Ariana Grande begins her return with “No Tears Left to Cry,” marking a shift from her subdued post-Manchester year to a brighter, pop-driven future once more. Liam Payne teams up with tireless Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin on an insta-hit; just add Spanish, it seems, is the recipe hip-hop and pop are finding tastiest right about now. Billie Eilish and Khalid, meanwhile, avoid the party in favor of a hauntingly beautiful, somber ballad. And Scarlett Johansson lends her voice to Pete Yorn on a bright rock tune, “Bad Dreams.”
“No Tears Left to Cry,” Ariana Grande
After an understandable hiatus from new releases following the devastating Manchester attack at her concert last May, powerhouse singer Ariana Grande is making her return to pop with “No Tears Left to Cry.” It’s an effective pivot to her next phase, starting out with a slow, balladic intro before switching into a clubby beat. “Ain’t got no tears left to cry,” she sings, “so I’m picking it up, picking it up, I’m loving, I’m living, I’m picking it up” — literally moving her from an era of mourning into one of revitalization. It’s a tricky balance to find as she switches back and forth between reflective and celebratory, but production from master hitmaker Max Martin helps strike it.
“Familiar,” Liam Payne and J Balvin
Harry Styles may get all the hype, Niall Horan the charting success, and Zayn the tabloid attention, but fellow One Direction member Liam Payne has been steadily establishing himself as a bona fide banger king in his own solo career. Consider “Familiar,” the latest from Payne alongside Colombian reggaeton hitmaker J Balvin. J Balvin has a Midas touch: between his Beyoncé-boosted single “Mi Gente” from last summer and his feature on Cardi B’s “I Like It,” currently climbing the charts, he has a golden sense for collaboration. It doesn’t hurt that listeners are ever more tuned into Latin sounds, over which Payne gamely rap-sings, eliding “I’m feelin ya'” into a rhyme with “familiar.” “Familiar” is fun, danceable, and insistently catchy from its percussive opening beats. In other words, this is a song with which to get, yes, familiar.
“Deep End,” Lykke Li
Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li has always been something of an ingenue: a little dark, a little mysterious, a little hidden behind layers of feelings in emo-pop that thrums with raw insecurity. But “Deep End,” the first single off upcoming fourth album so sad so sexy — her first in four years — introduces a newly evolved side to the artist. It’s an arresting mashup of her flexible voice over a trilling rap beat and a gentle, memorable melody; this feels about as close as she will ever come to mainstream pop. Production from Jeff Bhasker and Malay, who are known for work with artists like Kanye West and Zayn Malik, gives it a slick, rhythmic edge. But the intoxicating central figure is still Lykke. “Show me your cut, baby, come clean,” she beckons, a loaded invitation. “Your kiss is salty chlorine.”
“lovely,” Billie Eilish with Khalid
Billie Eilish and Khalid are two precocious artists, both singers under 21 with a keen sense of their own vocal style. “Lovely” sees them come together for a somber, haunting ballad that shows off their voices over some minimalist piano and violin strings before building into something more. But it never breaks into cathartic release, just peaks with an a cappella duet. “I hope some day I’ll make it out of here,” they sigh. “Isn’t it lovely, all alone?” There’s little to celebrate in the dark, brooding lyrics, but still “Lovely” finds beautiful sounds in that pained place.
“Bad Dreams,” Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson
In 2009, Scarlett Johansson — yes, the same actress known for Ghost in the Shell and playing Black Widow in the Avengers movies — recorded a joint album with singer-songwriter Pete Yorn, called Break Up. “Bad Dreams” is the first single off of their upcoming follow-up project, an EP titled Apart, pairing the two together once more to explore the aftermath of a relationship. Yorn’s music has a friendly rock ‘n’ roll vibe, while Johansson provides a moody, jazz-tinged vocal counterpart. On “Bad Dreams,” they toy with a country side, too, a pleasant twist even while the lyrics aren’t quite so chipper. “Falling in love and getting over it too soon and old too fast,” Johansson muses at one point, a reality check. “Pessimistic as it seems, sleep will never come that easy. We will always have bad dreams.”
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