Just last week we bore witness to the birth of Britain’s Independence Day, and now, we prepare to celebrate our own. The more things change, right? So even though it would be offensively anti-American to spend this long weekend spinning anything besides Soundgarden’s “4th Of July,” the Hamilton soundtrack, and/or Jay Z’s heroic anti-Apple Music freestyle verse, it would be even more offensively anti-American for us or anyone else to limit your listening choices to those fine pieces of music. You’re still covered by the First Amendment here, after all! For now, anyway. And if you’re looking for alternatives, you could do a lot worse than this week’s 5 Best Songs. Frankly, you’d have trouble doing much better than this.
Clams Casino first came to the world’s notice when he was downloading random songs from Audiogalaxy, turning those songs into pulsing melting-Enya globs of sound, and then making those globs somehow work as rap beats. But he was only a rap producer in the most narrow sense of the term: He was producing things, and people were rapping over them. There is no rapping whatsoever on the entire back half of 32 Levels, Clams’ forthcoming major-label debut. Instead, there are songs like “A Breath Away,” songs that use that old circa-2011 Clams sound for the purposes of sleepy, dreamy, sexy pop songs. Kelela has always known how to navigate otherworldly tracks like these, to make them work as vehicles for human emotion. And on “A Breath Away,” she’s dreading a coming breakup, but she’s doing it off in some sonic dreamworld where nothing is real. Those drum-ripples destroy me. –Tom
Freetown Sound is a lot of things — a powerful musing on black, queer, and outsider identity politics; a genius-level fusing of R&B and soul, an amalgam of the influences Dev Hynes has been pulling from for more than a decade — but a traditional pop album it is not, at least not in the way that Hynes’ past two releases under the Blood Orange umbrella have melted gauzy structures to conventional ends. That makes “Best To You” something of a peculiarity on Freetown, but it’s undoubtedly one of the best pop songs of the year, up there in the pantheon of Hynes collaborations, a hallowed hall filled with the likes of “Everything Is Embarassing” and “All That” and “Losing You.” All of those songs are understated meditations on expectation, distance, and longing: sentiments that tie into the post-colonial overarch of Freetown Sound, but are rendered starkly personal on “Best To You.”
Empress Of’s Lorely Rodriguez, who explores similar themes of privilege and inequality in her own work, puts in a tour de force vocal run: her cadence on the “I feel my bones crack in your arms” bridge is a marvel, the way her stilted clip slips into smooth and how that transition rolls over into the beat just a few moments later. She’s singing about feeling undervalued and depreciated, holding the torch for a relationship in which one party claims ownership when convenient and discards when it becomes too difficult. Hynes’ voice is only heard as the paranoid internal monologue (“Did he even notice? Do you really want to?”), while Rodriguez takes on the role of being simultaneously defiant and defeated: “I can’t be the girl you want, but I can be the thing you throw away,” both complicit in the imbalance and hoping that she can still be the best to you, if only you’d see the potential. The result is a song that pulses with the pain of being pulled in two directions at once, an all-too-familiar feeling to anyone who’s been in a one-sided relationship but feels powerless to do anything about it. –James
If your name isn’t Kendrick Lamar and you’re a rapper signed to TDE, it’s a double-edged sword you constantly have to dodge. During the crazy amount of press ScHoolboy Q did a couple years ago for Oxymoron, he was forced to repeatedly, vehemently deny that he would ever make a Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. Q has never been the good kid (hence the irony in his moniker), and he’s asked the simple but life-threatening question, “Where you from, my nigga?” in Lamar’s “M.A.A.D City.” He’s a contributor to the madness. So I hate to do this, but it’s hard to not compare what we’ve seen and heard from Blank Face to GKMC.
Q hasn’t worn a fitted hat or white T in years, swapping them for bucket hats, Hasidic officials, wide-brims, and dashikis. But he’s sporting a Houston Astros hat repping Hoover Crips to the fullest in the day-in-the-life visuals for “By Any Means.” It’s clearly a return to his past. He’s regaling with tales of throwing up C’s and slanging pills in his teens with the energy of someone who just stopped yesterday, despite being five years in the game with a potbelly. Couple that verve with a peak in his still rapidly growing rapping ability and that menacing beat, and “By Any Means” can look tracks on GKMC straight in the eye without flinching. So sure, call Blank Face “Bad Kid Crip City” all you wish, but keep in mind that you’ll have to compare it to GKMC in quality, too. –Collin
The Fader feature that arrived alongside “Plastic 100°C” explains that Sampha’s had a lump in his throat for years — likely globus pharyngis, “a psychological sensation sometimes brought on by stress or anxiety.” It’s almost too obvious a metaphor for the way life’s worries seem to have weathered his effortlessly gorgeous voice to a majestic husk. So Sampha only mentions the lump in passing here, finding other evocative imagery to depict himself holding on for dear life as the world bears him down. It’s an extremely weary song, but against the crystalline beauty of jazz piano chords, his raw, unguarded vocals feel powerful enough to push back.
One of my favorite Angel Olsen songs is “The Waiting,” off her debut album, Half Way Home. That one sets a precedent for a lot of Olsen’s love songs; the romance she sings about is so often dampened by miscommunication, by small eggshell fractures in a relationship that inevitably end up shattering it. “Sometimes I need you to be the one to call,” she sings, her voice trembling in the way that only Angel Olsen’s voice can tremble.
That song came out back in 2012, though, and as the years have gone on, her music’s gotten louder, poppier, tougher. Olsen’s newest single, “Shut Up Kiss Me,” navigates the same intimidating no-man’s-land of hesitant love, but in a very different way. “We could still be having some/ Sweet memories/ This heart still beats for you/ Why can’t you see?” she sings forcefully, with the measured swagger of a ’50s girl group. This is a song about being tired of talking things out, instead opting to just make out until things get better, which is inarguably way more fun. She’s not just asking for affection, she’s demanding it, and it rules. –Gabriela