It’s Friday leading into Labor Day Weekend, and New York City feels like a ghost town — like half the place has already emptied out, and the other half is hurriedly trying to wrap up whatever it is they’re working on so they don’t get stuck in too much traffic this afternoon. Pretty soon those people will be in a parking lot on the George Washington Bridge, cursing their error in judgment along with everything else in the world. So it goes. We’ve got three more days of summer, but before we get to that, we’ve got the five best songs of the week.
Of all the weird things about pop in 2015, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz ranks among the weirdest, and one of my favorites. It’s a record that unabashedly a mess, but that’s part of its charm. What I like most about it is that it sounds like an actual, real-life 22-year-old made it. Yeah, one with a ton of money and a skewed worldview, but every song exudes a world-weariness and desire for experimentation that the current crop of mostly-vanilla pop stars could never dream of capturing. Dead Petz isn’t as bad as anyone wants it to be, though it’s not as good as it probably could have been. And who thought that, on an album filled with glitzed-out Flaming Lips productions, the tracks that would stand out are the ones that Mike Will Made It had a hand in? Maybe that’s some residual Bangerz glitter rubbing off, or maybe it’s because I get the sense that him and Cyrus are actually friends. Because why else would he drop his trademark hit-making skills to do something like “Lighter?” He comically buries the obligatory Eardrummers and Mike Will tags in the background of the track, as if he knows that this kind of starry-eyed slow jam is so far out of his purview that he wants his fingerprints to remain unheard. The producer turns in a beautifully spacey production, one that’s ’80s-inspired but never feels particularly deferent to the decade. Cyrus gives one of her most affecting vocal performances, and her lyrics here almost reach poignant. (“And I’ve heard we never truly see ourselves/ You gotta leave it up to someone else.”) “Lighter” features the most archetypal, head-over-heels depiction of young love that’s present on Dead Petz, which is why I think it’s so easy to grasp. It’s probably not my favorite song off the record — that’d go to “I Forgive Yiew” or, yeah, “Pablow The Blowfish” — but it’s one of the most compelling, demonstrating that there’s a balance between Cyrus’ do-whatever-the-fuck-you-want attitude and something resembling grounded pop. Where will she go from here? Who knows, but this song and a lot of other moments on Dead Petz suggest that it’s worth watching out for. –James
I do not want to like a Justin Bieber song. I’m by no means opposed to pop music on principle — I write a weekly pop column, after all — but even as I willingly overlook the many moral failings of an industry full of probably-creeps, the guy’s high-school douchebag persona has always rubbed me the wrong way. Sometimes he feels artificial, and not winsomely artificial like Drake (one of the aforementioned probably-creeps). Other times Bieber’s bullshit feels all-too-real, which is probably worse. Even his attempts at self-awareness feel painfully unaware; even letting Acid Rap-era Chance The Rapper guest on “Confident” was not enough to convert me. But as of 2015, the kid and his handlers at least seem aware of what makes a pop song feel classic and sound cutting-edge. In terms of Bieber’s inquisitive bangers, “What Do You Mean?” is not on the level of “Where Are Ü Now,” the squiggly Jack Ü collaboration that helped legitimize him as more than a teeny-bopper and brought him back to the top 10 after a lengthy absence. As the lead single from an anticipated comeback album, it’s oddly understated and far from monumental. But the thing just glides, its iPhone-glow piano chords and glowstick-twirling thump congealing into an ideal canvas for R&Bieber’s melancholy whispers. Pop’s laughingstock manchild doesn’t have my heart just yet, but he definitely has my attention. –Chris
Will Toledo is approaching a sharp curve, and he’s accelerating. Fiddling with the weight of a back catalog large enough to need a four-car garage, Toledo is officially a Matador artist now, and this stamp of approval will forever frame the way new fans view his old songs. But first, we’ve got the compilation album Teens Of Style, a sleek self-curated look back, before Toledo throws his new shit into hyperspeed. “Something Soon’ is weirdly prophetic if you look at it from a 20/20 rearview-mirror perspective, as he wails through smeary radio static toward Beach Boy harmonies, “I can’t talk to my folks/ I need/ I need something soon/ I need something soon.” Though Toledo crafts hooks that recall Brian Wilson’s madcap genius, he isn’t dipping a toe in Southern California waters. The 22-year-old is from Virginia but recently moved to the gray-green Pacific Northwest to re-record old songs for Teens Of Style, and he imbues all the dreary euphoria of that landscape into his escapist, pedal-to-the-floor ethos. God, does it ever fucking work. So no, nothing about Car Seat Headrest screams pop — unless you consider Weezer hooky enough to fall into that category — and instead, his songs manifest as something Julian Casablancas would’ve made if he still felt any of the early anguish that ushered in the almighty reign of the Strokes. And no matter how dark and desperate these lyrics get, an anticipation exists in the way “Something Soon” leans into the future. Because despite all the pills, the great parental divide, the stupid schlock of sitcoms, and the suffocating dullness of the present, Toledo’s future is barreling down the interstate, aglow with hope like the lights reflecting across Elliott Bay. Contrary to Casablancas’ most decisive assertion, this is not, in fact, it. Soon is now. Speed up. –Caitlin
The reigning queen of bleeding-edge R&B, Kelela, has a diaphanous voice capable of sounding salty and saccharine at the same time, so it’s fitting that her forthcoming EP will be arranged in the arc of a relationship, a commitment that can be as volatile as it is fulfilling. “Rewind” is a snapshot of the start of an affair; starry-eyed and confessional, Kelela explores the giddy and anxiety-ridden moments when you’re first trying to make contact with someone whom you’re almost painfully attracted to. “I’ll take my chances I know when I’m falling/ I’m best when I’m next to you.” She’s singing about having a fat crush on the kind of person you’re willing to drop everything for at a moment’s notice — the type who makes you feel like you’re going to vom every time they end up in the same place as you, or ignore in order to not seem too eager. That person might not like you back, but the chase is half the fun: “I’m giving you eyes but you can’t read the signs, and I can’t rewind.” And that gut-punch of a bass bounce pulses forward and aligns with the patter of this song’s intoxicating, feverish heartbeat. — Gabriela
It’s impossible to extricate “Chlorine & Wine” from its preceding storyline: the bus crash, the injuries, the rehabilitation and recovery process. It’s impossible not because the context is more compelling than the song, but because the context is woven deeply into the song’s fabric; the first words sung here by Baroness frontman John Baizley are, “When I call on my nursemaid/ ‘Come sit by my side’…” There’s a danger, though, that the “survivor” narrative might overshadow the music. It’s a little bit like when one-armed pitcher Jim Abbott threw a no-hitter for the Yankees in 1993: By focusing on the adversity that led to the accomplishment, the accomplishment itself somehow feels diluted. That should not have been the case for Abbott, and it should not be the case for Baroness, either. Even if Baroness’ bus had never plummeted off a cliff — hell, even if the band had spent the last three years running a goddamn petting zoo — “Chlorine & Wine” would be a ridiculous, glorious triumph. Forget about the lyrics; every single sound in this thing will produce a dopamine flood in your skull. When Baizley’s vocals double-up on the words “uncomfortably numb”? When those ascending guitar runs burst like lightning just after the 5:20 mark, as the song builds to its climax? Man, when I hear those things, waves of electricity run through my entire body. And all those sounds are sewn together and structured with the dexterity and daring of, like, Pulp Fiction: Each subsequent turn feels unexpected, audacious, and thrilling. The song starts off at the peak of Kilimanjaro and just soars from there, building momentum and altitude over its nearly 7-minute runtime (which somehow feels far too brief), ultimately leaving the listener somewhere on the surface of the moon. When they released “Chlorine & Wine,” Baroness posted a note on their Facebook, saying: “We have never been as uniformly psyched-up by a record of ours as we are today.” There are so many legitimate reasons for the band to feel such excitement, such pride. Here’s the one that matters most: This is the best song they’ve ever written. –Michael