Courtesy of the artists
Every month, we ask the NPR Music staff: What’s the one song you couldn’t escape? What’s the one album to which you’ll return all year? In July, we found solace in veterans (Billy Bragg) and newcomers (Canary Room), witnessed personal transformations from IDK and WILLOW, hit funky grooves with William Parker and heard angels become mortal in a collaboration between Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine.
Follow the #NowPlaying blog for the NPR Music staff’s favorite new songs.
Billy Bragg: “I Will Be Your Shield” from The Million Things That Never Happened
Just when my anxiety was starting to fade like the summer sunsets I’ve been enjoying on various Nashville patios, the COVID Delta variant has hit hard. I’m vaccinated, but still feel the whiplash as friends test positive and it no longer seems so safe to resume the relaxed, connected life I love. I needed a song that could shelter me. Just in time, Billy Bragg — the troubadour who’s been giving his fans virtual hugs since the early 1980s — released this blood pressure-lowering testament to enduring love and trust. It’s a track from his first solo album in eight years, out this October. —Ann Powers
Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine: “Reach Out” from A Beginner’s Mind
“Reach Out” is one of the first releases from the new collaboration between Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine, A Beginner’s Mind. The song is loosely based on the 1987 German fantasy-meets-romance film Wings of Desire, where angels listen to the thoughts of Berliners. One angel strays and becomes mortal to experience the sensation of being a human: feeling, touching, loving rather than simply spectating.
“Reach Out” echoes these themes of isolation and mortality, epitomized by lyrics like, “I would rather be the flower than the ocean,” and shortly after, “I would rather be devoured than be broken.” And in the most Sufjan Stevens way, he and De Augustine’s delicate vocals and instrumentals make these enormous themes feel floral and approachable. —Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis
Canary Room: “Christine” from Christine
There’s a lot of noise in my life: a toddler, an endless inbox, a constant barrage of punk and metal blasting from my office speakers. It takes a lot for a singer-songwriter with only an acoustic guitar to break through. Then I heard the song “Christine” by Canary Room. It’s from a short, five-song EP recorded outdoors on a four-track; listen closely and your can hear birds chirp and leaves rustled by the wind. But mostly you just hear Maddy Heide’s voice up close, as if she’s sitting right next to you, thinking out loud about the way seasons change in a person, and how you love them anyway. The melody ascends and descends like rolling foothills — gently, but not without a heart pumping blood. Canary Room’s got a bunch of songs on her Bandcamp page worth a listen, but this one’s on repeat. —Lars Gotrich
WILLOW: “don’t SAVE ME” from lately I feel EVERYTHING
To quote my esteemed colleague Robin Hilton, the new WILLOW record really rips. In case you haven’t been paying attention, that’s lately I feel EVERYTHING, the 20-year-old artist’s much-appreciated pivot to pop punk. On the self-produced fourth track, “don’t SAVE ME,” WILLOW layers sonic manifestations of her warring psyche. Its first half teases the paradox with anxious guitar chords and restrained drums. Her lyrics — delivered with a casual, almost carefree flow — are bare and straightforward; a self-aware but stubborn refrain of “I don’t really think that I can do it all alone / But I tell them, ‘Don’t save me'” reveals WILLOW’s internal desire for help battling against an external projection of self-sufficiency. It’s a cry for help that hides in plain sight, ultimately culminating in an explosive bass line of truth in the track’s second half. —LaTesha Harris
IDK: “Hey Auntie” from USEE4YOURSELF
USEE4YOURSELF plays like the answer to IDK’s first album, Is He Real? But this one goes a bit deeper: IDK gets candid about his upbringing, relationships, religion and who he’s becoming as a man. There’s plenty of substance here, but none of that matters if it ain’t jammin’ — and that it is. USEE4YOURSELF is brilliantly produced and sequenced, and chock full of features, but IDK maintains his stance as the star of the show. DMV, stand up! —Bobby Carter
William Parker: “Tabasco” from Mayan Space Station
The veteran bassist, composer and community organizer William Parker is having an incredible year, with a 10-CD box set and an authorized biography already under his belt. He put out two more new albums in July, and one of them, Mayan Space Station, feels exactly right for the long, hot days and nights of summer. Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver play just behind the beat, rubbing some funky grit into their hypnotic grooves. And Ava Mendoza’s electric guitar sings and soars in a way that might remind you of the late, great Sonny Sharrock. —Steve Smith