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Heavy Rotation: 10 Songs Public Radio Can't Stop Playing

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Each month, NPR Music asks a panel of public-radio hosts and music curators to share the songs they have on repeat. October's mix doesn't disappoint: It offers a rich variety of genres and moods, hand-picked by folks with impeccable taste.
Listen at the audio link to hear KOSU's Ryan LaCroix, World Cafe's Talia Schlanger and WFUV's Alisa Ali spin their picks. Read on to listen to all 10 songs — and see what our experts have to say about their selections.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Beau Jennings and the Tigers, 'Back In Town'

Back In Town
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The new single from Beau Jennings and the Tigers captures what it's like to feel lost in a familiar place. Released on cassette by the Oklahoma tape club OBNEAC, "Back In Town" features hard-charging guitars, big drums and tasteful piano licks — a sound that's reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The song centers around Jennings' move back to Oklahoma after leaving for New York City seven years earlier. When he returns home to start a family, things have undoubtedly changed: Ex-bandmates have formed new bands and local bars are showing basketball games on TV (a not-so-common occurrence in pre-Oklahoma City Thunder days). By the song's breakdown, Jennings seems to have come to terms with and even embrace this strange land, offering the incredibly honest line "The Empty Bottles are playing tonight / I think I'm gonna get a sitter." It's a sentiment any parent can relate to.

Ryan LaCroix, KOSU's The Spy


Obongjayar, 'Creeping'

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Like the most magnetic and menacing of strangers, Obongjayar emerges out of nowhere on his debut: fully-formed and fearless. Before you can steel yourself, "Creeping" has pulled you under. This is late-night London. This is peeking through blinds, stalking empty streets, sinking in sewers so dark that Massive Attack would want to bring a flashlight. And 38 seconds into the song, just when your pupils have adjusted, Obongjayar rips the bass out from underneath you. You hear a holler. And somehow, he's taken you somewhere even darker. When the Nigerian-born, London-based artist growls "These walls won't make me / These four walls won't cage me", it sounds like a promise and a threat in equal parts. And you can bet he'll deliver on both when his debut record drops early next year.

Talia Schlanger, World Cafe

Jim James, 'Same Old Lie'

"Same Old Lie" is satisfying right from the first note. The song is presented in Jim James' unique style; it's got a hazy, magnetic groove that's just so entrancing. But what is really remarkable about the song is its message. James sings about hate crimes and shelter lines, guns and religion — and it's a heavy indictment on our current state as a nation. Political as it is, the song doesn't come off as preachy. In fact, it actually fosters a sense of community through the idea that we music lovers are special, that we have the power to make positive change. This is a frank yet hopeful song that is poignant and timely — and also happens to sound really great on the radio.

Alisa Ali, WFUV


Split Single, 'Blank Ribbons'

Blank Ribbons
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Jason Narducy is the reason Foo Fighters exists (just ask Dave Grohl). He's also in possession of rock's sexiest elbows (just ask Ian Rubbish). And he's the guy behind Split Single, which will release Metal Frames Nov. 18. Recorded with Narducy's Superchunk bandmate Jon Wurster and Wilco's John Stirratt, Metal Frames charts a darker lyrical course than the first Split Single LP, Fragmented World. The driving track "Blank Ribbons" is a prime example. It serves as an infectious treatise on the dehumanizing effects of consumer culture and the fetishization of celebrity. (Plus, it's probably the only song inspired in part by a T-shirt cannon.)

Sean Cannon, WFPK's The Guestlist


Caleborate, 'Thank God'

Thank God
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The 23-year-old Berkeley rapper Caleborate has seen his dad go to jail, his friends killed, his peers suffocated under a mountain of debt, his city mutated by crippling changes and his culture co-opted by techies. But he's got one thing keeping him afloat: a dream. His latest album, 1993, hits on all the pleasure centers from the golden age of hip-hop, but nostalgia's not what he intended. "I made 1993 to speak for and to people in their 20s everywhere," he told me recently. "People need that confirmation that someone else is in these shoes too." "Thank God" is Caleborate's paean to being young, broke and ambitious in the Bay Area, a reality the hungry young rapper knows all too well. Over a silky guitar figure, he raps in his smooth, nasal delivery about trying to stay focused under the threat of eviction. By the track's end — when his own mom has a cameo — you can't help but root for his dream, too.

Gabe Meline, KQED


Mandolin Orange, 'Hey Stranger'

Hey Stranger
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The North Carolina folk duo Mandolin Orange, made up of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, has been stealing hearts since 2009 with its delicate take on Americana. On the duo's new album, Blindfaller, Marlin and Frantz enlist help from a full band, filling out their sound with bass, drums, pedal steel and keys. However, the opening track, "Hey Stranger," kicks off the record in usual Mandolin Orange fashion, with only the sounds of mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar. The twist is that the first voice we hear is Frantz's sweet, high soprano. Marlin, who normally takes lead vocal, joins her in harmony soon enough in what is almost a traditional cautionary folk tale. Because their harmonies have such a sweet, angelic quality, you almost miss out on the righteous warning. Unlike the tender melody, the lyrics are like an updated "House of The Rising Sun": "Hey stranger, there's danger down the line / You'll find heartache and trouble in all your good-timed rowdy ways / I tell you no lie, there's no greater burden in life." Even though all the traditional aspects of a folk song are in the lyrics, the way Mandolin Orange approaches the music gives this one a breezy, modern aesthetic.

Cindy Howes, Folk Alley


Kate Tempest, 'Europe Is Lost'

Europe Is Lost
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British poet and rapper Kate Tempest delivers a second impressive salvo of hip-hop and spoken word in her latest project, Let Them Eat Chaos. And chaos reigns supreme in this brilliant, ranting 48-minute performance poem, set to shape-shifting electronic music that heightens the themes of alienation and isolation. "Europe Is Lost" is a call to wake up from the deathly apathy that has us walking numbly though our lives while our world is crumbling. Words and imagery flourish in this bleak landscape.

Kevin Cole, KEXP


Takuya Kuroda, 'R.S.B.D'

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"Cosmic storytelling" may seem like a bizarre way to describe the music on jazz trumpeter Takuya Kuroda's new collection, Zigzagger. But right from the opening track, "R.S.B.D.," he takes us on a sonic journey to all the places he's been, all the music that's influenced him — and even hints at where he's headed next. No doubt, Miles Davis is a big influence for Kuroda, but he's added a fusion of soul, funk and hip-hop, as well as a confident strut and a sleek, seductive elegance. What excites me most about music now is when artists pay their respects to all of these styles and traditions, yet turn them upside down for a look at the future. The swing and sophistication of "R.S.B.D." — and the entirety of Zigzagger — do just that.

Anne Litt, KCRW


Kyle Morton, 'Survivalist Fantasy'

Survivalist Fantasy
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"Don't answer the door for anyone," Kyle Morton implores a loved one in his song "Survivalist Fantasy," the lead single from his new album, What Will Destroy You. It's sound advice in the doomsday world he describes: The power has been out for weeks, the phone lines are down and the populace has been told to hunker down. "Now our love / While not enough / It's all there is," he observes as the chance of rescue dwindles. Although Morton paints a bleak picture with his lyrics, "Survivalist Fantasy" is as pretty a folk song as you'll hear all year long. Morton abandons the towering arrangements that listeners have come to expect from his other project, the dozen-member-strong Portland rock band Typhoon. In its place, he favors acoustic guitar, a sparse rhythm section and modest (but incredibly effective) strings. It's a stunning soundtrack for the apocalypse.

Jerad Walker, opbmusic


Communist Daughter, 'Roll A Stone'

Roll A Stone
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Taking its name from a Neutral Milk Hotel song, Communist Daughter came onto the scene in 2010 with the debut album Soundtrack To The End. The band recently released its sophomore album, The Cracks That Built The Wall, which includes the standout track "Roll A Stone." With guitars doused in reverb and Kim Deal-esque backing vocals, the song catches your ear with a familiarity that still sounds fresh. It projects a sense of effortless cool, particularly with the pairing of complementary vocalists Johnny Solomon and Molly Moore. "Roll A Stone" helps distinguish Communist Daughter as a band that characterizes itself as much by vibe as it does melody.

Amy Miller, KXT