The 30 best pop songs of 2016 (part two)

  1. Solange – Cranes in the Sky

While sadness has no quick-fix, “Cranes in the Sky” prescribes distractions aplenty. Some are vague (“I tried to run it away”), others draw on Solange’s experiences as a black woman in America (“I tried to fix it with my hair”). Both waste time evading a root cause, but a stark backdrop of wooden drums, strings and bass encourages self-reflection.

  1. A Tribe Called Quest – We The People….

Just like Trump’s “deplorables” and Clinton’s “Nasty Women” embraced disparaging monikers, “We The People….” parodies enemies of the far-right. Sirens rage and industrial beats grind as Q-Tip and the late Phife seek to galvanise blacks, Mexicans, the poor, muslims, and gays – who together form the unwelcome “bad folks”.

  1. All Saints – One Strike

Inspired by a phone call between Shaznay Lewis and Nicole Appleton as the latter’s began marriage to crumble, “One Strike” celebrates rational thinking in a spiralling situation. Buzzy synths recall All Saints’ ebullient classic “Pure Shores”, but Lewis’ songwriting occasionally smarts in its depiction of a relationship blanched by deceit.

  1. Mykki Blanco – Loner (feat. Jean Deaux)

Performance artist-turned-alt-hip-hop darling Mykki Blanco packs copious gender speech tropes into any given song. As “Loner” demonstrates over cold aqueous synths, this isn’t a mere male-female dichotomy – it’s a constellation of personalities attempting to reckon with love, and loneliness is an all-too common thread.

  1. Radiohead – Burn the Witch

For their first lead single in five years, Radiohead mischievously keep up the suspense. On “Burn the Witch”, Thom Yorke’s head voice wafts unintelligibly across percussive strings and a groaning synth. The climatic shock never comes, but nods to Britain’s unravelling foreign relations (“Loose talk around tables / abandon all reason”) evoke an insidious danger.

  1. Childish Gambino – Redbone

Set in a world of velvety funk riddled with boogiemen, zombies and other inhuman threats, Childish Gambino’s latest LP has a lot to say about self-preservation. Dwell on the Prince-pilfering textures and you miss the bigger picture – “Redbone” is a distinctly millennial rallying cry. Basing his chorus around a zeitgeist-ish bid to “stay woke”, Glover taps into the unease felt by any young liberal witnessing a very real world in turmoil.

  1. Rihanna – Love on the Brain

There’s a fine line between escapism and cynicism. Musically, “Love on the Brain” is more surreal than soulful – a wounded 60s prom ballad bleeding Twin Peaks-esque Americana. Occasional anachronisms (“It beats me black and blue, but it fucks me so good”) should theoretically anchor the fantasy, but Rihanna’s career-best vocals are equally disorientating. Careening from an uncharacteristically strong soprano to expressive, raspy bleats, this is a song the ever-improving singer has been waiting 11 years to record: the kind of hit anyone and everyone can get lost in.

  1. Katy B x Chris Lorenzo – I Wanna Be

Honey, Katy B’s mixtape-cum-third LP, was an unambitious project, and this future dance classic deserved more. Chris Lorenzo’s steely and expensive trance beats render “I Wanna Be” as sensual and bracing as an MDMA peak, while lyrics like “I wanna tell you but anxiety’s a bitch, babe” see Katy continue to give pop a welcome human touch.

  1. Skepta – Man

During this year’s Mercury Music Prize ceremony, Jarvis Cocker teased that the battle had come down to “two black stars” – referring, of course, to the late David Bowie and Tottenham-born grime MC Skepta. Ultimately swallowed up by Skepta’s win, this reductive pun sits awkwardly alongside “Man”, a timely exploration of racial relations.

Horror-movie guitar jerks and slugging rhymes imply an anger towards entitled middle-class hangers-on, but it’s closer to frustration. Why else is an ersatz fan asking “Can I get a pic for the ‘gram?” lambasted in the topline? The request captures a presumed familiarity bordering on festishisation, and in response, their idol retreats to what feels genuine: “I only socialise with the crew and the gang.

  1. Beyoncé – Formation

Forget the video, the Super Bowl performance, and the “Anti-police” clusterfuck that followed: as a song, “Formation” is among Beyoncé’s very best. Those cartoonish banjo plucks are the sound of change boinging through the air, not just in the singer’s approach to her art, but for the world at large.

There is no proto-“Formation” in Beyoncé’s canon. Mike Will Made It tames the noisy trap of “7/11” into something more tactile, but there’s a lot to get hold of. Synths twinkle menacingly and what sounds like a deflating bagpipe is looped ad nauseum, acting as burly backup to Beyoncé’s constant iterations of pride (“I slay, I slay, all day”).  

The pro-black theme marks a bold advancement of Beyoncé’s influence, and politics can’t help but permeate the meme-chasing hooks. Every time a listener passively mouths “I got hot sauce in my bag” – the hot sauce in question being a baseball bat Beyoncé later wields in the “Hold Up” clip – it’s an often subconscious showing of solidarity for a black woman’s right and ability to carry power.

‘Empowering’ is too played-out a word to describe “Formation”. This isn’t a song about how you good look without makeup, or how you shouldn’t hate your curvy figure, because some men might dig it. Beyoncé is now above such banal commonalities. When she yells “Show me you have some co-ordination!” at the track’s end, she practically acknowledges her godlike status, begging to the women of the world to match her ambition and most importantly, stand up for one another.

You only have to look at her country’s president-elect to see how much work we all – including our superstar allies – have left to do, but “Formation” will continue to be a touchstone for those attempting to pick up the pieces and move on from 2016. RG

 

The 30 best pop songs of 2016 (part one)

30. PARTYNEXTDOOR – Not Nice

As the man behind Rihanna’s “Work”, PartyNextDoor gave pop’s baddest bitch a momentous start to 2016. Yet the elegant soca of “Not Nice” suggests he doesn’t have much time for attitude. “Girl, you’re not nice, you’re rude,” he sings, eschewing “Hotline Bling”-style pettiness for a refreshing shot of sensitivity.

29. The Weeknd – Starboy (feat. Daft Punk)

Money. Drugs. Women. Lyrically, “Starboy” is firmly in The Weeknd’s wheelhouse. The solid-gold elephant in his echoey abode is a struggle with ubiquitous fame, steeping the collar-popping brags in paranoia. Daft Punk only add to the drama with digital blips, a strong hiccuping backbeat, and robotic backing vocals that come in shivers.  

28. Nick Jonas – Bacon (feat. Ty Dolla $ign)

Nick is an old-fashioned popstar – a Just Seventeen coverboy with a voice that sounds perennially romantic. In a bid for some edge, “Bacon” weighs up the virtues of bachelor living and domestic bliss. It’s all deftly arranged: ambient synths fizz, the percussion tickles, and there’s a snap-and-retract hook that would make Aaron Carter jealous.

27. Tove Lo – Cool Girl

More than a tribute to Gillian Flynn’s famous Gone Girl monologue, “Cool Girl” explores the balance of power in a no-strings relationship. Lyrics like I wanna be free like youchallenge potential double standards, while Tove Lo’s half-spoken vox linger over every syllable to a sensual degree, giving her suitor just a taste of what could be in-store.

26. Usher – Crash

Would you mind if I still love you?” Usher croons on “Crash”. The world responded with a shrug, but the 38 year-old pop veteran can take pride in this honourable stab at relevancy. That crystal-clear falsetto shines like moonlight on the minimalist electro-R&B, even if it fails to fit among radio’s current obsession with dodgy diction.

25. AlunaGeorge – Mean What I Mean (feat. Leikeli47 & Dreezy)

A hipster “Lady Marmalade” with an up-to-the-minute tropical house beat, “Mean What I Mean” was 2016’s best consent anthem. Predictably, there’s a post-chorus drop that sounds like an irate animal (this time an elephant), but the wordplay is sharp, and Aluna and rappers Leikeli47 and Dreezy work alarmingly well as a supergroup.

24. LIV – Wings of Love

“Wings of Love” flies a bit too close Fleetwood Mac’s sun to be considered fresh, but it’s still an impressive debut from supergroup LIV, starring singer Lykke Li, Miike Snow, Peter Bjorn & John. Predictably cloying lyrics – “I wanna live, I wanna die, on a silver lining” etc. – are nimbly illustrated by the band’s Tusk-era harmonies. 

23. Ray BLK – Chill Out (feat. SG Lewis)

I hate to be so goddamn depressive,” Ray BLK half-apologises on the fuckboy-frying “Chill Out”. Unraveling 8-bit Power Ups and sawtooth waves follow the example set by the title, but it’s the south London singer’s verbal castrations that elevate the track from a Soundcloud hit to a promising calling card.

22. Keke Palmer – Hands Free

Keke Palmer’s résumé largely sports mellow but modern R&B,  so for now the panting dancehall of “Hands Free” is an anomaly. Luckily, she’s nothing if not versatile, spitting out unabashedly horny lines (“If I wind it back, would you promise to break my bone?”) like Rihanna on payday, before dropping into an erotic lower register that’s all her own.

21. Britney Spears – Do You Wanna Come Over?

How should Britney Spears sound in 2016? Staccato urban-pop guitars, a dilating bassline and a sexy if slightly non-committal vocal do the trick on “Do You Wanna Come Over?” Juicy electropop production and a rambunctious chorus chant do some heavy lifting, but Britney herself hasn’t been this fun since 2008’s Blackout.

20. Drake – One Dance

Following the blueprint of his 2011 Rihanna collaboration “Take Care”, “One Dance” stuffs another under-the-radar gem (minor UK garage hit “Do You Mind?”) with Drake’s signature, puppy-eyed self-loathing. Gentrified afrobeats mesh awkwardly with tinny house piano – but as Drake himself admits, this is a song to hear with a Hennessy in hand.

19. Ariana Grande – Into You

They don’t make them this anymore. Grande is a dab hand at scaling huge Eurodance melodies, and “Into You” is her most extravagant uptempo yet. Hooks like “a little less conversation, and a little more touch-my-body” bring spectacle, but super-producer Max Martin takes his time building from bare ribbed synths to a chugging, neon-lit rave.

18. Lady Gaga – Perfect Illusion

Before the track’s premier in September, a 16-second “Perfect Illusion” clip drove fans into a frenzy with the same snarling guitar chord. It was a perfect preview: from there on out, Lady Gaga’s comeback single became a relentless, scorned stomper. Not even Kevin Parker’s (Tame Impala) stoned synths can anaesthetise Gaga’s ferocious delivery.

17. Zara Larsson – Lush Life

This 2015 Swedish hit only found its footing in the UK this summer, but it’s double-barrel chorus still hits like a trayful of Jägerbombs. Zara Larsson’s tangy pronunciation verges on patois at times, making her perfect match for an unmistakably breezy beat powered by clucking synths and playground hand claps.

16. Kaytranada – You’re the One (feat. Syd)

Canadian electro-hip-hop wonderkid Kaytranada and The Internet’s Syd have history. The same woozy sex appeal heard on 2015’s “Girl” is poured into the eminently more danceable “You’re the One”. The barely-lucid groove can’t judge Syd for inviting a destructive lover with a whipsmart bargaining chip: “If I survive, baby you’re the one”.

15. Rae Srummerd – Black Beatles

Sonically foreboding, trap seems to be at its most lucrative when spun as an alternative to sugary pop hits. Despite their stakes in the genre, sibling duo Rae Srummerd are born entertainers. “Black Beatles” marries their goofy energy with swirling fever-dream keyboards to create a credible hit that could become the status quo.

14. Laura Mvula – Overcome (feat. Nile Rodgers)

Beginning with a half-spoken preamble that threatens to taper off, “Overcome” sounds unlikely to achieve the Dionysian rush hinted at by opulent strings and Nile Rodgers’ subtle but funky rhythm guitar. Mvula’s songwriting acts as a pithy appetizer before the track’s rapturous orchestral bellow is unleashed, but her presence is unmistakable.

13. Flume – Never Be Like You

Australian electro-prodigy Flume stews Timbaland’s sliding mid-00’s R&B melodies in bubbling future bass on “Never Be Like You”. The hooks initially come in dribs and drabs as Kai sluices her voice through the Flumes latticed, spasmodic synths, but this is the chill-out power ballad of a generation.

12. Unloved – When a Woman Is Around

Unloved brings together composers David Holmes and Keefus Ciancia, and singer Jade Vincent. The result is as cinematic as you would expect, yet the group’s jazz-inclined psychedelia stands on its own. On “When a Woman Is Around”, Vincent’s tones ooze old Hollywood glamour, before exploding into a chorus indebted to 60’s girl groups.

11. David Bowie – I Can’t Give Everything Away

On the very last track on David Bowie’s very last album, there’s an occasional twinge of wheeziness – both to Bowie’s stately vocal, and synths that sprint towards the finish line. Burdened with a seemingly impossible task, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” never loses its focus, and somehow ends an iconic career on a miraculous high.

#10 – #1

Tove Lo is still out of control on “Lady Wood” – and she’s getting better at it

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Lady Wood, the latest release from Swedish pop export Tove Lo, is a two-part concept album detailing the stock millennial relationship’s salacious lifespan – how they transpire, dissolve, and (possibly) reanimate.

“Fairy Dust” is the hazy soundtrack to fresh lust gussied up as a genuine connection; “Fire Fade” tries to sweep the embers of said passion into something resembling order. Yet for all of Tove’s sexual liberation, these ten new tracks are musically conservative.

Lady Wood is proficient house-pop: the beats are icy and clipped, low-end synths seep like an ominous fog, and the hooks are almost entirely vocal-driven.

For much of “Influence”, the chorus production is so stark, you can practically feel Tove’s breath on your face as she purrs, “You know I’m under the influence / so don’t trust every word I say.” She’s less a less illusive character for the title track’s beautifully sincere come-on: “I know what people say about you / they say the same about me.”

A slick instrumental drop is never too far away,  but “True Disaster” scores points for building to a heavenly fastigium, with Tove groaning “Keep playing ’em, like…” into an electrical storm, apparently on the verge of orgasm. It’s a well-arranged climax, even if you see it coming the moment the track’s rather standard digital stutter whooshes in.

“Vibes”, a trippy duet with itchy-throated singer Joe Janiak, spices things up with some acoustic guitar, but you’re more likely to remember Janiak’s processed bleating.

Inspired by Gillian Flynn’s biting Gone Girl paradigm of female perfection, “Cool Girl” is the narrative’s most ‘balanced’ segment in terms of power. “I wanna be free like you” is Tove’s invitation to no-strings fun, highlighting her own independence and throwing down the gauntlet for any potential double standards.

The “I’m a cool girl / I’m-a / I’m-a / cool girl” hook loops around a oscillating bassline in hypnotic fashion, but Lady Wood‘s tempo rarely veers from moderate. That said, “Don’t Talk About It” is an R&B curveball, offering a tantalising idea of what Destiny’s Child might sound like in 2016.

“Keep It Simple” begins as a ballad with some hip sexting references, before launching into a moving rejection of intimacy with squidgy synths and a classic house diva refrain. It’s not quite the dance floor hymn it could have been, but Tove’s desperate cries of “I ain’t ready for ya!” jabs at a culpability in her own loneliness. 

Closing track “WTF Is Love” concludes with a bark of “Awh, FUCK! I need another.” Followed by the sound of a drink pouring, this final statement neatly trickles back into the “Fairy Dust” intro, ultimately positioning Lady Wood as a ceaseless bender. Two additional chapters are due next year, but don’t expect them to sound like a guilt-ridden hangover.

Tove’s ‘drug and sex-mad everywoman’ persona isn’t revolutionary, but it is notable for its lack of naivety. Within the space of a verse, her songwriting often acknowledges the apex and nadir of a single encounter. This approach doesn’t allow for breakthroughs or shameful epiphanies. Tove Lo is out of control by choice, and she’s getting better and better at it.

8.5/10