Heavy Rotation: 20 Songs Public Radio Can't Stop Playing
January's edition of Heavy Rotation, chosen by NPR member stations, features music from The Avalanches, Chet Faker, Igwe Aka, Madlib, Run the Jewels and more.
All of this month's picks are available to stream on the Heavy Rotation Spotify and Apple Music playlists at the bottom of the page. As always, you can discover fantastic music programming happening across the country in real time by clicking the links to each station's website.
Alex Maas, "Been Struggling"
The first heralds of Alex Maas' talent came more than a decade and a half ago, when the multi-instrumentalist began fronting his now-renowned psych-rock outfit The Black Angels. A master of vocal reverb, Maas has shown a penchant for a subdued vintage style, similar to those of the mid- to late-'70s art-rock movement. As a songwriter, Maas seems to have struck his prime during quarantine, as evidenced by the release of his moody solo debut, Luca, back in December. —Jack W. Anderson, KUTX
Ana Egge, "This Time"
Ana Egge opens "This Time" with the Declaration of Independence, then the US Constitution and various other quotations, including the Pledge of Allegiance and one from Martin Luther King, Jr. It is the folkiest of folk music endeavors to draw lyrics from various sources to make something new; it's the musical equivalent of quilt-making. In this case, Egge sews reminders of the promise of progress, embedded in defining moments throughout our shared history. In the process, she makes a simple, direct statement about the extent to which Black lives matter. "Over and over is over," she sings. "And again will be never again." —Kim Ruehl, Folk Alley
The Avalanches, "We Go On"
The Avalanches' new album, We Will Always Love You, could be the sequel to NASA's Golden Record, which was blasted into outer space in 1977. Like the original golden discs, which aspired to introduce the diversity of life and culture on Earth to intelligent extraterrestrial life, We Will Always Love You is an ambitious album. It features a dizzying array of samples and guest artists that reflect a deep and rich display of genres and eras. One of its many standout tracks — "We Go On" — features the vocals of Cola Boyy and Mick Jones of The Clash wrapped around a beautiful Carpenters' sample. The album is a cohesive, resplendent listen with a deep undercurrent of melancholy. If it ever finds its way on to a space probe, it just might give intelligent extraterrestrial life second thoughts about visiting our conflict-torn planet. —Kevin Cole, KEXP
After the initial flutters dissipate, there's a beauty in falling deeper in love with someone as they reveal more of themselves to you. That's the feeling Brijean captures in "Ocean," an unusually placid track from the Bay Area dance-pop duo. Partners in music and in life, singer and percussionist Brijean Murphy and producer Dougie Stu typically make conga-inflected house and disco. On the floaty "Ocean," percussion pitter-patters over a drawn-out bass groove, lighting up with the occasional twinkle of a vintage synth. The track's cozy vibe conjures napping with a lover on a winter day as raindrops tap on the window. Brijean's lyrics envelop us in that sense of security, tranquility and emotional intimacy: "In this gentle space, we lay / Calming when I hear you say / I want to be inside your ocean." —Nastia Voynovskaya, KQED
Chet Faker, "Low"
On his latest offering, Australian artist Nick Murphy revisits his Chet Faker moniker after a five-year hiatus from the project. A worthy addition to the pandemic artistic canon, "Low" is a song for the times, one that waxes poetic about finding strength and purpose but is never overwrought. With a laid-back groove and infectious baseline, the track serves as its own remedy. When listening to "Low," how can you feel anything but high? —Desire Moses, WNRN
Igwe Aka & BRYVN, "Not The Hills"
It only takes Igwe Aka about 90 seconds to weave a compelling story. Moody and expressive, the song and video dart back and forth between carefree and anguished moments with Sacramento, Calif., as the backdrop. While the video calls to mind early Quentin Tarantino films, the song aims to point out how California's identity is different 385 miles north of Hollywood. When asked for specifics, Aka tells me that the lens of Northern California weed culture — a prominent character trait of the area — makes racial boundaries feel less rigid. "There are no white people drugs, no black people drugs. Everyone participates in the same things," he says. Like the region it's inspired by, the song takes enough left turns to be distinct from the whole and that suits Aka just fine: "I've always wanted to be an anomaly, just myself. To be one type of person in my music would be like living in hell." —Nick Brunner, CapRadio
Jade Bird, "Headstart"
When it comes to matters of love, missed signals can lead to dashed opportunities, and wearing your heart on your sleeve — to no avail — is exasperating and exhausting in equal measure. Recorded at the hallowed RCA Studios in Nashville with Dave Cobb, "Headstart" from the recent UK-to-Austin transplant Jade Bird is a forgiving, yet pointed mash note to the object of her desire. It brims with her signature humor and issues a friendly challenge to embrace the possibilities of what the heart truly wants and needs, instead of throwing her hands up in resignation and calling for the check. —Gini Mascorro, KXT
Joshua Henry, "Stand Up"
Joshua Henry is primarily a Broadway star, but that's about to change. "Stand Up," the second single from his upcoming debut EP, Guarantee, finds Henry stretching his legs on a song originally released in 1977 by The O'Jays. The three-time Tony Award nominee found moments during the extended stage closures to fully explore his first love — music. Prompted by his wife to make the leap, Henry has embraced what producer Neff-U Feemster calls his "full voice," displaying a fantastic instrument capable of soaring highs and tremendous control. Bravo! —Eric Teel, Jefferson Public Radio
The Kills, "Raise Me"
The Kills haven't had an album of original material since 2016's Ash & Ice, and it appears we're going to have to wait a little longer. Until then, the band has released a terrific collection of outtakes and rarities titled Little Bastards. "Raise Me," recorded in 2009, is the perfect combination of angst and grit. Singer Alison Mosshart pleads to us, asking to be transported to a better place. It will be fun to see what The Kills come up with once they return to the studio, but these archival songs are great just as they are. —Benjamin McPhail, The Colorado Sound
Luedji Luna, "Ain't I a Woman?"
On Brazilian singer-songwriter Luedji Luna's song "Ain't I a Woman?," there's an infectious drumbeat that mixes snares and grooves, then intertwines them with jazzy guitar and bass riffs. It allows her deep vocals to weave throughout the song and pull you in like a fish in a net. Luna says she wants to bring back the humanity of Black women: "You rarely see the Black woman being loved in cinema, being the muse, speaking in the first person. I want to build that story." Through the power of her voice and band of world musicians, Luna is building that story. —Ian Stewart, VPM
Madlib, "Road of the Lonely Ones"
Friday marked the release of Four Tet and Madlib's Sound Ancestors, a collaboration album between the two superstar producers. "Road of the Lonely Ones," the first single from the album, combines a haunting sample from The Ethics' "Lost in a Lonely World" with a sharp and heavy drum beat. According to Kieran Hebden (the man behind Four Tet), the album was years in the making, with Madlib sending him hundreds of pieces of music and Hebden arranging, manipulating, and editing them down into a stand-alone album. It's no wonder that Sound Ancestors is one of 2021's most hyped recordings. —Brian Burns, WUNC
Melody Gardot, "Sunset In The Blue"
Minimalism backed by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra strings is no sweat for Melody Gardot and producer Larry Klein, who manage to keep things very lean. Gardot doesn't need more cover than gentle brushwork from Vinnie Colaiuta and humble elegance from John Leftwich on acoustic bass and Anthony Wilson, a treasure on electric guitar. Her vocal deficiencies are nil. Her Astrud Gilberto-like sensuality is a welcome anachronism in 2021. Grab your favorite mug and doctor a hot beverage to your specifications; post up cozily next to your favorite windowpane on a rainy day and let yourself be taken someplace — and sometime — very far away. —Matt Silver, WRTI
Moa, "Under Your Skin"
The season finale of Netflix's new series Night Stalker begins with a melody that is as dark and stirring as the documentary's story. If you were unable to Shazam the blink-and-you-missed-it tune, that song is "Under Your Skin," a mesmerizing original composition from Charlotte-based atmospheric band Moa and anchored by the hauntingly beautiful lilt of lead singer Lindsey Ryan. As the band shared with WFAE in a recent interview, "Under Your Skin" was inspired by the off-kilter folk of 1970s songwriter Vashti Bunyan: "It's a love song with a slightly creepy edge. It's a love song that's a little bit bizarre." —Joni Deutsch, WFAE's Amplifier
MOsley WOtta, "Just Like Them"
Located in the beautiful but isolated high desert of central Oregon, the small city of Bend has a lot to offer. You can find world-class beer, outdoor sports, and yes, even hip-hop from musician Jason Graham, aka MOsley WOtta. His newest single, "Just Like Them," is a pragmatic track that still manages to celebrate nonconformity and outsider status; it's as refreshing as a summer dip in the nearby Deschutes River. Graham is also an accomplished visual artist and led the animation team behind the impressive video for the song. —Jerad Walker, OPB
Parker Millsap, "The Real Thing"
Originally written years ago about missing his wife while on tour, Parker Millsap's "The Real Thing" now focuses on technology's lie of bringing us closer together. The pandemic has robbed so much from us, especially human connection: hugs from loved ones, bonding with friends, lunch with co-workers. FaceTime and Zoom are sorely lacking, as Millsap howls alongside Erin Rae: "I can't stand the poor connection / Can't hold your hand through the screen / I don't want your reflection / I just want the real thing." The Oklahoma native's wonderful fingerstyle guitar drives the song, as the perfect amount of space is given to let the music breathe. —Ryan LaCroix, KOSU
Run the Jewels (feat. Santa Fe Klan), "Ooh La La" (Mexican Institute of Sound Remix)
What do you get when you infuse the political fury of Run the Jewels with Cumbia and Mariachi influences? For starters, a tequila-soaked sonic earworm that'll get stuck in your head for days. But more important is the message the combination sends. This remixed version of "Ooh La La" shares DNA with the original from RTJ4, using that same sophisticated Killer Mike and EL-P flow to whistle blow on America's socio-economic injustices. But when you layer on the celebratory energy of Mexican electronica — provided by the Mexican Institute Of Sound and Ángel Quezada of Santa Fe Klan — it turns into a showpiece for multicultural unity that's loud and proud and helping blaze a trail for change. —Stacy Buchanan, GBH
Tamar Aphek, "Crossbow"
Israeli rock star Tamar Aphek's performance on "Crossbow" helps this propulsive song stand out among the torrent of new music. The noisy, claustrophobic production and searing guitar track will have listeners falling in love with this after the first listen. And I can attest to subsequent listens paying even more dividends. —Dan Reed, WXPN
TRZTN & Karen O, "Hieroglyphs"
The hypnotic song "Hieroglyphs" reunites producer and musician Tristan Bechet and Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O. Released under his moniker TRZTN, the two were first paired for the soundtrack to Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are. Now, over a decade later, this collaboration transports the listener to a new dream state. Described by Bechet as "bizarre and beautiful," the track's mechanical precision is just as dramatic and supernatural as O's intimate and vocal performance. —Alisha Sweeney, CPR's Indie 102.3
Valerie June, "Call Me a Fool" (feat. Carla Thomas)
Valerie June calls her music "organic moonshine roots music" — we call it great. June's music has an ethereal vibe, and yet it's firmly rooted. When you hear her voice, you feel every note. On her new song, she urges listeners to "Dream! And let them call you a fool." That's empowerment to the nth degree and advice we should all heed. —Chris Wienk, WEXT
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Janize Ablaza formed the expansive pop group Xinxin in 2016. Xinxin's sound grabs freely from any nearby genre, from trip-hop to samba to '90s indie rock. But the beating heart of Xinxin is Ablaza's lyrical explorations of childhood, solitude and emotional memory. "Control" is the consummate example. The group's Bandcamp page describes them as "songs for the pain body," and her deep lyrical catharsis is balanced by the group's idiosyncratic and highly expressive music. —Myke Dodge Weiskopf, KCRW
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