The Playlist: John Mayer Laments the Friend Zone, and 11 More New Songs

Posted May 13, 2018 4:39 p.m. EDT

Pop critics for The New York Times weigh in on notable new songs and videos.

John Mayer, “New Light”

Here’s John Mayer — a man in love with his guitars and his rare watches and clothing and his tours with Dead & Company — making a play to be more than someone’s occasional distraction. “Pushing 40 in the friend zone,” he laments on this ‘70s soft-rock cool breeze, produced by him along with No ID, who gave Jay-Z’s “4:44” its warmth and pulse. He’s singing tenderly here, and less self-consciously than on his last album. Instead, he leans in to the feeling, for at least as long as it gets him closer to what he craves.


Dave Matthews Band, “Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin)”

The birth of a child — “Naked, afraid/ Your mother screams and pushes you” — gets Dave Matthews reflecting on vulnerability and innocence, how they felt and how they end. “Let’s not forget these early days,” he pleads amid pealing, layered, U2-style guitars and bursts of double-time drumming. He’s all too aware that thoughts of innocence mean that it’s gone.


Selena Gomez, “Back to You”

It surely wasn’t planned that way, but “Back to You” — a missing-my-ex song — might as well be a tribute to the enduring influence of Avicii, who was 28 when he died in April. It begins with folky guitar picking, but soon enough it deploys an EDM arsenal of big-room reverberation, hovering chords, piled-on hooks and looming drums, glancing back at Avicii’s “Wake Me Up.”


Marian Hill, featuring Steve Davit, “Listening”

This loving cabaret-jazz reimagining of the sound Aaliyah and Timbaland perfected on “Are You That Somebody?” is one of the highlights of the impressive new album of splintered R&B from Marian Hill, the duo of Jeremy Lloyd and Samantha Gongol.


María Grand, “TI: Isis”

On “Magdalena,” her debut album, María Grand seems to be issuing a challenge — to her bandmates, even to her own songs. The 26-year-old tenor saxophonist has set most of these original compositions at a medium-fast tempo, and her saxophone stipples and scampers, gesturing toward the influence of alto saxophonist Steve Lehman. Grand wrote these pieces from inspirations both personal and theoretical, using Egyptian and Christian myths to make sense of family traumas. In practice, she has said, that means understanding jazz improvisation as a new kind of democratic space: “a feminine non-hierarchical power structure.” On “TI: Isis,” the first part of a three-track suite on “Magdalena,” bassist Rashaan Carter holds down a syncopated groove and drummer Jeremy Dutton lights little flares as Grand unspools a constant flow of ideas, serene and deftly paced.


Bernice, “He’s the Moon”

The bass pulses steadily; around it, Bernice’s singer and songwriter, Robin Dann, unfolds an analytical, self-dissecting love song, teetering between present and past: “He gave me something to think about,” she notes. Bernice’s full album, “Puff LP: In the Air Without a Shape,” is due May 25; this is a canny, almost clandestine tease. Keyboards, woodwinds, clinking percussion, static, bits of beatboxing and peculiar samples all come and go. Dann’s multiple vocals gather and then vanish. It’s a monument to ephemerality.


Meghan Trainor, “Let You Be Right”

You’re not likely to hear a more dispiriting chorus to a pop song this year. When Meghan Trainor sings “I don’t wanna fight tonight/ I’ma let you be right,” it sounds like concession, retreat, sadness, fear.


Messiah and Elvis Crespo, “Salvaje”

Some further evidence of the anything-goes mentality of contemporary Latin pop: this sleek collaboration between Messiah, the bilingual rapper from Harlem, and Elvis Crespo, the 1990s merengue star (of “Suavemente” fame), on a bachata ballad with light trap flourishes.


Dawes, “Living in the Future”

The unease of “Living in the Future” starts with the way its lean, low, asymmetrical vamp lands listeners on the wrong foot because it’s only seven beats long. It deepens with Taylor Goldsmith’s stoical verses about how “They’re cracking down” and “the feeling someone’s watching/ Isn’t just a feeling any more.” The chorus pleads, “Shine a little light” knowing it could be futile — “It might not make it any better, I’m just hoping that it might” — with synthesizer tones that hint at Pink Floyd’s majestic despair.


Ry Cooder, “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right”

In a gospel-blues song he recorded in 1930, Blind Willie Johnson declared, “All of us down here strangers/ None of us have a home.” Ry Cooder’s version, on his new album “The Prodigal Son,” gives it a New Orleans backbeat and a slide-guitar twang. In this faster, more emphatic, live-in-the-studio video, he makes it an explicit rejection of anti-immigrant policies, alluding to Woody Guthrie along the way.


Snow Patrol, “Empress”

There’s no mistaking the line of descent: U2 to Coldplay to Snow Patrol, which has re-emerged with its first song in seven years. “Empress” is desperate and insistent yet modest: “Resistance seems impossible from down this low/ And surely no one else can feel like this,” Gary Lightbody sings, and later, “Friends and foes and princes are all just human in the end/ This is so damn simple.” The chords ascend, yet the words barely reassure; the best they can promise is that “You don’t think it will end/ But it will.”


Bokani Dyer Trio, “Neo Native”

Bokani Dyer belongs to the bumper crop of young South African improvisers making fresh sounds from a broad bundle of influences: the folk forms and rich jazz lineage of their own country; the rhythms of West Africa and the Caribbean rhythm; South Asian ragas; North American jazz and rock and R&B. On “Neo Native,” his first album with his current trio — Romy Brauteseth on bass and Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums — Dyer is also focused intently on the piano as a vessel of its own history. At times he quotes from Abdullah Ibrahim; elsewhere his inflections have the alabaster elegance of Keith Jarrett. But on the album’s title track, his greatest debt is to Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, a late-20th-century star of South African jazz whose meditative playing was full of gentle grace notes and tumbling momentum.