19. Azealia Banks, “Yung Rapunxel”
After months of anticipation, Azealia Banks released “Yung Rapunxel,” the first single off her (perpetually delayed) debut album, Broke with Expensive Taste. Produced by seapunk champion Lil Internet, the track is particularly fitting given all the fighting Azealia concerns herself with these days. The track features her rapid-fire flow set against heart-accelerating, pulsating techno beats, and much of it is dominated by her taunting screams of “WHAT THE FUCK?! DARE YOU TA DARE YOU TA.” It sounds like her Twitter feed come to life, made for jumping up and down to in fits of angst at a drum ‘n’ bass show. Funnily, during a break in the song, she says (in a nod to Mary J. Blige), “I’m so tired / So tired of all this drama.” Girl produces more beef than Omaha Steakhouse, so we’re not sure what she’s trying for there. Regardless, it’s an impressive display of her skills; maybe if she stopped picking fights every other second, more people would notice. —Aylin Zafar
Justin Timberlake celebrated the lead-up to the release of his first album in seven years by doing more of what he’s been doing in the time since: acting. He kicked off his weeklong takeover of television (a five-night residency on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) by hosting Saturday Night Live for a fifth time. Five times hosting is no small feat, and SNL honored the achievement by forgoing a traditional host monologue and inducting Timberlake into its “Five-Timers Club.” Seeing Timberlake in awe among fellow SNL greats like Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short is a reminder of just how far he’s come. From ramen-noodle hair to slick smoking jackets and hanging with comedy legends — who would’ve thought? —A.Z.
17. Beach House, “Wishes”
The video for Beach House’s “Wishes” was directed by Eric Wareheim, but that doesn’t mean it strictly adheres to the kind of ultra-modern, bizarro-comedic style that he’s known for pioneering with Tim Heidecker. That said, it is a strange video, but in a way that skews hyper-gorgeous as opposed to hyper-jokey. The video is driven by close-ups on almost achingly expressive actors, most notably Ray Wise (aka Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks), as they observe and take part in a cultish pep rally. The colors are as iridescent as this song sounds, shimmering seriously throughout a weirdo narrative that, in the end, is also an oddly emotional one. —Amy Rose Spiegel
16. Beyoncé, “Bow Down/I Been On”
Beyoncé’s first new song since 2011 is a hard and unapologetically fierce medley of bangers that reconnects the singer with her Houston heritage by going full-on trill for “Bow Down” and chopped-and-screwed for her rap in “I Been On.” The lyrics are even more bold, with Bey making it clear that she’s not just Jay-Z’s “little wife,” and singing, “bow down, bitches” with the brutal conviction of someone who might believe that she’s actually royalty now. —Matthew Perpetua
15. Kendrick Lamar featuring Jay-Z, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix)”
Kendrick Lamar was as surprised by the “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” remix as we were. Captured in a sweet video, Kendrick’s Top Dawg Entertainment buds surprised him in the studio with Jay-Z’s verse. Kendrick looks blown away, and for good reason. Jay-Z goes in on this one; he references his honey B off the top (“Up in the clouds, me and my spouse / Rumors on the ground getting too loud”), and details his buddy-buddy relationship with the Obamas. Kendrick rises to the occasion, crafting all-new verses — more pointed and aggressive than the original. “I kill ‘em all when they try to kill my vibe / I am the bad, the good God, the last the hood got / The last that would try to pass a good job,” he raps. Indeed, he doesn’t just get by rapping next to Jay, he downright aces it. —A.Z.
14. Giant Drag, Waking Up Is Hard to Do
Annie Hardy, the singer and guitarist of the Los Angeles alt-rock band Giant Drag, basically disappeared for half a decade after the release of her band’s excellent debut, Hearts and Unicorns, back in 2005. Though she’s put out a slow trickle of old songs and new demos via BandCamp over the past few years, Waking Up Is Hard to Do is her first major artistic statement in close to a decade — and a big creative leap forward. Her oddball sense of humor is intact, but she’s mostly ditched her ultra-’90s guitar style in favor of a cleaner, groovier sound, and has generally abandoned smirky irony in favor of straightforward vulnerability on tracks like “Garbage Heart,” and empathy on the heartbreaking and gorgeous opener “90210.” —M.P.
13. Rhye, Woman
Last year, Rhye continued the trend of releasing sexy, soulful music online while operating under a veil of secrecy. The duo — vocalist Mike Milosh and songwriter-producer Robin Hannibal — clearly took a cue from another mysterious internet phenomenon, The Weeknd, posting sexy cover art and videos to accompany their equally silky-smooth songs while keeping themselves hidden in the shadows. Now we know that Milosh is, in fact, not a woman (as many first thought), but a man with a beautiful, high-pitched voice. Woman, Rhye’s debut album, slinks and shimmies along between light and dark: buoyant horns on “Hunger,” yearning strings on “The Fall,” and Milosh’s voice throughout tender and affecting. Rhye, though on trend with the quieter pop of bands like The xx (who also make records for intimate nights), creates music that feels warmer, less isolating. It’s hard to resist falling in love to something this lush. —A.Z.
12. Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt
“Misery Over Dispute,” the last track on Waxahatchee’s excellent second album Cerulean Salt, begins with a mysterious drum solo, but it’s only a moment until Alabama native and former bedroom-recorder Katie Crutchfield’s guitar and her sweetly tough voice come roaring in. It’s a fitting coda to an album that’s part Best Coast, part early Liz Phair, a little bit punk, a little bit country — and all about the unique pain and exhilaration of love and loss. —Doree Shafrir
11. Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
Kacey Musgraves’ vision of small-town life can seem dreary and cynical, but no matter how much she sounds like an ambitious kid dying to get the hell out of town, it’s always clear that she has a lot of empathy for anyone caught up in the inertia of everyday life. “Merry Go ‘Round” is her most devastating song on this topic, but other tracks, like the perky “Follow Your Arrow,” offer a socially liberal attitude that’s rarely associated with mainstream country music. —M.P.
10. Phosphorescent, Muchacho
Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck has played with a few genres over a decade of recording, but his music has always remained unusually earnest and authentically Southern. Musically, this latest album is an interesting union of woodsy indie hymnals and beer-soaked Southern rock, but Houck’s vulnerable vocal delivery is the warm beating heart of Muchacho. On “Song for Zula,” the album’s standout, he drawls, “Honey, I saw love / You see, it came to me / It put its face up to my face so I could see / Then I saw love disfigure me, into something I am not recognizing.” The lines are ostensibly heartbreaking, but Houck’s inflection imbues them with such warm depth that the song is less depressing and more like having a dream that you’re being embraced by a monster who loves you unconditionally. —Summer Anne Burton
9. Skrillex’s Spring Breakers Soundtrack
If you haven’t seen Spring Breakers, you probably should. Whether or not it’s a good movie is debatable, but one thing that is clear after watching it is that Skrillex understands how to score a movie. If you haven’t heard it yet, imagine Trent Reznor’s Social Network score times a thousand, in terms of intensity. Not only did it serve as the closest thing to a narrative structure in the movie, it added a layer of depth that may or may not have been there to begin with. Skrillex pulled off the rare trick of having a score that felt unique, original, and expressive without being distracting or overdone. Say what you will about his wubs, but Sonny Moore definitely needs to work on more movies. —Ryan Broderick
8. Alan Braxe, “Time Machine”
French producer Alan Braxe has spent the past decade making dance music built around snippets of melody that sound like distant memories of songs you loved on the radio as a kid. “Time Machine,” from his new free EP Moments in Time, applies that approach to a slow dance, and the effect is amazing — it’s like living inside the most perfect moment from the most perfect prom in history for a solid four minutes. —M.P.
7. The Voice Returns
There are a number of reasons why NBC’s The Voice, which began its fourth season on March 25, is the most entertaining singing competition on TV. The judges are earnest and funny, and the format is so cool that at least half a dozen shows have ripped it off. The best thing, though? The music is actually interesting. The Voice coaches value originality over perfection, and they bust stereotypes with their enthusiastic endorsement of singers far outside of their own genres. The focus on artistry leaves little room for boring Kelly/Carrie zombies, and instead leads to a genuinely collaborative process that rewards creativity and authenticity. —S.A.B.
6. Lil B, “Giving Up”
Is Lil B growing up? The Bay Area rapper released his 27-track P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thug) mixtape a few days ago, and it looks like he’s been doing some introspective thinking lately. “Sometimes I feel like giving up / It’s that real hip hop,” he cautions in the intro for “Giving Up.” This is Lil B at his conscious hip-hop best, and he’s worlds away from his trademark cooking dance in the video, panhandling under a highway overpass, holding up a cardboard sign that reads, “I FEEL like giving up / spare change? $ : )” It’s always jarring to see B stray from his relentless positive outlook, especially when he rhymes lines like, “People don’t understand ‘cause I don’t tell no one / Sometimes I really feel like getting a gun.” But there’s some really standout wordplay at work here, both clever and sobering: “Most people in the hood only talk with knives / Short tempers and them bullshit lies / Putting kids through hell / I don’t respect those guys, you feel me?” Luckily, the Based positivity kick in at the end, “We won’t give up,” he repeats. —A.Z.
5. David Bowie, “The Next Day”
The title track of David Bowie’s first album in a decade isn’t a song about death, it’s a song about survival. Survival in this song, though, isn’t a matter of staying alive, but narrowly escaping death at seemingly every turn and feeling convinced that your luck could run out at any moment. Listen to how easily this song tips from gallows humor to hysteria, with Bowie kinda losing it on the first verse before going back into a defiant, proud chorus where the most triumphant thing he can say is that he’s “not quite dying.” It’s grim, but he sounds determined to live “the next day, and the next, and another day,” if just to spite the reaper. —M.P.
4. Thee Oh Sees, “Toe Cutter - Thumb Buster”
Ah, spring, when a young person’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of shredding! This delicate little ripper is perfect for easing into the heavier jams more suited to summertime. Thee Oh Sees have such an interesting way of matching yippy, pretty vocals with crunchy guitar tones, and “Toe Cutter - Thumb Buster” is no exception. This is going to be the perfect soundtrack for the earthiness in the air during your April strolls, so make sure to get it onto your iPod with a quickness if you haven’t already. —A.R.S.
3. Lil Wayne Not Dying
When it was announced that Lil Wayne Twitter-died earlier this month, the internet joke factory booted up with lightning speed. One of the most popular tweets circulating that night and into the weekend was “Harlem Shake: Lil Wayne Edition” or some variation (get it, because he had a seizure?). What’s weird was how disappointed the online frenzy seemed to turn when it was revealed that Lil Wayne was not, in fact, on his deathbed. There isn’t really much of a takeaway to this except that it’s a strange and unsettling world we live in where the online excitement about the death of a famous person can totally and completely eclipse any actual concern or grief. Even more unsettling is to consider whether or not the excited frenzy around the death of an artist or musician is anything particularly new. Maybe the whole new thing here is that we can track it online. —R.B.
2. Marnie Stern, The Chronicles of Marnia
The onslaught of treble in Marnie Stern’s music can signal anxiety or an adrenaline rush, and in her best work, it’s both at once, like finding the strength to lift a car up over your head in the middle of a panic attack. The Chronicles of Marnia, her fourth album, is her most accessible yet, with the guitarist paring down her often busy song structures to more blunt and urgent riffs. Stern was already great at writing songs that sounded exciting and triumphant, but this simplified approach only amps up that quality, so standout cuts like “Noonan” and “You Don’t Turn Down” sound like finding a way to win at life despite and unending stream of neuroses, insecurities, and fears. —M.P.
1. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience
While Justin Timberlake tried his hand at acting — and then found a comfortable spot in live comedy with multiple hosting gigs on Saturday Night Live — those who heard (and obsessed) over 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds waited impatiently for him to drop a new album. The 20/20 Experience finally arrived and brought more of the too-long-for-radio grooves we’ve been used to from Timberlake’s collaboration with Timbaland. Much like FutureSex, the album has some weak tracks, but again, much like FutureSex, the solid jams (“Pusher Love Girl” and “Tunnel Vision”) make you forget about the dated nonsense (“Let the Groove Get In”). The album is all about romance and, uh, doin’ it, and it’s a sign of the evolution Timberlake has gone through — or at least the evolution he would like us to believe he’s gone through. —Shani O. Hilton
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