Sound Board: The Week’s Best Tracks
Our picks for the best tracks out there for the week of January 4–8, 2015. Headphone-tested, FLOOD-approved.
You might be feeling bad that the holiday break is over, but don’t worry, some of our favorite artists are ringing in 2016 with excellent new tracks including powerhouse female singers (Sia, Mavis Staples, Cross Record, Savages), living legends (David Bowie), up-and-coming thrashers (METZ), and one magical collaboration (Sufjan Stevens and Gallant).
Check them all out below.
Sia got her start writing hit songs for major stars including Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Beyoncé, but now, after a hugely successful solo debut, she’s getting to collaborate with these high profile stars on her own behalf. Case in point: her new single “Reaper,” which was cowritten and coproduced by Kanye West. It’s clear that West had a guiding hand on Sia’s new track—her usually grand orchestrations and vocals have been replaced with simple yet effective base line, more sing-spoken verses, and textured beats—but the result is a fun combination of the pair.
Today, David Bowie released his excellent (and Kendrick Lamar–influenced!) new record ★. We’ve already gotten a feel for the album with the video for the title track, and yesterday—one day ahead of his sixty-ninth birthday—Bowie released a second video. “Lazarus,” which was shot in a constricting 1:1 frame by Johan Renck, traps the singer in a hospital bed, where he kicks against the pricks of death. The track is a slow burning ballad that pushes Bowie’s light and angelic voice above the rough, fuzzed-out guitar riffs and horn lines.
Underneath the confusing and garbled imagery of METZ’s brand-new music video, “Eraser” is a burst of tight bass lines and rapid-fire percussion with one very easy-to-remember chorus. Let the pounding sound waves wash over you.
Sufjan Stevens and R&B singer Gallant recently put together a version of Carrie & Lowell‘s gutwrenching closer “Blue Bucket of Gold.” The video, which was shot and performed in a single live take for Spotify’s In The Room sessions, finds Gallant taking the lead vocal. While Sufjan’s take on the album is pained, hopeful in a cosmic sense but resigned to suffering in this life, Gallant delivers an impassioned protest. In his hands, “Blue Bucket of Gold” is issued from the moment before death, when hope for full reconciliation is still alive—but fading.
Emily Cross is set to release Wabi-Sabi, her second LP as Cross Record, right into the post-holiday freeze, and it’s hard to think of a more appropriate time for it. That title refers to the Japanese aesthetic principle of finding beauty in impermanence and transience, and “Basket,” which is taken from the album, is a fitting portrait of that concept in miniature. Cross’ voice etches crystalline through an otherwise muddy stage of plucked cello notes and sustained bass while a muffled note pierces the high end. Those low-end tones forecast trouble that does indeed come cascading in in the song’s final seconds, but even at its most dissonant—and it gets plenty dissonant—Cross’ vocal melody and that one decaying note carry the song; their beauty is what gives “Basket” its momentum. Winter is coming.
Mavis Staples is gearing up to release Livin’ On a High Note, her Your Good Fortune EP’s full-length followup. The album was produced by M. Ward and finds Mavis performing songs written especially for her by a variety of musicians. While some (Neko Case, Ben Harper) seem like logical choices, there are a few outliers, too—notably New Orleans blues-punk Benjamin Booker and tUnE-yArDs. Nick Cave, meanwhile, will presumably be shelving his Nick the Stripper swagger and returning to psalmist mode for “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me.” “I told the writers I was looking for some joyful songs,” she said in a statement. “I want to leave something to lift people up; I’m so busy making people cry, not from sadness, but I’m always telling a part of history that brought us down and I’m trying to bring us back up.” Staples released the album’s title track, which was written by Valerie June, this week and it’s a warm and earthy track that acts as a welcomed reintroduction to the inimitable singer.
It’s been a few minutes since we’ve gotten new music from Bonnie “Prince” Billy—one can only assume he’s hard at work on Zach Galifianakis’ North Carolina farm—but Wednesday brought the news that we’ll soon have some previously unheard music from Will Oldham. Pond Scum, which is out January 22 on his longtime label Drag City, collects cuts from three of Oldham’s Peel Sessions. Recorded for the legendary BBC Radio program, the tracks here are sparse and largely re-arranged takes on songs from throughout Oldham’s discography. Also, there’s a Prince cover (“The Cross”). In typically obscure fashion, the album’s single is a reworked version of Ease Down the Road‘s “Rich Wife Full of Happiness.” The cut isn’t taken from a Peel Session, but it’s said to be similar in style to what you’ll find on Pond Scum.
Savages are good at a lot of things—sculpting sound, cultivating mystery, setting off festival crowds—but the common thread tying together all of their best moments is their willingness to look directly into darkness and to shout it down. Sometimes that looks like raucous communal celebration, as in the video for “The Answer,” the lead single from the group’s sophomore LP Adore Life. That unflinchingness comes through powerfully in “Adore,” the album’s centerpiece whose video dropped this morning. Singer Jehnny Beth sings calmly, directly, and powerfully into the camera. “I will die maybe tomorrow,” she sings, “So I need to say, ‘I adore life.'”