Each week, our staff consumes a ton of media (like: so much)—everything from the latest Netflix adds to our favorite new indie albums to the game we’ve been meaning to play for a year now. But because we listen and watch so much, we can’t always get to everything. Here, however, editors and writers from across our staff will share their listening recommendations in this column every week. Everything from every era is welcome, be it an album, song, playlist, podcast or some demo tapes your dad’s band recorded in college. This week, our collective playlist hones in on protest music by outspoken Black artists, some throwback indie-folk and more. Now, more than ever, it’s important to share, to truly connect with people in a different way, and one way we can do that is through music. Here’s what our staff is listening to this week: May this music bring you a little dose of joy (or whatever it is you need) during another week in this new isolated world.
There’s plenty of subversive, ballsy rap songs that capture the collective rage at the American police state, but at multiple points during this week, my anger gave way to grief. Blood Orange (aka Dev Hynes) released “Sandra’s Smile,” a non-album single back in 2015, to commemorate the deaths of Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin, two Black people who were victims of our cruel, racist justice system. Hynes refers to Bland’s last-known words in police custody when he sings, “You watched her pass away / The words she said weren’t faint.” Bland left a voicemail to her friend, asking, “How did switching lanes with no signal turn into all of this?” before she was found dead in her jail cell. Hynes also refers to the media shock that Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, was not openly ready to forgive her son’s ruthless killer, George Zimmerman. Like most Hynes’ performances, his voice is wonderfully lustrous, but here, you can also hear the deep ache in his spirit and his dismay at the loss of hopes and dreams, not just Black lives. —Lizzie Manno
Earlier today I published a short list of Black roots artists whose music grapples with or at the very least touches on racial injustice and oppression, and while it was only meant to be a sampler, there are so many more artists I could’ve included. One of those is Kaia Kater, an artist who was featured prominently last year on our list of the best folk artists to watch in 2019 after her 2018 album Grenades had a powerful effect on me (and so many others) upon release. However, I admittedly had forgotten about it until a kind Twitter user mentioned her name (Thank you!) in a thread about other Black roots artists to know. Grenades was powerful in 2018, but, let me tell y’all, it is so important to listen to again today. I’ve been revisiting the album this morning, and Kater’s graceful balance of addressing both her Canadian and her Grenadian heritages hooked me back in immediately. Spoken-word interludes (like “Power! Power! Power!”) tell stories of oppressed people of color, and her smooth, powerful folk-pop delivery forces you to listen. On closer “Poets Be Buried,” she shares a piece of passed-down for surviving a world that doesn’t always care whether or not you do, and never backing down in the face of hatred: “I had a daughter and I taught her all I knew. / Fight in the gutter and love the work you do. / How for to warn her of hatred hiding in the blue … I asked my father if this is all there is. / A home that won’t claim you, a country that rescinds. / You are your own saint, a center to hold, a life to live.” —Ellen Johnson
If I’m being honest, I’ve drifted away a bit from doing my due diligence in listening to new music during quarantine—this seems like a time when falling back on the comfortable and the familiar is easier to justify and rationalize, if you’re just using music to get through the day as so many of us are. One of the exceptions, however, has been the two earworms put out into the ether by New Zealand indie poppers The Beths in the last few months, with first “Dying to Believe” and then “I’m Not Getting Excited.” These two songs represent our first glimpse at sophomore album Jump Rope Gazers, due out July 10 via Carpark Records, and together they’re an ebullient rebuke of my temptation to remain stuck in the mud. The Beths’ 2018 debut Future Me Hates Me was one of the year’s most infectious and refreshing rock albums, and Jump Rope Gazers seems to be picking up right where that one left off, albeit with perhaps an even more frenetic, ragged edge that is especially present on the ripping guitar solo in “I’m Not Getting Excited.” First single “Dying to Believe,” on the other hand, leans on frontwoman Elizabeth Stokes’ dulcet tones, clever songwriting and plentiful backing harmonies, feeling like it could have been a lost track from Future Me Hates Me. It points to a forthcoming album that will hopefully be an ideal balance between comfortingly familiar and pulse-poundingly insistent. —Jim Vorel
Whin’s three-song debut is like the suggestion of a record—barely heard, half forgotten, but beautiful in its humility and fragility. Listening to it feels like eavesdropping, as if Martin John Henry and Robert Dallas Gray are playing in the room next door and you’re just barely able to catch it. The two Scottish vets would probably make for good neighbors; they definitely have great pedigrees. Henry’s band De Rosa have released a handful of albums on Chemikal Underground and Rock Action Records, while Gray was in Life Without Buildings, who remains one of this writer’s favorite bands of all time. With Questing they explore the air between instruments—the space of the room they’re playing in—with the sounds of life as an ambient background for their rich, moody, downcast guitar and piano. You can listen to the first track at their Bandcamp page right now; the full EP is out on June 5. —Garrett Martin
“The spirit moves.” Isn’t that a powerful declaration? Despite hate and oppression and injustice and disease and a government that won’t listen and doesn’t care, the human spirit persists—and it resists—and that has never been more apparent than right now, this week, in 2020, as Americans’ voices rise up together in the fight against racism. The Spirit Moves, the powerful 2015 album from Langhorne Slim (aka indie folk/rock singer/songwriter Sean Scolnick) and his band The Law, opens with Slim and co. singing, ” I am tired / Oh tired and I am weak” before shouting, over a frenzy of Mariachi horns, “The spirit moves inside of me!” Call me cheesy or easily uplifted, but that’s what I needed to hear this week. But this album as a whole has served as a balm in other ways: The following song, “Changes,” one of Slim’s most popular, looks forward and embraces hope despite the changing tides. He re-shared a recording of the song via his Twitter account this week noting that it’s “a song for hope, love and unity once and for all.” There’s also comfort to be found in the locomotive “Wolves,” where Slim sings, “I know some people who are so smart / Yet they build pillars around their hearts,” which feels especially true this week as many of us witness coldness, hate and misunderstanding spewing from all sides on social media. Finally, “Airplane” pleads for an escape, just a few moments of rest and quiet, which is something that we all still need every now and then. Spirit Moves has provided me with a much-needed dose of peace during a time when the opposite of peace is what’s needed to continue this important fight against injustice. —Ellen Johnson
Cave Vaults on the Moon in New Mexico, the debut album from Lauren Green (formerly Mirror Travel) and Marissa Macias, is possibly the most transportive album I’ve heard this year. It was recorded in a 250-plus-year-old adobe fortress located in Ranchos de Taos Plaza as well as a hippie casita in Northern New Mexico, and the wisdom and mysticism of rich backdrops like these are the perfect spiritual guide in a time of such pain and uncertainty. Listening to this album feels like surrendering to something bigger than yourself that is incapable of being understood, but there’s much comfort to be found here. Their psychedelic dream pop is spacious and transcendent like a calming desert scene under the stars. This isn’t the type of psych record to see machine elves or drink lamb’s blood while tripping on DMT in the great outdoors—it’s a gentle, reverent album that brings you closer to your own consciousness and that of all living and past beings on Earth and far beyond. —Lizzie Manno