The last few weeks have been a time of great pop music turmoil, whipsawing between grief, elation, and high-profile gnashing of porcelain veneers. A lingering sadness since Prince’s passing has colored everything for me, and like Jay Z, I’ve been searching for a moment of clarity, or at least an instant of relief from the painful grind and jang-a-lang foolishness. Here’s a batch of musical moments — some new, some not so new, some kinda old — that have helped brighten my moon-shaped pool of gloom lately.
Alex Newell, Jess Glynne, and DJ Cassidy feat. Nile Rodgers, “Kill the Lights (Dimitri from Paris Remix)” (Big Beat/Atlantic)
Considering the phobic ugliness of North Carolina House Bill 2 — a.k.a. the hastily passed legislation that has rolled back civil rights (most pointedly for transgender citizens), drawing a lawsuit in reply from the Department of Justice — we should all blast this dance-floor aria in the general direction of reptile-brain governor Pat McCrory’s mansion. Led by the gloriously whooshing voice of 23-year-old Alex Newell, who played Glee’s transgender student Unique Adams, “Kill the Lights” is a disco call-to-arms that Dimitri from Paris extends to an exuberantly elegant, eight-minute divertissement. Dimitri's remix dramatically frames Nile Rodgers’s guitar riff, dropping the congas and bits of Newell’s wails until the message is received: “Don't try to hide, let's have some fun / You can't rely on anything or anyone / Who fights the love you have inside.” Get with the movement, McCrory, or crawl back into your cave and keep those scaly claws off our freedom.
Sturgill Simpson, “In Bloom,” from A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic)
Both an elegy and a second-line parade for songwriter Kurt Cobain (who can be heard winking his approval in the shadows), this is also a vocal performance for the ages. Simpson whispers and croons and moans and soars, taking us through several chilling twists of emotion.
Lil Yachty, “(Intro) Keep Swimming,” from Lil Boat (self-released)
Yachty’s mixtape opens with Dory from Finding Nemo advising: “Hey Mr. Grumpy Gills, when life gets you down, you know what you got to do? ... Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming …” The absurdity of the most cutting-edge ATL rapper of the year introducing himself this way always raises my spirits. Then the teenage singer-rapper’s Auto-Tuned lilt wafts in, first as narrator “Darnell Boat,” welcoming the album’s dual personas — “Lil Boat,” a gruff, ruggedly paranoid dude on the come-up, and “Lil Yachty,” a more cordial and playful party vessel. It’s all open-ended and blurry, but there’s a sense of life as a series of unexpected characters and scenes that can’t be expressed without a vast universe of imagination, reminiscent of De La Soul’s debut with visionary producer Prince Paul. Who cares that it never develops much beyond that point? It’s enough to know that there’s a Lil Yachty and a Lil Boat in all of us.
D.R.A.M. feat. Lil Yachty, “Broccoli” (#1EpicCheck LLC/Empire)
Sometimes you just gotta floss like stoned fools over a trap preset and a keyboard loop that somebody could’ve plinked out over Corn Flakes. D.R.A.M., of Drake-stole-my-song-for-his-song fame, couldn’t be more delightful, warbling and eating salmon with capers.
"Song Exploder" Podcast feat. Carly Rae Jepsen
In which the pop auteur, along with producer Ariel Rechtshaid, explains the process behind creating the ineffable, heart-racing, would-be Sixteen Candles/Pretty in Pink moment of truth "When I Needed You" from Jepsen’s 2015 album E·MO·TION. The story includes the collapse of a relationship, Lionel Richie’s bassist, Kenny Aronoff’s epochal drum sound on “Jack and Diane,” and a random giggle.
Alice Bag, “No Means No” (Don Giovanni)
When I first saw the famed L.A. punk doc The Decline of Western Civilization as a teen boy, The Bags’s “Gluttony” was a shrieking, discomfiting interlude between the deranged physical comedy of Black Flag and Fear, et al. But listening now, it’s a revelatory flicker of humanity and truly fearless art (yeah, I said art, fuckwad). At this past April’s EMP Pop Conference in Seattle — a gathering of writers, academics, and rad nerds — I mentioned my belated appreciation of frontwoman Alice Bag (a.k.a. Armendariz Velasquez) with Michelle Habell-Pallán, who wrote the amazing, head-cleaning 2012 essay, “‘Death to Racism and Punk Revisionism’: Alice Bag’s Vexing Voice and the Unspeakable Influence of Canción Ranchera on Hollywood Punk,” linking Bag’s “piercing, primal” voice to the brash aggression – or estilo bravío, i.e. “brave style” – of early 20th-century Mexican women who performed urban mariachi music. Habell-Pallán, a professor at the University of Washington, is also a respected “digital archivista,” tenaciously linking oral histories of female musicians. But Alice Bag, now 57, hasn’t faded into the archives yet, recently releasing this riotously poppy, garage-punk comeuppance from an upcoming album featuring young musicians she met via Girls Rock Camp and the Chicas Rockeras camp in southeast Los Angeles. In the song, a girl passes out, a guy pushes his luck, and the girl presses charges, later turning the courtroom into a mosh pit shouting “No means no!” Times done changed, bro.
Speedy Ortiz, “Death Note,” from the Foiled Again EP (Carpark)
Sadie Dupuis writes rock songs like she’s teetering on the last line of a sestina, trying to decide whether loving yourself or ending it all will make a better parting shot.
Canaan Smith, “Hole in a Bottle,” from Bronco (Mercury Nashville)
Goddamn, this is some masterfully top-shelf Nashville songwriting-squad hooey! “Hole in a Bottle” might be the catchiest radio jam I’ve heard in the past year (sorry, Bruno Mars). Its rhythmic and melodic tug is more like a hellacious yank, and Smith gets the honky-tonk turnt.
Nicky Siano, "Live at the Gallery, October 1976, Parts 1 & 2"
Somehow I spaced on this historically mood-altering mix last year when it was posted by the always stellar Wax Poetics. If, like me, you’re so desperate for a groove that you’ll start your own dance party while repairing the weed whacker, you’ve come to the right way-back link. Siano was an early-’70s DJ whiz whom historian Peter Shapiro hailed as the Jimi Hendrix of the turntables. Juggling three decks, controlling the club’s lights with foot pedals, extending breaks endlessly, using sound effects records (inserting a jet plane’s takeoff, for instance), and mixing with a coolly smooth flow that was heretofore unheard, he transformed the Gallery — a Manhattan club he opened in 1973, when he was 18, with loans from his brother and a friend — into a minimally decorated, diva-worshipping temple. You can’t really feel the thump of the club’s grounding sound system here, but no matter. Nothing sounds more joyous on a shitty day than Nicky.
Skepta, “Shutdown,” from Konnichiwa (Boy Better Know)
With Drake and Kanye cosigns, grime don Skepta should feel verified, but that’s not how he rolls. He and producer Ragz Originale nab a clever sample from Drizzy’s Vine account (“Truss me daddy!”) to set the cheeky-not-cheeky tone on “Shutdown,” before inflicting a lights-out lyrical pummeling on any and all opponents. No current MC, U.S. or U.K., possesses such a single-minded urgency. Check the fuck-the-police madness during a takeover of the Shoreditch district of London’s East End last year.
Perfect Pussy, “Bells” (live in 2014)
From about 1:00 to 2:30 of this clip, Perfect Pussy’s thunderous punk roil is organized into a ferocious ceremony by frontwoman Meredith Graves (now, weirdly and wonderfully, of MTV News), whose body jerks and heaves as she recites a violently ecstatic affirmation: “I am sad and grateful / I am lonely and rejoicing / I ring the bells alone, I ring the bells for you / Forgive me the impermanence of my joy / And the permanence of my joy / I am present in my truth.” Despite having watched this clip at least a hundred times, usually whenever I feel bereft of any fucks (and not in the liberated Tupac way), it’s always a jolt, like an ominous dream where all meanings fizzle like sparklers, but before they die out completely, I immediately wake up to a morning peal of relief. Thanks, Em.
Jake Owen, “American Country Love Song” (RCA Nashville)
I have no idea what this momo is talking about — “It's butterflies and Bud Lights / Under the stars and on the stripes / Of a beach towel in a spring break town,” are you fucking kidding me? But it sure sounds like the kind of magical escapade that any of us would feel privileged to experience!
Garbage, “Empty” (Stunvolume)
Alt-rock’s unhappy warriors have never sounded more like a coiled-to-strike machine, and on their best single of the 2000s, Shirley Manson’s voice belts and quivers and sneers with exhilarating precision. Perhaps it’s time to dummy up about chart numbers and fully acknowledge that she’s one of the most affecting pop-rock vocalists of the past 20 years.
Mamamoo, “Pride of 1cm (Taller Than You)” (Rainbow Bridge World)
When all else fails, K-pop! Especially when this ridiculously charming pop-rap trio throws down about who’s the tallest member (no, that’s really what they’re arguing about), over a “The Real Slim Shady”–ish beat. Turns out they’re all basically the same size — only one centimeter separates them — so, um, yeah!