Heavy Rotation: 10 Songs Public Radio Can't Stop Playing
In this month's list, chosen by curators from across the country, check out new tracks from Bay Area R&B vocalist Rayana Jay, Southern-rock songsmith Jason Isbell, breakout soul singer Earl St. Clair and more.
Rayana Jay, 'Everything'
Rayana Jay is a 23-year-old R&B singer from Richmond, Calif., where she grew up singing in (and later directing) her church's youth choir. Her songwriting has the ring of something wise beyond its years, and there's an irresistible bounce to even the most chilled-out tracks on Sorry About Last Night, her debut EP from 2016. On this new song, produced by Gabriel Lambirth, Jay's voice has a push-pull element that seduces on the slow parts, then scoops you up and propels you forward when she starts rapping; the effect perfectly underscores the duality she's describing on this track. She's being earnest about deep ambivalence, wrestling with herself over a relationship that should feel right but just somehow ... doesn't. And who hasn't been there before?
—Emma Silvers, KQED
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, 'Hope The High Road'
One of the characteristics of great storytellers is their ability to assess the landscape around them and give words and meaning to thoughts we have ourselves, but can't seem to make clear. This is precisely what Jason Isbell has done with his new song, "Hope The High Road." After the challenges and strife of 2016, Isbell helps put things in perspective while leaving room for positivity, growth and, of course, hope. It's yet another high mark from a songwriter who has solidified his status as one of the more important voices of our time.
—Russ Borris, WFUV
Earl St. Clair, 'Ain't Got It Like That'
It was one of those classic public-radio driveway moments when I discovered R&B singer Earl St. Clair. A few weeks back, as I was driving home from work, I happened to tune in to All Things Considered at just the right time to hear Audie Cornish's interview with St. Clair. Within seconds after the beat to his song "Ain't Got It Like That" kicked in, I was hooked. The singer, songwriter and producer born Earl Johnson II is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, but spent most of his childhood in Alabama, getting his start as a producer for rappers like Rick Ross and Machine Gun Kelly and collaborating with electronic-music superstar Avicii. St. Clair says he wasn't planning on being a singer, but he eventually found his voice and released his debut EP, My Name Is Earl, a fantastic seven-song collection of raw, emotionally intense soul with elements of more modern R&B. "Ain't Got It Like That" kicks up a mean, infectious beat and conjures up early '70s Funkadelic with the grit of Otis Redding.
—Bruce Warren, WXPN
Black Lips, 'Can't Hold On'
The members of Black Lips are set to release their eighth studio album on May 5 via Vice Records. Although known for a grimy, no-frills sound, the garage-rock heroes of Atlanta, Ga., have worked with an impressive list of big-name producers throughout their career, including Mark Ronson and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys. On their latest effort, the fantastically titled Satan's Grafitti Or God's Art?, it's Sean Lennon's turn. And while it's by no means a departure for the band, Lennon's psychedelic touch is pretty evident on the album's lead single, "Can't Hold On." The song is a beautiful, off-kilter swirl of "House Of The Rising Sun"-esque guitars, muddy horns and gruff vocals that proves graffiti and art aren't mutually exclusive.
—Jerad Walker, opbmusic
Phoebe Hunt & The Gatherers, 'Lint Head Gal'
With a twang in her voice and her trademark energetic fiddling, Texas singer-songwriter Phoebe Hunt tells the story of a woman who is determined to make her own way in the world — the story of "a revolutionary woman," as she says. Does she need education? Nope. How about a man? Nah, she had one and ran off because she got bored. Love isn't necessary to survival, either, and family members and friends are overrated. This isn't to say that this "Lint Head Gal" has it easy — in fact, according to Hunt, "During the time of industrialization in American history, many women moved from the country into the cities to create an independent life for themselves, free from the shackles of the patriarchal paradigm they had been raised within. Often ... these women ended up in factory jobs, barely skimming by. This quest meant being rough and tough and ready to do almost anything for freedom." There's power, passion and determination in Hunt's "Lint Head Gal" — qualities Hunt herself embodies.
—Elena See, Folk Alley
Will Johnson, 'Predator'
During his quarter-century as a musician, Will Johnson has put out a steady deluge of releases, ranging from his (now-defunct) Denton, Texas, band Centro-matic to team-ups with Son Volt's Jay Farrar and Monsters Of Folk. His songs can be loud and chaotic or darkly spare, but the through-line has been Johnson's own doggedness as a creator. "Predator" showcases this everyday, everyman triumph with more of a country flavor — and Johnson is a natural fit for the sound, two-stepping around the beat like Willie Nelson. It's one of those songs built for the long haul, quietly sneaking up on you when you least expect it.
—Art Levy, KUTX
Sneaks, 'Look Like That'
Sneaks' debut LP, Gymnastics, was one of my most-played last year, and for good reason: The whole record lasts a breezy 14 minutes. Armed with just a bass and a drum machine, Eva Moolchan practically demands that you reach for the repeat button with brief blasts of coolly detached post-punk. Moolchan moves towards a warmer, new-wave tone with her follow-up, It's A Myth, especially on the seductive, synth-heavy standout "Look Like That." Her growing confidence shines over the course of the new album, allowing its 10 tracks to breathe and sound fully realized. Despite the contributions of Jonah Takagi and Ex Hex's Mary Timony, who helped record the album, Sneaks' signature minimalism remains intact, leaving plenty to obsess over.
—Scott Carney, Colorado Public Radio's OpenAir
The Suburbs, 'Hey Muse!'
The legendary Minneapolis new-wave and punk band The Suburbs, still led by founding members Chan Poling and Hugo Klaers, has spent the past few years building up its live sound with some of the fiercest players in the Twin Cities. Newly bolstered by the addition of the gifted guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker (Andrew Bird, Alpha Consumer), and with a full record ready to drop in June, the band is evolving into a new era, captured in the single "Hey Muse!" The group is still tethered to the underground sounds that shaped it in the '80s and spawned the breakout single "Love Is The Law," but its sound is darker, more refined and more pop-oriented than ever.
—Andrea Swensson, The Current
Hello June, 'Dance'
John Denver referred to West Virginia as "almost Heaven;" if that's true, then it would only make sense for the state to be occupied by ethereal rock bands like Morgantown's Hello June. Fronted by Sarah Rudy, with Whit Alexander on drums and Chad Brown on guitar, the three-piece creates organic indie pop rooted in the darker rock of Jason Molina, Daniel Johnston and Beach House. "Dance" is a contemplative, multi-layered track; it's an appeal to avoid dancing around topics and to instead learn how to live transparently with those around you. The song could easily be inspired by current events, but it's actually based on the band members' experience living together as 20-somethings. Adorably enough, Hello June will say "Hello, June" with its June 1 debut LP, Spruce, named after an apartment complex that once encouraged the roommates and bandmates to "walk up the stairs and into the stars."
The electro beats and energy are what drew me into Jain's music. Her thoroughly original and global approach to sound is what kept me there. Jain's beats are rooted in her first experiences playing drums, including an Arabic drum called a darbuka, when her family moved from France to Dubai. But her interest in rhythms didn't stop there: The family's next move to the Republic of the Congo cemented the music and feeling of Africa into her being, and a move back to Paris introduced her to electronic beat-making. Ultimately, Jain's love of hip-hop, pop, reggae and the sounds of cultures from all over the world have met in a gripping mashup that is a musical chronicle of her life. The song "Makeba," a tribute to the civil-rights activist and South African artist Miriam Makeba, is an inspired combination of beats with the pulsing, modern sounds of African music running like a river underneath. The way it's all woven together is subtle, but with every "oooh" Jain sings, the intensity is irresistibly turned up.
—Anne Litt, KCRW