SZA’s Surprise Return, and 10 More New Songs

By Jon Pareles, Lindsay Zoladz and Giovanni Russonello

Hear tracks by Ava Max, Tricky, Bill Callahan and others.

SZA released “Hit Different” featuring Ty Dolla Sign with an elaborately choreographed video that she directed herself.
SZA released “Hit Different” featuring Ty Dolla Sign with an elaborately choreographed video that she directed herself.Credit...Vevo

By Jon Pareles, Lindsay Zoladz and

Though SZA is one of those artists who works at her own pace, plenty of fans have been clamoring over the past few years for a follow-up to her beloved 2017 debut, “Ctrl.” “Hit Different,” her new song with Ty Dolla Sign, suggests that she’s been cooking something up in secret. The Neptunes-produced “Hit Different” is certainly a promising return: Ty anchors the song with a catchy, rhythmic hook, freeing SZA up to unfurl mixed emotions and signature cool throughout the rest of the track: “All that I know is mirrors inside me/They recognize you, please don’t deny me” she croons. The stylish, SZA-directed video, too, is striking: Prepare to never look at a pommel horse the same way again. LINDSAY ZOLADZ

Under the name Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner makes hazy, densely atmospheric dream pop. Bumper, her collaboration with Ryan Galloway of the Brooklyn band Crying, is a bit more straightforward and unabashedly poppy: Imagine the D.I.Y. reveries of early Grimes with the adventurous spirit of Cibo Mato. The highlight of their newly released four-song EP is “Black Light,” a slinky ode to late-night yearning: “I saw you,” Zauner sings from afar, “in the black light.” ZOLADZ

The disco revival — Doja Cat, Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga — continues with Ava Max’s “OMG What’s Happening,” which shrewdly segues the guitar syncopations of Dominican bachata into disco hi-hats, synthesizers and scrubbing rhythm guitar, along with echoes of the descending chord progression of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” But Gaynor’s message of independence is flipped; in this song, Ava Max is smitten. JON PARELES

Tricky shaped Bristol trip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s, and “I’m in the Doorway,” from his new album, “Fall to Pieces,” remains true in some ways to his bleakly austere aesthetic. It’s sparse and deliberate, deploying little more than a drumbeat, a synthesizer bass line, a few piano notes and a handful of other sounds around the voice of the Danish songwriter Oh Land: “I’ll bring you greetings/And hidden meanings,” she sings. But with implied major harmonies and a little more pop symmetry than usual, Tricky trades his long-honed ominousness for tentative — only tentative — glimmers of anticipation. PARELES

“Got to be tough/When tings get rough,” Frederick “Toots” Hibbert sings, weary but adamant, in the title song of his new album. At 77, he’s holding on to the rocksteady reggae style he helped forge in the 1970s. With its minor chords and terse admonitions, “Got to Be Tough” signals endurance against odds. PARELES

“What They’ll Say About Us” begins calmly and reassuringly, a piano lullaby that promises, “You’re tired now, lay down/I’ll be waiting to give you the good news” and urges, “Don’t you give up.” But as a beat and other instruments arrive and the soundstage grows huge and hazy, mortality begins to haunt the song, all the way to a devastating last line. PARELES

Regret, jealousy, resentment and bitter realism mix in Jazmine Sullivan’s “Lost One,” a message to an ex delivered in spectral, hollow-eyed low-fi, accompanied only by a loop of distant guitar picking and here-and-gone vocal harmonies. She knows her ex is about to have affairs on the rebound; she claims, “If it’s too late I understand”; she admits, “I know I’ve been nothing short of a disaster.” But she still makes a last-ditch plea: “Try not to love no one.” PARELES

“I travel, I sing, I notice when people notice things.” That’s the unmistakable, oaken voice of Bill Callahan, offering up a simple but subtly poetic description of the songwriter’s life on “As I Wander,” the closing track on his fine new album “Gold Record.” Like last year’s “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest,” Callahan’s latest offers folk meditations on the quiet joys of domestic life: “When you are married,” he sings on the opener “Pigeons,” advising a couple of newlyweds in the back seat of his car, “you are married to the whole wide world.” “As I Wander” closes the loop by finding this same kind of openhearted interconnectedness in the process of songwriting. Atop a gentle babble of fingerpicked chords, he surveys the landscape and concludes — his voice almost cracking with emotion — “It’s just that I am all of these things.” ZOLADZ

In October, the British synth-pop group Hot Chip will release its own installment of the artist-curated mix series “Late Night Tales,” featuring handpicked tunes alongside several previously unreleased Hot Chip songs. The first is a straightforward but thoroughly hypnotic cover of the Velvet Underground classic “Candy Says.” Alexis Taylor captures the plaintive sweetness of Lou Reed’s indelible melody, while in the background whirring synthesizers gradually gather the strength to take over the track and deliver, in the final minute of the song, the kind of beautiful transfiguration the singer is longing for. ZOLADZ

Johari Noelle and her songwriting collaborator, the guitarist Jeoffrey Arrington, capture the warped, elongated, suspended pace of pandemic life in “Time,” musing, “We’ve got time, time/And what do we do with it?” She coos at first over a lone guitar, but that isolation gives way to plushly layered vocals and a band that drifts through the song alongside her, even though it was convened virtually. PARELES

Afel Bocoum grew up along the Niger River in the same village as the renowned musician Ali Farka Touré, who became his mentor. Now in his mid-60s, Bocoum has amassed a catalog of impressive recordings under his own name, carrying forward the tradition established by Touré (who died in 2006) of mixing Malian desert grooves with influences from abroad. On “Sambu Kamba” — from Bocoum’s new album, “Lindé,” which was co-executive produced by Damon Albarn — he plays the guitar in twist-ties of melody, wrapping them around the steadier patterns of a second guitarist. Both are tugged along by the gentle swing of the percussionists, as Bocoum and his backing vocalists engage in an unhurried call and response. GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO