Heavy Rotation: Public Radio's Favorite Songs Of 2020 (So Far)
All around the country, NPR member stations are not only a vital source of news but music, arts and culture, too. We are grateful that music stations never stopped providing their unique blend of programming for listeners during this ongoing pandemic. They also provided critical support for their local music economies.
We usually ask our stations to pick songs that are in heavy rotation on their broadcast logs for this series. But given that we're halfway through 2020, we wanted to know our station's favorite songs of the year so far.
All songs from this month's Heavy Rotation are available to stream on the Spotify playlist at the bottom of this page.
Angelica Garcia, "It Don't Hinder Me"
On Angelica Garcia's album
Cha Cha Palace, Garcia channels her Latina roots and declares to the world that nothing is going to stop her. The album came out just before the pandemic took a foothold and put a stop to summer tours. The track "It Don't Hinder Me" encapsulates the tone of her entire album, with hooks that capture her fierce energy and pull you in and let you know — unapologetically — who she is. She dropped the song back in 2019 as a precursor to what was coming in 2020 and now it can serve as an anthem for all of us.
VPM's World Music Show
Deborah Jordan, "Be There (Call My Name)"
Singer and songwriter Deborah Jordan has long been a fixture in the progressive soul music community, with a long list of album masterworks that has seen her evolve her sound and refine her groove. Her latest release,
See in the Dark, is a collection of beautifully rendered soul stunners that suggest that this may be her magnum opus. The high musical craftmanship is evident in "Be There (Call My Name)," a hypnotically melodic piece that incorporates warm keyboard chord structures, syrupy bass lines and mid-tempo breakbeats around Jordan's genuine, authentic and achingly sincere vocals. These aspects are effortlessly delivered and evokes a healing serenity that is captivating from the very first note, making it a phenomenal listening experience.
– Chris Campbell,
WDET's The Progressive Underground
Bob Dylan, "False Prophet"
Maybe that Nobel Prize went to his head, but the first singles from Bob Dylan's latest were spoken-word epics stuffed with verbal imagery. With "False Prophet," Ol' Bob reclaimed his groove — even if it's cribbed from an obscure Sun Records ditty. He sings of woe for any gin joints that still exists, his croaking channeling a scarred antihero's stories of hard luck. The time Dylan spent practicing Sinatra's songbook has favored his growl, adding emotional richness that make this exquisite rework sound convincingly born again.
Wisconsin Public Radio
It's been absolutely amazing to watch CAPYAC evolve from Austin's most eccentric deep house aficionados into the refined L.A.-based multi-sensory experience that they are today. The duo has given acts like Disclosure a run for their money with their seamless, hours-long DJ sets filled with infectious originals and carefully crafted remixes, but lately CAPYAC has upped the portions of funk and soul into their dance-pop recipes. The calculated balance between delicate arrangements, undeniably fun beats, and an almost avant-garde visual take on luxury kicked off the year strong with this summer-ready bop.
Car Seat Headrest, "Can't Cool Me Down"
Creativity is a fluid process, and for certain artists, can best be channeled through an alter ego. (Think David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust; The Beatles as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.) On Car Seat Headrest's new album,
Making a Door Less Open, founder Will Toledo debuts his own character, Trait — a synth-wielding member of the EDM side project 1 Trait Danger, formed with Car Seat Headrest drummer Andrew Katz. Toledo and Trait churn out a no-holds-barred arrangement with lead single "Can't Cool Me Down," tempering Car Seat Headrest's signature indie vigor with electronic overlays. Toledo leaned into the concept of "
wearing a mask" — and even drummed up a performance costume complete with a modified gas mask — before masks became a touchstone of daily life. Even so, "Can't Cool Me Down" lends itself to the current cultural landscape — as a soundtrack that's bursting with immediacy and unrest, and finds strength in the path to resolution.
Caroline Rose, "Feel The Way I Want"
On her fourth album, Superstar, Caroline Rose completed one of the most fascinating musical transformations of the past decade. From rugged Americana singer to indie rock provocateur, the songwriter had pretty much done it all. But on the record's first single, "Feel The Way I Want," Rose stepped even further away from her country roots by announcing herself as a pop star. And let's be clear: She's no dilettante. Rose jumps in with both feet, masterfully singing over a thumping bassline and piercing synths with the confidence of a thousand Gagas. --Jerad Walker,
Cautious Clay, "Cheesin'" (feat. Remi Wolf, Still Woozy, Sophie Meiers, Claud, Melanie Faye & HXNS)
Summer music festivals are cancelled this year, but we do have this Cautious Clay track. Let me explain: I listen to "Cheesin'" like a stage at a festival. I initially came to it for Cautious Clay, the headliner, but while waiting for him I discovered all these artists that I never knew before: Remi Wolf, Still Woozy, Sophie Meiers, Claud, Melanie Faye and HXNS, all of whom merit a deeper dive into their discographies. So, here it is, a festival in a song. You don't even have to wait in line for anything or deal with the crowds. Just vibe.
Chicano Batman, "Color My Life"
The lead single from Chicano Batman's fourth full-length album,
Invisible People, is "Color My Life", and it has remained a refreshing staple on XPN's airwaves since we added it back in early March. The funky, smoky, vaguely psychedelic feel of this three-and-a-half minute tune has made the transition from Spring to Summer listening as well as any other on our playlist. Is it a love song? Probably... but the hope and good vibes this tune naturally emits could easily translate to any person, place or thing that brings comfort and relief in these uneasy times.
Corey Laitman, "Marching Band"
When Corey Laitman stopped by the station with their album,
Seafoam, I had a chance to learn a little bit more about the origin of my favorite song of the year, "Marching Band," and about the songwriter behind it. Corey said they wrote it for their sister, who was in a tough relationship at the time but is in a better place now. I knew the instant I heard the song that it would stay with me all year.
Deniro Farrar, "Prison Systems"
"Tell me: why do we have a record before we ever have a degree?" Charlotte emcee Deniro Farrar unmasks cultural violence, systemic racism and the futility of Black justice in "Prison Systems," a single released in 2020 but recorded four years prior. Farrar's blistering lyrics weigh just as heavy as the chain gang-like chorus calling out for answers to this oppressive cycle: "Slave to our tables; no, we don't know why... Another prison system; no, we don't know why.... For you and me to live in; no, we don't know why." If the song doesn't leave you speechless, you're not listening well enough. --Joni Deutsch, WFAE's Amplifier
Dua Saleh, "body cast"
The Minnesota artist and poet has quickly made a name for themselves since the release of their debut EP in 2019. Dua may not see themselves as an activist, but their single "body cast" is a powerful statement condemning police brutality and injustice. Sharp breaths accent Saleh's smooth delivery that stalks over syncopated beats and haunting harmonies. Written while mourning the deaths of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile in 2019, Saleh released "body cast" in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd earlier this year. With their bold voice, Saleh is here to document a rapidly changing world in real time.
Eldar Djangirov Trio, "A Night in Tunisia"
Rhapsodize; to speak about something with great enthusiasm and delight. Or in the case of Eldar Djangirov's latest album,
Rhapsodize, to PLAY with great enthusiasm and delight. Djangirov's virtuosic abilities are apparent on every track, but especially on "A Night in Tunisia." From the energetic piano opening to the propelling bass and drums, his recording of the popular jazz standard is set to electrify the listener. Together with Raviv Markovitz and Jimmy Macbride, he creates a melting pot of hot energy ready to burn through the music.
Hanni El Khatib, "ALIVE"
LA-based artist Hanni El Khatib pushed his sonic limits on the new album
FLIGHT, blending elements of garage rock, hip-hop, psych and soul. Standout track "ALIVE" rolls on a bed of bouncy keys and chronicles Hanni's survival after a horrific car accident. Hanni has been a mainstay in the Los Angeles music scene and this work with producer Leon Michels might be the artistic high point of an already impressive career.
Musicians tell stories of their times. Think Woody Guthrie's songs about the Dust Bowl or Sam Cooke's civil rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come." Hip-hop artist Jabee tells the story of our current landscape in "Clic," a song written after reading that a hotel near an affluent and predominantly white part of Oklahoma City was being named for writer Ralph Ellison. Coupled with an ominous beat, the song touches on cultural appropriation, gentrification and generational wealth. But its overriding message is about racial violence. That's amplified in a powerful music video interspersed with clips of the killings of Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Walter Scott and others, and featuring Jabee rapping in front of large, lit-up letters: "STOP KILLING US."
— Ryan LaCroix,
Laura Marling, "Song For Our Daughter"
From its first warm strum, "Song For Our Daughter" showcases an artist at once serene, supremely confident and beautifully composed. The song builds slowly, first just acoustic guitar and piano, then blossoms into an orchestrated arrangement with just the lightest of strings for support. Despite turning just 30 this year, Marling here assumes the role of wise orator, advising a younger version of herself through the challenging path of modern womanhood and professional artistry. Throughout, Marling's easy delivery and stunning voice provide stark clarity for all of the song's references. Largely composed while at home for the first extended period in years, Marling's album of the same name is a beautiful collection of thoughtfully considered stories.
Lauren Henderson, "While We're Young" (feat. Sullivan Fortner, Eric Wheeler & Allan Mednard)
It's not easy to take a page of the jazz songbook and really make it your own, but that's exactly what Lauren Henderson does with "While We're Young." If you were to isolate her vocals, the singer-songwriter genre might come to mind. The band is what makes this a truly interesting jazz arrangement. Pianist Sullivan Fortner dazzles as the yin to Henderson's yang, and that contrast is what makes this song special.
Leon Bridges, "Sweeter" (feat. Terrace Martin)
History and progress aren't without hope, and they're not free of scars, either. But without the scars, there'd be no healing. Leon Bridges and Terrace Martin cut to the bone with this balm for the shell-shocked souls of 2020, for the families and communities who've lost their sons and daughters to violence rooted in racism and abuse of power, and the families who don't rest until their loved ones return home safely. "Sweeter" celebrates close-knit connections and love, while reminding us that history is repeating itself – only this time it's on camera, and justice and peace are ready for their close-up.
Mavis Staples, "All In It Together"
Mavis Staples and producer Jeff Tweedy are an intuitive pairing. Their latest collaboration benefits COVID-19 relief for senior citizens through the Chicago nonprofit
My Block, My Hood, My City. But as Black Lives Matter protests have swept the nation, the single has taken on a multi-layered resonance. Staples's husky, bluesy plea of unity and grace vividly mirrors her history as a civil rights activist and her family's "Freedom Highway" legacy. It's sweet poetry that Staples, nearly 81 and witnessing another watershed American moment of marches toward racial justice, continues to guide, lead and teach through song.
Michael Franti and Spearhead, "I Got You"
We're about due for a pick-me-up as 2020 grinds into its second half. And who better than Michael Franti & Spearhead to put a smile on your face (even if it's behind a mask)? "I Got You" spreads sunny cheer, adding melody and rhythm to a "we're-all-in-this-together" moment. "Baby I got you yeah / And you got me yeah," Franti sings in the video while quarantined in his family's Bali yoga hotel. Equal parts musician and activist, maybe Franti is inviting us to imagine what the rest of this year might look like if indeed "I got you" and "you got me."
Nathaniel Rateliff, "Time Stands"
Nathaniel Rateliff stands alone on an empty stage. He's looking at a completely empty Red Rocks amphitheater. He lets the stillness of the moment sink in before belting out these comforting lyrics:
For a moment I could wait / To see it fall apart / Every empty bed in every / City I've been / I sit and contemplate / All the moments you said / Time stands in a duel / And I stand for you." The drama of the scene combined with the poignant lyrics remind us all how isolation can induce sadness and nostalgia. Rateliff is overwhelmed by the scenery and looks lonely on a stage where he plays frequently to sold-out audiences. "Time Stands" is a song that will help us get through these challenging times and that's what makes it one of this year's best.
Rufus Wainwright, "You Ain't Big"
Rufus Wainwright's "You Ain't Big" started as his lyrical nod to provincial America, and the weight the heartland carries if an artist aims to have the star power of Little Richard or Elvis. The track's sparse Bobbie Gentry-esque groove keeps things floating. Funky, hypnotic and sexy, a la classic Rufus. "You ain't big unless you've made it in Mississippi... or at least southern West Virginia," he sings. Well, in 1989 a 16-year-old Rufus made it on to
Mountain Stage here in Charleston, W.Va., via a
cameo with his mother, Kate McGarrigle. Coincidentally, the song was "My Old Kentucky Home." So as far as we're concerned he's always been "big." Songs like this only serve to remind us just how big, and aware, he really is.
Run The Jewels, "Ooh LA LA" (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)
Back in March we got our second single from Run The Jewels's
RTJ4: "Ooh La La," a politically sharp and raunchy as hell anthem with an old-school beat. Built on a sample from Gang Starr's 'DWYCK' and featuring Gang Starr producer DJ Premier and Greg Nice from Nice & Smooth, "Ooh La La" takes a step back from the usual blown-out and bombastic beats RTJ are known for and focuses on the hook, making it possibly the closest thing to an earworm they've ever produced.
Ruston Kelly, "Rubber"
Ruston Kelly builds on his spellbinding narrative through recovery in "Rubber," the first single from the forthcoming
Search & Destroy. Pairing intimate vocals and acoustic guitar work against textured instrumentation, Kelly questions resilience and confronts the demons of self-doubt. Taking inventory of what he's gained (and lost), he asks, "Oh, can I bounce back? / Oh, or just lay flat." The result is thoughtful and strong — a musical affirmation that chooses to focus on forgiveness and grace, even when it feels like the world is falling apart.
Shannon LaBrie, "Firewalker"
So many artists are seemingly rushing to fill the emotional space being created from our isolation. Yet many of these efforts miss the mark in craft. Here is a song that checks the boxes, as it is both 'au currant' and memorable. Many have seen destruction of late in different ways: the Australian wildfires, the Nashville tornadoes, and those affected by COVID-19. Shannon LaBrie sat with Aussie Joe Robinson and Nashville Music Row denizen Tia Sillers to spin a spirited statement of soldiering on: "Firewalker." There are heroes among us, simply carrying on.
Sunny War, "She Just Don't Care"
Sunny War has been gaining traction the past couple of years for her laidback delivery of biting, often revelatory lyrics. Her 2020 EP,
Can I Sit with You?, follows suit. Layered above languid folk-punk guitar, War's vocals deliver missives about loss, longing and justice. The second track, "She Just Don't Care," has proven timely: It begins with War considering what she'll do "if my people ever get reparations from Uncle Sam." The timeliness was accidental — the EP dropped in March, well before spring's pandemic quarantine gave way to the largest anti-racism protests in a generation — but the music stands out regardless.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, "Temple"
One of my favorite things is when an artist known for adventurous or experimental work has a song that's accessible enough to reach a larger audience, without compromising that adventurous spirit. Such is the case with the title track from the latest album by Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, on which frontwoman and songwriter Thao Nguyen sings from the point of view of her Vietnamese mother. Thao's parents were Vietnam refugees, and when she went to Vietnam herself in 2015 she brought her mother along. That prompted memories of those difficult days during the war. But the mood of the song is celebratory — an affirmation of the importance of freedom. It was a lesson that Thao applied to her own life when she came out publicly. --
Thundercat, "Black Qualls" (feat. Steve Lacy & Steve Arrington)
Thundercat, the integral bass player at the heart of LA's creative jazz scene that includes Terrace Martin, Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington, showcases his funky side on "Black Qualls," from his latest album
It Is What It Is. Brimming with bouncy synthesizers and liberal helpings of thump, his California-cool falsetto coasts above it all. Featuring guitarist Steve Lacy, Childish Gambino and Steve Arrington (best known as vocalist and percussionist in the classic funk band Slave), "Black Qualls" was built for joyriding in a candy-colored old Monte Carlo.
Stream Heavy Rotation on Spotify , updated monthly.
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