10 Under-the-Radar Songs I Love

Hidden gems you may have missed from the past year.

There’s very few experiences — tiny moments, really — I find more satisfying than stumbling upon a new song that speaks volumes, often while sipping coffee in the lonely comforts of my breakfast bar, candles flickering in the pre-dawn moonlight.

I listen to a lot of music. Much of it is quite popular — my current favorite rapper is Kendrick Lamar and my favorite current rock band is The National, I really don’t skew too far left of center — but there’s a venerable arsenal of under-the-radar artists who’ve crafted indelible musical moments that shine bright in my world. Some just for a song; some for an entire album; others boast a critically acclaimed yet criminally overlooked catalog.

So, let’s do something a little different here. A bit of a departure from my norm: I’d like to highlight 10 songs, all released in 2017 or 2018, that I absolutely adore, and that you may or may not have heard. There’s no real specific theme or genre, and these aren’t presented in any particular order. Just want to share them, in case you find your next new favorite here.

“Cannonball” (f. Fantastic Negrito) — ZZ Ward

This song sounds the way craving good sex from someone specific feels. It’s all frustration, fluster, and fleeting bliss. It pounds, it throbs, it yearns, it moans, it creaks, it soars. And then, the massively satisfying resolution in each chorus. You light a cigarette. Exhale. And wrap yourself in the moment like a warm blanket.

“Tu Si Sabes Quererme” — Natalia Lafourcade

2003, Buffalo. I’d return home from long nights tending bar, burn some incense — and whatever else — and watch a lot of MTV Espanol. I enjoyed Natalia Lafourcade back then, yet I was not ready for this gem she’d drop just a year ago, a self-penned Mexican folk track that feels as if it’s always existed and always will. This is a spellbinding, hypnotic marvel, and probably my favorite song released in the past two years.

“Witness” — Benjamin Booker

The double entendre is as effective and powerful as it could be: witness as in to the power of the lord, witness as in to the murder of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer. If that sounds weighty — and it should — take comfort in the soothing, spiritual delivery of this dispatch straight from the heart of Black Americana.

“Love You Once Made” — Valerie June

This sanguine charmer is a halcyon throwback. It builds, glides and Ms. June’s voice shimmers like glistening stainless steel under the Tennessee sun. The first time I heard this song, it was one of those songs Spotify tacks on to the end of your playlist to keep you listening. It worked.

“Best Out Of Me” — Suzanne Santo

As a musician and songwriter, I think a lot about what spilling your heart onto wax should sound like. I mean the literal dropping of a water balloon filled with blood onto a turntable from 14 stories up, and how that video would look shot in sepia and played back at quarter-speed. This song comes the closest.

“Pa’Lante” — Hurray for the Riff Raff

If you mashed up Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with David Bowie’s “Starman” with The Beatles’ “A Day in The Life,” filtered it through the lens of 2018 America, stripped it of all its excess and eccentricities, and ran it through the Bronx at sunset, this is the result. It’s an emotionally devastating, fist-pumping rumination on what it means to be young, queer, female and Puerto Rican in 2018, and on coming to terms with all of it.

“Truth” — Kamasi Washington

You could make a strong case that jazz is America’s greatest artistic gift to the rest of the world; that it has nothing left to prove, and no reason to keep surprising or enthralling us. Kamasi Washington’s 13-minute whirlwind vehemently disagrees with that last statement, and in doing so, reaffirms the first one.

“Midnight” — Jessie Ware

You would be more than forgiven for thinking this was an unearthed Alicia Keys single. This pulsing, “Bennie and the Jets”-cribbing soul-pop heater scrapes the skies with soaring melody and ethereal brilliance. This song will make you loosen your collar, or tighten it … if you’re into that kinda thing.

“Walk In Circles” — Grant-Lee Phillips

This song is a four-minute sub-tweet of Trump’s America. It references — without calling out by name — Standing Rock, racism, pathological fundamentalist Christianity, anti-intellectualism, Syria, the alt-right and general systemic failure. Endlessly listenable, though, and devilishly clever.

“Boyish” — Japanese Breakfast

“I can’t get you off my mind. I can’t get you off in general.” This is the single greatest chorus couplet that exists in 21st Century pop music. But that’s not where the pleasures end. How about the Wall-of-Sound in an echo chamber production? The glistening harps and weepy strings. The shuffling bass. The sweet, lovesick, self-deprecating series of clapbacks in each verse. This song does Roy Orbison better than Roy Orbison ever did. Full stop. Enjoy.

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Essayist and storyteller on life, liberty and the battle for happiness. Several million served. Words at Human Parts, Forge and PS I Love You. IG: heygorman

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