Every Friday, pop critics for The New York Times weigh in on the week’s most notable new songs and videos — and anything else that strikes them as intriguing. This week, N.E.R.D. snaps back to life, Bruce Springsteen contributes a song to a film about veterans coping with PTSD, and Feist honors Leonard Cohen.
Just want the music? Listen to this Playlist on Spotify here (or find our profile: nytimes). Like what you hear? Let us know at email@example.com and sign up for our Louder newsletter, a once-a-week blast of our pop music coverage, here.
Prettymuch, ‘Open Arms’
Kudos to whatever musicologist-historian is masterminding the rise of the new boy band Prettymuch. Maybe it’s Simon Cowell, who signed the group. Or maybe its ILYA, the Max Martin associate who produced (and contributed writing to) this song, the group’s third. Whoever it is, that person is savvily backdooring the sound and attitude of 1990s male R&B singing groups into modern pop. “Would You Mind,” the first Prettymuch single, contained some subtle nods to Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” and Boyz II Men’s “Motownphilly.” And “Open Arms” has some strategic references to Shai’s “If I Ever Fall in Love.” Shuttling between pure a cappella and a spare, sharp beat, the group performs what feels like a deconstruction of that classic, emphasizing taut five-part harmonies doled out in tight bursts. The singing is mature, the attitude is poised, the eyes are on history. JON CARAMANICA
N.E.R.D and Rihanna, ‘Lemon’
Beginning in the early 2000s, N.E.R.D — Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo (the production duo the Neptunes) and Shae Haley — created inventive and pugnacious punk-funk born from hip-hop DNA. “Lemon” is its first single since its last album, in 2010 (not counting some songs for “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water”). It features a beat that throbs and tinkles, Mr. Williams barking and jabbing as if in a boxing ring, and also Rihanna, rapping with tremendous attitude. “Lemon” also appears to mark the beginning of a full-fledged return of N.E.R.D (which stands for No One Ever Really Dies) which, in addition to releasing this song, is performing its first concert in years this weekend at ComplexCon in Long Beach, Calif. J.C.
Stella Donnelly, ‘Boys Will Be Boys’
A delicate waltz by the Australian songwriter Stella Donnelly carries a bitter reproach to blaming the victims of sexual assault. “Why was she all alone/Wearing her shirt that low?” she sings, and then her voice rises and roughens. “They said boys will be boys/Deaf to the word no.” She released the song earlier this year on an EP, “Thrush Metal,” but the video clip appears right in time to reinforce the #MeToo movement. JON PARELES
Willow, ‘Oh No!!!!’
On her 17th birthday, Oct. 31, Willow Smith released her second album, “The 1st,” produced and written almost entirely on her own. It’s a daring, accomplished, stripped-down album a world away from any R&B expectations. The songs are far closer to the bare-bones settings and emotional volatility of early PJ Harvey, along with some of the metaphysical musings of late-1960s psych-folk. “Oh No!!!!” is one of its tormented love songs, wondering, “Why can’t I control it?” and arguing with itself over a clattering beat and dissonant guitar, an unresolved flare-up of romantic anxiety. J.P.
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Freedom Cadence’
A chant long used by marching soldiers, and updated with each new war, “Freedom Cadence,” supplied the words and melody of Bruce Springsteen’s song for the closing credits of “Thank You for Your Service,” a film about Iraq veterans coping with PTSD. “Freedom is won/through the blood of someone’s son,” he sings. It’s a lo-fi production, with piano, harmonium, banjo and a somber, simple drumbeat in the murky mix alongside the voice of Mr. Springsteen, alone and then joined by others including Adam Schumann, the soldier whose story underlies the film. It trudges onward, elegiac and determined. J.P.
Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, ‘Within Everything’
With Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band, which has been together in one form or another for 20 years, the jazz combo becomes a kind of traveling backyard communion. In this music — Southern and ungothic, slow and almost hymnal — you hear dreams passed around between companions, atrophied memories held together in communal trust. On “Body and Shadow” — the Fellowship’s fourth album, out next week — Mr. Blade, a renowned drummer, lets his knack for ground-opening syncopations take a back seat; his compatriots forgo the kind of high-flown soloing that he’s so good at conjuring. Instead, coming to the fore is a rich shadow play of harmonies and earth tones. Together, Dave Devine’s guitar, Chris Thomas’s bass, Melvin Butler’s tenor saxophone and (on tracks other than this) Myron Walden’s bass clarinet make a sound like damp wood underfoot, welcoming your step on a trail you’ve long known. GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO
Sam Smith, ‘Burning’ (Live From the Hackney Round Chapel)
Admire the patience of Sam Smith’s bassist and backup singers in this live rendition of “Burning,” a despondent hymn of lost love tinged with nicotine addiction. Despite the tremulous purity of his voice, he claims to be smoking “oh, more than 20 a day” since the breakup, and as he yearns for a reunion, he offers, “Wish we could smoke again just for a day.” Reinforcing his loneliness, he’s accompanied for nearly the entire song only by piano chords; the others don’t join him until three minutes into the song, for one chorus, and then they’re silent again. J.P.
Feist, ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’
In a quiet tribute from one Canadian songwriter to another, Feist sings Leonard Cohen’s fond and profound farewell to a lover, “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” with quiet longing. Her version is both close to and distant from his; an acoustic guitar is the only instrument, while her layered voices portray her close attention to the song’s shifting moods. J.P.
Tee Grizzley, ‘Win’
The most striking aspect of Tee Grizzley’s breakout single, “First Day Out,” was its breathlessness. He raps with something more than urgency — it’s more like insistence. That song, an unexpected hit last year, felt like a barreling train that refused to slow down. On “Win,” his best song since, he hasn’t let up a bit, success be damned: “Without me my family wouldn’t have food/Anybody going ‘gainst me gotta lose.” Even though Tee Grizzley moves bullishly, what enlivens his verses are the quick flashes of mordant wit: “The Mustang used to always run out of gas/now I’m in that Wraith, touch the paint and it’s a body bag.” J.C.
The good old country cheating song gets even more twisted in “Diane”: an apology by a deceived lover, who knows she didn’t see any “gold wedding band,” to her lover’s wife. “I promise I didn’t know he was your man,” she sings. It’s not a lament: it’s a gallop, quick-strummed and belted. “All of those nights that he’s given to me/I wish I could give them back to you,” Cam offers, in a kind of adulterous humblebrag, over an arrangement that’s closer to the E Street Band than to Loretta Lynn. J.P.
Empyrean Atlas, ‘Echolocation’
Depending on the tune, the interwoven triple-guitar gamesmanship of Empyrean Atlas can run in few different directions: toward the mathy post-punk of Horse Lords or Battles, toward warmly anesthetic ambience (say, Pink Floyd meets Bradford Cox), or toward West African high life. On “Echolocation,” the clangy, lapping repetitions feel most in line with that last influence. The quintet’s movements are coiled and contained, but pulsing with small, ecstatic fibrillations. G.R.