FKA twigs – Cellophane
When FKA twigs (AKA Tahliah Barnett) was in a relationship with actor Robert Pattinson, she was subject to racist abuse and hostility from crazed Twilight fans who wanted to break the couple up so that (in their minds) Pattinson would reunite with his vampire co-star Kristen Stewart. This obsession had consequences: “They’re hating, they’re waiting / And hoping I’m not enough,” twigs gasps on comeback single Cellophane, a ballad so fragile and stark as to be a confrontation. These onlookers wanted a bloodbath, and the shuddering Cellophane feels like a public evisceration of the relationship, executed with sushi chef precision, that guts its pressures and imbalances and forces listeners to bear witness to the consequences of celebrity culture. Twigs’ work has always been texturally beguiling, if not always melodically robust. Her best song to date is both, with heavy piano notes hitting like bodies slumping into water and a burrowing, beautiful vocal hook.
Stormzy – Vossi Bop
Competitors for this year’s song of the summer have started peeping out like the shy sun from behind April clouds, but Vossi Bop – presumably the first song from Stormzy’s second studio album – throws down the gauntlet and lays claim to the season. Produced by Chris Andoh, it takes a three-year-old meme (the titular viral dance) and refashions it as a cool flex to telegraph Stormzy’s unbeatable prowess. His confident delivery, – looser than the writhing delirium of previous hits, making space for a cheeky, unimpressed shade in his vocals – adds to the sense of a guy with nothing to prove. “I ain’t gotta be a rapper with a chain,” he smirks. “The rules are kinda different when you’re baddin’ up the game.”
Carly Rae Jepsen – Julien
It’s taken a few singles for the follow-up to Jepsen’s cult third album Emotion to really find its groove, but with Julien, Dedicated (released on 17 May) finally lands. With the handbag swish of a Dua Lipa hit and the starry sophistication of Phoenix at their peak, the sparkling synth-pop track finds Jepsen leaning into her trademark for masking her stealthy obsessions with deceptive sweetness. Julien – a mere fling, a fantasy – is gone, and yet, Jepsen pledges, she’ll be whispering his name “through the last breath” that she breathes, “forever haunted” by their time together. It’s Jepsen’s great skill to make what might scan as worrying in anyone else’s hands slip down like a poolside cocktail.
Dorian Electra – Flamboyant
This US drag artist and nascent pop star has been releasing a series of increasingly brilliant and witty singles since 2016 – highlights include Career Boy, a new wave ballad that found erotic potential in the office grind, and Jackpot, full of cutesy gambling metaphors. But Flamboyant is their best track to date. Channelling the whipcracking queer energy of Dead or Alive’s Son of a Gun into a stomach-lurching production reminiscent of Sophie at her poppiest, it’s monstrously funky and accomplished. It also features another of their knockout music videos, with impeccable styling, somewhere between Liberace, Shakespeare’s Sister and a K-pop boyband, and continues their fascination with smashing glass over their head. As we explored recently, it’s not always easy for the mainstream to accept drag pop stars, but more fool them when it’s this exceptional.
Bruce Springsteen – Hello Sunshine
“Had enough of heartbreak and pain / I had a little sweet spot for the rain,” Springsteen sings, and this first track released from his forthcoming 19th album Western Stars, indeed feels like the soft patter of a light, sunlit shower of rain. There’s something of Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’ to it, and the nostalgic chord changes of Springsteen’s My Hometown. It’s yet another exploration of his own sweet spot – the tension between the small town and the open road – but no one does this stuff better than the Boss.
Erin Durant – Highway Blue
The New Orleans-born, New York-dwelling songwriter Erin Durant has the same flair for couching desolate emotions in jaunty sweetness as Jenny Lewis, Joanna Newsom and even For the Roses-era Joni Mitchell. On Highway Blue, from her forthcoming second album, Islands, each chipper piano chord unfurls like a bud yielding hungrily to the sun as she contemplates how to live with a loss: does she miss her old lover, or does she just miss the memory of them dancing at home among the books and records? Her turn of phrase is heavenly: “Now it’s just an empty room / Like cigarette smoke left as an evening dew,” she sighs, giving way to a raggedy harmonica solo courtesy of folk legend Kath Bloom.
Hot Chip – Hungry Child
Is a 15-year career long enough to lay claim to the title of national treasure? Either way, Putney’s finest continue to justify the possibility with the first track from their seventh album, which flips the script from prior luxurious evocations of domestic bliss to dive headlong into panicked loss. It haunts the verses, where Joe Goddard is “drowning in a memory”, an ambient wooze that magnetises diva vocalists and stark piano into its orbit before blossoming into a melancholy house opus about “living with a sadness you cannot endure”. Hungry Child’s only downfall is that Hot Chip make romantic purgatory sound incredibly inviting.
Rico Nasty – Sell Out
Dressed like a stripper trying to find work in the vicinity of Mad Max’s Thunderdome, rapper Rico Nasty brought some extremely chaotic energy to Coachella last month – truth be told, it was a cacophonous mess, if a fitfully enjoyable one. But she brilliantly channels and focuses that spirit on triumphant new mixtape Anger Management. There’s bone-splintering trap tracks like Cheat Code and, er, Big Titties, but also more ruminative tracks like the brilliant Harry Fraud-produced Relative, and Sell Out, a robust yet vulnerable track that attests to the power of anger management itself: “Had a lot of built-up anger that I had to let out / Lost a few friends, me and money never fell out.”
Sunn O))) – Troubled Air
With their hooded robes, colossal noise, and riffs so slow and heavy it’s like Black Sabbath got stuck in an almost-stationary lava field, Sunn O))) (pronounced sun) remain one of the great sensory pleasures, not just in metal but in all contemporary music. Their just-released eighth solo album Life Metal – its name reclaiming a scornful insult bandied around the death metal community – is one of their brightest and best. Take Troubled Air, where amid the black sludge are some downright tuneful bits of sawing guitar and even a shockingly clear ping from tuned percussion. Aided by beautiful production from Steve Albini, the way the guitars of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley slowly chafe against each other, like colliding tectonic plates, is scintillating, creating an almost tactile blanket of sound where every bobble and wrinkle can be felt in extraordinary definition.
Paula Temple – Raging Earth
Over 15 years into her industrial techno career, Paula Temple is having a moment. Not only did she record her first BBC Radio 1’s Essential Mix in April, encompassing an epic 62 tracks in one of the most relentlessly ferocious instalments in the series, she also released her debut album, Edge of Everything. Just as with her 2016 live show Dis.Integration, performed under red, white and blue lights in the wake of Brexit, she creates a political framework for her apocalyptically pounding style: track titles like Post-Scarcity Anarchism and Futures Betrayed demonstrate anxiety at a precious ecosystem. Raging Earth is one of the most dramatic numbers, with chirrups of sound crowded out by black organ-like tones in a terrifyingly beatless breakdown.