Iris Recommends: “The Water” by Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling

My childhood friends learnt to swim very young; in primary school terms, the four years it took me to catch up were as good as an eternity. One July day at the beach, the story goes, I up and decided I was ready: tired of being left behind when they raced to the water, I plucked up my courage and joined in, suddenly raring to practice all the moves I’d refused to learn before. There was no telling whether I’d stay afloat or cry for help, no expectation I’d find myself at ease. And yet I did: to this day, there are few moments I await as eagerly as my first swim every year.

I don’t remember seeing my parents venture far into the sea. Most of the time they watched me from a distance, masking apprehension with tight smiles. I never wondered why: I was a child, wanting nothing more than to keep playing. I dared them to give chase as I paddled off, or practiced underwater handstands, leaving them with strict instructions to check that my legs stayed straight. On the rough days, I launched myself at waves as tall as me without a trace of fear, never really believing any of those could be strong enough to snatch me away.

It was only years later that it hit me: the very thing that scared them was the same that drew me in. The water has no rules. It doesn’t care who I am, who I’ve been, who I’m trying to become. It has no place for the clouds in my head or the weights on my chest. Every stroke makes me feel lighter, in a way nothing else does; untroubled, untethered, free.

Just like the girl I once was, I like to swim until I can no longer touch the ground. There, in the deep blue expanse, I challenge myself to lie still, tune out the echoes from the shore, resist the pull of gravity for as long as I can. I trust me to keep me safe from the currents, to catch the early signs of a sinking feeling, to know when enough is enough. In the last moments of stillness before heading back, I turn to the sun, close my eyes and let the light flood my face. More often than not, this song is playing in my head.

(Song recommendation by Iris)

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Sam Recommends: “Good As Hell” by Lizzo

This song goes out to anyone who has been in a funk, feeling low, or put through the ringer by your relationships, your job, and any of those other obstacles life likes to throw in the way of our happiness like a series of booby traps set by Kevin McAllister.

The solution to your current bad situation might not be as easy as doing your hair toss and checking your nails, but this joyful/rousing/inspiring bop should make it a bit easier to remember that you deserve happiness, that you’re capable of changing whatever it is that’s not working for you in your life, and that it will all be worth it when you come out on the other side feeling “Good As Hell”.

(Song recommendation by Samantha Lamph/Len)

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K Recommends: “Pneumonia” by Fog

This song found me sometime around 2010. During this time the only certain aspect of my life was the uncertainty of the next genre of music to come out of my huge, red headphones.

How fitting that I reached in the colorful bin and pulled out Fog’s self-titled LP at the record store in Cincinnati where I had worked for 3 years. I was visiting/shopping/digging after reluctantly resuming a corporate career. My life was at a crossroads that felt like crosshairs. Fortunately I was still collecting vinyl and occasionally plucked a record at random or with little knowledge of the contents.

When I finally got a chance to listen to “Fog” I discovered the album in its entirety didn’t really leave a huge impact. It did, however, have that ONE song. It redeemed my lesser enthusiasm of the remaining contents and I found myself manually resetting the needle many times from the end to the beginning again. “Pneumonia” was love at first listen. There was kinship in the lyrics, stark reflections of my own life and a bit of fortune-telling:

“I’m hard to fix because it took me so goddamn long to figure out that I broke down.”

“Welcome to the worst part of your life.”

“Is it depression or disease?”

Those words hit me immediately like a bitter wind. It was hard to consider this song a bummer for long… other lyrics mention bugs, food, scum… and there is upbeat turntable scratching throughout. It’s also indie rock jangle but minus handclaps. It’s hip-hop beats and electronic noise. Occasionally the lead singer slips into a slight alt-country twang, but not in an over-the-top manner. I have cried to this song with an ugly pout and danced to it with a wide smile. This song accomplishes so much.

Fog’s “Pneumonia” offers a joyride on the tilt-a-whirl of emotions but also coherently meshes a ton of musical influences and proficiency. This track renewed my interest in exploring a wealth of music categories, gave free advice, and is a song I return to for solidarity even years between listens.

(Song recommendation by K Weber)

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Mingpei Recommends: “XIX” by MHD

It was the end of summer, and I was still enamored of the French soccer team after their victory at the World Cup. Instagram knew this already, because I had started following French soccer players with a vengeance, and its algorithms predicted that French rap, favored by some of the players, was naturally the next step. It showed me a few clips of MHD, and I thought, go on then.

MHD, a rapper from Paris’s 19th arrondissement, is often called the Prince of Afrotrap, a style he coined, but the title track off his new album, “XIX”, doesn’t have the signature propulsive beat and hard-edged bravado that made him a sensation. It doesn’t need to.

A tribute to his neighborhood and his youth, “XIX” pairs MHD’s vivid, mercurial raps with an expressive piano line, and from the soft, almost hymn-like “palaloum, palaloum” that sings us in, it hides neither his musical ambition nor his virtuosic skills. The song is deceptively simple; when MHD performed an acoustic version on a French talk show, his rich, world-weary voice was accompanied only by a piano and a djembe, and the result was no less captivating.

The video for “XIX”, in a candid acknowledgement of MHD’s international appeal, is subtitled in six languages, which is how I, speaking no French, am able to appreciate MHD’s lyrics:

Conakry’s in my blood, Dakar’s in my blood / I don’t forget my roots, that’s why the beat is bouncing” (1) and

Life’s gone by quickly, it saw me, it didn’t wait for me” (2).

Yet even with the multilingual accommodations, “XIX” maintains an air of opacity like all the best songs — maybe a lost-in-translation nuance, maybe a kind of authorial license — something that pulls you to it but doesn’t let you get too close, let you figure it out.

Falling in love with a new song is not so different from the real thing: for a time — days, weeks, months if you are lucky — the beloved is the whole of your world. I’ve been playing “XIX” on repeat for weeks now, soaking in its texture and disentangling its layers. Last weekend, still warm though it was October, I went for a swim, and under water, what pulsed in my ears was MHD’s voice: “Pas besoin de réconfort, pas besoin de nouveaux amis” (3). I swam faster then, to listen to the song again.

(1) Better in French, because it rhymes: “Conakry c’est dans l’sang, DKR c’est dans l’sang / J’oublie pas mes raciness c’est pour ça qu’le rythme est dansant”

(2) “La vie est passé vite, elle m’a regardé, elle m’a pas attendu”

(3) “No need for reassurances, no need for new friends”

(Song recommendation by Mingpei Li)

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Seigar Recommends: “Miami” by Kali Uchis

Seigar, the photographer, is back.

There’s something magical about this song. It brings sensuality, breeziness, and also honey in its lyrics and sounds. Kali Uchis is a Colombian singer that has been compared to Lauryn Hill, Amy Winehouse, Lana del Rey and Lady Gaga. She can be any and all of them at the same time. “Miami” continues the line of a tradition of Latin-inspired songs like “La Isla Bonita” by Madonna, “Mi Chico Latino” by Geri Halliwell or “Ti Amo by Gina G, and while it is not as risky as “Gimme a Chance” by Azealia Banks, this one definitely plays in the first division of its type.

The album it belongs to is entitled Isolation (Pitchfork 8.6), and it is one of the best of the year so far. It showcases lots of different music genres, from R&B to bossa nova, but all the songs fit into the pop category. She, in fact, becomes the element that brings everything together.

The influences are clear, and here and there, through the whole album, but she still keeps her personality and delivers a cool record. In “Miami,” she tells a story with her immigrant perspective about the American dream, and about the neon lighting in the slang of the queer community. Her roots are also shown in the lyrics, with Spanglish rhymes:

Las cabronsitas
Bienvenidos a Miami…


Vamos pa’ Miami, how we live la vida loca
Me llamo Perrico pero no me gusta coca

Now, listen to this groovy track, feel the summer heat again:

(Song recommendation by Seigar)

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Sarah Recommends: “DLZ” by TV on the Radio

“This is beginning to feel
like the long winded blues of the never
This is beginning to feel
like it’s curling up slowly and finding a
throat to choke…”

Most people may know this song because of an episode in Season Two of Breaking Bad, specifically the one where, towards the end, Walter White realizes that some of his fellow home-improvement customers are shopping for meth-making supplies, which goads his barely-suppressed fury. “Stay. Out. Of. My. Territory.” His challengers are shocked and not a little afraid, and the song floods the scene. I’m rewatching the series right now, and if anyone wants a textbook example of what toxic masculinity looks like in 21st century America, then look to this show.

It’s been hard not to think of how poisonous that brand of masculinity is, given these past few weeks. It smothers everyone. It gives people passes who don’t deserve them, and provides a justification for the worst behavior. I hate how catchy the song is, but I love it, too, and TV on the Radio seems to understand that if you’re going to set a dystopia to music, you’d better make it infectious and big and unforgettable. It claims its own territory, an interior landscape that can’t be lived in, with little chance of escape. But even this demands that you hum along.

(Song recommendation by Sarah Nichols)


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Tyrel Recommends: “Rêve” by Vangelis from the album Opera Sauvage

I can’t explain what “Rêve” is to me or what it will mean to you. There’s no way to describe its delicate complexity and intricacy outside vagaries and silly metaphors. I’ve tried for years to successfully translate what the song does to me, how it makes me feel precisely, but the ability to get across in any concrete way the depths of its wistful heights has thus far eluded me spectacularly. To begin: it has no meaning yet also possesses infinite meaning, though, obviously, the fact that “Rêve” is an instrumental song is instrumental to this (pun intended?). “Rêve’s” fluidity is otherworldly enchanting, and what world exactly unfolds for me when I play it is always different at different times of the year. Hot summer evenings the sky is smeared with cotton candy blood and I could be a ruggedly handsome, ne’er do well detective with a heart of gold in a noir-ish, sci-fi mystery movie coming back to my apartment after a hard day of detecting, downing liberal amounts of rotgut whiskey directly from a nearly empty bottle. In the fall, I watch the leaves fall and think about how the song would make a great funeral dirge, a magnificent melody to fade to black with. Then there’s wintertime, when its cold and quiet and dark, when I drop the needle on “Rêve” ad nauseam, and it so fully fills me with nostalgia that I nearly drown in a sea of melancholy. By spring, when things are being called back to life, I play this to remind everything that this is not forever.

(Song recommendation by Tyrel Kessinger)

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Sam Recommends: “Stay (I Missed You)” by Lisa Loeb

When this song came out in 1995, my dad played the cassette tape nonstop for at least a month.

I was down with it because I loved Lisa Loeb’s voice, and I was super engrossed by the “it’s complicated” love story she told in the song, about being sort of a weird girl dealing with some dude who, frankly, sounds like a real asshole. Who complains about their significant other “talking slow all the time”? Fuck you, mate. There’s nothing wrong with being intentional with your articulations.

When I finally saw the music video, I wanted to be her. She kind of reminded me of my cartoon idol, Daria, and her look in this video is classic sexy-nerdy 90s babe. Bonus: her cat is adorable.

“Stay” remains one of my favorite songs to sing along to in the car to this day.

(Song recommendation by Samantha Lamph/Len)

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Seigar Recommends: “Mona Lisa (モナリザ)” by Zombie-Chang

Cover Artwork of Petit, Petit, Petit.

Seigar, the photographer, is back.

I’m bringing you some Japanese vibes today. Zombie-Chang has just released her third full album, entitled Petit, Petit, Petit — she’s being a bit tricky, though, because she is rearranging some old tracks to be part of this eight song record. When you listen to the first song, “Lemonade,” you can feel globalisation around — it’s fun, new, and fresh. With “イジワルばかりしないで” (ijiwaru shinai de), everything gets mixed, it starts like an electroclash song, and then it becomes bubble-gum; it’s like listening to Peaches transforming into Shampoo.

Zombie-Chang has 28k followers in Instagram. I knew about her because of a Spotify playlist. I wonder how many good Japanese singers we are missing in our tracklists. It seems this album is less electronic than her previous ones. She’s got a band and she’s producing a more organic sound. The live band can’t change her synth pop style, though — she still sounds absolutely brilliant and shiny.

Her image is cool, and “Mona Lisa” is a quirky statement, so enjoy the video!

(Song recommendation by Seigar)

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Lauren Recommends: “Worn Me Down” by Rachel Yamagata

I downloaded this song back in the late 2000s and, after losing several of my playlists in a system restore, it had fallen in with the rank and file of the rest of music from that period of my life. Back then, I was drawn into Yamagata’s direct lyrics and the smooth sounds of her accompaniment. When I first heard this song I was hooked instantly and it earned a spot on several playlists and on repeat.

Recently I was sitting, writing a high-conflict scene in a novel I’ve been working on for a while, when in the background Rachel Yamagata’s “Worn Me Down” started playing. But, this time, hearing it was different. My character in the scene I was writing was coming to blows with someone who had been influential in how she got to where she was. In the context of the scene, the song started to take on a whole new meaning.

I pictured someone standing there, in front of someone else, stating an opinion and calling the other person out:

Gone, she’s gone.
How do you feel about it?
That’s what I thought.
You’re real torn up about it.

The entire song reads like one half of a conversation with small pauses where you can imagine someone else responding. The conflict escalates in the second verse:

And you’re wrong. You’re wrong.
I’m not overreacting.
Something is off.
Why don’t we ever believe ourselves?

The lyrics speak to a state of mind I think most people know all too well. Doubting your instincts just because someone else says your perception isn’t the right one.

When I first discovered the song, I read it as being about a breakup or about a significant other hung up on someone else, but now I can also see it as having a crisis of confidence.

The lyrics are vague enough that you can read any of these scenarios into them, but after about the 2,000th listen, it occurred to me that Yamagata never specifically references another person. She never paints a clear picture of who “she” is, except to say that she’s so pretty:

She’s so pretty.
She’s so damn right.
But I’m so tired of thinking about her, again, tonight.

Once the singer gets to that place, the music swells, and she continues to repeat: “No, you can’t stop thinking about her.”

(Song recommendation by Lauren Busser)

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