Slate music: January Spotify playlist for Slate Plus members.

Slate Staff Pick the Best Songs From January

Slate Staff Pick the Best Songs From January

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Jan. 29 2015 1:04 PM
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Listen to Our January Music Roundup

Beat the chill with our winter playlist, exclusively for Slate Plus members.

Kanye West, Slim Jimmy and Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd, and Björk.
Kanye West, Slim Jimmy and Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd, and Björk.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty Images.

Slate’s Brow Beat team covers the latest pop music daily, from Eminem to the Mountain Goats to FKA Twigs. Slate’s critics dig into the state of music: Carl Wilson’s album reviews; Chris Molanphy’s in-depth Billboard chart analysis on Brow Beat; Slate pop critic Jack Hamilton’s sharp Cultureboxes. And, in January, Slate contributor Ben Yagoda reflected on how Bob Dylan’s career has come full circle with his new Sinatra covers album. On Brow Beat, Dee Lockett and Forrest Wickman each called out the music business’ sexist undercurrent—from the male-dominated Coachella lineup to women not getting credit for their own music.

But if you love music, you want more. To help, we’re creating a monthly Spotify playlist exclusively for Slate Plus members. Here, we’ll not only catch you up on the best songs you might’ve missed this month on Slate, but staffers will share a few favorites we might not have covered—yet.

Kanye West ft. Paul McCartney, “Only One”
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One of my most unpopular opinions is that I still don’t love 808s and Heartbreak. And, yet, I love ’Ye most when he allows himself to become that emotionally naked. You might think he uses Auto-Tune, or even in this case Macca’s legendary aura, to hide flaws in his talent. It’s the exact opposite: On “Only One,” he filters his despair (losing his mother) and joy (his wife and daughter) to access a level of empathy in listeners he so often avoids. And it gives me chills every time. —Dee Lockett, editorial assistant

The Grateful Dead, “Eyes of the World”
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Would you believe that in 30 years of jamming, the Grateful Dead never won a Grammy? Perhaps you would. (I’m not counting the lifetime achievement award the band picked up in 2007, more than a decade after Jerry Garcia departed this brokedown palace.) The band has one last shot in this, the 50th year since its founding, as the box set Spring 1990 (The Other One) has been nominated in the prestigious achievement-in-boxed-sets category. The lavish collection includes eight complete shows on 23 discs, all recorded during what many consider to be the band’s last great tour. But if you only have 13 minutes to spare, I suggest the “Eyes of the World” from the Knickerbocker Arena show, a shimmering summer idyll to brighten your spirits on a dark winter’s day. —John Swansburg, deputy editor

Lupe Fiasco, “Prisoner 1 & 2”
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At ex-label Atlantic Records, Lupe Fiasco became their prisoner of war, stripped of everything that had once made him so special. But he’s transformed himself with his fifth album, Tetsuo & Youth. I’m not the first to call it his best work in nearly a decade and, like many, it’s made me re-fall in love with him. First there’s “Mural,” his 9-minute opus that’s also likely the best-written rap song you’ll hear this year. And then there’s “Prisoner 1 & 2,” a two-part breathtaking mediation on imprisonment—inspired by his jailed mentor—that celebrates Lupe’s unrivaled ability to tell a damn good story. —Lockett

Action Bronson, “Actin’ Crazy”
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Between this track and his show-stopping, headphones-dropping freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s show earlier this month, anticipation continues to build for Queens MC Action Bronson’s long-awaited major label solo debut, Mr. Wonderful, out March 24. “Actin’ Crazy” features Bronsolini spitting ruggedly loopy rhymes over a beat by Drake’s right hand, Noah “40” Shebib, that sounds like a motorcycle running over an accordion. It’s beautiful. —Jack Hamilton, pop critic

Frank Ocean, “At Your Best (You Are Love)”
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Frank Ocean has been widely praised as the second coming of D’Angelo (you know, before D’Angelo went and staged his own damn second coming). And yet I worry some may slight his vocal talent in comparison. Let his cover of the Isley Brothers’ classic “At Your Best (You Are Love)” (dedicated to Aaliyah, who also famously covered the song) silence the haters once and for all. There’s no denying the boy can sang and he will take you to church in doing so—I’m obviously talking about that heavenly falsettoed vocal run around 4:10. 2015, please give us Ocean’s sophomore album. It’s time. —Lockett

Lil Wayne ft. Drake, “Used To”
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If you subscribe to the conventional wisdom on Lil Wayne, which says he hasn’t been truly great since serving his eight-month jail term in 2010, do yourself a favor and listen to his new mixtape, Sorry 4 the Wait 2—it’s the best thing he’s done since reaching the height of his powers on 2007’s Da Drought 3. With a cloud of serious label trouble hanging over him, and unprecedented turbulence with his lifelong mentor Birdman, Wayne sounds angry, inspired, and anxious to prove his creativity. “Used To,” his duet with Drake, doesn’t contain any of the tape’s best lines (“Moneybags under my eyes / money over rest,” from the “Hot Nigga” remix, is my favorite), but it closes with the two rappers harmonizing hauntingly on the final hook. Neither Wayne nor Drake has ever sounded this kind of good before. —Leon Neyfakh, staff writer

Rae Sremmurd, “Lit Like Bic”
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Like many people, I thought Rae Sremmurd would be a one-hit wonder. We should have known better. I’d happily endorse nearly any track from the brothers’ ebullient debut Sremmlife, but I’m going to go with “Lit Like Bic,” my current favorite. This duo could read Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop over a Mike Will Made-It beat and I’d listen. (Occasionally it appears this is precisely what they’re doing.) I particularly love Slim Jimmy’s unrelenting second verse on “Lit.” His voice sounds by turns as if it’s been afflicted by early-onset emphysema and enhanced by a hit from a righteous nitrous balloon. As Jimmy says, it’s Sremm going bonkers, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. —Swansburg

Rihanna ft. Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”
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Stereogum
’s Chris DeVille called it early when he declared 2015 the year of the ’70s singer-songwriter. But I’ll be damned if even he could’ve predicted that Rihanna might be the face of that revival—especially alongside names like ’Ye and Macca. It seems almost unfathomable that, in 2015, these three would create an acoustic track that sounds like something Emmylou Harris could’ve recorded decades ago. If it’s truly a “ ‘fuck you’ to every white person with a guitar who does ironic covers of hip-hop songs” as Rolling Stone’s Brittany Spanos suggested, then I love it even more. —Lockett

Chief Keef, “Colors”
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Like much of Chief Keef’s post-Interscope output, “Colors” appeared online this month with little context or fanfare, but its driving, anthemic quality makes it stand out from his cloudier, more formless recent material. The song has a lovely melody—the way he sings “big red brick house / six car garage” at 1:08 is unforgettable—and as such might serve as a good gateway drug to Chief Keef’s criminally underappreciated second album Nobody. That album, released last month, showed off the tough Chicago rapper’s unreal talent for hooks that hit on an emotional level, not with their lyrics but through their tunefulness. —Neyfakh

Björk, “Black Lake”
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Björk’s new masterpiece, Vulnicura, has given me my new mantra in the paralyzing lyrics, “show me emotional respect.” I can’t say if “Black Lake” is the album’s best song but, at more than 10 minutes, it is unquestionably its centerpiece. There’s really no point in wasting words on this song or this album (though I absolutely recommend reading Slate music critic Carl Wilson’s review); you just have to listen and let yourself absorb it while it absorbs you. —Lockett