#NowPlaying: Best New Songs From NPR Music – NPR

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Palm‘s inventive art rock is dizzying, unpredictable and, especially in its live incarnation, occasionally transcendent – in the band’s best moments, it makes discordance sound sublime. “Feathers,” Palm’ first new track in 4 years and the first single from its forthcoming record Nicks and Grazes, is a promising return for the Philly group: off-kilter and restless, but cleverly reined-in just before devolving into chaos. In a press release, bassist Gerassimos Livitsanos calls the track an “undanceable dance song,” and its lyrics could almost be mistaken for a creative statement of purpose for the group: “I don’t wanna be a passenger,” guitarist Eve Alpert sings, “Imma make it up as I go.” The impulse suits Palm just fine.
◈ Stream “Feathers” by Palm
▶ Watch Palm on NPR’s Live Sessions
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By the time Krill broke up in 2015, its grungy rock songs — careening and claustrophobic, anxious and self-deprecating yet slyly philosophical — had become the stuff of legend in the tight-knit Boston indie-rock scene. On the band’s very first record, Alam No Hris, you can hear the seeds of the sound Krill would perfect over the course of its too-short run, though you can’t currently find those tracks on streaming services. That’s soon to change: Today, the band has announced a remastered 10-year anniversary reissue of the album coming out next month, alongside the album’s first pressing on vinyl later this year. (In the meantime, though, you can hear the original release on Bandcamp.)
“Solitaire,” a fan favorite from Alam No Hris, is proof of the band’s early knack for making a song about malaise feel nearly anthemic; it highlights songwriter Jonah Furman’s strength in crafting songs about the tiny personal anxieties that can often feel so big they blot out the sun. But it’s also a song about how great music can be a weapon against all that stress. After musing over a broken heart and low self-esteem as the band alternately thrashes and retreats, Furman admits he knows just the thing to turn it all around: “I can be in a bad mood / everyday all day,” he sings, “Put on some Arthur Russell, see how fast I change / It’s embarrassing.” If it’s embarrassing, it’s a shame many of us share; I wouldn’t be the first to say a Krill song has done the same for me.
◈ Stream “Solitaire” by Krill
◈ Follow the #NowPlaying playlist
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Charley Crockett leans into his R&B influences on “I’m Just A Clown,” the first single from his newly announced album The Man From Waco. That album marks Crockett’s first time recording in the studio with his live band, The Blue Drifters — and on a casual listen, you might assume this music came from Memphis or Muscle Shoals in the early ’70s. Punchy horns help drive the chorus of “I’m Just A Clown” as Crockett sings the story of a sad clown, a timeless metaphor that Crockett’s laidback and convincing drawl gives new life. Reminiscent of early crossover artists like Charlie Rich and Ray Charles, “I’m Just A Clown” feels like a step forward for the prolific Crockett, and one that might help him cross over to a larger audience.
◈ Stream “I’m Just A Clown” by Charley Crockett
▶ Watch Charley Crockett’s Live Session
◈ Follow the #NowPlaying playlist
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If there were any lingering suspicions or questions about Flo Milli‘s vision, lyrical ability or prowess, You Still Here, Ho? is the response to shut them all down. It takes an OG to make an OG and from the top, Flo enlists the help of none other than Tiffany Pollard, the undeniable HBIC of reality television, to help set the tone in the album’s introduction. This makes sense as you take in Flo’s infectious confidence on “Bed Time.”
Produced by Young Fyre, “Bed Time” is an unapologetic proclamation to any hater or critic looking to intimidate her. She knows the game and is unshaken by naysayers as she calls them out: “Made a mill’ at 20 years old, you never would guess it / How you hatin’ and you dead broke, that s*** is depressin’.” Over a beat that recalls Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons,” Flo Milli displays her Y2K upbringing with flair.
If you did not know already, “Bed Time” serves as your reminder that Flo Milli is in her own lane. Do not be fooled or disarmed by her girly aesthetics, consistently viral TikToks or “mean girl” bars. Flo Milli is as intentional as she is incisive, and more than aware of what she is capable of.
◈ Stream “Bed Time” by Flo Milli
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“Free Yourself” is the soundtrack of the best party you’ll find this summer. If you’re running in the right circles, you might even spot Jessie Ware there. This track is all sequins, with an ABBA-meets-Jellybean type of sparkle to it. When you hear the pounding, rhythmic keys, you might be inspired to, perhaps, bob your head or shake a leg. But when you arrive at that scientifically precise dance breakdown in the last third of the song? That’s when you’re bound to boogie.
If you’re wondering why “Free Yourself” sounds like pop perfection, you can at least partially credit fellow Brit Dua Lipa, who produced the track with Ware and knows a little something about making music for our pandemic nu-disco era. There’s something about disco that feels primed to punctuate our present moment as we crawl in and out of quarantine, from COVID infection to re-infection. Perhaps that’s because we all need dance floors – in our bedrooms or otherwise – to shake off the strictures of the world. “Free Yourself” suits these times perfectly, whether you’re out and about or home in your pajamas.
◈ Stream “Free Yourself” by Jessie Ware
▶ Watch Jessie Ware’s Tiny Desk concert
◈ Follow the #NowPlaying playlist
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Countless musicians have cut songs and albums in response to the treacherous past few years, but few have created a body of work as profound and engaging as violinist Johnny Gandelsman. He commissioned 22 new works for violin, asking a broad range of composers to focus on 2020, the year that gave us the COVID-19 pandemic, a steep rise in racist violence and an increasingly polarized nation. He calls the new triple album This is America.
Clarice Assad’s O, scored for violin and electronics, stands for oxygen – or lack of it, to be precise. Oxygen that was needed by nearly 400,000 Americans who died in 2020, gasping for breath from the coronavirus, and oxygen George Floyd was deprived of as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” Assad herself said, in the booklet notes, that she experienced panic attacks that year, feeling a “sense of entrapment in my own body.”
Still, there’s an airy – and dare I say hopeful – quality to the music. Gandelsman’s fiddle soars and swerves around Assad’s diaphanous vocals, lifting the piece above that dark, deadly year and into the light.
◈ Stream O by Johnny Gandelsman
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Sour Widows writes songs that match sprawl with sweetness, its soothing vocal harmonies and interlaced guitar riffs often building to dramatic climaxes. The Bay Area trio’s latest single follows this path: “Witness” starts off languid and pensive before the desperation ratchets up, its beautifully tangled guitars turning menacing. Songwriter Susanna Thomson says “Witness” is about “monumental loss,” and how it can create “a very clear divide between those in your life who can understand the depth of that kind of pain and those who can’t” — it’s the first song the band finished since the death of Thomson’s mother. “I can’t show you / How to reach through / To the feeling,” the band sings at the song’s climax, alluding to that chasm, “It would kill you.” But after this catharsis, the song reconsiders its position. After a brief pause, the tempo slows and the tension recedes. “The moments repeat / And feedback into and endlessly,” the band sings, the members’ voices overlapping. It sounds like the supportive presence of an understanding friend, or maybe just a cycle through a new stage of grief.
◈ Stream “Witness” by Sour Widows
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If Ruston Kelly can call himself “dirt emo,” then Big Rig’s got a decent claim on country music’s twee cousin “twangmo.” Big Rig is Jen Twynn Payne, drummer/singer in The Courtneys. After the bubblegummy rock trio finished its third, still-unreleased album just before the pandemic, Payne taught herself the guitar and found a new musical partner in banjo picker Geoffo Reith. Her songs as Big Rig are short and sad, but lope along with a punky, clipped rhythm like you might expect from an emo kid raised on Elliott Smith and early Wilco. With the evocatively titled “Crying in a Corn Maze,” Big Rig turns the tear-in-my-beer trope into a one-inch button affixed just-so to a denim jacket pulled tighter.
◈ Stream “Crying In A Corn Maze” by Big Rig
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Latto has never been afraid to clap back at the haters. On her latest single “P****” she reads various types of men for filth, from misogynists and abusive partners, to politicians and anyone else who attempts to uphold sexist gender roles and perpetuate double standards.
“How you ain’t got a p****, but got opinions on p****?” Latto asks on her diss track. “My ovaries ain’t for you to bully.” Her bars cut through sharper than a sword as she raps over a pitch-shifted sample of late R&B pioneer Betty Wright’s song, “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do.”
The single is a timely response as people across the U.S. confront a rollback of abortion rights following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The accompanying music video features clever imagery of kittens surrounding Latto, as well as clips of the protests that have erupted since the landmark decision last month — the perfect backdrop for the rapper’s protest hit.
◈ Stream “P****” by Latto
◈ Follow the #NowPlaying playlist
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The banjo is one of the most stereotyped instruments in music. Its mention may lead casual listeners, even many audiophiles, to think of artists like Earl Scruggs or perhaps Steve Martin, and, if you are lucky, Bela Fleck. Nonetheless, the banjo has proven adaptable to many settings beyond its usual home in bluegrass and old-time music. Galway-based We Banjo 3 reminds us that the instrument is not only a staple of Celtic music; it also compliments songs leaning towards blues, jazz and Americana equally well.
With “Gift Of Life,” the quartet, composed of two sets of brothers, employs the banjo not as a melody instrument, but rather as a lilting accent to the acoustic guitar, mandolin and horn section. Beginning quietly with only David Howley’s guitar, the song builds intensity as the group adds instruments and reveals the song’s lyrical theme of adventure (“Maybe the gift of life is living / The treasure is the quest / What if the truth in every legend / Is you can only try your best”). It makes for a soulful meditation on self-discovery, augmented by the tune’s innovative combination of instruments.
◈ Stream “Gift Of Life” by We Banjo 3
▶ Watch We Banjo 3 on NPR’s Mountain Stage
◈ Follow the #NowPlaying playlist
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“I Was Neon” has the feeling of an unrestricted exhale. “Am I gonna lose myself again? / I quite like the person that I am,” Julia Jacklin sings, voicing a woman taking up space in her own adoration — but her fullness of self comes with an equal and opposite anxiety, the fear that her own bright glow may soon dim. These two emotional focal points live side by side in the track’s soundscape of chugging guitars and eroded distortion, her stark intuition melding with her vulnerable unease. Jacklin revels in both appreciation and apprehension of the most vibrant version of herself.
◈ Stream “I Was Neon” by Julia Jacklin
▶ Watch Julia Jacklin’s Tiny Desk concert
◈ Follow the #NowPlaying playlist
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The heyday of twee pop may be well past us now. But on “Caldwell’s Way,” Brijean finds a way to take the simple things (birdsong, love for a neighbor, nostalgia for an unreclaimable past) and combine them into a sincere ode to home that feels like an asteroid crashing into your heart. We all have homes — found, chosen or otherwise — that we miss sometimes. And it’s hard not to let it get to you when Brijean sings through distant reverb: “I’m only miles away / Maybe I’m just feeling lonely.” Vulnerability is the name of the game here: You’ll find it woven throughout the muted organ section, the twinkly strings and cinematic synths that sound like they belong on a Zelda soundtrack. So suspend your disbelief and let this track take you to the places you miss most. you might feel lighter by the end of it.
◈ Stream “Caldwell’s Way” by Brijean
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Marshall Allen lends his saxophone squawk and synth squiggles to rock and roll here and there — U2, King Khan and Caribou, to name a few collaborators — but it warms the heart to see the Sun Ra Arkestra leader join a fellow Philadelphian, several generations removed, on a rubbery, thud-buckin’ ham-jammer. “Experimental & Professional” opens Chris Forsyth‘s Evolution Here We Come with yet another iteration of his streets-to-the-skies rock band. Allen’s Electronic Valve Instrument bubbles over bassist Douglas McCombs’ stuttered Can-funk and Ryan Jewell’s airy drumming, opening up an in-the-pocket paradox of effervescent oddity and earth-rumbling gyration. Forever on the search for new spaceways, Forsyth’s guitar foil this time around is Tom Malach of Garcia Peoples, a fellow journeyman in cosmic choogle — and their riffs and solos spit and spiral with a telekinetic grin. Let’s rip off the knob and boogie, y’all.
◈ Stream “Experimental & Professional” by Chris Forsyth
▶ Watch Chris Forsyth’s Tiny Desk concert

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More than 40 years ago, multi-instrumentalist Peter Prescott and the rest of the Boston-formed group Mission of Burma became de facto cartographers of a map inked with post-punk, art rock, textural guitar-and-beats interplay and oblique, albeit emotional, lyricism. Through Prescott’s subsequent bands Volcano Suns and Kustomized, he continued to expand his territory. His current ensemble, Minibeast, is the wooly, untrackable cryptid wandering out of his storied career.
The title track from the band’s latest, “On Ice” is an impressive volley of syncopated rhythm-section wallop, slices of processed guitar and keyboard stabs and spoken-word-leaning vocal delivery. Comprising Prescott on guitars, keyboards and vocals, bassist Niels LaWhite, drummer Keith Seidel and guesting multi-instrumentalist Pete Weiss, “On Ice” is an unpredictable sonic swirl that evokes peak-level krautrock like Amon Düül II more than any algorithmic post-rock. Out of the gate, it’s apparent that Minibeast isn’t afraid to flex its technical proficiency, a refreshing move in an underground scene that can be guilty of confusing coy ineptitude with egalitarian inclusion. “On Ice,” and Minibeast in total, are a logical outgrowth of Prescott’s pedigree and his ongoing attempts at luring cogent weirdness out of the art wilderness.
◈ Stream “On Ice” by Minibeast
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Kali Malone wrings every beautifully forlorn texture from just a few notes. She’s known for pipe organ pieces that undertake a spectral physicality, engaging with the very breath of the instrument. But on Living Torch, commissioned by the electro-acoustic music studio GRM, the American-born, Stockholm-based composer trades pipes for synths, sine waves and the boîte à bourdon, which literally translates as “drone box.”
The whole album deserves a single sitting on a nice pair of headphones, but it is in the second act where Malone gives Living Torch‘s slow-moving theme a pulse. Over a shifting bed of trombone and bass clarinet, played by Mats Äleklint and Isak Hedtjärn respectively, bass notes played via Karplus-Strong string synthesis “pluck” the melody — in its stuttered phrasing, you can almost hear the ghost of Jason Molina. But as the drone builds, so does the doom: Distortion and feedback not only overcome, but reshape mourning into triumph.
◈ Stream “Living Torch II” by Kali Malone
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When someone pops back into your life after a long absence, it is natural to want to pick up where you left off. Both parties realize that things have changed, while instinctively knowing that reconnecting on common ground is the first step in moving into unknown territory. And after a six-year hiatus, Dungen returns with a song that says “hello again” with a customary refrain of scorching guitars, thunderous drums and reverb dialed to 11. The kaleidoscopic feel of “Nattens Sista Strimma Ljus” (“The Night’s Last Shimmer of Light”) becomes almost otherworldly via Gustav Ejstes’ Swedish vocals, his tenor swooping in and out of the maelstrom.
Much has changed since we last heard from the Swedish psychedelic rock quartet: Ejstes is sober, saying in a press release, “It has actually become even more trippy to experience music if you don’t take away the edges of life. It gets very real.” While sobriety is spelled out in the title of the band’s new collection En Är För Mycket och Tusen Aldrig Nog (One is Too Much and a Thousand is Never Enough, out Oct. 7 via Mexican Summer), Dungen is also taking a fresh approach by incorporating turntables, samples and loops. With “Nattens Sista Strimma Ljus,” however, Dungen proves that reinvention does not have to mean scrapping everything, and reunions are happiest in a familiar setting.
◈ Stream “Nattens Sista Strimma Ljus” by Dungen
◈ Read: The Swedish band Dungen has been pushing the boundaries of psychedelic rock since the dawn of the century.
◈ Follow the #NowPlaying playlist
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Whether through reverence, indoctrination or rote lip service, much is said about the tradition of jazz. In the impressively vast and challenging body of work of NYC-based pianist-composer Matthew Shipp, that tradition remains a crackling, sentient consciousness. The title piece from his latest trio release, “World Construct,” is a live-feed experience of Shipp and regular allies, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, allowing the music to rise and fall at its own accord. Following an elegiac solo-piano intro, Shipp gradually coaxes, nudges and then releases the rhythm section. Bisio and Baker then return, the trio running through manic changes, ending the performance with an emotional closer that evokes the whispered, conversational early-’60s interplay of pianist Jaki Byard and bassist Charles Mingus.
For fans of Shipp and improvisation, “World Construct” is received as a gift of intimacy and connection that provokes us and stays firmly in the mind, challenging the listener to ultimately give it purchase into one’s heart and soul.
◈ Stream “World Construct” by Matthew Shipp Trio
◈ Listen: Fresh Air on Matthew Shipp Trio’s Conduct Of Jazz
◈ Follow the #NowPlaying playlist
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Alvvays‘ third album didn’t come without struggle; the band’s five-year path here was interrupted by an apartment break-in where demo tapes were stolen, a basement flood that damaged gear and complications at the Canadian border that resulted in delayed rehearsals. With difficulties finally behind them, the band has returned right on time with “Pharmacist.”
The leading single off Blue Rev, which will be out in October, chronicles the story of pharmacy run-in narrated by vocalist Molly Rankin and backed by a swirling, shoegaze-y guitar. The band’s synthy, indie-pop sound is maximalist, but not overloaded, closing out “Pharmacist” with a short, blown-out guitar solo.
The lyrical details in “Pharmacist” are short and memorable, but don’t necessarily portray any one narrative. The song’s concision enhances a theme of confusion: confusion about choice; confusion about what to do in a situation where the person you want to help is close enough to touch but not to confide in. But sometimes, just hearing the reassurance of, “I hear it happens all the time / It’s alright” is enough.
◈ Stream “Pharmacist” by Alvvays
◈ Hear Alvvays on World Cafe
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“No rules for me, no rules lately,” chants Amelia Meath on the latest single from North Carolina duo Sylvan Esso, “Your Reality” – it’s a sentiment that the pair makes perfectly clear.
The group’s electropop sound is presented here in its most minimal, abstract form yet – bright strings and distant bird sounds from Nick Sanborn bounce along the song’s glitchy synthesizers, with a quiet brush of percussion floating in late in the track. Meath shows she doesn’t need driving drums, hopping effortlessly around the beat, her voice in the chorus bridging the music’s synthetic bedrock and its reach-out to the natural world. Sylvan Esso continues to peel back the layers of their sound to find new places within, and “Your Reality” presents a subdued but captivating twist.
◈ Stream “Your Reality” by Sylvan Esso
▶ Watch Sylvan Esso’s Tiny Desk concert
◈ Follow the #NowPlaying playlist
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The soundtrack for Minions: The Rise of Gru, executive produced by Jack Antonoff, is primarily made up of covers, carefully selected to bridge the gap between the film’s audience of toddlers and the parents that accompany them. But instead of making sure that each song is distinctly different from the original, Antonoff opts for the Weezer approach: Make each track as similar to the source material as possible, with a dash of anachronism to keep the more diligent listener invested. Some tracks do a better job at this than others, but a highlight amongst the star-studded tracklist is Thundercat‘s take on “Fly Like An Eagle.”
The original, written by Steve Miller Band and released in 1976, is a dreamy, classic-rock staple that is somehow both incredibly cool and uncool, drenched in reverb and dated synth patterns. In 2022, Thundercat occupies a similar role, but with a commitment to elevating and celebrating jazzy ’70s funk. His cover takes the Steve Miller original and gives it a Bootsy Collins flair with keyboard riffs and wah-pedaled bass, somehow very apt for soundtracking the Minions’ bright yellow irreverent hijinks.
◈ Stream “Fly Like an Eagle” by Thundercat
▶ Watch Thundercat’s Tiny Desk concert
Minions: The Rise of Gru reviewed on Pop Culture Happy Hour
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After first shedding the “J.S.” part of his name, Minnesota-based Ondara has now shed the largely acoustic guitar-based folk sound found on his first two releases. What the Kenyan-born singer-songwriter has not shed, however, is his troubadour’s heart. On “An Alien In Minneapolis,” Ondara shares yet another poignant observation of what it means to be an outsider in a foreign place. It’s a true story shaped by real life experiences that don’t quite match the idealized impression of America he developed from afar as a boy in Africa listening to shortwave radio.
Ondara has done more than simply add an electric bass or drum kit on the new single. It’s a completely new sonic package that embraces both his intriguing voice and a unique accent that remains present when he sings. “An Alien In Minneapolis” will lead his new album Spanish Villager No. 3, due out in September. The villager referenced is an alter ego of sorts, a created vantage point through which Ondara channels his compelling narrative.
◈ Stream “An Alien In Minneapolis” by Ondara
▶ Watch Ondara’s Tiny Desk concert
◈ Follow the #NowPlaying playlist
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Credit: Linda Ayupuka / !K7 Music
Ghanaian gospel singer Linda Ayupuka performs at weddings, funerals and church services by day, but by night she makes joyous and jumpy Afro-electro hymns. God Created Everything, her debut, exists somewhere between the Malian singer Oumou Sangaré and the lo-fi-to-the-future beats heard on the Nyege Nyege Tapes label. This is turnt-up praise music that’s equally at home in church aisles and on dance floors.
Ayupuka calls “Daguna” her favorite track on the album, and it’s not hard to hear why. “Let’s all be in a hurry / Don’t delay,” a choir chants in its native Gurenɛ tongue over a trance-inducing drum loop and synth flute. In a translation provided by the singer herself, the song radiates salvation: “Our permanent home is heaven / So my brothers and sisters, be in hurry to accept Him.” Ayupuka’s piercing soprano, here AutoTuned in a way that seems to harness the power of a thousand suns, provides a blast of bright light against Francis Ayamga’s biting production, which feels equally inspired by Fra Fra ceremonial music and dancehall.
◈ Stream “Daguna” by Linda Ayupuka
◈ Follow the #NowPlaying playlist
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