“2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)” – from Lizzo’s new album, “Special” – is a self-questioning self-help pop song with 80s drum machines and synthesizers pumping syncopated octaves and hand clapping to an aerobics-friendly beat, towards the upward key change of a classic pop single. As Lizzo sings of temptation and insecurity battles the promise of pleasure, it’s clear what’s going to win.
Self-doubt turns into rebelliousness, then righteous anger in “Irrelevant,” a thumping, guitar-plucking, general pop-rock protest that makes up for what it lacks in focus in spirit and momentum. As the arrangement grows behind her, Pink sings about fear, evokes religious hypocrisy, makes a bad case with “the kids” and finally, backed by a multitude of chants, belts, “Girls just wanna have rights / So why do we have to fight?”
Demi Lovato, ‘Substance’
After all of Demi Lovato’s trials and tribulations, the singer wails a 21st-century lament about superficiality and loneliness: “Am I the only one looking for substance?” The backup is pure professional punk pop, pushing those loud guitars and muscular drums as Lovato works up to an almost shriek and throws “whoa-oh” like a hook. But the frustration comes through just as hard as the guitars.
Brent Faiyaz, ‘Loose Change’
Brent Faiyaz, an R&B singer, songwriter and producer, has teamed up with Drake, Alicia Keys and Tyler, the Creator. His surprisingly released second album, “Wasteland,” which is filled with songs and skits about romantic tension – both good and bad – is poised for a big debut on the Billboard 200 album chart. “Loose Change” backs it up with an implied beat – no drums, lots of space – outlined by syncopated chords of a string ensemble, creeping synthesizer sounds and his own pleading voice. In a quivering tenor croon that echoes Usher, he sings about how infatuation can turn into irritation, denouncing his own worst impulses and wondering, “What’s left of us, what’s left of our lives?”
The A’s, ‘If I Die’
“When I Die” is morbid but practical and ultimately affectionate. The A’s are Amelia Meath, of the electronic band Sylvan Esso, and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of Daughter of Swords. Their new album, “Fruit”, consists mainly of songs by others, but “When I Die” is their own. They sing close harmony in what could almost be a nursery rhyme, adding percussion and synthesizer basslines to what sounds like marching feet. And they calmly instruct a memorial – loud music, flowers, dance, toast and a pyre “to light your way back home” – to remind the survivors that “I’m sorry I left you / And I kiss you through this song.”
Marcus Mumford, ‘Cannibal’
Marcus Mumford, of Mumford and Sons, confronts deep and confusing trauma in “Cannibal,” off a solo album due out in September. He doesn’t specify what happened, but he insists, “That wasn’t a choice in a child’s mind.” Most of the song is just his voice and a few guitar notes plucked on low strings. But as he faces how hard it is to talk about the events, and begs “help me know how to start over,” an arena-filling band suddenly appears behind him; it’s the breakthrough he longs for.
Sabrina Carpenter, ‘Because I Liked a Boy’
Things go wrong quickly in Sabrina Carpenter’s “Because I Liked a Boy” from her new album, “Emails I Can’t Send”. It starts to sound cozy and old-fashioned, with just an echoey electric guitar playing fifties chords as she sings about what could be a rom-com flirtation: “We bonded over black-eyed peas and complicated exes,” she cooed. “It was all so innocent.” But the chorus changes everything; an ominous synth bass note arrives and she is accused of being a “home avenger” and “a slut” and receiving truckloads of death threats, and the bass and drum machine sway beneath her as if the ground is shaking. She keeps her composure, but barely.
Pantha du Prince, ‘Golden Galactic’
Pantha du Prince — the electronic musician Hendrik Weber — works where ambient and dance music overlap. He likes images of nature and beautiful consonants, but his music is more changeable and contemplative than sweet. “Golden Galactic”, from his upcoming album “Golden Gaia”, uses plunging, harp-like motifs, repeats them a few times and moves on, constantly changing the implied rhythms instead of looping. That restless movement is shrouded in swelling chords of string sections, which in particular go nowhere but do not stand still.