It was a short week but we got a lot done here at the ‘gum. We published an extensive, career-spanning cover story on Ted Leo, and of course, talked to Smash Mouth about the 20th anniversary of “All Star.” We also looked back on Bon Iver’s seminal For Emma, Forever Ago and informed you that the band Imagine Dragons is still popular. SMH. Three big returns are represented in the five best roundup this week — dive in.
Michelle Zauner said that “Road Head” was written “about someone who told me they didn’t think I was cut out for a music career,” and the versatility and songwriting chops on display throughout Japanese Breakfast’s sophomore album show that’s obviously not the case. Each single we’ve heard from Soft Sounds From Another Planet has been markedly different than the last, but they’re all tied together by Zauner’s impeccable arrangements and narrative skills. “Road Head” is perhaps the best of the three, with a sleek and glimmering underbelly that props up a sleazy and unsatisfied first verse (“Last ditch desperate, like a makeshift siphon”) that gives way to a more confident back half after her chirps of advice (“Run!”) are finally listened to. Borrowing a twist of phrase from Tammy Wynette, Zauner makes “Dream on, baby” a message of self-possession, and when she takes that turn down a corkscrewed highway, all she sees are “lightless miles, miles and miles.” The open road, once a prison of appeasement for her partner, now feels like a vast expanse that she can do whatever she wants with, one of endless possibility. –James
The entire world is rooting for Kesha. After three years of very public battles against depression, an eating disorder, and, most notably, her allegedly abusive former producer and label boss Dr. Luke, the fact that a new Kesha song exists in the world at all is a triumph. And the fact that it’s this song, a grand, nakedly emotional piano ballad overflowing with empathy for the man who hurt her most, is even more of an achievement. What would sound like empty bombast from just about any other pop star — like, say, Macklemore, whose musical partner Ryan Lewis produced “Praying” — sounds like genuine catharsis coming from Kesha, because we’ve all seen the real pain behind that powerhouse vocal performance. The Kesha of 2017 isn’t the same woman who made bangers like “Tik Tok” and “We R Who We R,” and as catchy as those songs are, that’s a good thing. Because this Kesha is strong as hell. –Peter
New York City will make you feel brand new, and it will also make you feel like a crumpled-up tissue stuck to the bottom of an ex’s shoe. St. Vincent’s take on the town navigates the high highs and the low lows that come with living at the center of the universe. Over a simple piano composition that could double as an interlude in a Broadway show, Annie Clark addresses “the only motherfucker in this city” who can handle her. “New York isn’t New York without you love,” she sings, before contemplating a hypothetical move to LA, the way so many of us do. In a city of 8.4 million, there’s only one, and I guess that’s what true love does. It blinds you from the fact that you’re literally surrounded by people at all times, each one a potential soulmate. –Gabriela
The basis of JAY’s deep dive into American racism is “Four Women,” the 1965 Nina Simone song that served as Simone’s own deep dive into American racism — into the lingering effects of slavery and into the stereotypes that inevitably followed. JAY suggested the sample, and No ID chopped it up into something graceful and lovely and melodic, with the painful warmth of Simone’s voice coming through even in chipmunk-soul form. And over that weighty, poignant sample, JAY spends four minutes chasing an uncomfortable truth: No matter how powerful and rich and acclaimed a black American might become, she’s still a black American, and she’s still going to be treated a certain way by a society that made her rise all but impossible. JAY’s interrogation is messy, of course; there’s the uncomfortable and simplistic line about Jewish property-owners, the forehead-slap DUMBO punchline, the way it all dissolves into financial-advisor talk at the end. But it’s still one of the great voices in rap history looking at race in a way he’s never really done before, entering into conversation with a titan of American music along the way. –Tom
According to Michael Tedder’s excellent new Stereogum cover story, the upcoming The Hanged Man is Ted Leo’s answer to expansive Clash epics London Calling and Sandinista! I will be interested to see how “You’re Like Me” sounds in the context of a genre-jumping opus, but on its own it strikes me as yet another classic Ted Leo rocker, a tense and punchy ball of nerves with hooks and momentum to spare. Leo has turned in these ridiculously catchy clenched-jaw power-pop tunes so consistently that it’s easy to take them, and him, for granted, and his words fly by at such a furious clip that you might not realize what heavy subject matter he’s detailing. In this case it’s a story of battling demons late at night “when the brain is keeping one eye open,” of assessing the damage of a life turned upside down and figuring out how to move forward. It’s a struggle most of us can relate to on some level — hence the title — but this tightly wound assembly of rad riffs, startling rhythmic twists, and piercing narration could not be mistaken for anybody but Leo. –Chris