I’m two-thousand-and-late-teen, but…

Halfway through 2017, I sacrificed music blogging to focus on my day job. My dismissal and subsequent destitution were never actually on the cards, but my anxiety had built a persuasive case to the contrary, and I felt pressured to hone my professional skills.

Writing about music, conveying love for a lyric or sonic embellishment, is among my favourite things to do. It hurts to think I could lose a good six months of it to anxiety, and let the year by undissected, so here’s a peace offering to my former, less-confident self – a two-thousand-and-late-teen roundup of the year’s best pop!

Oh, and here’s the Spotify playlist. Enjoy!

21. Taylor Swift – …Ready For It?

By keeping mum on a heap of political issues – Trump being the apex – Swift clung to her red and blue state appeal. After the bile-spitting ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ got a thumbs-up from Breitbart, along came this capital-P pop song – which jacks Sleigh Bells’ noise pop to riveting effect. A strong if cynical example of having it both ways.

20. Miley Cyrus – Younger Now

Like the LP it was burdened with launching, ‘Younger Now’ was, by all accounts, a critical and commercial failure. Despite being underwritten, the song’s message – accept your past, embrace your present – is the essence of self-love. Perhaps it arrived too soon, but flop or not, Cyrus has an enviable career retrospective in her canon.

19. The Killers – The Man

‘The Man’ is four minutes of dick-swinging – and I’m not even talking about the dance moves best suited to its sleek, Talking Heads-indebted funk. Careening from deadpan to diva-ish deliveries, Brandon Flowers disappears into the role of an arrogant lout.

18. Thundercat – Friend Zone

In the midst of confronting a flakey love interest, ‘I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway’ is one of Thundercat’s many dorky kiss-offs. He’s a big nerd at heart, and producers Flying Lotus play even more to the singer’s sensitive side, accentuating creamy high notes with bubbly synths and a wonky bassline.

17. Pixx – Romance

Pitched down for the hook to ‘Romance’, Pixx’s woozy lower register is something alien and sinister. Bird-like harmonies and keyboards tinged with fuzz add to the unease, while searing lyrics – ‘You don’t care as long as you leave in a pair’ – render this a spectacularly bitter break-up track.

16. Lorde – Supercut

Aside from one strikingly raw vocal, ‘Supercut’ is a dizzying, piano-led dance track. Booting up your mental iMovie and compiling clips of a relationship to build your ideal narrative shouldn’t make for the most immediately compelling pop song. And yet, Lorde’s neuroses speak to a generation cultivating carefree existences on social media.

15. The Orielles – I Only Bought It For the Bottle

This Halifax-born trio – ranging between 17 and 21 years of age – peddle indie rock that’s too observant to be considered dreamy. Sure, the guitars are hazy, and the vocals are as cool as VapoRub, but the wry lyrics lampoon a society obsessed with aesthetics.

14. CamelPhat & Elderbrook – Cola

European house hasn’t been the genre du jour for some time now, but hazy allusions to cocaine binges are always in style. This Grammy-nominated track pairs pure paranoia with a four-on-the-floor beat – the lyrics are cruelly voyeuristic, while the synths writhe and jerk as if attempting to escape a straitjacket.

13. Run the Jewels – Stay Gold

Run the Jewels’ anti-establishment bent is (partially) dialled back for ‘Stay Gold’ – a downright affectionate sketch of the ‘brain-with-an-ass’ girls in the duo’s lives. The electro-hip-hop beats are still chrome-plated, but Killer Mike and El-P’s gratitude gleams even brighter.

12. Charli XCX – Roll With Me

You might not think you need 90’s bubblegum-house in the vein of Aqua in your life, but you’re wrong. “Roll With Me” is more than the sum of its ostentatious parts. When the sparkly thump gets too much, Scottish-born producer SOPHIE – an affiliate of London’s trendy PC Music label – breaks up things with bludgeoning drums and warped vocals.

11. Travis Scott – Goosebumps (featuring Kendrick Lamar)

Murky trap and a pop chorus generate an addictive friction on ‘Goosebumps’. In a less exciting musical climate, one can imagine a certain Mr. Bieber taking the hook, but Travis Scott makes light work of it. Whether he’s singing seductively, or rapping maniacally, Scott’s voice strokes the eardrums like sandpaper.

10. King Krule – Dum Surfer

Infusing Blur-like Brit pop with grungy guitars and menacing jazz, ‘Dum Surfer’ is an inebriated – yet surprisingly detailed – account of a night on the town… then on the road.

9. CupcakKe – CPR

CupcakKe’s wordplay is X-rated and witty, lending an audacious charge to scorching hip-hop, as well as poppier fare. On the ‘Macarena’-aping ‘CPR’, the rapper has her sights set on dance floor domination, turning a promise to save your dick giving it CPR’ into a hook you can sweat your inhibitions out to.

8. Lil Uzi Vert – XO Tour Llif3

TM88’s twinkling yet zombified production is more conducive to an panic attack than a party. Thematically, it’s a hard sell, too. In addition to one of the bleakest hooks in recent memory – ‘All my friends are dead’ – Lil Uzi Vert reckons with infidelity and substance abuse, shrugging them off in his elastic slur.

7. Brockhampton – BOOGIE

This hip hop collective excels as a boyband and self-sufficient creative agency. There’s fifteen members to handle everything from the music to the art direction – and ‘BOOGIE’ sounds crowded in the best way. A melting pot of bite-size verses, hardcore horns, and what sounds like a looped kazoo, it’s a rave-up from start to finish.

6. Katy Perry – Bon Appétit

Neither credible enough for critics, or trendy enough for music buyers, this was 2017’s most misunderstood single. When it dropped, I said the production was so fresh, it was antiseptic. I stand by that – those 90’s house synths poke and prod at the pleasure centre, and aren’t worlds away from what the critically-fêted PC Music lot are doing.

5. Cardi B – Bodak Yellow

Prior to becoming the first female rapper since Lauryn Hill to score a #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Cardi B was a successful TV and social media personality without a single chart entry. Not that you’d know it from ‘Bodak Yellow’’s not-so humblebrags, which revelled in the Bronx native’s pop domination before it even seemed possible.

There’s nothing original about what Cardi’s celebrating – she’s made a fortune, had some cosmetic surgery, and primed for a good lickout. But her infectious flow and giant personality is that of a global superstar, and it helps that the hook was made to be sung at the back of a school bus. In many ways, 2017 belonged to Cardi B.

4. Kendrick Lamar – Humble

An impeccably timed comeback single, ‘Humble’ dropped two months into Trump’s presidency. As the chaotic administration dominated the news cycle, America putting a request to an ignorant oaf to take a seat at #1 was the palette-cleanser we all needed.

3. Vince Staples – BagBak  

‘BagBak’ snarls at fraudsters across society – from fame-hungry sycophants, to profiling police, to pitiful governments. Surfing a foamy electro bassline and leather-gloved handclaps, Staples is a galvanising presence – and that’s before he tells the president to suck a dick.

2. Tove Lo – Disco Tits

Sexual liberation has been Tove Lo’s M.O since 2016’s Lady Wood – her sophomore album and an expression for the female boner. On this nü-disco banger, she wears her stiff nipples as two badges of honour. The bass pulsates, and synths trickle like tetris blocks, but Tove’s body confidence has its own gravitational pull.

1. Dua Lipa – New Rules

Only in late August did UK music listeners send a lead female artist to #1, and what track could be more qualified to smash the patriarchy than ‘New Rules’?

A five-step guide to leaving fuck boys in your dust, Dua Lipa’s international hit is dripping with girl power. Hear how the backing harmonies in her verses recall late 90s girl groups, and dilute an implicit heartbreak that would otherwise consume our protagonist.

Despite channeling the tropical house trend, the song’s obvious money shot is its unclassifiable post-chorus drop – a befuddling swirl of slippery honks and fried vocals. Although Lipa’s smoky tone is chopped and contorted beyond recognition here, she’s no mere cipher.

Chalk it down to her it-girl aura, or a distinctively chill singing technique, but on ‘New Rules’, Lipa seized her chance to be confessional and fierce all at once – becoming #bestfriendgoals for millions of fans, seemingly overnight.

Say something… anything: Timberlake and Swift’s Trumpian trap

Justin_Timberlake_ManOfTheWoods

‘Sometimes the greatest way to say something, is to say nothing at all…’

This is the major takeaway from Justin Timberlake‘s latest single. Not only does it cop a line from Ronan Keating, it also plays right into Trumpian rhetoric – the steadfast belief that you, as a public figure, have been misinterpreted, not misinformed.

The spectre of Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, looms over Timberlake’s upcoming release Man of the Woods. Attacking the same free press that covered such PR hiccups as her infamous Grammys speech, and Kim K’s Snapchat exposé, the lyrics were embraced and tweeted by far right rag Breitbart.

In the context of their feed – and maybe Swift’s album, since she’s yet to denounce white supremacists – these words push the narrative that hardcore conservatives form America’s righteous oppressed, who’ve been shut out for the sake of political correctness and butthurt snowflakes.

Even if this wasn’t Swift’s intention, she made sure we’d never really know by imposing a media blackout throughout her reputation campaign. No interviews. No justifications. As she wrote in a letter to fans –‘There will be no further explanation. There will be just reputation.’

The difference between Swift and Timberlake is that he is engaging with wokeness. He just sucks at it. Earlier this month, he tweeted support for #TimesUp – despite recently working with Woody Allen. He also preceded the hashtag with ‘My wife is hot!’. Yes, really.

His post-apocalyptic video for ‘Supplies’, meanwhile, gave nondescript nods to Trump, Kim Jong-un et al, and appropriated protest culture with a glibness that would make Kylie Jenner’s Pepsi commercial jealous. Needless to say…

After enjoying a career full of privileged behaviour – letting Janet Jackson take the blame for Nipplegate, an ‘All Lives Matter’-flavoured response to BLM – Timberlake’s finally being challenged by voices with a newly-found platform. The advent of Black Twitter in particular has made him answerable to a community he’s so often pilfered from.

Rather than seize the opportunity to understand the nuances of these discussions and strengthen his participation, Timberlake has hung a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his conscience for all to see. In his own words, he doesn’t want get to ‘caught up in the rhythm of it’ – because, by virtue of his skin colour, he can afford not to.

Perhaps my analysis is an overreaction, one wrought from an attempt to pin meaning to inexpressive songwriting. Throughout, Timberlake and guesting country star Chris Stapleton trade vague inanities that could literally be about anything – but it’s important to look at the line Timberlake is towing in his promotion for Man of the Woods.

While a politically-engaged Katy Perry returned with ‘purposeful pop’ last year, Timberlake is being purposefully inoffensive. Festooning his music with whisky-warm guitars and donning masc rust-belt chic, he’s not actively excluding listeners with conservative tastes – which is fine, music is for everyone – but coupled with his radio silence on key issues, the project sends a worrying and cynical message.

On February 4th, Timberlake will headline the Super Bowl LII halftime show. The odds of a statement that’s a tenth as compelling as Beyonce’s Black Panther tribute are low, but I’m open to surprises. Whatever happens on the night, Timberlake is right about one thing – if he continues to say nothing at all, it will speak volumes about who he really is.

 

Kesha takes the highest road on “Praying”

kesha.jpg

2009’s party classic “TiK ToK” may have sold Kesha – she’s dropped the “$” for now – as a one-note character, but it was one others wanted to play. A force at her initial peak, she wrote Britney Spears’ hit “Till the World Ends”, and had her schtick jacked by Katy Perry (“California Gurls”), Miley Cyrus and LMFAO.

For all the bludgeoning EDM and Auto-Tune, there was a perceptibly punk bent to Kesha Sebert’s music. She can belt like a rock star, but knows dance music is more conducive to free love than any other.

Praying” – her first single in four years, and first shot at a ballad release – is upsetting for many reasons, but the shadow it casts over her dollar-sign days is its first knife-twist. Addressing her troubling legal battle with producer Dr. Luke, Kesha takes the high road, and seeks to see the best in her abuser.

Religious references abound, but more so musically then lyrically. Ryan Lewis’s piano is the song’s backbone, propping up a quiet, dignified chorus, even as it blossoms into a stomping country-gospel rapture: “I hope you’re somewhere praying / I hope your soul is changing”.

Kesha’s naked vocal is impressive, and her zesty, adenoidal tone channels the melody better than any studio trickery could. A quiet admission of “I’m proud of who I am” is the link between her old and new material. Kesha’s self-love has suffused her search for both carnage and catharsis – so as long as she has it, the party is far from over.

Vince Staples’ “Big Fish Theory” makes a convincing case for his intrepid nature

vince staples

Collecting work from considerable talent, Vince Staples’ fantastic sophomore LP Big Fish Theory is a puzzle of rich, disparate dance influences – and no one’s in a hurry to put the pieces together.

Opener “Crabs In a Bucket” takes a minute to morph into witchy UK garage. The rapper’s eventual appearance scans as fleeting, though he ably fires back at white supremacy: “They don’t ever want to see the black man eat / Nails in the black man’s hands and feet.” In its final lap, the track goes for broke with a come-hither verse from Kilo Kish.

Even the swaggering crunk of “Big Fish” (“Counting up the hundreds by the thousands”) gives way to a rug-pulling soundbite from the late Amy Winehouse. Carried by pitter-patter percussion, “Alyssa Interlude” tastefully ties the beloved singer’s death to a loss that’s closer to home for Staples: “Sometimes, people disappear.

Swerving from ex-svengali No I.D (producer of 2015’s Summer ’06, and this year’s 4:44 by Jay-Z) and his stark experimental hip-hop was a gallant move by Staples.

There’s myriad collaborators and guest artists – fellow Comptonite Kendrick Lamar, Damon Albarn, ASAP Rocky  on board, but with just five credits, it’s Staples’ longtime friend / first-time creative partner Jack Sekoff who sets a clubby template for the 12-track set. Under his guidance, Big Fish Theory oozes like a Class A.

The clacking hip-house arrangements of “Love Can Be…” and “Party People” leave ample room for Staples’ smartass flow. He piledrives the political elite with quips like “Propaganda / Press pan the camera”, and on “BagBak”, incites a social revolt the youth could really get behind: “Tell the president to suck a dick / because ‘we own ya!’

Marrying SOPHIE’s unnerving cacophonies with Flume’s frosty future bass, “Yeah Right” is a veritable haunted house of a song. Rusty tin can drums, earthquaking bass and Kendrick Lamar await Staples in the shadows, but still he barges through. That he comes out fighting on the other side is testament to his intrepid nature.  

9/10

On new album “Witness”, Katy Perry works hard to earn attention

Katy Perry – Witness

It doesn’t matter where you were from,” Katy Perry told fans as she wound down her four-day Witness World Wide live-stream, “It matters what you grow into”. Considering she was born to Pentecostal pastors, Perry’s metamorphosis into the pin-up poster girl for the centre-left is one of pop’s most fascinating.

Perry won’t get the props she deserves for “Chained to the Rhythm” – whipping up woke-politics and rainbow reggae-disco to create a hit with a solid message. Lyrically, it’s a frown at individualism and a wink at social consciousness. Musically, it’s a fresh update of her sound.

Many will decry her album campaign’s narrative as divisive, but this being Katy Perry, Witness isn’t that complex. On “Chained…”, she spends half her time asking questions (“Are we tone-deaf?” – Katy, you in danger girl) and rhyming “bubble” with “trouble”.

Perry’s always been style-over-substance, and when you’ve got industry heavyweights (Max Martin, Mike Will Made It) and budding virtuosos (Jack Garrett, Purity Ring) on speed dial, that’s not a bad thing.

“Hey Hey Hey” is a feminist sandstorm with ropy lyrics delivered in a drunk-cheerleader drawl. It’s elevated by a grinding dubstep bassline and an up-yours appeal. Synthpop whizz-kids Purity Ring carve trance ballad “Bigger Than Me” – written after Hillary Clinton’s election defeat – like an ice sculpture.

From a distance, “Bigger Than Me”, “Swish Swish” featuring Nicki Minaj, and the unironically repetitive “Déjà Vu” echo the UK’s 2013 house revival. Of all the trends to draw from, it’s a durable one, but it does narrow the album’s commercial prospects.

Naturally, it’s when Perry does away with the flashy production that Witness really stumbles. The three ballads suffer from clunky phrasing (“I struggle / I juggle”), even when the choruses soar. That said, “Mind Maze” is a pristine take on The Knife circa Silent Shout, yet an utter bore melodically.

Witness occasionally excels in rethinking Perry’s creamy-tits brand of pop for 2017’s more subdued airwaves. “Tsunami” is a spongy bump-and-grind, making for a great one-two punch with the cherry-sweet banger “Bon Appétit”. “Roulette” spins the Tinder/Grindr experience (“I drop a pin to my location”) into an 80s-pop headrush.

Perry owes a debt to her guest stars, but the solo title track is a revelation. It’s the ideal intersection between her pop and ‘conscious’ selves – topping bubbling electronica and graceful piano with a hook of “Can I get a witness?” that begs for a response. As messy as Witness can be, songs like this show how Perry could conceivably earn one’s attention.

6.5/10

cupcakKe’s “Queen Elizabitch” delivers the sex-positive pop we deserve

cupcakKeSince last year’s minor viral hit “Vagina”, cupcakKe’s been cornering the sex-positive alt-hip-pop market. The Chicago-born rapper leaves little to the imagination – not only with graphic, spit-take one-liners (“I save dick by giving it CPR”), but by also committing to her fully-rounded persona for each and every song. 

cupcakKe dropped three mixtapes in 2016, and Queen Elizabitch is her first album proper. The bought-in beats are tighter, but the execution is scattered – pushing listeners off the dance floor and into a hard-faced confessional a little too often.

The split between Queen Elizabitch’s teeth-bearing hip-hop and X-rated dalliances with the mainstream works because neither style tries to diminish the virtues of the other. The cupcakKe eloquently recounting her impoverished childhood on “Scraps” is no more complex or worthy than the one asking to be creampied throughout “Cumshot”.

Vulgarity is the common thread – whether she’s marking her territory over menacing trap (“Bitch you ain’t hard / Probably run from the sound of a fart”), or giving life-saving blowjobs on the irresistible “Cpr”, which reworks “La Macarena” for 2017, and may be more quotable than Mean Girls.

The album continues the “Reality” saga from cupcakKe’s mixtapes. Part 4 charts the rapper’s torrid journey, and accepts her growing fame with grace. But as a dose of reality, it falls flat, simply because the character never feels like a fantasy. In fact, the body-positive “Biggie Smalls” overflows with humanity.

Furnished with tropical house synths and arpeggio squalls, it’s as commercial as Queen Elizabitch gets. What makes it special are actionable tips in lieu of dull platitudes, including “Fuck a dude if he don’t like small boobs”. There’s a gap in the market for such candour, and something tells us cupcakKe will have a great time filling it. 

8/10

Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” – “House-pop parfait with a cold, tart centre”

bon appetitForget fresh – Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” is practically antiseptic. That kitsch title comes with her signature lowbrow wink, but this electropop parfait has a cold, tart centre. Hackneyed ‘food-as-vagina’ puns are deadpanned in an alluring whisper. Eurodance synths stabs come thin and quick, and prick like a needle.

One of the song’s bigger risks may be the inclusion of hip-hop trio Migos. Following the streaming monster “Bad and Boujee”, Quavo, Takeoff and Offset are hot property, but their off-colour remarks about gay rapper iLoveMakonnen should raise brows – particularly as Katy’s own supposed brushes with bigotry have recently emerged.  

The good news is that Perry and Migos seem to be on the same prog-pop wavelength. She certainly makes them feel at home, with the house beat dropping into chill trap for a mercurial four-part verse. Speaking of drops, producer Max Martin lands a doozy for Katy’s base but velcro-like chorus: “Got me spread like a buffet / Bon appétit, baby!