Some weeks, choosing the 5 Best Songs can be difficult and polarizing. This was not one of those weeks. Of course, it’s hard to pit so many different genres against one another, which is why these lists are always so varied. This week wrangled in stoner folk, rap, and straight-up pop, and none of the choices were contested. Paired together, this reads like a painfully disorganized college radio-show playlist, but each of these songs is immensely fun to listen to on its own, and is well worth your time and attention. Check ‘em out.
Pure Bathing Culture never really went beyond precious and pleasant mood-setting on their 2013 debut, Moon Tides, but the band has amped up their sound for their next record, Pray For Rain, and nowhere is that more evident than on the title track. Sarah Versprille, one of half of the Portland duo, credits producer John Congleton for providing them with the kick they needed to take everything to the next level — he also helped Wye Oak map out a similar sonic maturation with Civilian — and the results feel invigorated and pressing in a way that the duo never were before. And, as Pure Bathing Culture evidenced on earlier tracks like “Ivory Coast” and “Evergreener,” their lyrics have a way of ingraining the simplest of refrains with a sense of purpose: “Are you cut in two? Cut all the way through?” Versprille asks in the chorus, trying to compartmentalize feelings that can’t be contained. “Is it pleasure, is it pain, did you pray for rain?” –James
I tend to think of the incredible DS2 as one long lean hallucination rather than a set of separate compositions. So when the time came to pick one to highlight on this list, the choice was rough. I would have been just as happy featuring the Gucci-flip-flop-fucking antics of “Thought It Was A Drought” or the sloshing, paranoid swoop of “Rotation” or the dissonant head-knock music of “Serve The Base” or almost any other track, but let’s zero in on “Blood On The Money” for a minute. It’s the darkest song on an incredibly dark album, a lament about making the best of a seemingly inevitable pattern of addiction, violence, and incarceration. Three producers worked on “Blood On The Money,” but its mournful tone is smartly understated, letting Future’s extra-creaky vocal performance do the heavy lifting. Throughout the album his increasingly sharp eye for detail results in some hilarious asides — see the aforementioned flip-flop lyric — but here he mostly peppers the narrative with hopeless snippets: “I know the devil is real,” “Me and the molly got married,” “I feel I’m walking through hell.” The most striking image of them all is the one he saved for the hook, Future and his associates scrubbing blood off their piles of cash, trying to find some sick satisfaction in a fucked-up life they’ve felt condemned to from birth. Situated at the end of the album proper, it’s a haunting ellipsis. –Chris
While the lyrics to “I Need Chickens” are layered in nuance, Young Thug’s new Mike WiLL Made-It-produced track showcases him at his most unabashedly playful. No, as fun as it might be, this is not a song about how much Thugger wants to eat chicken, but he would be more than OK with that interpretation. The song was officially released amidst a particularly tumultuous period for the rapper, who was recently arrested for threatening to shoot a mall cop, and then indicted for allegedly conspiring to murder Lil Wayne. The first Mike WiLL-produced single we heard after both of these incidents was “Pacifier,” the title of which most people would consider to be more than a little ironic. On “I Need Chickens,” Thugger exhales his too-mellow-to-level phrasing in a muttered drawl, weaving practically imperceptible situational descriptors (“Pull up swag gin’, no blazer, cooking’ dope with a apron/ Gettin’ numbers to the pager, know no cop then we don’t save ‘em”) in with the fowl- (drug-) themed chorus (“I need them chickens/ Bae, I need chickens/ Mama, I need chickens/ I need some chickens”). The most enlightening part of this song comes in the form of Thugger’s clucks and croons, which lend themselves so easily to Mike WiLL’s surrounding production. That, and the Harry Potter comparison that sidles into the second verse. –Gabriela
What would happen if M83 tried making teenpop? That’s a ridiculous question, but it’s the sort of question that a song like “Run Away With Me” forces us to confront. So here, in an ideal world, is the answer: Anthony Gonzalez would realize that it’s time for him to hang up his mic and find another singer instead — like, say, the effortlessly expressive human sparkler who had the biggest song of a couple of summers ago. He’d keep the volcanically cheesed-out saxophone from “Midnight City,” but he wouldn’t save it for a climactic solo. Instead, he’d wind it through the whole thing, build a riff out of it. He’d program his evocative ’80s synths for maximum efficiency, making a big, juicy groove out of them. He’d write a starry-eyed lyric about the explosive need to disappear into the world with the person you love, maybe even throwing a bit of a cheerleader chant on the hook. And then he’d sit back with a satisfied look on his face, confident that he’s somehow turned the outsized longing of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming into burnished, gleaming mall-pop. But Gonzalez didn’t give us this song; Carly Rae Jepsen did. Two of her songs have topped this list in the past few months, and this is somehow better than either of them. She is not fucking around. –Tom
Kurt Vile has always existed somewhere between deadly serious and complete absurdity. His M.O. encompasses both a gentle folk silliness and fiery rock-god majesty. Everything about Vile has always lived in this between-place; his decision to exit the War On Drugs and make fuzzed-out acoustic jams about cigarettes and angels, his enormous back-catalogue of poorly recorded and barely salvaged demos, the fact that he’d rather hang out with his daughters in Philadelphia than rub shoulders with fellow Rock Gods. “Smoke ring for my halo/ Angel, demon, human,” he sang on the title track of 2011’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, a trio of conflicting self-definitions reflected in nicotine, sin, and poetry. That album was Vile’s breakout, and though 2013’s Wakin On A Pretty Daze came out in the interim, “Pretty Pimpin” sounds more akin to Smoke Ring than anything he’s done since. Vile started off as a self-funded musician driving a forklift to make ends meet, grasping at old CD-R home recordings to piece together his first few albums, and spending thousands of his own dollars to bring 2009’s Childish Prodigy into existence. If his next two albums felt much more sharply defined than that one, then it was almost something of a challenge to those early days of struggle. But on b’lieve i’m goin down…, Vile seems to have relaxed back into careless creativity without losing any of his restless existentialism. It’s all there in the shambling lowercase, the unfinished ellipsis. “Pretty Pimpin” stares down the rockstar in the mirror and sees the goofy dad; examines the prolific artist and sees a worthless fraud. It tussles and tangles a dissociative episode into a melody that at least calls bluegrass a cousin, and finally twists the ultimate cool slang into a self-aware sneer — if a sneer had no malice. Vile is simultaneously the embarrassing dad trying to say “pimpin'” and the kid cringing, knowing how out of place a word like that is in his mouth. He’s the rock star who wants none of the fame or theatricality, continually confronting us with his own personhood, flaws, and struggles. Then, right at the end, he laughs the whole thing off with the silliness of a child, forcing us to live with the absurd joy of being alive at all. The best artists are always the ones who take us all the way down into the darkness and thrust us back up — the ones who reaffirm that we all live in the between: angel, demon, human. –Caitlin