5. Mutya Keisha Siobhan – Flatline, TBA
Before being swallowed into an never-ending maelstrom of pushbacks and false starts, it seemed like the S.S. MKS was in pretty competent hands. The girls’ story – that of three girl group members who were each alienated from a once-credible British institution over a period of nine years – was as hipster-friendly a narrative as anybody who performed on CD:UK could ever hope for. A sly A&R team hooked the trio up with a clutch of hot-property producers including Sia, Naughty Boy, and Dev Hynes, who gained notoriety helming acclaimed tracks for Solange and Sky Ferreira. “Flatline” chases the sleek, disenchanted 80’s sound of 2012 favourites “Losing You” and “Everything Is Embarrassing”, but rather ironically lacks the sugary energy of either.
The opening lyric of “Don’t say it, no / Please wait till were sober” is delivered with a depressed choke by Siobhan Donaghy, whose own 2008 solo album “Ghosts” would be the most obvious reference point were it not also so obviously inspired by the work of Kate Bush. Hard, thundering drums and riotous male-led battle cries evoke memories of “Hounds of Love”, although it appears someone onboard was smart enough to corroborate “Flatline” against a checklist of the original line-up’s own idiosyncrasies. Mutya Buena’s gravelly tone and Donaghy’s verbose lyricism both make appearances, while Keisha Buchanan’s trademark adlibs draw a devastating break-up anthem to a strangely euphoric close.
4. St. Lucia – Elevate, When The Night
This is St. Lucia’s second appearance on our list, and it’s a tribute to the South African-born musician’s range as a performer that he can just as easily put his name to a relentless EDM banger such as “Modern Hearts” as he does to more organic fare like this. That’s not to say “Elevate” is lacking in thrills; conversely, it’s something of an aural carnival. Gilded synths swirl like an ice cream van’s siren, while swathes of electronic fuzz aim to leave your head swimming. The ecstasy of the song’s production offers a distraction from the dark subject matter; “Elevate” is ostensibly a love letter to a rather tragic character. “No one / elevates you / elevates you, now”, St. Lucia (née John –Philip Grobler) belts throughout the song’s chorus, presumably to a loyal if despondent friend. It’s tempting to see the irony of such a lyric being used as such a soaring, undeniable hook, but perhaps that’s the point; sometimes a song isn’t enough.
Not that you’ll be focusing on subtext by the halfway mark. The real magic of “Elevate” comes with the arrival of a morbidly obese bassline, squalling trumpets and a barely intelligible chant that dominates the track’s denouement. If it sounds like a mess, let it be known that this flourish is achieved with a stupefying sense of elegance, resulting in a song as colourful, bittersweet and regrettably brief as life itself.
3. Daft Punk – Get Lucky [feat. Pharrell Williams & Nile Rodgers], Random Access Memories
Pharrell Williams can thank the goodwill he received from this pseudo-psychedelic disco romp for being free of the feminist punching bag status his “Blurred Lines” co-stars Robin Thicke and T.I. enjoyed for best part of the 2013. “Get Lucky” saw Daft Punk pursue a classic sound that felt slightly incongruous considering the crunchy futurism the French dance duo had been pioneering since 1997’s Discovery, but unlike Justin Timberlake’s comeback record The 20/20 Experience (and most notably its lead single Suit & Tie) Random Access Memories never sacrifices a joyous melody in the name of austere pretentions.
The song’s coda is endearingly straightforward. Williams’ deep, smoky inflections don’t attempt to sell the lyrics as high art, rather he embraces their simplicity – although there are moments of beauty. The line “We’ve come to far to give up who we are” is a particular stand out, celebrating the concept of advancing years and experience in a way very few pop songs do. Nile Rodger’s buttery guitar riff has astounding replay value, while sixteen years on from their debut, Daft Punk’s trademark vocodered vocals have yet to outstay their welcome. “Get Lucky” is that rare thing – a wedding reception song that will make you want to cut the cake, not yourself.
2. Drake – Hold On, We’re Going Home, Nothing Was The Same
The cover art for Drake’s latest album literally paints the singer/rapper as a pensive being. That this meditative countenance is suspended in a patch of serenely blue sky is indicative of the second single to be lifted from the project. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is shrouded in warm, heady synths that could coax the soul right out of your body. Sonically, the effect is that of drifting through a velvety clouded sky, with the recycled verses allowing the track’s beauty to crystallise as it progresses. Despite being utterly danceable, “Hold On” is as pure a love song as you’re ever likely to encounter.
1. Lady Gaga – Do What U Want [feat. R. Kelly], ARTPOP
ARTPOP is Lady Gaga’s most frivolous and infectious record since The Fame dropped back in 2008, so it’s a crying shame that its promotion came burdened by the singer’s determination to alienate the casual fan once again – this time through her asinine ‘celebration’ of the role of art in pop. But if her fourth studio album has any through line besides massive, dance floor-devouring beats, it’s the skilful lyrical navigation of tricky sexual politics. The acronym central to “G.U.Y” announces her desire to be a “girl under you” from the rooftops – but only in the physical sense, as a line as confident as “I don’t need to be on top to know I’m worth it / because I’m strong enough to know the truth” will attest to. “Aura” reimagines the burqa as a metaphorical veil for every woman’s inner sex-freak, while “Sexxx Dreams” is so blatantly about a heartbroken straight woman harassing a homosexual male that it may very well be a aural parody of Gaga’s relentless pursuit of the gay market.
But the set’s most cerebral sex jam is undoubtedly “Do What U Want”. When even top tier popstars who are presumably in a position to decide whether or not they flash their body parts for Vevo views insist on doing so anyway, it feels like a true failure of imagination. Gaga doesn’t go against the grain on ARTPOP’s second single, but she undermines the importance of her willingness to strip off. She understands the cultural significance of a slender blonde woman dancing around in her underwear, but she knows there’s more to her craft than what she may or may not be wearing, and if we – the public – can’t see that, then it’s our loss. This message is frightfully convenient for an icon whose star has dimmed ever so slightly over the years: she gets to grind up against a man with a dubious-at-best sexual history while simultaneously claiming intellectual superiority. If you can separate the singer from the shitstorm, then more power to you, but the sleazy connotations of R. Kelly’s vocal actually contrasts quite neatly with the track’s squeaky clean italo-disco beat. The effect is not for everyone, but “Do What U Want” was a truly exciting move from Lady Gaga. We fear it may be a one-off – not because of its relative underperformance, but because we’re yet to find another track quite like it.