By the end of this week, it will be August. August is scientifically and widely known as the worst month ever. It might have "awe" in its name, but make no mistake: nothing awesome happens in August. Even some of last year's supposedly awesome August events turned out to be less awesome than advertised. Best to approach the month with a secure stash of greatness; fortunately, artists lately are more than delivering. Below, three of the best tracks we've heard lately.
MIGUEL, "USE ME"
Miguel's in a not-bad but not enviable position. He's hardly an unknown--he's done enough session work for the industry to notice and topped the R&B charts twice with "Sure Thing" and, with Wale, "Lotus Flower Bomb," and though he's never crossed over, neither have most chart R&B artists. He's constantly an also-ran, though, and it's not hard to see why. Miguel's not yet as established as Usher, Ne-Yo, The-Dream or even Trey Songz, for whom hits are either foregone or could be. Nor has he gotten as much cult and critical traction as his newer peers like Frank Ocean and the Weeknd. It's tempting, and probably a little accurate, to blame commercial versus indie-leaning R&B politics for that--several people have--but there's a simpler explanation. Miguel doesn't do the Weeknd's "Fuck, My Age And BAC Are Both In Their Twenties" schtick, which creates fans as readily as it creates hits. And he's not effortless-and-cool like Frank Ocean; where Ocean's so affectless he sounds like he doesn't even need to try, Miguel never lets you forget how much he does.
What Miguel does have is increasingly ambitious craft. He plays for buzz as hard as anyone--"Use Me" is on Kaleidoscope Dream: Water, a cross between teaser, mixtape and EP that was preceded by three free EPs. But his promotional strategy's far less interesting than how his arrangements are progressively getting lusher and his lyrics kinkier--much like Prince, to whom he's constantly compared. "Use Me" exemplifies both. The track sounds like Miguel's choked by smoke, which plays to his strengths; though his voice can be shaky (on "Quickie," Miguel stays on key as fleetingly as his hookup), when drowning in reverb and distorted guitars, he sounds fantastic. He sounds half-awake, too, but his drowsing through this cloudy track singing things lyrics like "sedate me, use me" and "I'm nervous, can I trust you?" sounds like nothing he doesn't want. Miguel might sing about giving up control, but over his aesthetic, he's got complete command.
NINA SKY, "COMATOSE"
Like Miguel, Nina Sky's Nicole and Natalie Albino have quietly been releasing some undeniable music this year, like "Day Dreaming," an almost, technically, possibly adulterous love song that sounds as fleeting as the affair they're imagining. Their album Nicole and Natalie drops this week, a looser, floatier take on the dance-pop everyone's doing. "Heartbeat sounds like the soundtrack for a club in a ice hotel, while "Comatose" sounds like a slowed-down version of the real thing. All the chart-R&B elements are here--twitchy percussion hits, stuttered vocals, hooks so precise they may well be engineered--but at this tempo, with the backing vocals stretched out and smoothed over this much, they don't sound tired but glorious. "I've got a crush on you / maybe tonight I'll put the rush on you," backed by slow-dance synths and finger snaps, swoons as hard as anything in "Call Me Maybe" or the other thirty twitterpated tracks this year, and they sing "why else would I be feeling so horny?" like that's just another symptom of love at first sight. Perhaps it is.
JESS MILLS, "FOR MY SINS"
The U.K. produces so many airy downtempo singer-songwriters these days it's a wonder they weren't cast in the Olympic opening ceremony. Sometimes the U.S. even gets to hear them. (Ellie Goulding, for one, should be sending producer/"Lights" remixer" Fernando Garibay a daily stipend for making her track sound enough like Born This Way to chart here.) You might've heard their names floating around, or their sounds: Emeli Sande, Jessie Ware, Delilah.
Of this crowd, Jess Mills is among the most understated but also most compelling; single "Pixelated People," had it come out 15 years ago, would've been everywhere. The rest of the discography's sparse but wide-reaching, spanning chilly covers of The Cure and this, a follow-up single that sounds like what Leona Lewis would release if she weren't tasked to BELT AT ALL TIMES. Call it a diva ballad sung by the girl next door, perhaps; what's lost in volume (particularly on the bridge, where Jess and instrumentation both descend to whispers) is regained in relatability.