Hayley Williams: “Simmer”

The possibility of a Hayley Williams solo album has been on the horizon since the very beginning. In 2003, the 14-year-old Williams was signed as a solo artist to Atlantic Records, which envisioned her as a Top 40 pop singer, à la Avril Lavigne. She insisted on being in an alternative rock band. She won. And so, alongside the rest of Paramore, she wrote empowering anthems for misanthropic teens to mosh and rip their tights to.

The first word of Williams’ new debut solo single, “Simmer,” is an enunciated “rage.” It hangs in the air like a provocation before she finishes: “… is a quiet thing.” There are flashes of anger here—a surprise use of the word “fucker”—but by its own admission, the song operates at low temperature. There is no distorted, thrashing guitar; instead, it’s accented by watery harp and ominous vocal harmonies. “Oh, how to draw the line between wrath and mercy?” Williams asks, before murmuring, “Wrap yourself in petals/Petals for armor.” The concept of shielding oneself with softness is a mature—and natural—progression from reactionary fury, but it’s not a very exciting one. Between the song’s misty ambiance and the music video of Williams bolting through the forest, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she’s been here before: In 2008, when Paramore recorded a song for the Twilight film series. Like a soundtrack song, “Simmer” sets a mood and asks some hazy rhetorical questions—but too often, this story feels as though it could be passed off to anybody.

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The 1975: “Me & You Together Song”

On earlier singles from their upcoming album Notes on a Conditional Form, the 1975 took stock of the human condition: The eponymous opener “The 1975” was a hopeful monologue by the young climate activist Greta Thunberg, while on “People,” Matt Healy offered a blistering condemnation of the behaviors that brought us to this sorry position—when the looming threat of climate crisis means even something so banal as a Monday morning is a limited resource. But with “Me & You Together Song,” the Manchester quartet makes space for smaller-scale obstacles and personal triumphs within the narrative of imminent and near-incomprehensible loss.

“Me & You Together Song” is the antithesis of those confrontational earlier songs, with sparkling production that feels like it could lock you inside, glassy-eyed, for hours. “I had a dream where we had kids/You would cook, I’d do the nappies,” Healy sings, trying to convince a girl of his love. The song itself is a dream, a story of romance that plays out in a snow-globe where the idea of having kids doesn’t require contemplation of the disaster-struck world they may inhabit in the future. “I’ve been in love with her for ages,” he sings, drawing out the last syllable into a maudlin croon. The song is wholly inoffensive, and maybe that’s the point. It offers a false peace, a lull that lasts as long as the synthetic snow falls inside the glass.

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U.S. Girls: “Overtime”

There are countless songs written about working late and drinking hard. Meg Remy tells another side of the story, about the horror of discovering—much too late—that a partner concealed cash and drank it away behind her back: “Every time I see your grave, I can’t help but think/How I didn’t know that you only drank/The overtime.” The original version of “Overtime,” from U.S. Girls’ 2013 EP Free Advice Column, felt a bit like a hangover, with seasick piano and a beat like a pounding headache. Made over with a sidewinding guitar riff and a twitchy funk rhythm, the new single from U.S. Girls’ upcoming album Heavy Light plays in the volatile emotional space where hurt becomes anger. “You forgot to tell me,” Remy insists, knowing that this forgetting was more like a lie of omission. Behind her, backing vocalists chant “overtime, overtime” until the word begins to split apart—“over time, over time”—the way trust is earned, and the way lies are built. E Street Band saxophonist Jake Clemons’ remarkable solo dramatizes the shock of deception, but the song is short, the story is already over, and Remy is the last to know.

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Choi Woo-shik: “Soju One Glass”

If the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its post-credits scenes, the South Korean Best Picture nominee Parasite, written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, has its own “for the fans” treat once the screen goes black, though the film has far less clear distinctions between the good guys and the villains than the Avengers. As a denouement to this darkly comic capitalist hellhole thriller about a family of scammers infiltrating a rich household is a bittersweet, folk-ish tune sung by Choi Woo-shik, the 29-year-old actor who plays “Kevin,” the son of the impoverished Kim family. This end credits song (an if-you-know-you-know bonus for the Bong Hive) was composed by musician Jung Jae-il with lyrics written by the director himself, who wanted audiences to hear Kevin’s voice one last time while leaving the theater. The track, “Soju One Glass,” was shortlisted (but not nominated) by the Academy for Best Original Song, a surprise nod even for a film that’s received many accolades since its Palme d’Or win at Cannes last May.

Though it starts with a solemnly plucked electric guitar, the song builds up to a fast-strummed ditty, the lyrics playfully enunciated by the boyishly-toned Choi, whose voice seems to constantly be on the verge of a pubescent crack. The song plays unsubtitled, and if you don’t speak Korean it feels almost misplaced—too chipper, too inviting of foot-stomping, almost distasteful following a rather traumatic series of events in the film’s final act. But comprehension of the lyrics spotlights the strain in Choi’s voice as he sings about an exhausting life that feels realistic for his scrappy character: living in the haze of Korea’s poor air quality, hands and feet rough and nonexistent muscles burned from hard labor. The melody picks up with an extra bounce as Choi dives into the chorus: numbing it all at the end of the day with cold soju spilling over from his glass. Then the comedown hits. It’s rather fitting for a film built on faux optimism followed by a bluntly shattering reality check.

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Michael Stipe: “Your Capricious Soul”

Michael Stipe may only now be releasing his first solo single, but it’s not as if the former R.E.M. singer has been silent since the dissolution of his legendary alternative rock band in 2011. The first new music he put into the world as a solo artist was an instrumental piece, in 2014, meant to accompany bonus footage from a friend’s film. Since then, Stipe’s other public pursuits have included political protests and production credits on a comeback album by electro-clash pioneers Fischerspooner. “Your Capricious Soul” feels less like a big new gesture than a continuation of Stipe’s thoughtfully wayward pursuit of his post-R.E.M. muse.

Available as a download on MichaelStipe.com, with proceeds going to the climate activism group Extinction Rebellion, the song signals this longtime environmental advocate’s support for a new generation’s protests. Co-written with Athens, Georgia-based producer Andy Lemaster, “Your Capricious Soul” is sonically dazzling if not necessarily groundbreaking, with droning low-end, jangling tambourine, crisp electronic beats, thrumming guitar, even a jubilant horn fanfare—it’s a bit like Suicide filtered through Perfume Genius. Stipe’s tender vocals are in fine form, burnished with subtle vocoder-like effects, and he’s as oblique as ever. A mention that “the birds are dying/or they might as well be” is as close as the song gets to overt ecological themes. The video, which shows a red-haired, freckled youth looking contemplative in the sunlight, suggests that improving our shared planet begins with changing a single individual’s consciousness. Stipe’s whimsy results in a track that ultimately seems a little slight, but he’s modeling a way of life—creative, open-eared, noncommercial—that could, we can only hope, help lead to a better world.

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Justin Bieber: “Yummy”

Was any other pop star’s decade in the spotlight as chaotic as Justin Bieber’s? Mop-bucket piss and police charges aside, he’s certainly the only heartthrob that the Obama administration formally dunked on when a White House petition to revoke his green card garnered over 273,000 signatures in 2014. Through all the turmoil, Bieber’s music became a more gainful way to shed his tween image: Adopting the Y2K handbook of cribbing elements from rap and R&B hits, he cooked up his own wildly successful whitebread version, with his share of peaks and flops throughout.

Please toss “Yummy,” Bieber’s first single since 2015’s Purpose, in with the flops. In the trailer for a docuseries about his upcoming fifth album, Bieber and his crew speak in platitudes that suggest he’s in a healthier, more creatively fulfilling place now that he’s “found his wife,” model Hailey Baldwin. If that’s so, “Yummy” makes a compelling case for staying single: Shamelessly engineered for the truncated attention span of TikTok (he joined the service just for the occasion), it’s a bloodless shell of an R&B song crippled by asinine lyrics and a tired, syncopated backdrop. The song plateaus as soon as it starts, never inching past the toddler-like repetition of “yummy-yum” in its chorus. The problem isn’t even that a 25-year-old is employing baby talk as a squicky come-on—that’s been done better. “Yummy” is a dead-on-arrival return that even Bieber sounds bored with.

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FKA twigs: “home with you”

A single intrusive thought can pursue you into a downward spiral until outside sounds seem to reach you from underwater. FKA twigs captures the plummet into self-consciousness on “home with you,” the third single from her upcoming album MAGDALENE. Alternating beat-heavy, almost spoken-word verses with swelling piano balladry, the song hovers between the cavernous ache of “Cellophane” and the thrumming heat of “holy terrain.” It illustrates the moments of catastrophic lucidity that can break down confidence in an instant.

The first verse calls back to the mechanical production of twigs’ 2015 EP M3LL155X. Her distorted voice releases a trembling wave of anger: “The more you have the more that people want from you/The more you burn away the more that people earn from you/The more you pull away the more that they depend on you.” With her first accusatory, “I didn’t know that you were lonely,” the song morphs, recreating the feeling of having the wind knocked out of you. She recovers her resolve for a moment, then falters again (“Call me late at night/And I’ll be running home to you”), giving herself over to her feelings of guilt. Her voice combined with strings, she confesses in the final line: “I’d have told you I was lonely too.” In the video, that admission accompanies a scene of twigs pulling her younger self from the depths of a well. The image expands the bounds of her grief. Having laid herself bare to another, she’s now prepared to mend the fractures within herself.

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Harry Styles: “Lights Up”

Say this for Harry Styles, he’s nothing if not a talented showman, the kind who titles his first single since 2017’s self-titled solo album “Lights Up” and releases it on National Coming Out Day. Styles is no stranger to statement lead singles: He introduced his debut album Harry Styles with “Sign of the Times,” a nearly six-minute-long piece of feathery, melodramatic rock balladry. “Lights Up” is only a little less over-the-top, layering synth, guitars, keys, drums, chunky bass, and a small choir of backup singers until the finished product begins to glisten with sweat. With its winding, psychedelic pre-chorus, the song seems designed to wriggle through the strictures of pop songwriting. It’s less than three minutes but its strangeness makes it feel longer.

“Lights Up” also seems poised to divide those who feel that the best pop songs should speak directly to the moment, and those who think they ought to stand alone, little worlds unto themselves. In isolation, lines like “Never coming back down/Can’t you see/I could, but wouldn’t stay” scan as banal Noel Gallagher-style acid trip nonsense. But on a day of LGBTQ visibility, “Lights up and they know who you are/Do you know who you are?” sound like a rallying cry. By contrast, the song’s video takes place mostly in the dark, where Styles’ bare chest is caressed by a throng of adoring people, bared to the night sky while he rides on the back of a motorcycle, and, in one particularly odd moment, mirrored as his own sequin-suited body floats above a second body wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. It’s hard to know what the show is—just that Styles is the man putting it on.

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Frank Ocean: “DHL”

“DHL,” Frank Ocean’s first new original song since 2017, finds him unwound and relaxed, reveling in his life’s simple pleasures as he raps about new packages, Kawasaki bikes, Starbucks, and wearing puffer jackets to Paris Fashion Week. Ocean has proven himself a formidable and efficient rapper with minimal effort, from early Odd Future guest spots like “Oldie” and “Sunday” to more recent standout verses, like his chic appearance on the A$AP Mob posse cut “Raf” or the Endless freestyle “U-N-I-T-Y.” His verses on “DHL” are similar flex raps, though they’re less clever and more cryptic than what’s come before. But his writing remains focused, even as his raps unhinge themselves.

Co-produced by Ocean alongside EDM heavyweight Boys Noize, longtime Kanye engineer Noah Goldstein, and Daniel Aged of the chill R&B duo best known as Inc., the track is warped and woozy, distorting Frank’s vocals until they smear across fading synths. The raps become almost chant-like after a while. He brags about the gliss on the cyst on his wrist and being able to linger in studios without worrying about session fees. This is about as cavalier as he’s ever sounded, and it suits him.

The further “DHL” inches along, the more misshapen it becomes. It doesn’t really get going until deep into its extended second verse. Ocean loosens up, adopting mumble rap flows that sound like they’re executed mid-milly rock. “Independent jugg, sellin’ records out the trunk/I’m already rich as fuck so the product’s in the front/Got my partner in the front, been my BF for a month/But we been fuckin’ from the jump,” he brags in the closing seconds. Coming on the heels of his queer club night PrEP+, previews of two new tracks to be released on vinyl, and the return of blonded RADIO, this song ushers in the official start to Frank Ocean season after a brief period of inactivity. Unceremonious yet swaggering, on “DHL,” he sounds like he’s just warming up.

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Ana Tijoux: “#CACEROLAZO”

Chile has been beset by unrest in recent weeks, as demonstrations against proposed fare hikes on public transport have sparked massive protests rooted in the country’s endemic inequality. Peaceful marches and civil disobedience have spun off into looting and vandalism, amid allegations of police brutality; the government imposed martial law, declared a nightly curfew, and deployed military troops, who have unleashed tear gas and water cannons. Official tallies count at least 12 dead. “We are at war,” declared conservative president Sebastian Piñera.

A familiar noise has soundtracked the chaos: cacerolazos, the time-honored tradition of banging pots and pans together as a form of protest. These spontaneous acts of noise-making have been a popular expression of dissent throughout Chile and Argentina since the 1980s. Now the percussive din has gotten a 21st-century update, thanks to a viral song by the French-Chilean musician Ana Tijoux: “#CACEROLAZO.”

In a one-minute clip, which has been played more than 1.6 million times on Instagram since it was posted yesterday, Tioux chants an irresistible hymn to a revolution in the making, giving voice to popular grievances and calling for Piñera’s resignation as sirens wail. The hypnotic chorus is a paean to protest itself: “Cuchara de palo/Frente a tus balazos/Y al toque de queda…/Cacerolazo” (“Wooden spoon/In front of your bullets/And at curfew…/Cacerolazo”). But the genius of the song, produced by France’s Jon Grandcamp, is the way it samples the actual clatter of wooden spoons and saucepans into an infectious, impossible-to-ignore beat. The sample converts a song about protest into an act of resistance in its own right. As Bob Dylan sang, “A lotta people don’t have much food on their table/But they got a lot of forks and knives/And they gotta cut something.” Tijoux and Grandcamp’s song builds brilliantly on that metaphor.

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Photo by C Brandon/Redferns