1. Beyonce, “1+1” (4, Columbia)
When Beyonce debuted this gut-wrenching, gorgeous song on “American Idol,” I can’t say I was giving it the attention it deserved. (Too many pissed-off thoughts of Scotty McCreery winning the competition, I guess.) But the next morning I listened to the LP version and I was shattered, practically moved to tears. It’s The-Dream’s stark, nearly haunting production. It’s the simple demands of the lyrics (“make love to me / when my days look low, pull me in close / and don’t let me go / make love to me”). But most of all, and to the surprise of no one, it’s Beyonce’s voice that makes “1+1” a classic ballad of the highest order. She maneuvers a tightrope of audible clues to the song’s emotional core — vulnerability, desire, uncertainty and a credible sense of knowing what love feels like. The song fades to black like an ellipsis and it’s so damn beautiful.
2. Bon Iver, “Calgary” (Bon Iver, Jagjaguwar)
Jon Caramanica wrote a wonderful feature on Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, for the New York Times’ Sunday Magazine’s latest issue. What I enjoyed most was the writer and the artist digging into the lyrics, and how vague, and at times undiscernable, they can be. It’d be frustrating if Vernon’s compositions weren’t so inviting, so serene. “Calgary” has Vernon putting on his Phil Collins hat, massaging a ballad over drawn-out synthesizers. The song’s mood — fleeting, driving and at times evaporating — matches Bon Iver’s naturalistic aesthetic. When the tempo picks up, you can practically feel crisp northern air filling your lungs.
3. Jamie xx, “Far Nearer” (“Far Nearer” b/w “Beat For” single, Numbers)
If there was a sound of summer bursting into sweaty, glorious bloom, it’s Jamie xx’s new single. For almost seven minutes, the xx-member crafts the soundtrack to a lazy boat ride on its way to a party island. The vocal samples are ornamental but undeniably sweet, but this is all about the steel drums and the intricate interplay between the percussion. This song just floats with no end in sight, and that’s a good thing.
4. Lil Wayne, “How to Love” (Tha Carter IV, Cash Money/Universal)
There’s a population of Lil Wayne haters that want you to believe “How to Love” is a failure in the same way his awful Rebirth rock album was. They’re wrong. There’s no elementary guitar “soloing,” no guttural screams and no hooks by Shannell. “How to Love” is something entirely new for Wayne, and he wears its sappy sentiment well. He sings (the whole time!) about a beautiful, “insecure” woman and her inability to open her heart. Wayne, whose voice sounds clear and new-paint-job smooth (going bluntless has its upsides), fully commits to the ballad and it’s earnest, a tad dorky and poised to dominate radio. If this doesn’t become a smash, it’s not because the song wasn’t good enough. It’s because listeners weren’t interested in the rapper’s softer, perceptive side, which would be a shame. The last thing his catalog needs is another hornball, l-l-l-lick-it-like-a-lollipop track.
5. Nipsey Hussle, “Keys to the City” (The Marathon, mixtape)
Clearly the hot weather is getting to me, because the songs I can’t get enough of have that unmistakable sunshine sheen. So it’s fitting that I love the epic, nostalgia-inducing sound of “Keys to the City,” the second track from Nipsey Hussle's 2010’s The Marathon. California’s young hip-hop resurrection has been weird (Odd Future and Lil B share the same state as traditionalists Kendrick Lamar and Hussle) but welcome. Hussle’s steely cool demeanor can feel like Snoop at times, but he has a young hunger the Doggfather hasn’t possessed in many years. So while it’s easy to compare the Snoop of today to the perpetually stoned Wiz Khalifa, it’s nice to view Nipsey as Snoop on his come-up. And “Keys to the City” doesn’t break new ground, it’s just a breezy love letter to a rapper’s home. Nipsey has had trouble capitalizing on his buzz (lately he’s just been making cameos in more famous rappers’ videos), but “Keys to the City” is a nice reminder he has a sound all his own.