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Heavy Rotation: Our Panel's 10 Favorite Songs Of The Year (So Far)

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Heavy Rotation is a monthly sampler of public radio hosts' favorite songs. Check out past editions here.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Hawk House, 'Chill Pill'

Hawk House is the British hip-hop trio of brothers Sam and Eman Croydon and singer Demae; together, they make music that falls squarely between the progressive soul of Iman Omari and the progressive hip-hop of A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets and Buhloone Mindstate-era De La Soul, with shades of Jamiroquai.

"Chill Pill," from the upcoming A Handshake to the Brain, benefits from insightful wordplay and melodic sound painting — hallmarks of classic hip-hop, melded with a wonderful vision of where the genre could go moving forward. Hawk House may be the face of hip-hop's evolution, and we're all the better for it. — Chris Campbell, WDET's The Progressive Underground

The Orwells, 'The Righteous One'

Based on "The Righteous One," Chicago band The Orwells' new album Disgraceland was one of my most anticipated releases of the year. Full of bounce and swagger, the song is as catchy as they come. You can't help but sing along, whether or not you know all the words — which are simple and few, sung alluringly by frontman Mario Cuomo. The group isn't re-inventing rock 'n' roll, but its raw sound is irresistible. — Cheryl Waters, KEXP

Nickel Creek, 'Destination'

Nickel Creek's blend of bluegrass, country, classical, jazz, rock, pop and folk may appear incongruous in conversation. But its music embodies all these elements in a way most bands couldn't explore if they tried. Take "Destination" from A Dotted Line, for example. Here, the newly reunited trio rocks an empowered breakup tune, interweaving a languid melody, percussive rhythm guitar, and the counterpoint between lead vocals and upright bass. The power-chord-like backing harmonies from Chris Thile and Sean Watkins hit so hard, the notes themselves convey the point the singers are making ("I'll be moving on"). By the time Sara Watkins' fiddle snakes languidly above the straight-rhythm staccato mandolin, you might forget that this wall of sound could just as likely happen around a single mic. — Kim Ruehl, Folk Alley

Zara McFarlane, 'Police & Thieves'

"Police and Thieves" was a reggae hit for Junior Murvin and Lee Perry in the 1970s. Then, Joe Strummer and The Clash recast it on their debut. Now, we hear U.K. singer Zara McFarlane, a child of Jamaican parentage, respond innately to the words. Sometimes brooding and haunting but always deeply emotional, McFarlane finds the song's underlying drama. On If You Knew Her, McFarlane's second recording, Murvin's original falsetto is replaced with a warm female voice set against a jazz background. The words are still present and relevant nearly 40 years later. — Josh Jackson, WBGO

You can purchase Zara Mcfarlane's music at Amazon and iTunes.

Benjamin Booker, 'Violent Shiver'

The raw energy and pure rock 'n' roll of "Violent Shiver" caught my attention the second I heard it. Blazing guitars, gutty vocals, powerful drumming — not to mention some serious background "woo hoos" — make this a song to beat this summer for sheer energy and fun. It's a staple of my DJ sets, with a roughness that I've missed lately in new music. The song is ferocious and danceable, and this 22-year-old New Orleans native may have just schooled the rest of us on what's really cool. — Anne Litt, KCRW

Sam Smith, 'Stay With Me'

It's been a fast rise for U.K. singer Sam Smith, who went from a high-profile collaboration with Disclosure to his debut album in two years. Appearances on Saturday Night Live and at Bonnaroo have quickly spread word of his big voice, which he wraps around intimate, confessional songs. "Stay With Me" is an emotional slow-builder that touches on his soul and gospel influences. Sam Smith is poised to be a household name, and this could well be the song that takes him there. — Rita Houston, WFUV

Jack White, 'That Black Bat Licorice'

A lazaretto is a place in which travelers are quarantined to prevent the spread of disease. On Lazaretto, in "That Black Bat Licorice," White's words hit on self-imposed isolation to purge a relationship that's making him crazy, with references to Nietzsche, a hearse and cutting out his own tongue. But White spits out the words with sly and knowing humor, and the insistent blues current and fantastic production help make the song a standout. On a record full of varied styles, and packed with energy and creativity, this is the song I can't put away. — David Christensen, opbmusic

The War On Drugs, 'Under The Pressure'

The War on Drugs comes fully into its own on Lost in the Dream. Adam Granduciel has written the most powerful songs of his career, and the band soars — particularly in the epic, nine-minute album opener "Under the Pressure." An independent musician with classic-rock tendencies, Granduciel has written some of the best Dylan-style songs of the past decade or so, and here he uses the sort of pacing usually associated with older bands. Confidence and time have made this a record for this year and many to come. — David Dye, World Cafe

The Notwist, 'Kong'

In 25-plus years of playing music, the German band The Notwist has been a stylistic grasshopper, landing on punkish metal and jazzy prog en route to the electronics-tinged pop it plays now. On the group's first album in six years, guitars eat the synths for lunch; in spite of its forlorn lyrics, "Kong" makes with the fizzy pop and never lets up. Krautrock is typically known for its cool reserve, but "Kong" adds up to four minutes of barely contained exuberance. — Jeff McCord, KUTX

Haley Bonar, 'Last War'

Forget tissues, ice cream and self-pity; breaking up with Haley Bonar requires a shield and some fire-resistant body armor. In the title track to her scintillating new album, Bonar turns a single, repeating guitar note into a call to arms — and a chorus of harmonizing ghost vocals into a flamethrower — as she turns back for another battle with a soon-to-be ex. "Last War" finds her free falling in that torturous space between taking the first leap out of a relationship and pulling the ripcord, and it's simultaneously mournful and searing. — Andrea Swensson, The Current