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Heavy Rotation: 10 Songs Public Radio Can't Stop Playing

This month, KUTX's Jack Anderson picked hip-hop project Third Root's song "Soul Force."
Josh Huskin
Courtesy of the artist
This month, KUTX's Jack Anderson picked hip-hop project Third Root's song "Soul Force."

Every month, we ask 10 public-radio music curators to share the songs they're loving right now. This early-winter mix doesn't disappoint: You might get to spend the rest of 2016 with some new favorite tracks. Listen at the audio link to hear picks from WVPB's Joni Deutsch, KUTX's Jack Anderson and WNKU's Liz Felix, and read on to see picks from the rest of the panel.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hear The Songs

Fil Bo Riva, 'Like Eye Did'

From 'If You're Right, It's Alright'

Fil Bo Riva is not your typical 24-year-old singer-songwriter. Born in Rome and schooled by monks in Dublin, Riva began his career in music relatively recently as a busker in Berlin. He's got a raw, soulful voice that easily draws comparisons to Benjamin Clementine, George Ezra or Tom Waits. "Like Eye Did," the first song from Riva's debut EP, If You're Right, It's Alright, is an explosive track written in response to a relationship gone sour. Within seconds, you can hear Riva's soul tearing its way out through his voice as he recounts the story of that unrequited love, a guttural lament fueled by the sort of rejection and introspection we've all experienced. And when the chorus picks up, you begin to hear almost-comical bubble pops in the background, as if love's fragile, idyllic dream is sure to pop without notice, without resolve. Between his captivating voice and dynamic production, Riva is sure to keep us coming back for more.

Joni Deutsch, WVPB's A Change of Tune and Mountain Stage

Third Root, 'Soul Force (feat. Da'Shade Moonbeam, Riders Against the Storm, Bavu Blakes & Vocab)'

Josh Huskin

From 'Libertad'

A poet-educator MC, a world-renowned DJ and a producer who's also a professor come together in Third Root, a powerhouse of central Texas hip-hop. "Soul Force" offers '90s-style, socially conscious lyrical delivery on top of lush live instrumentation courtesy of Austin producer Adrian Quesada (Grupo Fantasma/Brownout). Hearkening back to Texas politician Barbara Jordan's idea of "soul force" as a community-based agent of change, the core members of San Antonio's Third Root are joined by five Austin lyricists for this three-minute call to action. That's a lot to digest, and guest rapper Da'Shade Moonbeam unapologetically acknowledges that there are many chefs in the kitchen. However, the rapid-fire lyrical tradeoffs don't overwhelm the listener; instead, they evoke memories of classic group tracks like Wu-Tang Clan's "Protect Ya Neck" or Main Source's "Live At The Barbeque."

—Jack Anderson, KUTX

Dyan, 'Days Upon Days'

From 'Looking For Knives'

Dyan (pronounced "Diane") came together when Cincinnati percussionist Dan Dorff met up with Alexis Marsh and Sam Jones, who write film scores together under the name Alexis and Sam. You can hear the influence of their backgrounds in instrumental music in this song, "Days Upon Days." We might be tempted to describe Dyan's music as "synth-pop," although that term conjures up the idea that the music is simply really sugary and upbeat. There's some of that on the band's new album, Looking For Knives, but Dyan mostly has a subtler sound. This track is a great example: "Days Upon Days" creeps up on you, demanding that you take a few listens to appreciate its full joyfulness (and, OK, its synth-pop catchiness).

Liz Felix, WNKU

Tift Merritt, 'Dusty Old Man'

From 'Stitch Of The World'

Before we tell the story of Stitch Of The World, the new album that Tift Merritt seems to have been destined to write, let's just talk about how perfect the lead track sounds. "Dusty Old Man" is an uptempo shuffle driven by the North Carolina native's rhythm guitar. In any other arrangement, the intertwining slide guitar lines might be the focus, but not here. Instead, your ear is drawn to the ramshackle drumming, the off-kilter sounds of sticks on wooden rims – and, oh yeah, the gritty, slurred vocals. For this album, Merritt approached her songwriting with focus, letting herself be inspired, but not distracted, by locations like Marfa, Texas, the California hills and New York City. Stitch Of The World contains some of her best writing, and "Dusty Old Man" is the place to start.

David Dye, World Café

A Tribe Called Quest, 'Melatonin'

Aristos Marcopolous

From 'We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your service'

This year has been tough in terms of losing significant musical figures, including A Tribe Called Quest MC and frontman Malik "Phife Dawg" Taylor. However, with the release of ATCQ's latest (and allegedly last) album, We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service, the progressive hip-hop group picks up right where it left off with beats, rhymes and vibes that are even more vital and relevant than ever. Nowhere is this more evident than on the track "Melatonin." Featuring lush vocals from R&B soul diva Marsha Ambrosius and rousing sing-song riffs from Abbey Smith, the track exudes a warm narrative that's complemented by Q-Tip's lyrical flow as he opines on spirituality and rap's relationship to the world at large. One of the best-produced tracks on the album, "Melatonin" has a '70s-soul throwback feel that spotlights ATCQ's craftsmanship while adding another chapter to its storied career.

Chris Campbell, WDET's The Progressive Underground

Doombird, 'The Salt'

From 'Past Lives'

It's easy to misfile anything with a steady beat and a synth as EDM, a genre whose reputation is mixed, to say the least. Thankfully, bands like Sacramento, Calif.'s Doombird are around to showcase the nuance electronic music can offer. Vocalist Kris Anaya's gentle upper register stands in very human contrast to the orchestration around it — and not by accident. "We really wanted to capture that live, organic sound while still maintaining an electronic feel," Anaya says of the group's forthcoming album, Past Lives. "Also, there are a few tracks that fall into the musical realm of [our] first album, which was more chamber-pop influenced." However you choose to categorize Doombird's music, don't ignore the literate sophistication the band weaves in to the "oontz-oontz-oontz-oontz" of its beat.

Nick Brunner, Hey, Listen! from Capital Public Radio

Saba, 'GPS (feat. Twista)'

Bryan Allen Lamb

From 'Bucket List Project'

Self-reflection is a tool too often used only in hindsight. But on Chicago hip-hop artist Saba's new album, Bucket List Project, he's not wasting time on what could have been; instead, he optimistically proclaims he's determined to achieve his goals. On the airy, Cam O'bi-produced track "GPS," which features a verse from fellow Chicago rapper Twista, Saba skillfully raps, "Food can make you forget that we're all this famished." With those words, he's acknowledging his own success while being mindful of the fact that many are still trying to get a seat at the table. As the sparse drum pattern accentuates every line, he doubles down on that sentiment with a hook that asks, "Where's your head? Where's your soul? Your heart?" It's a reminder that wherever music takes him, he's bringing the West Side of Chicago with him.

Jesse Menendez, Vocalo Radio

Regina Spektor, 'The Trapper And The Furrier'

From 'Remember Us To Life'

Regina Spektor creates a menacing fairy tale with dazzling imagery and a mercurial arrangement that begins a cappella, but quickly march-steps to an ominous crescendo. We're introduced to a strange world where hunters meet docile animals who sacrifice their offspring, where lawyers and pharmacists sidestep feverish sick people who beg for prescriptions. This Eden values production and profit over unions and sick days, and the wealthy are kings of their tax-free castles. It's a reminder that one man's paradise is built on another's hell. Spektor's emotions fluctuate between empathy for victims and disgust for villains, and as her vocals grow from crooning concern to escalating fury, her music follows suit. A piano interlude grows pensive; then, joined by spiky strings and dense percussion, it rises to a pounding that sounds like the footfall of a stalking giant. Spektor has created the musical equivalent of a modern Hieronymus Bosch painting, a parable of society's moral decay.

Rosemary Welsch, WYEP

Sylvan Esso, 'Kick Jump Twist'

From 'Radio/Kick Jump Twist'

For me, it was love at first listen with Sylvan Esso, the project of Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath. The duo's songs are never predictable, with staggered steps and sudden breakdowns, but the music is dependably buoyant. Fun appears to be the central theme of Sylvan Esso's music, and its newest single, "Kick Jump Twist," is a joyous continuation of its pro-play platform. The mechanical drip-drop of the backing beat paired with Meath's laid-back but bright vocals make for a serenely compulsive dance track. To choose Sylvan Esso is to choose happiness, and I do.

Jessi Whitten, Colorado Public Radio's OpenAir

Kacey Musgraves, 'A Willie Nice Christmas (feat. Willie Nelson)'

From 'A Very Kacey Christmas'

Listen to "A Willie Nice Christmas" via Spotify.

The holidays aren't necessarily a joyous, loving or peaceful occasion for everyone. Add on the saccharine sentiment of many Christmas tunes, and the misery can easily outweigh the mistletoe. Enter Kacey Musgraves and "A Willie Nice Christmas," on which she — with an assist from Willie Nelson himself — eschews the sap in favor of sass. Over a festive island groove, she runs through an equality-based list of holiday wishes: "Have a Willie happy Hanukkah. Feliz Navidad-ukkah. A Willie happy Kwanzaa 'cause it's all the same." Spreading the love far and wide is a Musgraves trademark, after all. Of course, there's a certain other love Musgraves and Nelson share, and any collaboration of theirs is bound to include at least one nod in that direction. In "A Willie Nice Christmas," Musgraves promises to "leave some special cookies out for Santa" before closing the tune with the ultimate stoner blessing: "May we all get higher than the angel on top of the tree."

Kelly McCartney, Folk Alley