If you’re looking for the music that defined April 2017, look no further than the name at No. 1 on our playlist of April’s best singles. Or go check Billboard’s Hot 100. It’s the same in both places – Kendrick Lamar, who dropped the much-anticipated followup to his acclaimed “To Pimp a Butterfly” heading into the first of two weekends he spent headlining Coachella. All 14 tracks on “DAMN.” hit Billboard’s Hot 100, with the first official single, “Humble,” hitting No. 1.
But April also brought its share of notable recordings from a wide variety of artists not Kendrick or Lamar, from EMA and Waxahatchee to the local artists featured here.
1. Kendrick Lamar, “DNA.”
This is the track from the just-released “DAMN.” with which the Compton rapper chose to open his headlining set on Easter Sunday at Coachella (which you can read a full review of here). And it’s easy enough to hear what made it feel like such a focus track. For one, it features some of Kung-Fu Kenny’s most ferocious rapping over a hypnotic, Eastern-flavored Mike WiLL Made-It beat. And the free-flowing lyrics do a brilliant job of merging the political and personal because, as he notes in one oft-mentioned line, “it’s all inside my DNA.”
The second verse is a flurry of impassioned lyrics, set up by a sample of Geraldo Rivera telling Fox News viewers, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.” Lamar fires back with “Tell me somethin’ / You mothaf—kers can’t tell me nothin’ / I’d rather die than to listen to you.”
2. Genre, “A Change Is Gonna Come”
In case you’re wondering if these local rockers know they stole the title of a Sam Cooke classic that for many has come to define the hopes and dreams of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, I direct you to the line, “Hey Sam, I hope you don’t mind.” Of course, we’ll never know if he’d have minded, but the songs do share a sense of optimism in the face of hard times. There’s just more dark humor in the Genre song.
After setting the tone with a verse about the death of David Bowie (“When David Bowie died, I couldn’t cry ’cause he was pretty old / And he’d done his job”), they sing about the murders of John F. Kennedy (they blame the C.I.A.) and John Lennon before setting their sights on our current political climate.
“So, here we are,” they sing. “On the brink of war in the modern world / Come on, save us girls.” So where’s that sense of optimism I may have mentioned earlier? It kicks in right after that verse, with an oft-repeated mantra of “A change is gonna come,” occasionally punctuated by “Oh yes, it will,” as what sounds like it could be a dozen guitars churn away through a blanket of fuzz like the more inspired moments of those first two Weezer albums. And by that point, this song sounds like it could be as much an anthem for our troubled times as anything I’ve heard these past few months.
3. EMA, “Aryan Nation”
This is the first taste we’ve heard from the forthcoming “Exile in the Outer Ring.” And it’s a bracing introduction to the album, drawing you in with the opening line, “Cutting life with a razor’s edge / When you can’t sleep but still go to bed,” to the chug of guitars that match EMA’s vocals as the track gets noisier and more cathartic. It’s a political song, as the title would suggest, that addresses the factors that can shape a person’s vote – a life with no real hope of getting better, for instance – with what sounds like empathy. In other words, it’s everything she’s always done best crammed into a single song.
The song was “partially inspired by people I’ve known in the past,” she explained in a press release, “and also the British film ‘This Is England,’ which most people in the UK are familiar with but hardly any Americans have seen. In the movie, a group of non-racist UK skinheads in the ’80s are radicalized into violence through prison, poverty and needless war. The results are violent and tragic. When I watched it I felt like I recognized a glimmer of their hopelessness and confusion in parts of America, but I had no clue how much that would explode in 2017. This is for my people in the middle country. I don’t look down on, or laugh at, serious issues such as poverty or drug problems. I believe your situations are real, your pain is real. I’m not here to ridicule or dismiss you. But as a person who came from heartland America, I also believe that there is another way than directing your anger at those who often have less power than you. Don’t let your discontent or your patriotism be exploited. Don’t look down, look up.”
4. No Volcano, “Take My Chances”
This song is here by virtue of a very trippy video, shot by Troy Farah, whose premise is summed up in the YouTube notes as, “When Ash gets the flu, he winds up at the best doctor his Obamacare can find, taking him on a disgusting, animated journey of vomit, pills and underworld demons.” It’s a bit like Sid and Marty Krofft if they’d been more demented.
What concerns us here, though, is the song, among the many highlights of the local rockers’ latest album, “Dead Horse Power.” It’s also featured on the latest Zia Records compilation “You Heard Us Back When, Volume 11,” which the chain released on Record Store Day. It’s a guitar-driven driven indie-rock gem boasting some of the more contagious guitar lines you have any hope of hearing in 2017, with piano and Beatlesque harmonies fleshing things out on the bridge, where guitarist Jim Andreas can’t seem to decide if he’s “feelin’ alright” or “not feelin’ alright.” And who among us can’t relate to that?
The arrangement makes excellent use of dynamic, pulling back at the top each verse to give Andreas more room to deliver his lines, which he does with a bittersweet tone that definitely suit the lyrics. “I’m not lookin’ for the cure,” the song begins. “I’m not afraid of disease anymore.”
5. Waxahatchee, “Silver”
Katie Crutchfield is back with the first taste of “Out in the Storm,” her fourth release with Waxahatchee. And like any number of their more contagious moments, “Silver” rocks the fuzz guitars and infectious if bittersweet pop hooks like some great lost relic from the alt-pop ’90s, echoing the best of Juliana Hatfield. The entire album was recorded live by John Agnello, who previously captured massive walls of fuzz guitar for such legends as Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth.
Meanwhile, Crutchfield weighs in on the wilted flowers of romance in lines as withering – and spot-on – as “I’ll portray the old shag carpet / You can walk all over me” and “The kiss on my lips starts to feel unfamiliar.” The album was inspired by an unhealthy relationship, and Crutchfield says it “digs into what I was going through without blinking,” adding, “It’s a very honest record about a time in which I was not honest with myself.”
6. Oddisee, “Like Really”
Here by virtue of a colorful new video filmed in Berlin, “Like Really” is a scathing social commentary aimed, in general, at white America but more specifically at the man who rode a wave of white resentment to the aptly titled White House, Donald Trump. “How you past due on payments, and I’m seeing you on vacation?” the Brooklyn-via-D.C. MC asks in the opening verse, to which the backup vocals answer, as they do throughout the soulful single, “Nah, like really.” “And how you gonna make us great when we were never really that amazing?” he continues. “Take it back to what? I don’t find hanging black lives entertaining.” As the track moves on, he gets in shots at what passes for justice in the U.S. courts, the casting of white actors in roles that should clearly be given to actors of color, the tone-deaf All Lives Matter backlash and more. But he makes his way back to the Trump administration with the song’s best couplet: “You take jobs to Mexico, pay us less and lesser though / Promised to bring them back, and that problem gets the vote.”
7. Charly Bliss, “Black Hole”
Eva Hendricks has a vocal style that filters quirky through youthful exuberance to take what would have been a perfectly contagious pop song and make it that much more endearing. On “Black Hole,” she applies those effervescent qualities to relating what sounds like a pretty bad day at a carnival or street fair: “She’s got her toe in the cornhole / Bleeding out in a snow cone.”
The second verse is even darker yet just as infectious. “Smoked the last of the bad pot / Listen in on your last thought / We’ll deliver a life lost / Bury me in the bad box.” Then the chorus kicks in like some great lost Breeders song, Hendricks pleading “Take me on a date” while questioning her sanity. And with good reason.
As Hendricks told Nylon, “I think when you’re caught up in an emotionally abusive relationship, it’s easy to convince yourself that everything you’re putting yourself through is building toward some sort of payoff, when everything will suddenly feel easy and light. That didn’t happen, and the lyrics are about me coming to terms with that, while also still not being totally able to give it up yet.”
8. Cait Brennan, “Bad at Apologies”
She doesn’t just tell you she’s bad at apologies; she shows you – in brutally honest lyrics, presenting her side of the story without necessarily apologizing. Unless you’re counting “I’m sorry, I guess, that I’m bad at apologies.” Great hook, not much of an apology.
The first words out of Brennan’s mouth here are “Yeah, I’m the a-hole who stole your boyfriend / Yeah, you were broken up at the time / But still you were a good friend.” As the singer told Blurt magazine, “This pretty much happened as written, and was intended as an actual apology until I very quickly realized it sounded like anything but, which is why it’s called what it’s called.”
The music is blues as the Beatles would play it, with accents on the two and four (like Motown) and a chorus hook that plays to Brennan’s strengths as a singer. There’s also some wonderfully sloppy drumming at one point that feels like Brennan said, “Can you make this part feel like Keith Moon wandered in and stole your drumstick?”
This is taken from “Third,” an album on Omnivore Recordings, which Brennan recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, where Big Star famously recorded (also releasing an album called “Third”). Coincidence? If you have to ask, you haven’t heard the record.
9. The War on Drugs, “Thinking of a Place”
This Record Store Day release is the War on Drugs’ first new song since 2014 (although they did pay tribute to the Grateful Dead on an album called “Day of the Dead” last year, recording “Touch of Grey.” But this song doesn’t sound a like any era of the Grateful Dead, although its length should speak to Deadheads.) “Thinking of a Place” is an 11-minute epic that puts the cosmic in Cosmic American Music – or spectral Americana as some would call it, complete with a dreamy guitar lead that somehow taps into the essence of Neil Young and David Gilmour at the same time while ambient synths and a haunted harmonica break complete the sense of atmosphere.
10. Harper and the Moths, “Chemicals”
This song is here by virtue of a neon-flavored futuristic video that looks a bit like something out of “Tron.” If “Tron” had been more colorful. “I’ve always loved the ’80s feel of their music,” says Bob Case, who animated and art-directed the video. “So, I wanted to make something that would have that aesthetic. I had seen some work by Beeple that had a lot of 3D elements timed to music as a continuous run through a space (really high-tech looking), and I thought if I could create a really cool undulating space I’d have an awesome backdrop for this lyric video. Adding neon tubes/planes and reflective surfaces was the magic though – timing the lights to the music just made it feel like a great ’80s SyFi ride.”
The track itself is one of several cuts on “Rock. Pop. Soul.” that left me wondering why they didn’t mention “funk” in that equation. Chan Schulman’s guitar in particular recalls the more infectious art-funk of the post-punk era, while bassist David Campbell flirts with disco while making it clear that he belongs on any self-respecting shortlist of the Valley’s most formidable bassists. Meanwhile, Harper Lines insists “It’s nothing personal / it’s just the chemicals” on a strong contender for their most contagious chorus hook to date.
The song was inspired, says Lines, by “how shockingly casual the dating scene has become, and acknowledging that the ‘honeymoon phase’ is merely oxytocin prompting us to procreate.”
11. (Sandy) Alex G, “Proud”
He made our singles playlist last month, too, before he changed his name from Alex G to (Sandy) Alex G, with a melancholy bluegrass ballad, “Bobby.” This acoustic-guitar-driven track is a bit more upbeat without moving any closer to the type of sound one might expect from an artist whose calling card remains having worked with Frank Ocean. The sound here is straight-up alternative-country of a very early Wilco vintage, with sweet falsetto harmonies and barrelhouse piano underscoring his aching lead vocals. And the chorus is alt-country gold. “If I sink, I don’t wanna be the one to leave my baby out without no bottle to drink.”
12. Mac DeMarco, “On the Level”
This single was among the many highlights of DeMarco’s set on Easter Sunday at Coachella (which you can read a full review of here). And that is “on the level.”
Much like any number of his more inspired moments, you could call it yacht rock, if you like, because it’s definitely got that yacht-rock vibe, although it’s filtered through a synth-pop sheen on this occasion.
The lyrics take an existential look at fatherhood with an opening verse that appears to be DeMarco singing to himself in the voice of his dad. “Boy, this could be your year,” he sings on a bed of jazzy soft-rock chords. “Make an old man proud of you / Forget about the tears.”
DeMarco says: “This record has a lot to do with my family and my life right now and the way I’m feeling. One of the main goals for this record was trying to make sure I retained some kind of realness.”
13. Norah Jones, “Flipside”
Driven by a heavy-grooving bassline first established by the singer’s left hand on piano, “Flipside” is a soulful blend of blues and jazz that finds her sharing her reflections on these hard times with a fiery chorus of “I can’t stand when you tell me to get back / If we’re all free, why does it seem / We can’t just be?”
Jones explains, “I was really inspired by the news and the stuff that’s been going on in the world and in this country the last couple years. It’s been really volatile and crazy, and I was listening to that Les McCann song ‘Compared to What’ and very much influenced by how just grooving and amazing it is but it’s also very political and it’s just from the gut.” This is the second single Jones has shared from “Day Breaks,” due Oct. 7.
14. Girlpool, “It Gets More Blue”
As Harmony Tividad of Girlpool tells it, the goal going into the sessions for “Powerplant,” the folk-punk duo’s second album, was to make you feel. “As a society I feel that we perceive softness and vulnerability as traits that are ‘weak,’ and people emotionally disconnect themselves in order to avoid going through everything they feel,” she says. “I think what is most important right now is empathy, and in order to have empathy we must first feel what we, ourselves, feel.”
You can definitely feel the feelings they share on this bittersweet ballad, an aching depiction of being in love with someone you’ve reduced yourself to watching from bodegas on the street. As they harmonize on the chorus hook, “I read the book / I drank the drinks / I made you look / And I’m still here.” That doesn’t mean they’ve lost their sense of humor. Consider the following line: “The nihilist tells you that nothing is true / I said ‘I faked global warming just to get close to you.’” To which the intended response would be “You would do that for me?!”
15. Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”
I’ve been trying not to use two singles by the same act in my monthly playlist lately, but this song is undeniable – Lamar’s first hit to top the Billboard Hot 100 (well, unless you count his featured vocal on that Taylor Swift track, “Bad Blood,” but that song was gonna top the charts regardless). Like “DNA.,” the song at No. 1 on this list, “HUMBLE.” was produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, who came through with a killer bass piano loop over which Lamar schools his rivals to sit down, be humble without even thinking of taking his own advice.
Among his more memorable boasts? “Still will take you down right on your mama’s couch in polo socks” and “Obama just paged me,” adding “I stay modest ‘bout it.” In an interview with NPR, the track’s producer said, “I knew that beat was going to capture a moment. It just felt real urgent. I made that beat … when Gucci Mane was getting out of jail; I made it with him in mind. I was just thinking, damn, Gucci’s about to come home; it’s got to be something urgent that’s just going to take over the radio.”
16. Feist, “Pleasure”
“Pleasure” is a sultry little blues-punk number filtered through baroque-pop orchestration and not much in the way of percussion. So when I say “blues-punk,” I mean “blues-punk as you might expect from Leslie Feist,” who spins a tale of two lives intertwined in the pursuit of pleasure, as two lives so often are. “That’s what we’re here for,” after all, as she shouts on the chorus. The star explained the birth of “Pleasure” in a statement or interview quoted on genius.com: “I made this record last winter with two of my closest friends, Mocky and Renaud Letang. I was raw and so were the takes. Our desire was to record that state without guile or go-to’s and to pin the songs down with conviction and our straight-up human bodies. I titled the album ‘Pleasure’ like I was planting a seed or prophesying some brightness. The experience of pleasure is mild or deep, sometimes temporal, sometimes a sort of low-grade lasting, usually a motivator. If the way you look at things is how they look then my motivation is to look with a brighter eye.”
17. Long Ryders, “Bear in the Woods”
It’s been 30 years since these Americana pioneers released new music. And they somehow make it sound like they just stepped out for a beer and got right back to work. The music is straight-up alternative-country, with chiming guitars and an aching lead vocal devoted to sharing a fable about what to do when it’s feeling like you’re future’s just been sold. “Go see the bear in the woods,” we’re told. “He’ll know what to do.”
That sounds like bad advice, but as bassist Tom Stevens, who wrote the song, explains: “The message is complex. I wrote this song about a bear, a friendly one, approaching it like a children’s song. But what emerged under its surface was different. I likely had the state of politics on my mind. The bear in this song may not be the friendly, all-knowing guru that he appears. But in real life, it’s up to us to seek our best hopes and not our worst fears in our gurus. Lately I feel that too many have done the latter.”
18. Rostam, “Gwan”
The Vampire Weekend expatriate has shared a richly orchestrated ballad that announces its arrival with a gorgeous string arrangement that’s probably closer to classical music than most traditional baroque-pop tends to tread.
“I’m realizing from responses I’ve gotten that you could hear the cello parts in ‘Gwan’ in different ways,” he says. “One person described it as being ‘Trad Music’-meaning Traditional Irish music- that wasn’t what I had in mind when I wrote those parts but I take that interpretation as a high compliment. Another described it as sounding ‘very Eastern.’ I’m interested in the interconnections between these musics. I grew up listening to and studying both Western and Eastern music, but at this point in my life I’m not thinking too hard about what I’m trying to accomplish musically. I’m trying to just trust my instincts.”
This was an excellent instinct to trust and it suits the wistful nature of the lyrics. “I’ve had experiences where my life will try to tell me something in a dream,” he says, “and sometimes it’s something I’m not ready to hear. So I think maybe this song is about trying to listen to what your subconscious mind is trying to say to you.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-4495.Twitter.com/EdMasley.
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