Frank Ocean is prolific again (and making music with Calvin Harris). At the Drive-In is back, and so is John Mayer. You get the picture: There’s a lot happening, and it’s hard to cut through the noise. So we’ll be updating this list throughout the year, adding and subtracting as releases come and go. This is the music you need to listen to right now.
The New Year, ‘Snow’
Chris Ryan: When music is described as timeless, it’s often a substitute for “sounds like the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.” For the New Year, it means being outside of the slipstream. Almost nine years after their last release (2008’s self-titled album), Matt and Bubba Kadane quietly put Snow out into a much different world, but their sound is gloriously the same. In this case, that’s a good thing. Few things in music are as purely satisfying as a Kadane-played guitar. The brothers were the axis of the legendary Texas indie band Bedhead, and after that band’s 1998 demise they formed the New Year with Come’s Chris Brokaw on drums. What do Kadane guitars sound like? Power-washed Neil Young & Crazy Horse — simple, insistent, but crystal clear.
When distortion is deployed, it’s like clouds rolling across a landscape. That’s pretentious. The music is not. The lyrics are the same whispered everyday observations mixed with existential confessions that the Kadanes have been shopping in for the better part of 20 years. I am a longtime buyer of this product, but it’s never too late to start.
Mac DeMarco, ‘This Old Dog’
Sean Fennessey: Mac DeMarco’s new album, his third full-length, is called This Old Dog. It bears all the hallmarks of a Mac DeMarco album — a curious combination of plainspoken cliché (“Wishin’ for tomorrow today / She still says she’s true”) and subtly clever turns of phrase (“My heart still beats for you / even though you don’t feel it”), wrapped in notes that bend and quiver. There’s something slightly off, something rounded and strange about these songs. They sound like they’ve been recorded in a room decorated with fun-house mirrors.
Lindsay Zoladz: This is what friendship sounds like: the voices of Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker braided together in off-kilter harmony. L.A. two-piece and real-life BFFs Girlpool have been making great, bizarro, and stirringly vulnerable music together since their 2014 self-titled EP, but their latest record charts a huge leap forward. Almost overnight, they’ve gone from sounding like a relatively modest folk-punk duo to a two-person Built to Spill. I hear welcome shades of the indie classic There’s Nothing Wrong With Love all over Powerplant: Check “Corner Store,” which begins as a jangly little ditty and then, out of nowhere, sky-high guitars illuminate it like the aurora borealis. This record is stacked with great songs, like the fuzzy single “It Gets More Blue,” but I’ll admit that half the time I go to play this album I just end up listening to the opening song, “123,” about 15 times in a row. It’s a sonic sunshower, moving from melancholy to moments of pure, shared joy. That’s the appeal of Girlpool: like overhearing an intimate conversation laced with humor and pain, whispered in a secret language between friends.
Divine Council, ‘Council World’
Micah Peters: One of my favorite places on the internet is da share z0ne, a Twitter page that superimposes disconnected thoughts in misspelled words over Deviant Art–y skeleton graphics. It starts with pulling up one of the graphics as an example, and usually devolves into me braying or snorting. The same thing happens when I talk about Divine Council’s “P. Sherman (PS42WW$),” which is, in equal parts, about Finding Nemo, weed, and pimping, which is easy, regardless of what you’ve heard. It also slaps.
Should you choose to dive into Council World, their patchwork debut EP of six songs that have been floating around on the interwebz since at least 2015, there are a few things you should know about Divine Council. It’s a collective of rappers from Richmond, Virginia — $ilkmoney, Cyrax (like the Mortal Kombat character), and Lord Linco — and a single producer from Chicago named ICYTWAT. Yes. André 3000 lends a verse on the “Decemba” remix — an André 3000 verse, on a debut EP — and though neither him nor $ilkmoney are at their conscious, enlightened best, I mean … there were only so many places a song that begins with “I hold that bitch up, like Simba” could go. (As part of an ongoing effort by Epic Records to ingratiate the group to people not constantly surfing SoundCloud, a new compilation tape, DB$B, was released at the end of April.) Plus there’s this:
If online irony manifested itself physically as a river current of low-grade depression, obscure ’90s references, screenshots of Pornhub comments, and snarky quote tweets that border on insightful, Divine Council is floating along face down in it. Don’t think too hard about what any of that means, because I didn’t.
At the Drive-In, ‘in•ter a•li•a’
Rob Harvilla: The best parts of in•ter a•li•a showcase a bunch of very angry people joyfully rediscovering their anger and grudgingly acknowledging what they’re best at, and who they’re at their best with, and what they’re best known for. They’ve made their peace with the ideal way to wage war.
The resulting, long-gestating new record is surprisingly great and shockingly faithful to what all those moshing boneheads seemed to love about At the Drive-In in the first place. Which is to say: rousing and goofy shout-along choruses (“There’s no wolf like the present!”), stabbing and searing guitars, and [Cedric] Bixler-Zavala’s bellowing, paranoid vocals, like Robert Plant reading Philip K. Dick aloud with six volcanoes erupting in the background. You are forgiven for assuming that these dudes could never recapture their past glories, even now that they admit they’re actually trying to.
Foster the People, ‘III’
Jack McCluskey: I’m on the record about my current musical preferences already:
I’ve had that earworm off Foster the People’s aptly titled three-song EP, III, in heavy rotation since it dropped late last month. I guess I’m just a sucker for rising, synth-heavy beats and rah-rah lyrics like these, from “Doing It for the Money”:
In fact, that predilection may be the only thing I have in common with noted Foster fan Jesse Pinkman. The band, which consists of frontman Mark Foster, guitarist Sean Cimino, drummer Mark Pontius, and keyboardist Isom Innis, tweeted that they wrote the songs on the EP “to reflect joy in a time where people have needed it more than ever.”
And joy is precisely what I feel listening to this song, so much so that I’m happy to ignore the militaristic nonsense in the lyrics (“But if you’re down then soldier up / You better learn to shoot or learn to duck.” Really, guys?) and nod along to the beat in public like a weirdo. Join me.
Land of Talk, ‘Life After Youth’
Danny Chau: I’ve sorely missed Elizabeth Powell’s voice — a warm, lilting presence with ridges both sharp and dulled, weathered by a life flowing in and out of northern indie rock’s beating heart. She has collaborated with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who produced her band Land of Talk’s full-length debut, Some Are Lakes; she was a touring member of Broken Social Scene, which is basically Justice League: Canada; she calls the members of Arcade Fire friends.
Eleven years ago, Land of Talk released their debut EP, Applause Cheer Boo Hiss, in the States during the mp3 blog boom. In high school, I remember trying to cobble the seven-song record together manually through free downloads, though never being able to find the last track, “Street Wheels.” The EP’s first six songs have been a consistent hum in my head at various points in my transition from teen to recessed adult. I still don’t really know how “Street Wheels” goes.
Land of Talk’s last album, Cloak and Cipher, came out in 2010 (and contains one of my favorite songs of the decade, “Quarry Hymns”). Soon after, Powell went on hiatus. She dealt with a polyp on her vocal cords; bandmates left; she took care of her father after a stroke. She baked. She listened to ambient music. She healed.
Now, nearly seven years later, Land of Talk is back with Life After Youth, out May 19. “Loving” is probably my favorite off the new record, but “Heartcore” is a perfect example of Powell’s vocal dexterity. Welcome back, guys.
Lady Gaga, “The Cure”
Juliet Litman: Since Lady Gaga returned with Joanne, she’s been on something of a comeback tour. Her 2013 album Artpop failed to reach the heights of Born This Way or Fame Monster, and that Tony Bennett album isn’t even worthy of name recall. But things are looking up for Gags and her monsters in 2017. She kicked off the year with a Super Bowl performance, and Beyoncé’s pregnancy opened up a slot for her at Coachella. She released “The Cure” the first weekend of the festival, and it is a jam. “If I can’t find the cure, I’ll fix you with my love.” Just the right amount of meaning for a Top 40 hit. It might not grab you on first listen, but I promise you’ll be all in by the end of the second listen. It’s the pure pop tune Gaga fans have been waiting on for years.
Charly Bliss, ‘Guppy’
Lindsay Zoladz: There’s no filler here, just 10 ramshackle pop songs — rough around the edges but so well constructed that they stick in your brain like fresh bubblegum. [Eva Grace] Hendricks, 24, writes the lyrics, and she’s described her approach as trying to convey “this overgrown teenybopper feeling.” The effect is wonderfully unsettling. Her words create an atmosphere of macabre and unruly girliness — like a Lisa Frank tableau in which one of the unicorns is smoking a joint and does not realize he is bleeding.
The ‘NieR: Automata’ Soundtrack
Justin Charity: 2017 has been a great year for video games so far, but it’s been a full-on renaissance for video game soundtracks. Since Final Fantasy XV released late last year, with music by the stellar composer Yoko Shimomura, I’ve dropped a few gigs of rap music from my iPhone in favor of various three-disc, Japanese role-playing-game musical scores. The Persona 5 OST was kicking around the iTunes Music Store last week; rightfully so, as that game’s exuberant pop and rock themes are half the joy of playing it. But the year’s best, most exceptional soundtrack — my album of the year, if I’m inclined to call these things eight months in advance — is the music of NieR: Automata, which is so vast and uniquely thrilling that I wrote a whole article about it. I highlighted a thrilling battle theme in that piece, but you’ll get a better, broader feel for the game when you hear the more placid songs that play as the characters scout open-air landscapes. Who knew slaughtering deranged robots in a derelict amusement park could sound, and thus feel, so peaceful?
Rich Homie Quan, ‘Back to the Basics’
Micah Peters: Verses slink off of Quan’s tongue and aht (out) of the corners of his mouth. He stretches vowels flat; he hollows them out and deepens them to better carry his feelings. He bends around the corners of the production, and speeds over its bumps. Sometimes, like on the Zaytoven-assisted “Da Streetz,” a requiem for innocence he was never allowed to have, he gets airborne. Basics, boasting a single feature in its 11 tracks (Cyko, by at least one account, a trusted friend) is a reminder that Rich Homie can stand on his own two. On “Word of Mouth,” Quan says he doesn’t care what you may think, but the passion with which he says it is such that he needs you to understand that. The sentiment isn’t overly serious, but it’s also extremely not a joke.
Jay Som, ‘Everybody Works’
Danny Chau: It doesn’t take long for 22-year-old Melina Duterte (who performs as Jay Som) to leave an impression with her debut studio album. The final 51 seconds of opener “Lipstick Stains” (the song is a minute and 51 seconds long) are enchanting. The way she stretches and elongates her words to fill the space around her, “Lipstick Stains” feels like a spiritual heir to the first minute of Björk’s “Unravel,” except recorded in bed during an early-morning-sunrise fit of inspiration and not, you know, on the tundra of Neptune.
“Bedroom pop” feels reductive considering the scope of the record, but it’s an apt descriptor. Duterte’s “very quiet, boring” voice rarely rises above sea level, yet manages to get a lot of mileage out of its intimacy and versatility. The album hopscotches along rock and pop’s genre lines: there are songs reminiscent of Wild Nothing’s outstanding Nocturne from 2012; there is Duterte propping her voice up against a wall of fuzzed-out guitars; there’s one of the most satisfying guitar solos I’ve heard all year on “One More Time, Please.” But it all comes out with her own distinct marker. Oh, to find your voice at 22.
Stormzy, ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’
Hannah Giorgis: A month and a half after its release, Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer still goes so hard. The British grime MC’s debut studio album features local heavyweights and American artists alike, but it’s his mom who makes the most lasting cameo. Her voice opens “100 Bags,” earnestly offering Stormzy blessings despite his wayward, youthful habits: “I bet you are still sleeping / I just want to bless you this morning / May the God of Jehovah bless you.” The effect of her voice — Ghanaian accent and all — is soothing, but it’s also part of an audio landscape that traces Stormzy’s many influences and points listeners toward the places he calls home. Gang Signs & Prayer traces his South London roots with both bravado and vulnerability. Tracks like “Mr. Skeng” open with cocky references to Stormzy’s lyrical prowess, so potent you could punch through brick off the strength of his energy (“Call me gunshot Michael, Mr. Skeng / Check one-two, man skitzed again”). But “Blinded By Your Grace” — both part 1 and 2 — showcases a gentler Stormzy, one who echoes his mother’s wishes in turning to God (and gospel) for redemption. “Cigarettes & Cush,” which features Kehlani, is a hazy love song in the vein of Chance the Rapper’s “Smoke Break”; it’s far more tender than the subject matter might immediately suggest. The album’s cumulative effect is nearly literary: Stormzy’s been growing up, and he has some shit to say about the process. Listen up, or get left behind.
Greg Dulli’s Spotify Playlists
Chris Ryan: I’m always curious to listen to whatever my favorite artists are listening to, but it can be a lot like meeting your heroes: sometimes the mystery is better than the reality. Do you really want to know that your Music Crush is just sitting around jamming Jeff Buckley like any other normie Gen X washout? I don’t have to worry about that with Greg Dulli. As the frontman for the Afghan Whigs (new album soon!) and Twilight Singers, Dulli has made some of the music I treasure most. He also provides a service: When I don’t know what to listen to, I listen to one of his Spotify playlists. Every few months, over the past couple of years, Dulli drops a collection of tracks that just fit perfectly together. His latest, called “Soho ‘17,” features after-last-call soul from Lee Fields & the Expressions, vape-shattering rock from Dead Meadow, and late-period Strokes. Sometimes listening to your heroes works out.
John Mayer, “Still Feel Like Your Man”
Kevin O’Connor: I was a classic-rock snob prior to John Mayer’s 2006 release of Continuum — but its smooth, blues-rock sounds blended with pop in a way that unlocked my mind and soul. The eight tracks released from Mayer’s upcoming album, The Search for Everything, call back to Continuum, and “Still Feel Like Your Man” encapsulates the traits that today define Mayer: Lyrically, its post-breakup theme is pure pop, but sonically it has an irresistibly danceable groove that echoes Marvin Gaye. Mayer’s repetitive palm-muted guitar phrase operates like a drum beat that keeps the verses chugging along. Mayer, bassist Pino Palladino, and drummer Steve Jordan riff over the track’s signature line as the song fades out, and you’re left asking for an extended jam. Maybe Mayer will serve as your blues bridge to a new generation of music, too, just like he did for me.