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

John Mark Nelson's "Dream Last Night" is a recent favorite at WVPB in Charleston, W.Va.
Nick Fay
Courtesy of the artist
John Mark Nelson's "Dream Last Night" is a recent favorite at WVPB in Charleston, W.Va.

Every month, we ask a bunch of public-radio music curators to tell us about one new song they can't stop playing. In the 10-song mix that resulted for October, you'll hear a folk-minded Minnesota songwriter who reminds WVPB's Joni Deutsch of both Steve Cropper and Katy Perry — plus a Latin funk band's rumination on the meaning of the American dream, a song from Matt Berninger's new project that's heavy on the hometown references, and more.

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

Hear The Songs

John Mark Nelson, 'Dream Last Night'

Nick Fay

From 'I'm Not Afraid'

When a bearded folk crooner kicks off a song with a riff that calls to mind both the bounciness of Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" and the seasoned Memphis licks of Steve Cropper, you know you're in for a treat. Such is the case with "Dream Last Night," a new song by Minneapolis singer-songwriter John Mark Nelson. After cranking out two down-to-earth folk records in his bedroom and taking to Kickstarter to fund a third (all before turning 21), Nelson booked five days of studio time and emerged with I'm Not Afraid, the mesmerizing flagship release for Trampled By Turtles frontman Dave Simonett's GNDWIRE Records. It's a testament to Nelson's craftsmanship as a songwriter and skills as a performer that "Dream Last Night" works so well live, too, with his able road band bringing the tune's ethereal guitar grooves and spooky harmony vocals into sharp focus.

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

Lizzo, 'Humanize'

From 'Big GRRRL Small World'

In "Humanize," the first single from her upcoming second album, Big GRRRL Small World, Lizzo begs listeners to take a good, hard look at her through "human eyes" before melting into a tender refrain of, "Humanize me, baby." The song is more than just a clever play on words: It's an invitation to travel deeper into Lizzo's world than the Detroit-born, Houston-reared rapper has previously granted entry. Since relocating to Minneapolis three years ago, Lizzo has soaked up the city's experimental scene and infused her songwriting with touches of soul, R&B, EDM and noise. She draws in all those disparate influences to create one of her prettiest, most resonant pop songs to date.

Andrea Swensson, The Current

Kurt Vile, 'Pretty Pimpin'

Marina Chavez

From 'b'lieve i'm goin down'

Kurt Vile has been refining his signature sound since the release of his first solo album in 2008, and he's better than ever on his latest, b'lieve i'm goin down. Lyrically, Vile fuses humor and irony with melancholy and introspection, and nowhere is that more apparent than in "Pretty Pimpin." Backed by his band The Violators, Vile's rhythmic delivery is accompanied by a slight twang and steady pulse — a quirky style that makes for refreshing radio. You have to appreciate a guy with a bit of Philly grit singing lines like, "Who's this stupid clown blocking the bathroom sink? / But he was sporting all my clothes, I gotta say, pretty pimpin."

Amy Miller, KXT

Grupo Fantasma, 'Solo Un Sueño'

From 'Problemas'

The title Problemas refers to Grupo Fantasma's collective struggle to put out its fifth studio album five years after the Grammy-winning El Existential. But it also alludes to bigger problems. The Austin band tackles the American dream in "Solo Un Sueño" and, unsurprisingly, it's a complex song. Singer José Galeano gives a voice to the irony inherent in the American dream — an oft-repeated mantra that's still "only a dream," so close and yet out of reach. At the same time, the song preaches community involvement, and Grupo Fantasma's members walk that walk, committing to dozens of local projects outside of the band. "Solo Un Sueño" swirls all these ideas together. The music — at once Afro-Cuban, Middle Eastern and Eastern European in influence — endlessly rises and falls, caught somewhere between hope and despair, the past and the future.

Art Levy, KUTX

Givers, 'Record High, Record Low'

From 'New Kingdom'

Rhythm has always been a centerpiece of the ebullient indie-pop band Givers, as has exploration and improvisation. So it's gratifying to hear, after a busy four years between albums, that Givers isn't traversing old territory but building on it. There's still an upward and outward sonic feel, to be sure, but this is a more mature, and perhaps intensified, version. Singer and percussionist Tiffany Lamson is front and center, with her vocals ranging from smooth and soothing to rough and raspy. It's a perfect way to deliver a song about experiencing lows and highs — and a metaphor for a band that's finding a way to maintain its roots while expanding to new heights.

Carmel Holt, WFUV

EL VY, 'Return To The Moon (Political Song For Didi Bloome To Sing, With Crescendo)'

Deirdre O'Callaghan

From 'Return to the Moon'

So here's what I know: Our station, WNKU, serves Greater Cincinnati. The National's Matt Berninger is from Cincinnati. Berninger, with Menomena's Brent Knopf, has a new project called EL VY. But even knowing all that, it took me a few listens to EL VY's "Return To The Moon" to realize that Berninger peppers the song with insider references to Cincinnati landmarks. One thing's for sure, I like this song more every time I hear it; with or without the local references, it's a winner. (By the way, check out Eden Park and the Serpentine Wall if you ever find yourself in the neighborhood.)

John Patrick McGue, WNKU

JR JR, 'Gone'

Jeaneen Lund

From 'JR JR'

"Gone" begins with the line, "I've made up my mind over and over / Keep pressing rewind but I'm getting older." Wait, is JR JR growing up? Getting introspective? Leaving the dance floor? Fear not: JR JR, formerly Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., has retained its robust sense of humor. In fact, in a recent interview at KCRW, members Daniel Zott and Josh Epstein said that they dropped the "Dale Earnhardt" part of their name because (in Epstein's words) he was like a member of the band that only drank, contributed nothing and got all the attention — plus, it just felt like the right time.

This new — or not so new — incarnation of JR JR sees the band looking inward as well as expanding outward. "Gone" starts with Epstein's fun, pitch-perfect whistle, but it becomes a statement of resolve: "I can't be everything you want me to be." JR JR will never lose its sense of amusement, nor the joy of singing and playing in unison, but now both come fortified with the weight of time and growth.

Anne Litt, KCRW

Kalle Mattson, 'Avalanche'

From 'Avalanche'

Here's a wild and joyful ride: a collision of sound reminiscent of everything from The Decemberists to Violent Femmes, with a helping of The E Street Band. "Avalanche" comes courtesy of singer-songwriter Kalle Mattson, who was decidedly more on the folk tip before amping up his sound in this new song. Mattson is from the small border town of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where he was exposed to his dad's record collection at an early age — check out the video for "Avalanche," in which Mattson ingeniously re-creates many of those classic album covers.

Grant Lawrence, CBC Music

Korey Dane, 'Heaven Won't Let Me In'

From 'Youngblood'

Singer-songwriter Korey Dane of Long Beach, Calif., is just halfway through his 20s, but it's clear he's already absorbed a lot of music. He cites as influences both the classics (Waits, Dylan, Mitchell) and his SoCal contemporaries Blake Mills and Aaron Embry. But it sounds to me like life experience has shaped his music even more. A lot of travel — they used to call it "rambling" — and a lot of wood-shedding have paved the way for his new album, Youngblood.

Dane might hang his hat on any of Youngblood's wonderfully reverb-heavy, dusty, slower songs, but I'm especially taken with one of the up-tempo tunes, "Heaven Won't Let Me In." The chugging, guitar-driven verse gives way to an angular chorus that seems lifted from another song altogether, and you can hear someone say "cool" just after the bridge — an encouraging remark that lets you feel the band locking in. Cool.

David Dye, World Cafe

Viola Beach, 'Swings & Waterslides'

From 'Swings & Waterslides'

A lot of the new music I play on my show comes from BBC Introducing, our initiative to find the best undiscovered artists from across the U.K., via 36 local shows that listen for new talent in their area. That's how we were introduced to Viola Beach, an indie-pop band from Warrington in the north of England. It played at the huge Reading & Leeds festival on our BBC Introducing stage earlier this year, and is already stirring up a buzz with "Swings And Waterslides."

Huw Stephens, BBC Radio 1