The 15 Best Songs of March 2021

Featuring Lucy Dacus, Japanese Breakfast, Squid and more

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The 15 Best Songs of March 2021

Right on the heels of Paste’s picks for March 2021’s best albums, we’re back with the month’s best songs, somehow narrowing 31 days’ worth of new music down to just 15 must-hear tracks. Some, like black midi’s mind-bending “John L” or Japanese Breakfast’s irresistible appeal to kindness “Be Sweet,” represent the beginnings of new album cycles from widely acclaimed artists, while others, including Helena Deland and Ouri’s debut release via their art-pop project Hildegard, and the first single and title track from Sour Widows’ second EP Crossing Over, are evidence of exciting new acts on the rise. You’ll find all of the above and more among the best tracks of March, as selected by the Paste Music team.

The Armed: “AVERAGE DEATH”

Detroit’s The Armed are two for two on the road to their new record ULTRAPOP, coming April 16 on Sargent House. Like “ALL FUTURES” before it, “AVERAGE DEATH” will push your eardrums to their limits and rev your brain up into the red. Given that we’re all running on fried circuits nowadays, that may seem unappealing, but the song, in its own words, is all “Beautiful pain / Worth the exchange.” This time out, The Armed’s arsenal features a frenetic punk-rock guitar chug, vaporous synths and droning, deceptively hooky vocals, with lyrics probing the artifice endemic in everyday life (“Fame for today / Steal every scene / Dance for your captor / Always an actor”). The song features guest spots from Nicole Estill (True Widow) and singer Jess Hall, as well as a visually stunning video featuring “Clark Huge, flame throwers and a colorful cast of characters in incredible wardrobe and makeup,” as a presser summarizes. —Scott Russell

Arooj Aftab: “Mohabbat”

The first single from Brooklyn-based Pakistani composer Arooj Aftab’s sophomore album, Vulture Prince (April 23, New Amsterdam), “Mohabbat” is rooted in a centuries-old lyric form: the ghazal, an ancient poetic style—sometimes spoken, sometimes sung—that centers on the bittersweet interconnection of love and loss. Aftab here performs Hafeez Hoshiarpuri’s famed ghazal “Mohabbat karne wale kam na honge” (from Urdu, roughly, “There is no shortage of love”), following in the footsteps of Pakistani singers including Medhi Hassan and Iqbal Bano (as Vrinda Jagota points out in Pitchfork). Aftab’s rich, fingerpicked acoustic guitars are the song’s guiding force, while her fluid vocals convey an aching longing that transcends language, and what sounds like an electronic tabla undergirds it all. As “Mohabbat” wanders, distant horns and synths make their presence felt, like landmarks here and there beside the path; rather than heightening the song’s tension as it builds, only to release it, Aftab opts for a more complicated structure, as if the song is part of something so large, we can’t experience it all at once. And it is, isn’t it? —Scott Russell

black midi: “John L”

Singular English rockers black midi—that is, Geordie Greep (vocals, guitar), Cameron Picton (vocals, bass guitar, synths) and Morgan Simpson (drums)—announced their sophomore album, Cavalcade, out May 28 on Rough Trade. Its details arrived March 23 alongside lead single “John L” (plus b-side Despair) and its downright hallucinatory music video. Greep says of the album, “The emphasis when we were making and sequencing Cavalcade was to make music that was as dramatic and as exciting as possible.” That approach quickly becomes obvious on the album itself: Opener “John L” is a whirling dervish of a track, even by black midi’s standards. Greep’s ever-unexpected vocals sound strange in an entirely new way as he unspools the tale of a cult leader whose flock turns against him (“No hack with an army / Will last long before he / Breeds men who yearn / For their own bloody glory,” he warns), while the additions of Joscelin Dent-Pooley on violin and Kaidi Akinnibi on sax lend a particularly anxiety-inducing new element to the band’s sound. Simpson’s thundering drums marshal “this infernal din,” which stops and starts on a dime, further intensifying its chaotic energy. —Scott Russell

BROCKHAMPTON: “BUZZCUT” (feat. Danny Brown)

Art-rap boy band BROCKHAMPTON shared their first official new release in two years on March 25, the shapeshifting “BUZZCUT,” featuring a verse from Detroit hip-hop misfit Danny Brown, as well as backing vocals from in-house producer Jabari Manwa. Over booming bass hits, fidgety synths and myriad vocal samples, Kevin Abstract looks back on his group’s path to this point, reflecting, “Deals they had us sign, for years it had me blind / Think I had to hit rewind and think about why I do shine,” and unflinchingly acknowledging, “A platinum record not gon’ keep my Black ass out of jail.” Brown’s trademark high-pitched delivery lends a special musicality to lines like “White on the street, walking the beat like Abbey Road,” and as the song progresses and changes shape, Kevin Abstract’s insistence on independence (“Now get the fuck out my ride”) manifests as the music itself roving free. —Scott Russell

Genesis Owusu: “The Other Black Dog”

A standout single from Genesis Owusu’s excellent debut album Smiling with No Teeth, “The Other Black Dog” “explores the internal struggle between a hopeful spirit of endurance, and a gnashing black hole of ugliness. One is me, and the other is also me,” the Ghana-born, Australia-based artist explains. Owusu renders this conflict via dark, pulsing dance-rock, exposing the dichotomy of inner pain and external performance: “All my friends are hurting, but we dance it off, laugh it off / Scars inside our shoes but we just tap it off, clap it off.” The song hurtles forward like a freight train until it flies right off the tracks—in its place appears a burbling, low-key funk number a la D’Angelo, with Owusu singing, “You tryna cope but you ain’t dealing,” as if in an effort to get his own attention. —Scott Russell

Hildegard: “Jour 2”

Montreal-based musicians Helena Deland and Ouri (born Ourielle Auvé) have joined forces as Hildegard, sharing their new project’s first single “Jour 2” on March 3. The duo describe their debut track as “a psychedelic mantra that labours to reconcile the dissociated self by contrasting eeriness and softness.” That same unnerving beauty pervades the accompanying video (dir. Melissa Matos), which offers a visual representation of Deland and Ouri’s creative connection. “Jour 2” (“Day 2” from French) centers Deland’s gossamer vocals, and her lyrics have a looping hypnotism to them, gently lifting you off your feet in a way that’s both disquieting and alluring. Meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist and producer Ouri adds backing vocals and muted synth-pop touches, subtly manipulating the song’s steady tempo in places, as if the fabric of its reality is warping. “I haven’t gotten lost in such a long time,” Deland sings at one point, a line that repeats nowhere else and stands out all the more as a result. Synth chords come to the forefront in the instrumental bridge, feedback drone threatening to drown out all else. —Scott Russell

Japanese Breakfast: “Be Sweet”

Another one of Paste’s most-anticipated records of 2021 is coming into focus, as Michelle Zauner has made her forthcoming third full-length as Japanese Breakfast official. Zauner revealed the details of her new album (June 4, Dead Oceans) on March 2 alongside the music video for lead single “Be Sweet.” The follow-up to 2017’s acclaimed Soft Sounds From Another Planet and Japanese Breakfast’s 2016 breakout Psychopomp finds Zauner moving beyond the sorrow that drove those records, and working towards hard-earned happiness. Jubilee’s first single has a retro feel similar to Soft Sounds, but also a big, bass-driven buoyancy new to the band’s output, with an almost Chic-like low end pushing the danceable track forward. Lyrically, the song connects directly to Zauner’s 2019 tweet about the album’s theme being “please just be nice to me”—“Be sweet to me, baby / I want to believe in you, I want to believe in something,” she sings on the hooky choruses, the centerpiece of an impressive vocal performance. The video, shot by Zauner’s frequent collaborator Adam Kolodny, follows those lyrics to their natural conclusion: a delightful X-Files parody in which Zauner and her fellow agent (played by Marisa Dabice of Mannequin Pussy) have a close encounter of the third kind. —Scott Russell

Lightning Bug: “The Right Thing Is Hard to Do”

On March 17, Lightning Bug announced their third album (and first on Fat Possum), A Color of the Sky, out June 5. Singer/songwriter Audrey Kang and company also shared its lead single, “The Right Thing Is Hard to Do,” along with an animated music video. “The Right Thing Is Hard to Do” is an atmospheric, guitar-driven ballad, with a gorgeous drone that Kang’s vocals illuminate, like a spotlight shining through the night sky. The song’s reflective lyrics find Kang recalling her idyllic childhood, and the way that reckoning with her emotions grew more difficult as she got older; she connects this rising anxiety to our current political climate (“So they say they’ll build a wall [...] And turn away those seeking shelter most of all”), ultimately upholding love over doubt and fear. Lightning Bug’s lush instrumentation intertwines with Kang’s hopeful lyrics, and “The Right Thing Is Hard to Do” as a whole fortifies the spirit, convincing you that a better world is possible. —Scott Russell

Lucy Dacus: “Thumbs”

New Lucy Dacus means a red-letter day in Paste’s house, and on March 9, that was especially true: The Richmond, Virginia singer/songwriter finally released “Thumbs,” the live-set staple and fan-favorite track so beloved by Dacus diehards, it inspired a “Has Lucy released Thumbs yet?” Twitter account. Dacus wrote “Thumbs” during “a 15-minute car ride to dinner in Nashville,” per a press release, but it has the specific detail and depth of emotion of a song crafted across a far wider span of time. Dacus says of “Thumbs” in a statement: “Like most songs I write, I wasn’t expecting it and it made me feel weird, almost sick. It tells the story of a day I had with a friend during our freshman year of college, a significant day, but not one that I had thought of for years. I started playing it live a month or so later during the boygenius tour after Phoebe [Bridgers] and Julien [Baker] encouraged me to. I knew I wanted a long time to get used to playing it since it made me feel shaky, so I ended sets with it for about half the shows I played in 2019.” It’s easy to see why Dacus found “Thumbs” so difficult to be at ease with: The song finds her recalling a harrowing encounter over oceanic synth and mellotron, with little to distract from her moving vocals: “Your nails are digging into my knee / I don’t know how you keep smiling,” she sings of her friend, who’s somehow holding it together during a confrontation with her estranged father—it’s strongly implied their family history is a dark and, for her, traumatic one (“I would kill him / if you let me”). Dacus’ compassion for her friend is interwoven with visceral anger at the man who hurt her: “I love your eyes / and he has ‘em. / Or you have his / ‘cause he was first. / I imagine my thumbs on the irises / pressing in / until they burst.” Ultimately, all Dacus can do is help her friend carry on—one imagines that listeners who’ve dealt with similar trauma may feel better equipped to do so, now that “Thumbs” is out in the world. —Scott Russell

Mannequin Pussy: “Control”

Good news for lovers of guitar rock: Philadelphia indie-punk trio Mannequin Pussy are back with their first new material in two years. Missy (vocals/guitar/keys), Colins “Bear” Regisford (bass) and Kaleen Reading (drums) will follow their acclaimed 2019 album Patience with a new EP, Perfect, out May 21 on Epitaph. Explosive lead single “Control,” out now alongside a Missy-directed music video, is an excellent first preview of Perfect. The opening track off the EP, “Control” captures the mental struggle so many have experienced in the times of coronavirus, rendering feelings of helplessness and hopelessness as dynamic, poignant rock. “I’m in control / That’s what I tell myself / When all the walls around me close in,” Missy murmurs over a lone electric guitar, giving up as she concludes, “I know no one’s waiting for anyone,” only for the song to explode into a cathartic, irresistibly hooky ripper, emotions flying outward into the waiting ears of people who care. Missy stars in the accompanying video, as well as directing, moving from isolated and alone to empowered and liberated in thrilling, funny fashion. —Scott Russell

Pardoner: “Spike”

Bay Area band Pardoner have started a new chapter in their career. Following their signing with Bar/None Records, they’ve put out two stellar singles in “Donna Said” and March 3’s release, “Spike.” The songs come ahead of their third album, Came Down Different, out May 14. “Spike” finds Pardoner leaning into their punk influences, opening with a whirlwind of call-and-response guitars on the short, fast-paced track. Singer Max Freeland shouts out provocative lyrics (“They want twice the results in half of the time”) while the band thrashes against exploitative bosses who break the backs of their employees for an extra dollar. —Carli Scolforo

Pom Pom Squad: “LUX”

Brooklyn quartet Pom Pom Squad have dropped their first single of 2021 and first release on City Slang Records in “LUX,” along with an accompanying music video. The song follows a string of singles released after their 2019 album Ow, including “Red With Love” and a cover of Tommy James & The Shondells’ “Crimson & Clover.” “LUX” is a noisy, energetic showing from Pom Pom Squad. Bandleader and singer Mia Berrin goes in for the kill with her riot grrrl-infused vocals against the heavy rock that band members Mari Alé Figeman, Shelby Keller and Alex Mercuri cook up on the explosive new track. The video for “LUX” shows the band in a montage of high school in suburbia, running through school grounds, having sleepovers and playing a school dance. —Carli Scolforo

Ratboys: “Go Outside”

Chicago band Ratboys’ latest single might sound like a Covid-inspired anthem, but that’s just a fortunate (or unfortunate) coincidence. The band’s newest endeavor “Go Outside” follows the release of their 2020 album Printer’s Devil. Before the band could start the tour in support of their third LP, the pandemic hit, forcing them to cancel all their dates. While “Go Outside” applies perfectly to the universal experience of a yearlong shutdown with lyrics like “I wanna be eloquent / I wanna take all my best friends / And show ‘em where I live,” the song was written a year before the pandemic started. “Go Outside” also marks a change of form in the band’s sound, leaning into the country influences that previously only peeked through their predominantly indie-rock sound. —Carli Scolforo

Sour Widows: “Crossing Over”

Bay Area bedroom-rock trio Sour Widows (Maia Sinaiko, Susanna Thomson and Max Edelman) released their debut self-titled EP in 2020, earning acclaim for their dynamic blend of sharp rock riffs and hushed vocal melodies (think Adrianne Lenker fronting Duster), which they control with the ease and ambition of a much more established band. The title track from their second EP, Crossing Over (April 23, Exploding in Sound Records) premiered at Paste on March 10. “We talked about the idea of space while envisioning this EP—the physical distance between us, space in music, space that grows between experiences as time passes,” Thomson recalls. “These songs are definitely still meant to rock, but they take their time getting to those moments, and there’s room to breathe in between them.” “Crossing Over” exemplifies all of the above, from its roving arrangement and contemplative lyrics to the thunderous rock catharsis of its crescendo. Sinaiko and Thomson’s dual guitars start as ripples, slowly moving outward over the surface of a series of memories: “We caught the storm pulling in / From Ohio to Wisconsin / Let the guitars wail / And the flood take the basement / Screamed to sing above it,” Thomson sings. Before long, the song has that storm’s same fearsome force, with Sinaiko and Thomson’s guitars blowing into the mix like squalls of rain, and Edelman’s drums and Timmy Stabler’s bass the rumbling thunder in the distance. “I wish I could become / The only one that you’d love / It wouldn’t be enough,” Thomson murmurs after the storm has passed, sounding broken, yet at some kind of peace. —Scott Russell

Squid: “Paddling”

Rising U.K. rock quintet Squid shared the second single from their much-anticipated debut album Bright Green Field, out May 7 on Warp Records. A longtime staple of Squid’s live show, “Paddling” opens on Laurie Nankivell’s low-key drum-machine loop and slowly, steadily—and then suddenly—ratchets up into a psych-motorik rave-up. Guitarists Anton Pearson and Louis Borlase, and drummer Ollie Judge all trade off on vocals, as if to reinforce the song’s topsy-turvy world (“There are people, there are people inside / And they’re changing in shape and in size”), while Arthur Leadbetter’s delirious synths push the song to a fever pitch until it breaks. As its title suggests, “Paddling” is exhilaratingly unmoored, never staying put long enough to be pinned down. “Written from two different perspectives, ‘Paddling’ is a song about the dichotomy between simple pleasures and decadent consumerism,” Squid explain in a statement. “Recounting a familiar scene from The Wind in the Willows, the song reminds us that although we are humans, we are ultimately animals that are driven by both modern and primal instincts, leading to vanity and machismo around us in the everyday.” —Scott Russell

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