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March’s five most exciting singles

(Paul Hudson/Flickr)

March is always one of the more difficult times of the year. The holiday season is a distant memory, but (if you live in a place like, say, Amherst) the cold is as ruthless as ever, making the freedom of summer an impossibly remote prospect.

One of its better features, though, is the place March occupies in the music world, as the epicenter of the spring release season. Typically, the March blues can be offset by any number of brilliant new albums, which seem to be released by the handful, and tantalizing glimpses—in the form of singles—of what’s to come in music over the next couple of months.\

Thankfully, given the particularly stubborn winter we’ve had in 2017, this March hasn’t disappointed in the latter format, with an array of fascinating tracks seeing the light of day this past month. Now that March is over, let’s take a look five of the best singles it gave us.

Kendrick Lamar – “The Heart Part 4”

The fact that “untitled unmastered”—the 2016 collection of outtakes and demos Kendrick Lamar recorded during the sessions for his landmark 2015 effort, “To Pimp a Butterfly”—was one of the year’s best records is one of the two best indicators of the level at which Lamar is currently operating. The other, it seems, is “The Heart Part 4.”

Though his cadence is as rapid as ever, Lamar sounds almost restrained in the first verse, easing his way back into things over a mournful beat by reflecting on the nature of his success. He barely lets himself finish the first chorus though, before absolutely going off.

Syk Sense, AxlFolie, Alchemist and DJ Dahi lay out an austere, ever-shifting landscape on which Lamar utterly obliterates everyone and everything in his crosshairs. “Donald Trump is a chump,” he sneers at one point, “Know how we feel punk? Tell ‘em that God comin’.” After a jaw-dropping three minutes though, Lamar ends with a tease. “Y’all got ‘til April the 7th to get y’all s*** together.” If this is just a warm-up, then April 7 promises something truly remarkable.

Julien Baker – “Funeral Pyre”

While “Funeral Pyre,” which Matador Records released as a 7” on March 17, may not be new to those who have been following Julien Baker since her stirring 2015 debut, “Sprained Ankle,” blew up last year, it’s incredible enough to shoehorn in on a technicality.

Debuted as a part of her much-viewed NPR Tiny Desk Concert last year, and released digitally in January, “Funeral Pyre” is one Baker’s most devastating songs. Over a twinkling, descending riff, Baker describes the torment of being locked in an emotionally destructive relationship. “Call me a coward, but I’m too scared to leave,” she whispers in the chorus, twisting the knife in the listener.

The fire metaphors, instead of sounding cheesy or syrupy as usual, make you feel as if you’re actively listening to something wither and burn away. By the time Baker concludes “And it’s true/it’s nothing that we could do,” you’re left with nothing but a feeling of utter devastation.

Lorde – “Green Light”

When she exploded into the limelight with the cold, sparse “Royals,” in 2013, it was immediately clear that Lorde, the then-16-year-old New Zealander, was anything but a typical pop star. “Pure Heroine,” the debut album that monster hit anchored, was even more impressive; a startlingly realized glimpse of pop’s future.

Aside from her contributions to the soundtrack of the third film in “The Hunger Games” franchise, and her prominent feature on Disclosure’s surreal Los Angeles daydream, “Magnets,” “Green Light” is the first we’ve heard from the singer in the three and a half years since “Pure Heroine.” A glorious demonstration of how comfortable she’s become as one of pop’s foremost chameleons, “Green Light” is a fearless, triumphant breakup anthem.

Though smarting from the heartbreak that powers the song—“She says you love the beach you’re such a damn liar,” she growls at one point—she doesn’t remain stuck on it. “I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it,” she enthuses in an atypical falsetto, bravely reaching for “the brand new sounds” she hears in her mind. If this is any indication, it sure seems like she found them.

Feist – “Pleasure”

Many boundary-pushing artists who have flirted just once with commercial success have, unfairly, had the brutal “one-hit wonder” label thrust upon them. Devo (“Whip It”) and Fountains of Wayne (“Stacy’s Mom”) in particular come to mind. Perhaps no one deserves this label less though, than Leslie Feist, known to most of the general public as the author of the inescapable, Apple-abetted 2008 smash, “1 2 3 4.”

The cheekiness and ubiquity of “1 2 3 4,” aside from displaying her virtuosity as a master of pop songwriting, did Feist a disservice in many ways, obscuring her artistic fearlessness. On the other hand, “Pleasure,” the lead single of her forthcoming album of the same name (her first since 2011), has no such qualms with exploring Feist’s quietly confrontational side.

The muted riff that lies at the song’s core is classic Feist, creating a subtle melody out of seemingly nothing, and burrowing it in your head. Feist, though, cuts off the song’s legs just as it begins to speed headlong into beautiful baroque-pop territory, twisting it into a bare-bones, PJ Harvey-style confessional. It’s a jarring change she chooses to make not once, but twice, keeping us, as much as ever, thrilled and on our toes.

Girlpool – “123”

On their 2015 debut as Girlpool, “Before The World Was Big,” Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker cloaked their revelatory ruminations on love, friendships and coming of age in a guise of naivete. Tividad and Tucker’s arrangements were bracingly skeletal, their harmonies deadpan and uncertain at their most confident. This coy outer layer was brilliant on their part, because once Tividad and Tucker inevitably began to sound like wise old friends after a couple of listens, it was all the more rewarding.

“123,” the duo’s newest single, drops this coyness entirely, and it’s all the better for it. Where Tividad and Tucker used to merely circle each other’s instrumental movements, they now build off of one another. Drums (a new, welcome addition) thunder behind the duo, as they address the complexities of a relationship. By gleefully taking on some of rock’s more boring elements (its inclination toward hyper-masculinity, professionalism and volume for volume’s sake) on “Before The World Was Big,” Girlpool set themselves up beautifully for “123,” an impressive, gloriously cathartic anthem that can stand up to anything on any rock radio station.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at jlmaxwell@umass.edu and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82.

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