Heavy Rotation: 10 Songs Public Radio Can't Stop Playing
This month's mix features artists who tug at the boundaries between genres. It begins with a new song by Tennessee-born blues-folk singer Valerie June, then moves on to the distinctly London sound of the jazz duo Yussef Kamaal, the funk-inspired music of New Yorker Gabriel Garzón-Montano and more. Music is, after all, about where we come from, so let these songs take you on a journey across the country and world.
Valerie June, 'Shakedown'
Valerie June has always performed music that is hard to define. Folk, blues, country, soul or bluegrass – however you label it, it's this sound that gives her music and voice a sense of timelessness. "Time is the ruler of Earth's rhythm ... Our hearts beat along to its song," June says, and that rhythm is what drives "Shakedown," from her forthcoming album The Order Of Time. It's hard to listen without wanting to clap your hands and stomp your feet, and the song's steady pulse and energy will certainly make it a fan favorite on her upcoming tour. June enlisted her family members as well as her friend and former tour mate Norah Jones to help with backing vocals on "Shakedown," and the resulting spirit — combined with her fearlessness as an artist — will make any listener eager to hear how June continues to evolve.
—Amy Miller, KXT
Yussef Kamaal, 'Strings Of Light'
Yussef Kamaal is a future-funk duo from London, with Kamaal Williams on keyboards and Yussef Dayes on drums. But that thumbnail description doesn't account for the brash alchemy of style in the group, which combines 1970s jazz fusion and contemporary U.K. club music. Throughout Black Focus, the duo's full-length debut on the Brownswood label, Yussef Kamaal works with groove as a pliable substance, changing its viscosity and density at will. "Strings Of Light" is one of the tracks on the album that practically leaps out of your earbuds, with broken-beat drumming, a funky bass line (by Kareem Dayes, Yussef's brother) and a suave, piercing trumpet solo (by Yelfris Valdés, an expatriate Cuban now based in London). There's a throwback sheen to the synths on the track, but also a spark that speaks of right now.
—Nate Chinen, WBGO
Gabriel Garzon-Montano, 'The Game'
"The Game," from Gabriel Garzón-Montano's debut album, Jardín, is sexy, cozy and full of optimism. As on the entire album, Garzón-Montano's voice is out front; he layers vocals, creates gorgeous harmonies and plays most of the instruments himself. (The album was also recorded direct to tape, which lends it a warmth and a certain swing.) Clearly, Garzón-Montano has been influenced by funk, '70's soul, even pop and classical music. (His mother was part of Philip Glass' collective in the '90s — she, too, is an influence.) Besides these classic sounds, he also takes his cues from the beat-makers of today to create a fresh sound that blends and bends genres, a skillful mixing of the analog and the digital. I think it's his hope and positivity that affect me so much: Garzón-Montano takes a glass-half-full view of life and love, reminding us not to be too hard on ourselves. He says that he named the album Jardín ("garden" in both French and Spanish) as a shout-out to his dual heritage — his mom is French, his dad Colombian — but also as a way of summoning a garden's beauty and peace. "The Game," especially, is a decidedly modern mixture with a vibe that is sublime.
—Anne Litt, KCRW
Hanni El Khatib, 'This I Know'
Last winter, after the horrifying Bataclan nightclub attacks forced him to cancel a planned performance at the Paris Festival, Hanni El Khatib found himself with two key ingredients for an outpouring of art: a rattled worldview and lots of spare time. The result is Savage Times, a not-so-subtly titled collection of 19 mammoth songs. The single "This I Know" features the Black Keys-ian jangle you might come to expect from a graduate of the Dan Auerbach school of garage blues-rock. Layered with powerful organs and a men's choir that sounds like it rehearses in Hades' basement, El Khatib's sunken rhythm pulls you along just behind the beat, as if he's dragging the weight of savagery toward some sliver of a promise for better days. It's intoxicating — and it's so now.
—Talia Schlanger, World Cafe
Bash & Pop, 'On The Rocks'
There have been a number of musical reunions over the last couple of years, and it's great to be able to count Bash & Pop among them. Tommy Stinson recently brought the band back with a new set of players, and they have just released Anything Could Happen, the first Bash & Pop album in over 20 years. "On The Rocks" is a loose, fun song; it evokes an old-school rock 'n' roll vibe that's in short supply these days. Sure, it doesn't hurt to make the obvious connection to Stinson's former band The Replacements, but this is a song that absolutely stands on its own and clearly belongs on the radio.
—Russ Borris, WFUV
Rose Cousins, 'Freedom'
It's always best to turn to Rose Cousins if you have some feelings that really need to be felt; somehow, the Nova Scotia singer-songwriter's life-saving writing and beautiful voice help with that every time. Cousins' music lets you take your time and gives you space to process, and that's especially true of "Freedom," from her fourth LP, Natural Conclusion. There is no rush to get to the peak in this Joe Henry-produced refrain. Light touches of wide-open electric guitars, pedal steel and Jay Bellerose's magnificent drumming accompany Cousins' powerful cry. Take notice of the line in the song that gives the record its title: "You and I took this to / its natural conclusion," which is such a poetic and lovely way to break up a relationship. As the song progresses, the ways in which Cousins finds freedom give insight into the relationship's dissolution and reveal her to be much stronger in this state of independence. She goes from finding freedom from "what could have been" to finding "freedom from the blame, I guess." The feeling captured in "Freedom," while fresh and raw, has room to accommodate a much brighter future.
—Cindy Howes, Folk Alley
Chuck Prophet, 'Bad Year For Rock And Roll'
Chuck Prophet is one of those local singer-songwriters the Bay Area almost takes for granted. He's prolific (having issued a dozen records over the last two decades), and he's a campfire storyteller in the best sense of the tradition. He also walks a deceptively simple line between obvious respect for his musical idols (Dylan, Petty, Reed) and a wry, nervy sensibility all his own. "Bad Year For Rock And Roll" exemplifies both — it's a wistfully delivered catalog of inspirations, the musical greats we lost in 2016. But as the first single on his new record, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins (out Feb. 10 on Yep Roc), it also sets the tone for an album that reconsiders glitzy entertainment-industry myths and histories; in the process, Prophet renders a fresh, full-color take on the darker side of all things Golden State.
—Emma Silvers, KQED
The Ceremonies, 'Lovecaught'
Imagine, if you will, a song that combines George Michael's impressive highs with Michael Jackson's vocal sighs under the guise of a punch-poppy Full House-like theme song. Then again, why merely imagine, when Los Angeles band of brothers The Ceremonies has already gifted us such a nostalgic new-wave delight in its single "Lovecaught"? This is the perfect song for whipping out a hairbrush and belting into it like you're performing for a sold-out crowd at Wembley Stadium. More importantly, this is the salve we need after losing so many '80s icons in 2016: an earworm of a reminder that their sonic legacies continue to vibrate (and, of course, gyrate) onward and upward.
Travis Linville, 'Wishes'
"Wishes" is a highlight on Travis Linville's forthcoming full-length, Up Ahead. The relatable tune, paced by steady percussion and accented by a crying pedal steel, focuses on those ever-escaping moments as folks weave in and out of our lives. The lyrics reflect an amicable parting of ways: "I hope good luck finds you easy / Hope the best days come to you / Hope you keep chasing rainbows / Hope your wishes all come true." It's been more than two decades since Linville quit his dishwashing job to play with a country band in rural Oklahoma honky-tonks. He's since become a jack-of-all-trades: a multi-instrumentalist with Hayes Carll, a producer for John Fullbright and a guitar instructor for a young Parker Millsap. While the roots musician has previously released a smattering of EPs and live albums in his downtime, Up Ahead represents a fully focused solo effort.
—Ryan LaCroix, KOSU's The Spy
Laura Marling, 'Wild Fire'
In less than a decade, English musician Laura Marling has established herself as one of the brightest young singers on either side of the Atlantic. She's worked at a torrid pace, releasing five albums in that time, and racked up plaudits for her inventive guitar work and intelligent songwriting. With her forthcoming sixth record, Semper Femina, Marling proves that she's not yet ready to slow down. The new album's slow-burning single "Wild Fire" also signals that the quality of her writing is still miraculously keeping pace with the quantity. With help from producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Jim James), Marling embraces a soulful sound that she's only toyed with in the past. It's a subtle shift from her folky roots, but the effect is striking due to the strength of the song's arrangement and her smoky alto voice.
—Jerad Walker, opbmusic