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Top Songs of the Month: HAIM, Roger Waters, and Future

Fresh faces, welcome returns, and legends both carving out and capping off their legacies

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Rarely can music fans come together and reach a consensus on the state of music today. One person’s musical bull market is often another’s end of the world as we know it, and then there’s the middle ground where we just shrug and go listen to OK Computer for the 3,000th time. And that’s fine. We all process living in this at-our-fingertips age differently, where there’s more than ever (from wherever and whenever) to embrace, dismiss, or “meh” at. Truthfully, I probably spent more time in 1987 than I did in 2016 last year music-wise, but months like May keep me firmly in the present. There are fresh faces, welcome returns, and artists both carving out and capping off legacies that we’ll be talking about for years to come. I dare you to look through the list of songs that follows and not find something that makes you thankful that you just pushed <play>. And if not, then scamper back to whatever does make you feel that way. It’s all good, and we’ll try again together next month.

–Matt Melis
Editorial Director

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10. Roger Waters – “Déjà Vu”

Roger Waters has obviously tapped into something that resonates with people over the years. His concepts, lyrics, and the grandeur of his vision, whether on his own in the studio, on tour, or as a member of Pink Floyd, have no doubt touched most of us in a profound way at some point. I’m not versed in all things Floydian enough to stack “Déjà Vu” against the many other ideas he’s projected out into the world, but it’s nevertheless inspiring to see a 73-year-old artist with something left to say about the world as he sees it. And it’s a message as fitting as any for these troubled times. As we watch our world grow more violent, disconnected, and inhumane, how often we must all wonder, “Why can’t we do better?” It’s a question we dare not speak aloud because it sounds so childish, and that’s part of the problem. When did common sense and human decency become silly, unsophisticated notions? Waters poses a very simple question, and the damning stamp on humanity is that we have no answers. –Matt Melis

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09. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Cut to the Feeling”

It shouldn’t be a complete surprise that “Cut to the Feeling” is so strong, particularly because it leaked a couple months ago to the delight of Carly Rae Jepsen fans everywhere. But still, considering the strength of the album whose sessions it was taken from, Emotion, and that she already released a B-sides collection that this also didn’t make the cut for, you have to wonder if there is anyone else producing as much quality pop music in bulk as Jepsen is right now. “Cut to the Feeling” isn’t just a holdover. It’s a bright, exuberant anthem that’s as playful and undeniable as any of Jepsen’s recent work. It’s easy to wonder just how many more of these types of songs Jepsen has sitting around, ready for a soundtrack (this one is for the film Leap!), but “Cut to the Feeling” is also a one-of-a-kind proposition. At her best, Jepsen crafts pop music that both fits into a great oeuvre and stands confidently on its own. It’s music to boost confidence and inspire. It’s pop at its most pure. –Philip Cosores

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08. The Kickback – “Will T”

Billy Yost sounds larger than life on “Will T”. The first single off the band’s sophomore album, Weddings and Funerals, suggests The Kickback are going to soar rather than slump upon its July 14th release. Hooking up with Grammy-winning producer, engineer, and mixer Dennis Herring was a wise decision, as evidenced by the assured scope to “Will T”, which explodes with all kinds of flavor — you know, kind of like those aluminum bags of Gushers. Speaking of the ’90s, and for those of you who enjoy shameful comparisons to past bands when it comes to new music, this one sounds achingly like Spacehog covering something off Vampire Weekend’s Contra. It’s brash, vibrant, and colorful, but unlike Royston Langdon — or Ezra Koenig, for that matter — Yost is too unpredictable to corner, and the jarring spurts and sprints are what make “Will T” such an enviable summer job for the alternative-loving masses. Scream along, sing along, do both. –Michael Roffman

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07. Vince Staples – “Big Fish”

Much will be made of the fact that Vince Staples fails to utter a single swear word on his new single, the second off his forthcoming sophomore effort, Big Fish Theory. But if you think the Long Beach rapper has gone soft in the two summers since Summertime ‘06, think again. On “Big Fish”, veteran producer Christian Rich gives Staples a huge electric beat to gnash his teeth at, and guest Juicy J completes the setup with a killer hook about “countin’ up hundreds by the thousand.”

Plenty of young and freshly successful MCs have taken a stab at this rags-to-riches subject matter, but few can match Staples’ wit or “fuck you” posturing, which turns every line into an audible sneer. He wraps up the powerful second verse with a shout-out to Snoop (“Wanna be the boss then you gotta pay the cost/ Learned it from the Dogg, I’m from Long Beach”) before self-consciously echoing Summertime single “Norf Norf”, as if he’s already done enough to warrant a place among the giants. If the rest of Big Fish Theory sounds anything like this, maybe he has. —Collin Brennan

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06. Slowdive – “Sugar for the Pill”

There will likely be some of you reading this that weren’t alive the last time Slowdive put out a record, but you wouldn’t know it from the flawless execution and chemistry throughout their new self-titled album. The shoegaze legends sound particularly inspired on the sublime lead single, “Sugar for the Pill”, a perfect pop hook nestled within dozens of fascinating textured layers. The song features the classic pairing of Rachel Goswell’s haunting falsetto and Neil Halstead’s warm acoustic core, though it never sounds stale or dated. The grand emotional grace that propelled their initial rise remains, though they’ve clearly found new ways of expressing it. The glories of Slowdive’s past relied on their mercurial shifting and adapting, and that’s certainly still the case today. –Lior Phillips
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05. Future feat. Kendrick Lamar – “Mask Off”

“Mask Off” never needed a remix in the first place, if we’re being honest. The standout track on Future’s self-titled album transcends its rags-to-riches subject matter with an uncommonly vulnerable chorus (“mask on … fuck it, mask off”) and a pitch-perfect sample of Tommy Butler’s “Prison Song”. But as much as that flute complements Future’s flow, it certainly can’t hurt to throw in an extended guest verse courtesy of fire-breathing dragon and recently re-annointed King of Hip-Hop Kendrick Lamar.

Whereas Future rides the beat like it’s a chill wave, Lamar’s verse kicks and bucks with no regard for Metro Boomin’s laid-back production. This delivery is typical of Lamar — it’s as if he’s got more to get off his chest in each line than a single breath will allow — but the tension between the two rappers gives “Mask Off” a crucial new dimension. Lamar’s all bravado, busting into the liquor store with guns blazing, while Future sounds almost reluctant by comparison. It’s not quite Jekyll and Hyde, but it’s an interesting embodiment of the song’s central mask on/off motif and an affirmation that superstars can add new dimensions to each other’s talents (as if the Golden State Warriors hadn’t already proved that point). –Collin Brennan

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04. (Sandy) Alex G – “Bobby”

For some, (Sandy) Alex G (or just Alex G) is a new name. For Bandcampers, he’s a household name. But a single listen to “Bobby” will assure both groups of what either they’re just learning or have known for several years now: Alex Giannascoli knows his way around a song. And there are no tricks here. Soft-stepping strums, violin, and the vocal help of Emily Yacina come together to make this heart-on-a-sleeve, tender duet one of the most relatable songs of the year so far. As our own David Sackllah wrote in his review of Rocket, “Alex G opens up and finds a language that speaks for more than just himself,” and “Bobby” talks to feelings we all know: depression, having messed up, and, most movingly, the desire to abandon our hangups, habits, and ruts to be better for someone else. You won’t find a simpler lyric than “I’d clean it for you/ If you want me to,” but it translates, as Sackllah suggests, to any language with a beating heart. –Matt Melis

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03. Selena Gomez – “Bad Liar”

Look past the Talking Heads sample. Sure, it might be hard, given how prevalent the “Psycho Killer” bass line is throughout the song. The truth is that the song doesn’t need it. It’s a display of riches, a flaunt that not only does Selena Gomez have the savvy to reference a music great, but also to do so in a manner that would please fans of the band and even David Byrne himself. But the bass line is just a small part of why the song works. Gomez’s soft speak-singing in the verse and vulnerable, tender chorus all screams indie-pop in the vein of Chairlift, with Gomez using her own star power to sell it. It works because it is simple and direct, not trying to muddle things with trendy production or unnecessary filler. In a time where much of pop is going big, making statements, and fighting to stand out, Gomez has crafted one of the best pop songs of the year by being decidedly low-key. –Philip Cosores

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02. The National – “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”

“I thought that this would all work out after a while,” Matt Berninger sings on “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”. It’s clear from the encroaching gray on the lead single from The National’s upcoming seventh studio album that the band are lodged in the same chaotic world that we all are, thrumming at a wavelength influenced by so much fear, pain, and uncertainty. There’s a real weight to the song thanks to Bryan Devendorf’s frenetic percussion, and the tension between Berninger’s upper range and the low end feels extra pained. Now four years out from the superb Trouble Will Find Me, the upcoming Sleep Well Beast seems like the toothy, cathartic burst of emotion and passion that you could expect from a band who performed at a Hillary Clinton rally railing at the insanity of today. Sleep Well Beast will be available on September 8th via 4AD. –Lior Phillips

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01. HAIM – “Want You Back”

Out of all the recent acts and bands heading into their sophomore album, nobody has a more daunting task than HAIM. With 2013’s Days Are Gone, the three sisters were showcasing songs they had worked on for years, and most of them were fan favorites long before any fan ever hit “play” on the album. With Something to Tell You, however, the trio’s highly anticipated follow-up, they truly started from scratch, and it’s been something of an evolution. Last year, they road tested early versions of “Nothing’s Wrong” and “Little of Your Love” to critical success, but a song like “Want You Back” feels like a proper return. Or at least, the type of song you want to release when you’re riding the kind of hype that HAIM have been surfing. In some ways, it’s a bridge between the past and where they’re at now, capitalizing on the three-part harmonies that made songs like “The Wire” so insatiable while also swimming in the kind of ultra-shiny production that suggests bigger things. It’s appropriate, then, that it opens the new album, as if to say, “Hello again. Things have changed a little.” Maybe for the better. –Michael Roffman

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