The title of this column is a challenge and an aspiration (and a cheeky drug reference!). Three Tuesdays a month, I’ll write about songs, albums, videos, shows, films, books, et al., that have pushed me to the verge, or ledge, of screaming, shaking, sweating, exulting, weeping, reeling, or staring in disbelief. Hopefully, whatever’s scribbled here will come close to matching those feelings of oh-holy-shitness. So, in that spirit, the initial column is inspired by 2016’s most fabulously fist-clenched tableau, Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, and will spotlight women who are making bold, defiant moves, overtly politicized and not, allowing us see the world in a singular way. Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.
Dilly Dally, “Know Yourself” (Drake cover)
Lurching from a brooding ember to an unholy blast furnace, this Toronto band led by singer-guitarist Katie Monks and guitarist Liz Ball jacks its hometown hero’s hit and gives it a bleary, disruptive inevitability — like the band members’ entire lives were destined to reach this exact moment. When Monks shreds her voice to howl “running through the 6 with my whoooaaaaaassssss!,” she turns Drizzy’s crew-love ride out into a blood-curdling cri de coeur.
Rihanna, “Needed Me”
DJ Mustard’s ghostly synths creep and twist around the heavy, stalking beat, while RiRi matter-of-factly muses, “Didn’t I tell you I was a savage?” She’s dragging us, but only as a means to an end, i.e., fun on the run. The answer: “Yes, domina, you did tell us, and that’s why we wish to serve you.”
The London punk band’s first single and video from its new album is a discordant incantation born of urgent regret. Yet singer Jehnny Beth — alone against a stark, indigo backdrop — remains dead-calm as she spools out her statement of purpose amid the band’s methodical goth atmospherics. Finally, crescendoing to the chorus, she plainly but intensely concludes, “I adore life.” She’s impassive, save a hint of a smile crossing her lips, but the assertion resonates just as tenaciously as the fuck-yous of another punk era. Later, in various shots, different expressionless bandmates clasp each other’s hands, tightly, sensually, reaffirming their commitment not just to the song’s message but to each other.
Ane Brun, “You Lit My Fire”
A Norwegian-born, Sweden-based singer-songwriter with a staunchly delicate folk-pop quaver, Ane Brun has always lingered in lonely shadows, never quite letting herself go. That changes here. After contracting lupus in 2012 and canceling a tour with Peter Gabriel, Brun was confined to a hospital bed, but it seemed to give her a fresh, enhanced vigor. With “Lit My Fire,” she unfurls an emotionally direct, full-on gospel-soul anthem, as if Bonnie Raitt had just read bell hooks’s Feminism Is for Everybody and begun testifying. Caught up in the churchy sway, Brun croons, “Nothing can hold me back, ooh, you lit my fire,” and it’s on.
PJ Harvey, “The Wheel”
In her book Loneliness Spoils Its Victims, Syrian poet Dara Abdallah writes of the refugees and prisoners of war from her home country as the “still-alive dead,” trapped at the intersection of every political clash: “nothingness.” Harvey herself, after visiting the Kosovo and Afghanistan war zones with photographer Seamus Murphy, published her own book of rather amateurish poetry accompanying Murphy’s poignant vistas. But here, on the first song released from her new album, she’s a roaring witness, the folk-punk churn and rumble of her music articulating what she couldn’t with her text. “Now you see them, now you don’t,” she sings tersely of children lost to war, against a saxophone’s wounded wheeze.
The young New York artist Nandi Loaf trolled her way to notoriety a couple of years ago (when she was attending Cooper Union) by releasing a series of satirical, often hip-hop-themed videos in which she rapped or gabbed or communicated in a computer-generated voice. Feigning a plea to attract YouTube subscribers, she sleepily quipped, “I’m valid and mad poppin’ like salad, hellooooo.” She’s deeply committed to sending up artistic virtuosity (in one video, she drew a mooning Bart Simpson on a gallery wall while a Juicy J track played); trashing white art icons (“Fuck Rauschenberg, let me get a Butterfinger, nigga”); and spoofing art-world hype and self-branding. In her most insistent gambit, she announces that “Nandi Loaf Is the Most Influential Artist of the 21st Century” or “Nandi Loaf Is Your Favorite Artist” and plasters those claims on actual art pieces or mass-produced merch (mugs, hats, posters). She tags all her work with the Instagram handle @nandi_loaf. Lately, she’s been documenting her intense fandom for the metal band Slipknot, especially their clown and death masks (she’s also memorialized Ol’ Dirty Bastard and GG Allin). Nandi Loaf may not be the greatest artist of the century — yet — but she’s already one of the wittiest and canniest.
Laura Mvula feat. Nile Rodgers, “Overcome”
There’s no more exquisite sound in pop music than Laura Mvula’s voice, layered into a choral cloud of harmonies, hovering majestically, until it breaks through like a sunburst. Her vocal magic was the most rousing aspect of her rousing debut album, 2013’s Sing to the Moon. Here, on the first single from the U.K. singer-composer’s new full-length, she’s soaring in the clouds again — yet firmly anchored by a bubbling tribal-house beat and Nile Rodgers’s infectiously flickering guitar, plus swelling horns and strings from the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s got the hum of a spiritual event, and is the closest to a new Fela song we’re gonna get. When she sings, “It ain’t no time to die / Even though we suffer,” we descend into a chanting prayer that slowly rises up again, as if we’re being transported to the Afrika Shrine club in Lagos, Fela’s home base. Add to that the video in which Mvula rises from a pool, lying broken in a gilded birdcage, soon to emerge wearing a cape of black feathers and leading a whirling ceremonial dance. She’s invoking Maya Angelou, the civil rights era, the Beatles, and more, but mostly she’s just plain exhilarating.
Lucinda Williams, “House of Earth”
For the past 15 years, starting at age 48 with the title track of her 2001 album Essence, Lucinda Williams has been unfurling stories of raw, desperate, and at times nearly suicidal sexual need like no one else. Sure, in the late 1980s, she sang about a Corona cold against a woman’s skin as a guy leaned into her at a bar, but this was different. Love wasn’t just a drug, it was the bloody drip of the needle. On “House of Earth” (from her album The Ghosts of Highway 20), which Williams wrote from rediscovered Woody Guthrie lyrics about a prostitute and potential customer, she’s a creaking siren, a maternal instructor, moaning that she can fulfill a man’s every need. “I’ll furnish red hot kisses and the hole / That wakes up sleeping sickness in your soul,” she purrs and growls. It’s a life-or-death seduction, and if the dude doesn’t get out now, it may be awhile.