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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. May's batch of tracks blurs rigid genre lines and explore several different shades of the human condition.
This month's playlist features Shannon Shaw's nuanced juxtaposition of neo-soul and garage-rock in "Broke My Own," Maria Grand's vulnerable take on jazz in "Imani / Walk By" and a cover of Talking Heads' "Once In A Lifetime."
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Maria Grand, 'Imani / Walk By'

Maria Grand first grabbed my ears with her relaxed, intricate bounce on the tenor saxophone. But, when I heard her sing, and sing what I learned were her own poetic introspective lyrics, I dug deeper. Her singing voice has pillow tone and precise pitch, and lands each word with the same ease and diction she's achieved on the horn. Grand wrote the piano and voice duet "Imani / Walk By" in admiration for her friend, musician and songwriter Imani Uzuri. Grand says that the words aren't quotes but are rather "words of wisdom she could have (and probably has) said." Grand says of the song's muse, "about intersectionality, about the meaning of life, about a path towards feeling whole and honest." The song's youthful honesty demonstrates a maturity and comfort in vulnerability that we need more of in today's jazz landscape. — Alex Ariff, WBGO

Shannon Shaw, 'Broke My Own'

There are vocals and then there are vocals. Shannon Shaw has the latter. And on her debut single "Broke My Own," the frontwoman of Shannon and the Clams rightly uses them to break out on her own. A vintage pop, neo-soul sound hits you hard on this mighty track, but perhaps not as hard as the sweetly cynical and slightly deprecating lyrics of self-fulfilling heartache. ("So just leave me behind / And go and get on / My worst enemy is my own flesh and bone.") The overall effect is something like that of a silky cocktail that's as smooth as it is strong. Trust us when we say you're going to want to take a sip. — Lauren Menking, KXT

Jeffrey Foucault, 'Blood Brothers'

Jeffrey Foucault is the king of the folk slow-jam. The New Englander-via-Wisconsin singer-songwriter possesses a deep groove that's been perfected over his last six records, including his latest Blood Brothers (out on June 22). The title cut is a leisurely affair, but still extremely effective in pulling the listener in with mesmerizing, meditative instrumentation. Foucault's called his band "an embarrassment of riches" and glancing at the credits, you can't disagree: Billy Conway (of Morphine fame), Bo Ramsey (Lucinda Williams), Eric Heywood (Pretenders) and vocalist Pieta Brown (whose worked with John Prine and Brandi Carlile). Once the lines start flowing, it gets really interesting because it's not entirely clear what this song is about. With lines like "We were lovers in the travelling time / Blood brothers, back when you were mine" coming from a straight man, they sow a lot of mystery and intrigue. One thing is certain: This is a song lamenting loss whether it's a friend or lover. It's alluring and relatable all at once. — Cindy Howes, Folk Alley

Jungle, 'Happy Man'

When Jungle arrived in 2013, the anonymous dance collective was intent on keeping the music the focus, and the sausage making separate, particularly the identity of its ringleaders, "J" and "T." "It's all about getting rid of the ego, and Jungle, for us, was that place," said an unmasked Josh Lloyd Watson to Rolling Stone. Tom McFarland and crew created one of the best dance records of the 2010s in standout single "Busy Earnin.'" It was a danceable breath of fresh air on the non-commercial airwaves when it hit in 2014. So, what does the first single from the forthcoming album offer? "Happy Man" is a song that shares a lot of "Earnin'" DNA, except with an (arguably) bigger hook. Which is great! The first record was incredible! In a world where musicians are constantly reinventing the wheel or switching up the sound, I'm quite happy to hear what Round 2 of Jungle holds. — Kallao, World Cafe

Kraak and Smaak feat. Alxndr London, 'Hands of Time'

There's a ton of sonic goodness to unpack in this 5-minute single from the Netherlands-based production trio Kraak and Smaak. "Hands of Time" takes the listener on a trip through meditative instrumentation, hip-hop rhythm, spiritual jazz and downtempo vocals from English vocalist Alxndr London. The song opens with soft horn textures and a pulse on the piano that eventually evolves into a complex improvisation mirroring free jazz (with obvious nods to the harp-like piano playing style of Alice Coltrane). But it's the emotion in the soft falsetto lyrics from London where the magic happens. Here's a longing for a love that's gone, or maybe a sense of tainted nostalgia ("Something keeps you on my mind / shackled to the hands of time.") Elton John once sang 'sad songs say so much' and perhaps that's the magic at work here. But you could also argue "Hands of Time" speaks to something in our collective humanity that we've recently lost and are desperate to reclaim. — Matt Fleeger, KMHD

Sofi Tukker, 'Baby I'm A Queen'

"Baby I'm A Queen" sounds a clarion call to women (outside the Beyhive or Swifties) desperate to speak for themselves. Vocalist Sophie Hawley-Weld seductively slaps down chauvinism one verse in and that galvanizing moment is swept forward by the track's rhythmics — a probing guitar line, an electro-handclap beat — that propels the movement (both dance and social). But, a thoughtful listen reveals something more intimate here. As Hawley-Weld breathily recites her truth to the pulsating syncopation and computerized squiggles, she is redefining one relationship, not plotting revolution. She speaks as a woman first and this battle hymn is more personal than political. — David Hyland, Wisconsin Public Radio

Coach Phillips, 'VHS Dating'

The end of the spring semester feels like perfect timing for a track that's both wistful and breezy. If you only look at the lyrics, the song could be read as a snide jab at outdated fashions; the melody diffuses any first impressions and paints an earnest profile of a glam music fan. At one point the song asks "So what's the problem if the form is outdated?" which made me wonder how we'll be viewing Tinder a few years from now. Over the course of the Seattle band's EP, I find myself back at my college radio station. With "VHS Dating," I'm dropped off in the 80s; when it comes to summoning nostalgia, Coach Phillips really hits the nail on the (tape) head. — Nick Brunner, Capital Public Radio

Gretchen Peters, 'Wichita'

You don't hear many murder ballads these days, even though the form has been with us since the beginning of time. On "Wichita," Gretchen Peters takes us on a dark ride of revenge told from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl. It is at once haunting, timeless, sad and empowering. You'll find it on the new album, Dancing With The Beast, where Peters once again proves to be a master songwriter and storyteller, with a voice that is world weary enough to persuasively deliver the passion and pathos of a tale pulled from the headlines. — Jessie Scott , WMOT

Angelique Kidjo, 'Once In A Lifetime'

It makes sense that a former dancer from Benin now living in Brooklyn would choose to remake Talking Heads' "Remain in Light." With its polyrhythms and funk-based melodies, it injected an international sound into American rock and pop culture. Kidjo's take on the album's biggest hit is more rebirth than redo. An unrelenting optimist, she imbues the songs with high energy, soaring vocals, and arrangements that pulsate on chiming guitar, brassy horns and African drums. Kidjo is an inspiring live performer who demands interaction from her audience, often pulling members on stage to dance with her. That same force reaches through the speakers, imploring you to get up and get involved. — Rosemary Welsch , WYEP

Blaze McKenzie, 'Think A New Thing'

Born A Shadow is the solo debut from Blaze McKenzie, following nearly a decade with Brooklyn indie rockers The Can't Tells. The Berklee College of Music alumnus says he's been criticized in the past for being too earnest, but that tendency came in handy when writing "Think a New Thing." Facing a creative block, McKenzie dipped into what he knows best — his own life. The result has lyrics weaving through a dysfunctional relationship and bouts of drinking, sobriety and relapse. Amid pounding drums and a killer guitar riff, the Oklahoma City native sings about emerging from a period of numbness and the confusion of those early days of sobriety ("But I'm alive now / Am I alive now? / I think that I'm alive now / Yeah, I'm alive now"). A chaotic swirl of sounds and screaming takes hold toward the end of the song, representing the helplessness felt when mistakes seem inevitable. You can call it dread, but it's also a level of self-awareness that some never attain. — Ryan LaCroix, KOSU