While we had to wait until the end of the month for Lady Gaga’s latest album, many artists stepped in to keep us both entertained and soothed. To kick off the month, JP Saxe, Julia Michaels and a long list of their artist friends released a charity-focused version of their accidental pandemic anthem “If the World Was Ending.” Beyoncé jumped on Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage Remix” with a much-needed burst of confident energy. The Dixie Chicks satisfied fans waiting on their full-length album with “Julianna Calm Down” and JoJo made a case for being all grown up on Good to Know.
The rest of the month saw releases from big names—Ariana Grande teamed up with both Justin Bieber and Gaga, Charli XCX released a new album and Dolly Parton debuted a hope-filled new single—and beloved acts from Dirty Projectors and Kehlani to Perfume Genius and Phoebe Bridgers.
Read on or the best songs that debuted in May 2020.
“If the World Was Ending,” JP Saxe, Julia Michaels and Friends
“If the world was ending, you’d come over right?” Canadian singer-songwriter JP Saxe sings. “Would you love me for the hell of it? All our fears would be irrelevant.” It’s a catchy snippet from “If the World Was Ending,” his tender ballad with pop favorite Julia Michaels, originally released in October. But well into the second month of COVID-19’s catastrophic impacts, it’s taken on new meaning. On Thursday, Saxe and Michaels shared a fresh version that tapped the talents of artists including Niall Horan, Kesha, Sam Smith and Jason Derulo, blending them into a mega-mix with all proceeds going towards Doctors Without Borders.
“As an artist, you hope that what comes from the most personal parts of your life will attach itself to some sort of cultural relevance,” Saxe told TIME back in April. “But this is certainly not what I had imagined!” Saxe and Michaels aren’t the first artists to ask fellow stars to jump in with musical contributions; Gal Gadot’s much maligned “Imagine” tribute came out in late March, with a similarly lo-fi concept. But where that star-studded collaboration read the room wrong, this one feels better suited to its moment.
First, there’s the assembled talent, an eclectic, global set of singers (Zara Larsson, Korean band The Rose, H.E.R., Fletcher, Camilo). Add to that a small thrill in hearing unembellished vocals from the likes of Alessia Cara and Keith Urban. (Some of the split-screen harmony pairings are a delight.) Then there’s the hopeless bittersweetness of the song itself, ever more real as isolation drags on. “We were imagining a hypothetical situation,” Saxe laughs about writing the song. The original release is both Saxe’s and Michaels’ most popular song on Spotify, streamed over 350 million times. Meanwhile on social media, listeners co-opted many of its keenly relatable lyrics to express their own concern and frustration during the pandemic. “If the song can accompany the kind of gratitude we feel for our medical professionals, I’m humbled and honored by that,” Saxe says.
“Savage Remix,” Megan Thee Stallion feat. Beyoncé
Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion‘s “Savage,” off of her March EP Suga, was already a groovy jam with a popular dance challenge to go accompany it. But adding Beyoncé, another artist who calls Houston home, was a magical move for the remix. Bey lays down a few verses so full of attitude and of-the-moment pop culture references (“Hips tik tok when I dance/ On that Demon Time, she might start an OnlyFans”) that you’d be easily forgiven for believing rap was her primary calling. The original “Savage” was a stylish tune with Megan’s signature playful wordplay; the delightfully unfiltered remix with Beyoncé’s low-register additions works very well as yet another reminder that a woman’s place is absolutely in hip-hop. If Megan pioneered last year’s Hot Girl Summer, you can bet Savage Summer is now on its way. The cherry on top: proceeds from the single are headed to a Houston charity, Bread of Life, that provides meals to local families in need.
“Julianna Calm Down,” Dixie Chicks
The beloved country trio’s full new album Gaslighter is delayed indefinitely. Thank goodness “Julianna Calm Down” is out today to tide us over. Like a friend talking you through a bad night, Natalie Maines starts things off by calling out women’s names (Julianna is member Emily Strayer’s daughter) with lines of apt advice—and the brilliant, constant reminder to “breathe.” “I guess this is the time to remind you, sometimes what’s going through your head is just a temporary situation, and light will soon be shed,” she soothes. “Just put on your best shoes, and strut the f-ck around like you’ve got nothing to lose.” It’s a singsong track that starts out with a spare organ backing and eventually opens up, with finger-picked guitar, bluegrass twang and a lingering sweetness.
“Comeback,” JoJo feat. Tory Lanez and 30 Roc
You have to imagine JoJo is pretty tired of retelling her own history in the music business: first platinum hit at the tender age of 13 with “Leave (Get Out)” followed by a decade of label purgatory and struggle for creative autonomy. (She even re-recorded her first two albums recently, in order to be able to release them on streaming services.) Ever since her 2016 return with Mad Love, JoJo has been working hard to prove she’s much more than a young pop prodigy. And on new album Good to Know, she’s clearly moved on. Her new single “Comeback” is sultry and smoky, a slip of velvety R&B. JoJo has always had a voice that was mature beyond her years; finally, her music has caught up.
“Photo ID,” Remi Wolf
Bursting with funk and fun, “Photo ID” just feels like better days. L.A.-based rising artist Remi Wolf has a playfulness that won’t quit, while her disco sensibility makes you want to play the music on an endless loop. Wolf has an upcoming debut EP in the works for the summer, and it’s something of a soundtrack for an alternate universe: “Lit in line, smile for the photo ID / Inside, that’s where we can be free,” she sings—oh, to be in line for the club these days! Still, her whimsical production twists might just help conjure up that carefree spirit wherever you are, even if in “Photo ID” she’s got a jealous side to manage, too.
“Stuck With U,” Ariana Grande & Justin Bieber
Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber: a meeting of megastars. They could have thrown some vocals over a catchy paint-by-number pop bop and guaranteed a chart-topper, but “Stuck With U” is an about-face for both. In the last few years, Grande has explored just how breathy her voice can get over trap-lite beats. Bieber has made his play in hip-hop, on the R&B-leaning Changes. Together, now, they chose to go a more classic route. “Stuck With U” is the pair’s contribution to prom season, destined to be used as the perfect virtual slow dance. (Proceeds are also funding the First Responders Children’s Foundation.) It’s fun to hear them sing, both in peak form. It feels like a fresh start.
“End This (L.O.V.E.),” Hailee Steinfeld
It’s taken Hailee Steinfeld five years to compile a debut album—not that the actor hasn’t had plenty of chart hits in the interim (and plenty of movie and TV projects to keep her busy). The first half of her long-awaited album, out today, carries on her tradition of empowerment-forward tunes. She’s a little slinkier on “End This (L.O.V.E.)” than we’re used to, singing with a wink in her voice as she plays on the classic. (“L,” in this case, is not for “the way you look at me” but “the way you lied to me”—and you can imagine it’s rather downhill for her ex from there.) It could be gimmicky, but like the good performer that she is, she sells it.
“Grieving,” Kehlani feat. James Blake
For years, Kehlani has been making unimpeachably sexy R&B; the California star was a critical favorite with her precocious debut SweetSexySavage in 2017 and has been a sought-after collaborator ever since. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, out May 8, shows an artist in full command—of her style, her image and her sense of self. Most songs are slim bites of jazzy R&B, clocking in at under three minutes, intimate and direct. “Grieving,” featuring James Blake, is a slight switch of the tone. There’s a little more shimmering, open production and also a layer of sadness (“This sh-t ain’t no fun now,” she shakes her head), while Blake’s verse offers up a fresh contrast to her darker tones.
“Lose Your Love,” Dirty Projectors
What do you do with a five-person band when every member is talented enough to be the lead? Give each artist an EP on which to be the frontperson, of course. That’s the 2020 approach of Dirty Projectors; they started with this series of project releases in March. “Lose Your Love,” off of June’s Flight Tower, now stars keyboardist-percussionist Felicia Douglass. The song’s playful brightness, funky background effects and subtle chops serve as a rich palette over which Douglass sings, a light and effortless vocalist. “The wilderness is giving up,” she sings: “So let yourself be found.” Her voice trills to an upper register. It sounds like a bird; it sounds like spring.
“Paper Thin,” Lianne La Havas
With live music events on hold, songs like “Paper Thin” are about as close we can get these days to communing directly with an artist. British singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas is an open book on “Paper Thin,” her voice flowing from gentle hums to husky upper reaches. Turn it up loud and it sounds like she’s right there in the room with you, equally soothing and captivating. La Havas has said this song was recorded casually, “as a jam between friends,” and has stayed that way; that directness is a boon. Her third album is due out July 17.
“Whole Life,” Perfume Genius
The first time I listened to Perfume Genius’ new album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, I gasped, stopped in my tracks—I was on a walk—and started the opening song again. And again, and again. That’s because the third album from artist Mike Hadreas starts with a gasp of its own: a literal intake of breath, ragged and searching, that says more than many whole songs. “Half of my whole life is gone,” he continues: “Let it drift and wash away. It was just a dream I had. It was just a dream.” His voice floats, shimmering, over aching organ-like chords—a funeral dirge that then breaks into tinkling, effervescent piano keys. On this third album after 2017’s No Shape, the shape-shifting Hadreas tries on every sound in the book, from retro rock to grunge to sweet pop. His deft style of twisting bright melodies into strange and surprising new directions, with oblique lyrics that pack a gut-punch if you tune in closely, shines stronger than ever. It’s the kind of music you can find something new in every time you listen. It evokes the kind of visceral reaction, like mine on “Whole Life,” that makes you take stock of your own feelings.
With her fluorescent green hair and a long contact list of celebrity artists and friends, Alma is disconcertingly cool. The Finnish singer has been carving out her space as one of Scandinavia’s next generation of pop talents, racking up writing credits and a few earworm hits (“Chasing Highs”) after getting her early start with as a teen on a TV talent program. (It’s no mistake she was the opening act for Tove Lo’s most recent U.S. tour, cut short by the coronavirus: the two are kindred artistic spirits.) Alma’s debut album, Have U Seen Her, is finally out—and it’s a dark, glittering slice of 2020 pop, as heard on “Mama.” Alma is a powerhouse vocalist with a rich low register, a muscle she puts to use over gritty, spare production; this might be a spring album, but don’t expect summer bops. She’s been in the business for a few years now, and despite her successes, songs like “Mama” show her singing with refreshing honesty about its dark side. “How many shots do you have to take to be an alcoholic?” she wonders. “I’m not sure how long I can do this.” Hopefully that was just idle speculation.
“Bless Me,” Moses Sumney
Moses Sumney’s lithe, expressive tenor is one of the most distinctive vocals in contemporary pop or soul. On his second album Græ, Sumney gives us even more material to sink into, and more time to spend with that instrument. Lines like “You must be an angel, your conscience is clean” on “Bless Me” are sung in a crystalline falsetto, offset by the lovely rough edges of his other lyrics. It’s hard to pin down Sumney—he’s equally at home in rock, pop or soul traditions, blurring them together with a knack for surprise—but trying to define his sound is beside the point. Instead, settle in for the journey.
“Anthems,” Charli XCX
Plenty has already been written about the unique circumstances of Charli XCX’s new album “How I’m Feeling Now,” a slim, unflinching pop project concepted and created in the first few months of global quarantine. It likely will not be the only album to make that claim as isolation stretches on, but Charli’s willingness to be first out the gate speaks to her reputation as a pop iconoclast. She’s a singer, producer and performer who likes to be in the weeds of her craft and is unafraid of experimenting and wearing those experiments—and her feelings—on her sleeve. “Anthems” is clubby and skittering; it would be right at home in one of her party sets. But listen more closely, and you discover it’s a pretty literal recitation of the doldrums of isolated life: “Wake up late, eat some cereal, try my best to be physical, lose myself in a TV show, staring out to oblivion.” She’s craving the release of a night out, of course. “I just wanna go to parties up high, wanna feel the heat from all the bodies,” she dreams. For a moment, we can be there with her.
“Good Guys,” LANY
LANY’s lane is soft breakup pop that sounds like it’s been put through a fuzzy, sepia-toned filter. (See: 2018 album Malibu Nights.) In that vein, “Good Guys,” off of next album Mama’s Boy, feels like it was built for an Instagram era of brooding, beachy solo photos. Unhurried, with a guitar-strummed bridge and a bleeding heart at its core, singer Paul Klein and his bandmates have no qualms about being the good guys—to their own detriment, apparently. If sad boys had an anthem, it might be this one: they just want to bring you flowers, but they never win, Klein sighs. If only everyone were so eager to model good behavior.
“Rain on Me,” Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande
It’s only a matter of time, it seems, before we see every permutation of megastar collaborations. That said, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s sad-disco matchup feels meant to be. Grande stepped in this direction with 2018’s “No Tears Left to Cry” before heading into her more recent flirtation with trap-pop; Gaga, meanwhile, jumps back into a familiar dance-friendly zone. Both artists have shared their emotional sides of the story (it’s no secret that the “rain” here is a metaphor for copious tears) and the catharsis of working on this song together. Grande’s vocals float, while Gaga takes on the post-apocalyptic love-warrior persona of her Chromatica era. (The album, previously delayed due to the coronavirus, is finally out.) And the video satisfies all the desires of fans: stars in futuristic costumes, hosts of backup dancers and choreography, retro platform heels, glitter tears. What’s not to love?
“The Ceiling,” Lewis Del Mar
It took Lewis Del Mar four years to make a second album. Everything seemed to be going well for the Brooklyn-based indie rock duo after their 2016 debut, Loud(y): the reviews were good, the crowds on tour were passionate. Then they faded from view—until now. Their return on this week’s “The Ceiling,” ahead of an album due in August, is a little softer and more direct than the experimental funk they were playing with on Loud(y). But the more restrained energy meshes with their newfound maturity. The pair—Danny Miller and Max Harwood—have been vocal as they promote this new work about their fraught interlude, which included family loss, coming to grips with personal demons and challenges to their friendship. On the other side, they sound in sync, mellowed and more introspective than before. In another world, they’d be making surf-rock for beach parties; they even wrote and recorded this album in a shack in the Rockaways. But pay closer attention, and “The Ceiling” is a story of distress: “My body collapsed full stop/ Playing Conan at four/ Glued to the floor, going in shock” are lyrics about a breakdown, and a breaking point. Given the world into which this music is arriving, their reflections feel apt.
“Daechwita,” Agust D
Music evolves in real time. Take “Daechwita,” the lead track from rapper Agust D, on his new solo mixtape. (In his other life, Agust D is Suga, one of the seven stars of supergroup BTS.) “Daechwita” is a smart reimagining of a Korean traditional military theme for a contemporary context. “I wanted to sample the music that is played during the ceremonial walk of the King,” he shared in an interview with TIME. Mixed with an intro that makes use of pansori storytelling and Kkwaenggwari percussion, and matched with a music video that sees Suga dressed up in traditional Korean attire as he stalks through pavilions, it’s a concept that embraces the past to make it modern. His low, intense flow—especially as the melody cuts out—speaks of rejecting expectations, owning his dominance and doing his own thing. Rappers love to boast, and Suga has earned the right many times over. “My time is worth more than that TikTok,” he says. He’s not wrong.
“I See You,” Phoebe Bridgers
“I’ve been playing dead my whole life… but I feel something when I see you now.” There’s nothing wrong with a melodramatic love song and lyric like that one when it’s delivered with Phoebe Bridgers’ deft touch, as on the appropriately messy, echoing “I See You.” Bridgers is an indie darling for a reason; her music falls just on the tender side of jaded. Here, it rises and falls in waves of delicacy and directness. Her sophomore album, Punisher, is due out later in June.
“Long Beach,” Kota the Friend feat. Hello O’shay & Alex Banin
On the warm, jazzy groove that is “Long Beach,” Brooklyn’s Kota the Friend wants to travel: “Lately I’ve been missing California,” he raps. “A lot of miles getting in the way.” It’s a sentiment that anyone who’s dreaming of a change of scenery after months of isolation might share. But Kota’s dedication to a far-away lover feels like a dreamy getaway to a different kind of summer, one where the only thing stopping us from sharing lazy days with a person we love is logistics. In fact, that’s the mood of his whole new album Everything: something to sink into as a welcome, unhurried escape.
“Roses Remix,” Saint Jhn feat. Future
“Roses” has had quite a journey: originally released in 2016 by the songwriter, Brooklyn-based rapper and Beyoncé collaborator SAINt JHN, the song ended up included on his 2018 album Collection One. It then had a new life when a young Kazakh producer, Imanbek, gave it an electronic remix the following year. That version became a massive sleeper hit, cresting charts across the world, going platinum, hitting number one in Australia, Ireland and the U.K. and gaining status as a TikTok favorite. The newest remix for 2020 sees SAINt JHN reclaiming his original song, stripping it back to its echoing, earworm-ready trap bones and bringing on fellow rapper Future for some lyrical twists. Now it’s the spirit of the track, with its haunting singsong chorus, that shines through.
“Fútbol y Rumba,” Anuel AA feat. Enrique Iglesias
Over the past few years, Latin trap and reggaeton have become the sounds of summer. Just in time for that season, Puerto Rico’s Anuel AA has swept in with the late-May delivery of an extensive, 22-song new album, Emmanuel, that satisfies all the reggaeton cravings. “Fútbol y Rumba,” featuring none other than Latin pop patriarch Enrique Iglesias, has a juicy beat, a hand-clap bridge and the sticky rhythm of a slow jam. It’s hard to resist.
“I’m Not a Cynic,” Alec Benjamin
“I’m not a cynic, but today’s just not my day… I swear I’m not a cynic, my glass just has no water in it today.” That’s from Alec Benjamin, a singer-songwriter who hits the nail on the head with lyrics that are as relatable as they come. Benjamin’s debut album out May 29, These Two Windows, is a pared-down collection of primarily acoustic pop songs in this confessional vein. “I’m Not a Cynic,” despite its downtrodden outlook, is one of the more upbeat tunes of the bunch; it might have you tapping your foot even as you nod along to the frustration.
“When Life Is Good Again,” Dolly Parton
Written in—what else?—isolation in her Tennessee home, “When Life Is Good Again” is country icon Dolly Parton’s first new original solo in a few years. It’s a sweet ballad, with a soaring chorus and a hopeful message. Parton doesn’t over-complicate things: she lets the delicate quaver in her voice do the talking when the backing instrumentation cuts out, and sings straight-to-the-point lyrics about a better tomorrow. It’s a nice idea, even if it still feels far away. Parton has long been a figure of unity; “When Life Is Good Again” spells it out even further.
“Replay,” Lady Gaga
If you liked Lady Gaga’s early albums, you’ll probably like Chromatica. If Gaga at her most danceable is not for you—well, you probably know that by now. “Replay,” which pops up in the second half of the much-anticipated Chromatica, starts with a skittering echo of synths before it opens into a classic Gaga track: dance-floor energy, full-throated singing, a chopped, circular beat that reflects the song’s title. But this isn’t a happy-go-lucky club tune: “I don’t know what to do, you don’t know what to say/ The scars on my mind are on replay.” In fact, despite the fact that Chromatica is Gaga’s most party-appropriate album in years, it’s also her most personal—and most willing to lay bare psychological trauma. That Gaga has turned to the world she’s created of “kindness punks” to process this side of herself for the public only makes sense. At the same time, Gaga knows that the balance between sharing celebratory music and connecting with fans on a personal level is difficult to strike right now; she not only delayed the album’s release because of the global pandemic, but also postponed a scheduled virtual listening party following the killing of George Floyd. Chromatica—and Gaga’s mindful approach to its release—is a reminder that pop is fun, but it also can stand for something if you choose to let it.
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