Heavy Rotation

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

Each month, NPR Music invites DJs from public radio stations across the country to share the songs they can't get enough of. The result is a consistently diverse and infectious mix of songs from established stars and up-and-coming artists.
This month's playlist features a rollicking collaboration with Bill Withers, a meditation on the American Dream, and Leon Bridges' latest single from his upcoming album, Good Thing.
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leon Bridges, 'Bad Bad News'

When Leon Bridges hit the scene a few years ago with his debut album, Coming Home, listeners immediately connected with his throwback vibe and undeniable similarity to Sam Cooke. In 2018, though, we are witnessing his musical evolution. "Bad, Bad News" (from the forthcoming new album Good Thing) is refreshingly modern, with a thumping bass line and jazzy rhythms. Its positivity bursts forth: "They tell me I was born to lose, but I made a good, good thing out of bad, bad news." Evidently, the dates on the road since Coming Home generated a lot of ideas for Bridges, as he seems to be exploring all aspects of R&B and soul these days. It's clear Leon Bridges is not stuck in the past. If anything, he's a big part of the future. — Russ Borris, WFUV

The Pandoras, 'It's Getting Harder all the Time'

When I heard Kim Shattuck's distinctive, raspy and bubblegum-melodic voice, I assumed this was an unreleased song from her longtime band, The Muffs. As it turns out, Shattuck is now lead vocalist in her former band, The Pandoras. After more than 25 years, the garage band recently reformed with a 7-song EP on Burger Records. This song, "It's Getting Harder All the Time," is an infectious gem originally by The Mindbenders for the 1967 film To Sir, With Love. The keyboards, oohs and ahs and cymbal crashes all push it over the top. Aside from "It's Getting Harder all the Time" and We the People's "You Burn Me Up and Down," the other songs were actually penned by The Pandoras' late singer Paula Pierce, who died after suffering an aneurysm in 1991. The songs "Stop Pretending," "Just a Picture" and "See If You Can" are also vibrant and inspired garage pop at its catchiest. — Nick Acquisto, KDHX

Danielle Nicole, 'Hot Spell'

Danielle Nicole didn't mind the interruption at Studio City's Ultratone Studios when the surprise visitor turned out to be Bill Withers. As Nicole put it, "Cool just walked in the room." After hearing playback of work-in-progress tracks from Nicole's album Cry No More, Withers invited her to his car, where he pulled a demo CD out of his glovebox. The '70s era composition featured Withers' daughter Kori on vocals and Bill scatting a proposed guitar solo. Thrilled, Nicole recorded "Hot Spell" the next day. Asked to join in the recording session, Withers declined, but the scatting solo is recreated by Nicole in tribute. The album is filled with guest appearances from the likes of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Walter Trout, Mike Finnigan and Luther Dickinson ... but it is Withers' spirit seeping through "Hot Spell" that marks the most compelling contribution to Nicole's best work to date. — Jon Hart, The Bridge

River Whyless, 'Born in the Right Country'

The myth of the American Dream is the centerpiece of "Born In The Right Country," the latest single from the North Carolina-based quartet River Whyless. It's rare to hear songs that remind us of our widely divergent perceptions of equality, and "Born In The Right Country" is a personal litmus test for the times, challenging us to confront our own discomfort with the widening chasm separating the haves and have-nots, and obliterating that unspoken rule about not getting above your raising. Lyrically, it's heartfelt without feeling like an indictment, while sonically, Halli Anderson's hauntingly celestial harmonies, the eloquence of the arrangement and the bass line tug at your sense of unease. Songwriter Ryan O'Keefe's acknowledgement that our fabled "American Dream" relies on skin tone and social strata is a graceful, pointed distillation of the idea that it might just turn out to be nothing more than a mirage. — Gini Mascorro, KXT

Max Swan, 'The Waters'

When he's not moving donuts and chicken, Philly-based saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist and singer Max Swan is moving R&B, jazz and hip-hop-influenced jams across the airwaves. After his jazz residency at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia last year, Swan began to work on his upcoming EP, The Fisherman. He's been releasing one song at a time from it, plus a recent cover of Frank Ocean's "Super Rich Kids." "The Waters" captures Swan's fountain of influences perfectly, exhibiting signs of Kanye West, Ray Charles and James Blake. "The Waters" starts off with a dramatic, tension-filled string arrangement, then pulls you in with a memorable, "turn the lights down" hook. — Bruce Warren, WXPN

Kim Richey feat. Chuck Prophet

"Whistle On Occasion" is the audio equivalent of taking a walk with no particular place to go. This hummable tune from veteran genre-blenders Kim Richey and Chuck Prophet is a two-and-a-half-minute song wonderfully suited to the coming of spring. The duo's hushed, understated harmonies are backed by a sparse, moseying acoustic guitar lick and nothing more than a subtle accordion and some leisurely toe-tapping. The lyrics are a reminder to recognize the personal joys in life, acknowledge the processes of finding them, and revel in the moments once you come upon them. — Adam Harris, Mountain Stage

Lithics, 'Excuse Generator'

Lithics are the newest signing of venerable label Kill Rock Stars, the iconic Pacific Northwest-based imprint that's worked with everyone from Bikini Kill to The Decemberists. On "Excuse Generator," the first single from the band's sophomore album, Mating Surfaces, it's easy to see what's special about Lithics. They are intense. Nearly every second of this angular rock song presents a new dagger, with guitars, drums and bass each poking at your ears. The frantic energy is complemented by the hypnotic voice of lead singer Aubrey Hornor. — Jerad Walker, opbmusic

Fotocrime, 'The Rose And The Thorn'

Ryan Patterson explored a lot of musical ground with his former band Coliseum. What began as a pummeling metalcore trio in 2003 ultimately became a post-punk act full of unexpected, gravelly hooks by 2015. That journey can be seen in a pretty linear fashion throughout the band's five albums. Coliseum is gone now, but the next step in that evolution is here: Fotocrime. Patterson continues along the same trajectory, leaning further into dark wave influences like Killing Joke and Sisters of Mercy to create the evocative, moody and excellent debut LP, Principle Of Pain. A prime example is the expansive, driving track "The Rose and the Thorn." This rich nugget of goth revivalism is so cinematic that it projects a brand new imaginary film in my head every time I listen. — Sean Cannon, WFPK

Orquesta Akokán, 'Orquesta Akokán'

Orquesta Akokán's whole album was recorded in Havana's Estudio Areito at EGREM, the national record label of Cuba. Over three days, band leader José "Pepito" Gómez led a big band of Cuban's finest musicians on to the hallowed grounds and they documented the performances in a straight-to-tape recording. The album highlight "Mambo Rapidito" puts you right in the middle of a Cuban nightclub on a hot summer night. Dance a little. — Justin Barney, Radio Milwaukee

Kamasi Washington, "The Space Travelers Lullaby"

Kamasi Washington's modern improvisational jazz is profound. A saxophone prodigy, working with only the finest, L.A. jazz musicians, he weaves together elements of traditional jazz, hip-hop, soundtracks, even pop. It's a sound that satisfies the high standards of traditional jazz purists and yet manages to appeal to music lovers with more contemporary tastes (some of whom know him from his work on Flying Lotus' You're Dead! and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly). This brings us to 2018 and the forthcoming epic double album Heaven and Earth out June 22. One of the discs is devoted to the celestial; the other, to the terrestrial. "The Space Travelers Lullaby" opens the Heaven side of the album. It is sweeping, cinematic, transformational and uplifting. Per Washington, "The Heaven side represents the world as I see it inwardly, the world that is a part of me," with the Earth side representing his outward vision of the world. — Anne Litt, KCRW