The Playlist: Frank Ocean Rescues ‘Moon River,’ and 10 More New Songs

Posted February 18, 2018 5:39 p.m. EST

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, Courtney Barnett gets revved up about harassment, Gregory Porter covers the Beatles and Tinashe tries to give in to love.

Frank Ocean, ‘Moon River’

For his Valentine’s Day statement, Frank Ocean rescues “Moon River” from the world’s cocktail lounges by embracing its strangeness: its leaping melody, its idea of love as a shared, unpredictable, mystical journey. “Two drifters off to see the world/There’s such a crazy world you’ll see,” the lyrics say, and he knows how crazy it can be. The recording sounds like just a guitar — or is it a synthesizer? It changes — holding down the chords, with all the vocal parts he could layer atop it: melody, harmony, countermelody, commentary. It’s as if the song is comprehended through the compound eye of an insect, each vocal overdub a new perspective.


Courtney Barnett, ‘Nameless, Faceless’

A spectrum of harassment, from internet trolling to physical assault, is the backdrop to “Nameless, Faceless” from Courtney Barnett’s next album, scheduled for May. In the folk-rock verses, she’s almost sympathetic: “With all the pent-up rage that you harness/I’m real sorry ‘bout whatever happened to you.” But the chorus gets noisier and punkier as she sings about walking “through the park in the dark” and paraphrases a widely cited Margaret Atwood passage to sing, “Women are scared that men will kill them,” and goes on to announce, “I hold my keys between my fingers.” Some deliberate wrong guitar notes stick out like those humble weapons.


Gregory Porter, ‘Blackbird’

Gregory Porter released this Spotify Single on Valentine’s Day. The B side is a reworking of “L-O-V-E” (which also appears on Porter’s latest full-length, “Nat King Cole & Me”), but the single itself is the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” a song that’s less calendar-appropriate yet just right for Porter. A second-person ballad of individual uplift and measured grace, it plays to his brand of munificent charm. Performing live in the Spotify studios, the bassist Jahmal Nichols keeps this quintet steadily bobbing with a simple clave pattern. Porter tosses off gospel inflections with ease, responding to the sighing arc of Chip Crawford’s piano chords.


Moss Kena, ‘Square One’

The R&B songwriter Moss Kena has kept an admirably low public profile, steadfastly evading photos; the video for the single “Square One,” from an EP called “Found You in 06” due March 2, features a dance troupe. The song, about learning from mistakes and starting over, moves between spaciousness and saturation: verses that often suspend her high voice over just a beat and a bass line, proceeding slowly and unflappably toward a chorus infused with churchy chords. The backup suddenly falls away when she sings, with utter equanimity, “That’s why I’m back at square one.”


Brandi Carlile, ‘The Joke’

Brandi Carlile pours on the drama in “The Joke,” an anthem for the belittled and bullied. It begins with quiet empathy and decorous music, a parlor piano ballad with piano. “They come to kick dirt in your face/to call you weak and then displace you,” she commiserates, on the way to a chorus that promises deliverance. With the band gearing up, swelling strings and a melody that keeps on rising, she deliberately evokes the grand crescendos of “A Day in the Life” and the finale of “Abbey Road” when she insists that in the end, tormentors will find “the joke’s on them.”


Sameer Gupta, ‘Run for the Red Fort’

You’ve never heard Indian raga rendered quite like this. Sameer Gupta — a drummer, tabla player and organizer of the Brooklyn Raga Massive collective — has just released “A Circle Has No Beginning,” an album of aqueous and entrancing compositions featuring his seven-piece ensemble. (To give you a sense: The group includes the digital synths of Marc Cary, the cello of Marika Hughes and the bansuri flute of Jay Gandhi.) On “Run for the Red Fort,” the melody and improvisations are rooted in the chandrakauns raga, meaning the notes are chosen from that harmonic vocabulary. Chandrakauns, like a tweaked Western minor key, has a mysteriously comforting effect, served especially well here by the sitarist Neel Murgai. Throughout the track, Gupta pushes the band ahead with a loose, insistent clatter, using his entire kit.


Goat Girl, ‘The Man’

Lottie, of the London band Goat Girl, sings, “You’re the man, you’re the man for me” dozens of times, as the band churns three chords into a galloping, building, tambourine-shaking, garage-punk drone. But she sings it with her voice low and sanguine, barely breaking out of deadpan even as the music ramps up; it’s equal parts attraction and skepticism. She’s definitely not flinging herself at that guy.


Tinashe featuring Future, ‘Faded Love’

It’s all about the moment in “Faded Love,” Tinashe’s latest breathy variation on how to let desire conquer all. “Let’s just feel this feeling,” she sings. The beat has a hint of Caribbean clave, while the chords move from minor to major, embracing temporary satisfaction. Future is as male and as vague as he needs to be.


Dr. Dog, ‘Go Out Fighting’

The message is clear: “Never give up — go out fighting.” The vehicle is a vintage Hammond organ playing a barbed little lick and two thick, seething chords, within a roiling caldron of psychedelia: quivery distorted guitars, a jumpy bass line, pizzicato strings and Scott McMicken’s thin but determined vocals arriving from all around. It could almost be Santana, infused with 21st-century dread and nerve.


The Voidz, ‘Pointlessness’

Take that paperback Sartre novel off the shelf where it’s been sitting since high school. Turn off everything but a lone focused reading lamp. Turn to Chapter 1 and click on “Pointlessness” by the Voidz, the band Julian Casablancas formed after the Strokes. “What does it matter?” he sings over mechanical-seeming drums and glum synthesizer chords, eventually working up to a power-ballad chorus that never finds release. Oh, the existential futility.


François Moutin and Kavita Shah, featuring Sheila Jordan, ‘Peace’

On “Interplay,” the first album from this singer-bassist duo, the roles are somewhat upturned. Kavita Shah is an articulate and attentive vocalist, and she serves as the pacesetter and the keeper of the songs’ centers. Meanwhile, François Moutin, a reedy-toned bassist, is constantly fluttering and teasing and quickly finding new directions. On Horace Silver’s “Peace,” a third member joins the exchange: Sheila Jordan, the octogenarian vocalist. Trading verses with Shah, then eventually trading off line-by-line, Jordan brings a welcome new lightness to the session, in both timbre and affect.