnest thing, his definition is, again, full of tension and contrasts. “She don’t want to be a man or a woman / She wants to be your love,” he sings. Wait a beat. At first that sentence seems nonsensical. Slowly, it begins to sound like the only logical thing in the world. Nielson’s razor-sharp focus on putting love first, shedding the baggage that come along with it, whether it be gender, counter-culture, or the past, is what makes this song overwhelming, radical even. On every listen, “Multi-Love” engulfs me. Who am I to argue with a flood? –Caitlin
On the woefully underrated II, Makthaverskan proved that they have a knack for building massive hooks around unintelligible howls. They do that again here: Maja Milner’s vocals serve as the eye of the storm in a swirling hurricane of black clouds and freezing rain. Her mythic howling acts as the backbone of a slow, churning monster. “Witness” marches along with a savage, ambling fury — it’s absolutely massive, a snarled out warning against … what? Well, we’re not exactly sure. It doesn’t possess the emotional clarity of II highlights “No Mercy” or “Antabus,” but it makes up for that in sheer intensity and willpower. It’s threatening and assertive, a dominating force to be reckoned with. And that badass cover art? It seals the deal. Makthaverskan exude this kind of epic, effortless cool, and here we have two hooded figures, one holding a knife and the other whose fist is tightly clenched. They’re staring you down, but they want nothing to do with you. You’re not even on their plane of existence. No one is. –James
Matthew E. White knows how to make horns and violins sound like sunbeams hitting your soul. As a producer, a string arranger, and a solo artist, he’s got a rare command of orchestral grandeur. In his hand, a string section doesn’t feel like some plea for prestige; it’s a toy to be played with. But when someone is that great at making elaborately joyous music, it can be weird to hear him make a dirge. “Tranquility” is a dirge. It’s White’s dedication to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died a year ago. And it’s White’s attempt at the same kind of poetic languor that Hoffman could find in his performances — less “hey, I really liked when you were the bad guy in Mission: Impossible III” and more “the strong and gentle fade/ the lights on Broadway dim.” For six minutes, all White’s woodwinds sadly mutter to themselves as White offers up a sad goodbye: “His work is at an end/ We feel no bitterness/ We feel no bitterness.” –Tom
Funny thing about rap: Anyone can become great at any time. For years, Big Sean was an irritant, playing the jumpy attention-starved little brother on otherwise-great songs like “Mercy” and “Clique.” On “Control (HOF),” Sean’s own song, his one job was to get blown the fuck out by a legend-making Kendrick Lamar verse, and you could say the same thing about what he did next to Nicki Minaj on his own “Dance (A$$)” remix. Now, he’s all of a sudden inviting two dominant rap A-listers onto his song and maybe kind of overshadowing them. Sean didn’t propel himself into all-timer status because of his work on “Blessings,” but it’s definitely a new look: He uses that needling voice to push the beat back and forth like it’s a golf ball and he’s an excitable kitten. Meanwhile, Drake shushes you so he can propose a toast and Kanye threatens to found a Montessori school, while the drums refuse to sit still and the synths do cool gothy things. Event-rap songs aren’t supposed to be this much fun, but they can be. And all of a sudden, I’m excited for a Big Sean album. –Tom
This will be the second week in a row that I reference a great work of literature, and I apologize, but there’s absolutely no way that anyone who sat through a middle-school English class can listen to Johanna Warren’s tremendous song without immediately thinking of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” I hate that poem. It’s deeply patriotic, it lacks subtlety, and if every middle-school English class across the United States teaches it out of one of those colorfully illustrated literature textbooks, then there’s no conceivable reason why I should like it. We are forced to read “The Road Not Taken” at a tender age to teach us that individuality is important, that sometimes the easy choice isn’t necessarily the right one, that we should stick to our own moral high ground and strive for success at every conceivable moment. We’re all walking in the woods, dammit, and if you choose the path that everyone else is taking, then you are a conformist and a coward.
Warren’s road less traveled is a different one. It’s a road that acknowledges how hard it can be to stick to your ideals when the world is harsh and almost impossible to navigate in your early twenties. It’s a call to put down your phone, to pull away from the virtual reality and try to reconnect with your truest self — away from the projections on the screen, away from other people’s perceptions. It’s a seemingly impossible thing to do in the 21st century, and Warren is in no way saying that she’s mastered it. There is no declaration that, “I took the one less traveled by/ And that has made all the difference.” Warren is less assured, but her lyrics convey a faint image of what an alternate mindset might look like, “You locked the door/ don’t live there anymore/ but check both your pockets — maybe you still have the key,” and then, “We built the walls/ They were strong, overall/ but now the barriers all start to fade away.” By the end of “Less Traveled,” it sounds like she’s almost figured out how to do just that, “Damn, it feels good/ Something we understood/ a long time ago but forgot somewhere on the way.” Warren isn’t bragging, she’s just urging you to follow her lead. –Gabriela