19 Incredible Things About Music In May
Catch up on the month’s best songs, albums, and moments with new music by Vampire Weekend, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Laura Mvula, and more.
19. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
"Give Life Back to Music"
Daft Punk's long-awaited fourth album, Random Access Memories, is both the most commercially successful and most polarizing record of their career, with the French duo trading the straight-up dance music of their classic LPs Homework and Discovery in favor of an organic, luxuriously produced set of songs that call back to the '70s. It's not too surprising that Daft Punk would team up with Chic's Nile Rodgers to produce old-school disco gems like "Get Lucky" and "Give Life Back to Music," but the tracks that could pass as Steely Dan or Pink Floyd outtakes are quite a surprise, and a huge creative risk for an act who could've just pleased everyone by making a bunch of EDM bangers on a laptop. —Matthew Perpetua
18. The Pastels, Slow Summits
"Night Time Made Us"
It's been 16 years since The Pastels last put out a record, though it feels as if no time has passed. They're still the quintessential Glaswegian indie pop act; their songs are still delicately romantic and often melancholic. Katrina Mitchell's voice is still a speak-whisper; Stephen Pastel's still indistinguishable from fellow Scottish indie-pop hero Edwyn Collins'. And you know what? It's so sweet, it makes my heart ache, and I love every second of it. You will too! This record is so springtime, it sounds like flowers. Even if you're unfamiliar with the Pastels' massive back catalogue, you'll love Slow Summits. —Maria Sherman
17. Coco O., "Where the Wind Blows"
The soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is overflowing with big-name artists and producers, but the best track on it is something of a dark horse. "Where the Wind Blows" is written and produced by veteran R&B songwriter Andrea Martin and sung by Coco O., the vocalist from the Danish R&B group Quadron. It's a deceptively simple song, with Coco singing a neatly linked chain of hooks built around a snippet of jazz-age piano. That sample is our tether to the setting of the film, but also a tip-off that our singer is yearning for a sort of glamour and excitement that mostly exists in books, movies, or the past. It sets up a romantic thought that the vocals complete, as she sings craving endless fun and wanting to make a real connection with someone despite enjoying the freedom of "being more single than anyone." There's a touch of sadness to this song, at least in knowing that she's making impossible demands, but it's mostly joyful as she essentially pledges herself to hedonism and the pursuit of simple satisfaction. —M.P.
16. Color Me Impressed
If you're a fan of raw, shambling, powerful punk, you're almost certainly well-acquainted with The Replacements, who all but owned that sound in the 1980s. Earlier this month, the online 'Mats archive Color Me Impressed released a slew of bootleg recordings of the band at their snarlingest, shreddingest prime, and listening to them, especially the earlier ones, will make you want to get in a fight in the best possible way. These are not only great for completists, but also for those who are unfamiliar with the band's whole deal: The recordings encapsulate not just their music itself, but also their viciously beautiful spirit and personality. —Amy Rose Spiegel
15. Fader's Earl Sweatshirt Profile
The best feature stories make you feel like you're a fly on the wall; they invite you in and make it seem as though you're hanging out with your favorite artist, getting to know them in a different way, just a little bit better. This Earl Sweatshirt feature by Mary H.K. Choi in The Fader's May issue was that kind of story. Choi hangs out with Earl for an afternoon, and we come away with both mundane but telling details, and more intimate confessions. He's "hyped" on the complimentary Flavia coffee machine in his leasing office. He learned how to hack his way onto the internet at reform school in Samoa, and so he could leave Tyler, the Creator notes in the drafts section of the Odd Future Tumblr. He finally saw his dad (who'd left the family when Earl was just 6 years old) after coming back from his two-year stint in Samoa, and he's glad he's glad he's not out to cash in on his fame. And, most importantly, on his new record he's "finally saying some shit." —Aylin Zafar
14. Vår, No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers
There's something in the water in Scandinavia. We can all agree that it's basically the coolest region on planet earth, from Ikea to Robyn to the fact that people in Iceland legitimately think elves exist. Most importantly, however, is the recent influx of dark, brooding music from Copenhagen, a small collective of young boys making complicated dance music well beyond their years. At the forefront is Vår and their debut record, No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers. Basically it's a downer dance record that tackles themes like sexuality and nation, love, loss and, well, late 20th-century French literature? Yeah. Let me say that again: late 20th-century French literature. And it's still a dance record. Oh, and did I mention they have the best record title of all time ever? Brotherhood can be romantic too. —M.S.
13. The Danny Brown Oral Sex Scandal
One of the more polarizing stories in hip-hop this month involved rapper Danny Brown receiving oral sex on stage from a female fan. He then bragged about it on Twitter, and the next day his friend and tourmate Kitty Pryde wrote about it in Noisey, saying Danny wasn't cool with it. The whole thing resulted in one gigantic mixed message. But it also brought up some questions about stage identity versus real identity. Did Danny Brown the rapper want an unprovoked blow job on stage and Danny Brown the human not want it? Where is the line drawn? As an audience, when are we expected to treat a rapper as the person he or she is on the inside, and when are we expected to acknowledge the rapper's persona? Is it even our responsibility? —Ryan Broderick
12. The Soundtrack to Rectify
The Sundance Channel's gripping new drama about Daniel Holden, a man just released from death row after spending his entire young adulthood there, has a deliberately quiet and slow tone. The entire six episodes of Season 1 take place over just a few days, and Holden is intensely introverted. That's where the gorgeous soundtrack comes in. In one scene, Holden discovers the mixtapes he made as a child in the family's attic and listens to one on his just-recovered Walkman. As he bobs his head to the Stone Temple Pilots' "Creep," we learn as much about the character's inner life in two minutes as we have in the entire series up until that point. The Sundance Channel made a Spotify playlist of the entire soundtrack here. —Summer Anne Burton
11. 143: Slow Jams, Love Songs, Bed Squeaks
I know this says "April 2013," but it was uploaded in May, and this perfect slow-jam mix is too good not to share. The impeccable mix is the live set of L.A. DJ Siik, performed at 143, a monthly party of "slow jams, love songs, and bed squeakers" hosted by Siik and DJs Partytime and SoSuperSam. Among other gems, there's Keith Sweat's "Nobody," Aaliyah's "4 Page Letter," Usher's "Nice & Slow" (obviously!), Dru Hill's "In My Bed," and NSYNC's "Gone" — "Gone," guys!! Such a legitimately great song, and I have this mix to thank for rediscovering it, along with so many other baby-making jams. Be prepared to grind in your seat all day when you listen to it, though, and warn your co-worker or study buddy before you get your body-roll on. —A.Z.
10. Majical Cloudz, Impersonator
Ever wonder if sad music could make you like, totally happy? Turns out it can: It comes in the form of synthpop, and it's called Majical Cloudz. Vocalist/project mastermind Devon Welsh is fearlessly self-aware, wearing his insecurities and total devotion (to an unnamed muse) on his sleeve. Synth player Matthew Otto understands this, and moves coolly and slowly with Welsh's directness: You can dance to melancholy. It's intimate music best served alone, but incredibly empowering when experienced with another. Think of Impersonator as your new indie religion, or, at the very least, beautifully meditative and impossible to put down. By the end of this, you'll find yourself with a new obsession…and the inability to spell "magical" the correct way ever again. —M.S.
9. Natalie Maines, Mother
"Take It on Faith"
The frontwoman of new country's best — if on-hiatus — band and cautionary tale, The Dixie Chicks, strikes out on her own with her first solo album, Mother. The self-penned "Take It on Faith" is the standout track on an album mostly comprising covers. It's a gutsy love anthem for grown-ups that hinges completely on the singer's bruised inflection. Maines is better than anyone in music at imbuing a seemingly simply line with a truck full of complex feelings. —S.A.B.
8. Fred Armisen as Ian Rubbish performing "Lovely Day" on his final episode of Saturday Night Live
UGH, Fred Armisen has left Saturday Night Live after 11 years, and it's really sad. But his final bit on the show was an excellent consolation prize, at least. He performed in character as Ian Rubbish, a fictional punk singer that debuted earlier this season, and was joined by some pretty fucking sweet guests onstage. His backing band included fellow departing cast member Bill Hader, Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, Steve Jones from The Sex Pistols, Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag, J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jr., and Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth. PHEW, right? I guess if we HAVE to lose Fred, this was an appropriately awesome exit for him. Thanks, Ian Rubbish and friends, for the silver lining. —A.R.S.
7. Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Laura Marling has been hailed as a prodigy of folk since she released her first album at the age of 19 in 2008, but she's only now hitting her full stride as an artist. Once I Was an Eagle is a dark, sprawling epic full of gorgeous, Joni Mitchell–like melodies, intricate tangles of acoustic guitar notes, and bleak, no-nonsense lyrics about failed love. She's at her best on the track "Master Hunter," particularly as she sings, "I have some news / Wrestling rope from darkness is no fucking life that I would choose" to a depressive ex with the perfect balance of exasperation and empathy. —M.P.
6. Kelly Rowland, "Dirty Laundry"
In the years since Destiny's Child disbanded, Kelly Rowland's found varying degrees of success as a featured-artist sweetheart, a master of the sexy slow jam, and one of the most recognizable voices in dance music. But nowhere is she more affecting than on her new song "Dirty Laundry," produced by The-Dream. It's Rowland at her most candid and revealing, as she details a dark period of her life around 2003: "While my sister was on stage, killing it like a motherfucker / I was enraged, feeling it like a motherfucker," she sings about Beyoncé. "Post-Survivor, she on fire, who wanna hear my bullshit?" she asks. "Meanwhile this n---a putting his hands on me." To let that sink in, four beats follow before Kelly starts up again. It's a huge admission, and Rowland's a skilled storyteller; that her story is fact and not fiction makes it all the more gut-wrenching. "He hittin' the window like it was me, until it shattered / He pulled me out he said 'Don't nobody love you but me / Not your mama, not your daddy and especially not Bey' / He turned me against my sister." Domestic violence is a hard thing for anyone to talk about, let alone sing to the world about, and Rowland does it beautifully. We need more voices speaking up about abuse, and Rowland is setting an example for survivors to end the cycle of stigma and shame. —A.Z.
5. Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon
"Make Me Lovely"
Laura Mvula makes music that feels instantly familiar but leaves you grasping for appropriate comparisons when you have to describe it to someone who hasn't heard her yet. Is she a more mannered, orchestral version of Erykah Badu? A jazzier Janelle Monaé? A funkier Esperanza Spalding? Sing to the Moon is an astonishingly self-assured debut album; Mvula is so fully formed as a vocalist, composer, and arranger that it's hard to imagine that stunners like "She," "That's Alright," and "Make Me Lovely" are among the very first songs she's ever written. —M.P.
4. Deerhunter, Monomania
Deerhunter's fifth full-length album is split between tracks like the menacing "Leather Jacket II" and shambling "Neon Junkyard," which call back to their roots as a creepy noise-rock band, and up-tempo cuts like "Dream Captain" and "Back to the Middle," which owe a debt to the more playful side of classic '70s punk and glam. Taken at face value, the record is a lot more upbeat than songwriter Bradford Cox's last few records with Deerhunter and under the name Atlas Sound, but if you pay attention to his words, it's clear that he's moved on from painfully lonely romantic angst to a sort of grim fatalism. —M.P.
3. Mariah Carey featuring Miguel, "#Beautiful"
Sure, the hashtag is unfortunate, but the song can be called whatever Mariah wants, as long as it sounds as good as this does. Judging by how many days I've played "#Beautiful" on loop, I think it's safe to say it's my official vote for Song of the Summer. It's old-school Mariah in all the ways we've missed her: a simple song, joyful and ecstatic, filled with her trademark giggles and whistles, meant for driving with the top down in summer. Miguel's the ideal dreamy duet partner, and the two sound great together. "#Beautiful" is short and sweet, leaves you wanting more (hence playing it on repeat), and feels effortless and light, the way the perfect summer tune should. For all of Mariah's status as a diva — her gowns and her perfect hair and her intense poise — she's always been the girl next door. This takes us back to that. —A.Z.
2. Kanye West on Saturday Night Live
The musical-guest segments on Saturday Night Live are often a dull ritual, with some popular act showing up to dutifully perform a couple songs, putting most of their effort into not messing anything up on live television. It's a safe, sterile situation that offers very few surprises. Kanye West's appearance on the season finale was the total opposite. He performed two brand-new songs, "Black Skinhead" and "New Slaves," that were musically aggressive and unapologetically confrontational. The staging was incredible too, eliminating the typical setting and directorial style for something far more harsh and intense, particularly during the long, intentionally uncomfortable close-up shots as he spat out the lyrics of "New Slaves." West pulled off something only a few artists have the power to do, much less have the guts to follow through on: He hijacked a hugely popular television show to stage a performance that was both musically and politically radical. —M.P.
1. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend's brilliant third album is mainly concerned with the stories of young people who feel a constant pressure to make the most of their youth, whether it's by taking on a forced devil-may-care attitude, or letting the "slow click of a ticking clock" motivate them to rush their way through hollow, joyless experiences for the sake of it. Despite the dark themes, Vampire Weekend's music remains bright, upbeat, and tidy, and Ezra Koenig's voice is lucid and nonjudgmental, even when he's delivering a cutting line like "Wisdom's a gift, but you'd trade it for youth." —M.P.