‘I absolutely wanna be the biggest in the world.’ This is the confessionAbel Tesfaye made to an A&R bigwig at Republic Records.
At the time, the singer, better known as The Weeknd, was reconciling with the relatively subdued response to his much-hyped debut, 2013’s Kiss Land. His switch from mercurial mixtape icon to major-label investment didn’t exactly go unnoticed, but Abel had a crystal-clear vision of where he wanted to be. In a word: everywhere.
And for a number of years, that’s exactly where The Weeknd could be found. Subsequent full-lengths 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness and 2016’s Starboy became veritable blockbusters – the former nimbly juggling avant-R&B and Max Martin-honed pop confections, and the latter doing the same but enlisting a revitalised Daft Punk for a futuristic twist. Both spawned multiple smashes, and by the time Starboy scooped a Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album in 2018, The Weeknd did indeed seem like the biggest popstar in the world.
Yet as we know, pop music moves at a ferocious pace. With the dual single release of ‘Heartless’ and ‘Blinding Lights’, Abel isn’t defending his title, but rather using a calculated two-pronged strategy in order to reclaim it – one song for rhythmic radio, one for pop.
‘Heartless’ is classic Weeknd: Low-slung trap groove? Check. Depressing bass line? Check. Nasally, unapologetic trilling about pussy, money and generally being a bad boy? Cheque please! And it’s already Abel’s fourth US #1.
‘Blinding Lights’ is much better: a kaleidoscopic traipse through metropolitan nightlife, possessing a twinkling synth riff not at all dissimilar to A-ha’s ‘Take On Me’. It’s hard to imagine any of Abel’s male peers – or successors like Post Malone – resorting to such a reckless pop monster. That’s the thing about Abel: he just wants it more.
Listen to ‘Heartless’ and ‘Blinding Lights’ below:
Rina Sawayama is a queer Japanese-English woman living in the public eye, so it’s depressingly easy to imagine her absorbing microaggressions from clueless whites every other day.
‘STFU!’ – the first single from her upcoming debut – bites back at the ignorami and the irresponsible political rhetoric deployed to embolden them with a fiery nü-metal-inspired assault.
If, like me, you’re watching the UK general election unfold through your fingers, then this is the anthem you need in your life. There are juicy injections of bubblegum, but this is a decisively heavy track, in sound and in spirit.
The music video uses a cringey first date skit to illustrate the cruel, casual bigotry that POC regularly endure. Actor and comedian Ben Ashenden mines laughs as a tragic Asian fetishist reeling off all the weeaboo hallmarks: Kill Bill, Wagamamas, a work-in-progress script about ‘a little Japanese woman’. Needless to say, Rina’s unlikely marriage of racial politics with nü-metal shuts him the fuck up.
Watch Rina Sawayama go full-on Samara-from-The Grudge in the ‘STFU!’ music video below:
2019 belonged to Billie Eilish. If you don’t agree, then you haven’t been paying attention.
Debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? expertly elevated the singer’s dark whisper-pop to mainstream palatability without compromising an ounce of its distinctive, trap-adjacent gloom. At just 17 years of age, Billie has racked up over 15 million streams worldwide, played acclaimed sets at Coachella and Glastonbury, scored a US #1 with ‘Bad Guy’, and embedded herself in the public consciousness as a Gen Z icon – thanks in part to a relaxed, highly attainable fashion sense.
The title of her new single ‘Everything I Wanted’ likely refers to this rapid rise to fame, and lo and behold, it has come at a cost to her mental health. Over the gentlest of beats – a notable departure from When We…’s bass-heavy menace – Billie acknowledges the pressures and vitriol she faces as a young woman in the public eye. She recounts suicidal dreams, and lambastes the dehumanising language used to discuss her on social media: ‘They called me weak, like I’m not somebody’s daughter’.
At its heart, ‘Everything I Wanted’ is a love song dedicated to the person you wake up next to after a bad dream. But a pessimistic message lingers long after it’s over: when Billie falls asleep, she goes somewhere very dark indeed.
After a run of basic AF singles, Meghan Trainor resurrects her moribund album campaign with icy electro bop ‘Wave’.
Is there a popstar working today with less edge than Meghan Trainor? In September, she treated fans to a cover of the Friends theme tune, and to the best of my knowledge, she’s one of the few artists to promote a single by unveiling an official Zumba® choreography video. Such white nonsense is to be expected from Meghan. Genuinely good pop songs like ‘Wave’ are not.
For the uninitiated, the 25-year-old found unfathomable success halfway through the decade with a saccharin formula of 60s doo-wop and skin-deep feminism. Hummable hits like ‘All About That Bass’ may have netted her a Best New Artist Grammy, but in a post-Lizzo world, her work comes off as aggressively basic. A much-delayed third album Treat Myself had its January 2019 release date wiped when none of its four singles caught on.
So what now for Mrs. Daryl Sabara AKA The Boy From Spy Kids? If her new single is any indication, the singer has opened herself up to the icy, drip-fed pleasures of scandipop. In true Tove Lo fashion, ‘Wave’ starts off sparse and ethereal, gradually adding layers of pulsing electronica, gospel choirs, and an unusual sitar-banjo flourish to form a majestic love song.
Watch Meghan recreate Kylie’s ‘All The Lovers’ on a budget in the ‘Wave’ music video below:
Sporting a simplistic techno bassline and swirling strings, Dua Lipa’s new single is a mean disco throwback.
Dua Lipa’s singing technique is the vocal equivalent of resting bitch face. This icy detachment has been utilised to chart-topping effect on several occasions, most notably on the Calvin Harris collab ‘One Kiss’ – the ubiquitous popularity of which is best summed up by this video of football fans chanting the chorus:
‘Don’t Start Now’ is a similarly club-ready throbber, but it’s nowhere near as comically apathetic. ‘New Rules’ producer Ian Kirkpatrick demonstrates zero chill in trying to cultivate a sassy disco throwback in the vein of ‘I Will Survive’ – falling back on swirling strings and even appropriating a famous line from the Gloria Gaynor classic.
Despite whiffs of desperation, ‘Don’t Start Now’ is stabilised by Dua’s cool and aloof presence. The 24-year-old strikes her usual standoffish pose, yet there’s an emotional conviction bubbling underneath the fairly innocuous lyrics. It’s a deadly combo that suggests the breakout star is only getting started.
Watch Dua Lipa flit between dull-looking parties in the ‘Don’t Start Now’ video below:
Had it been unleashed at the height of Obama-era optimism in 2011, Kesha’s new single ‘Raising Hell’ would have a three-week minimum stint at #1 on lock.
The infectious LOL-pop number – replete with horn-driven breakdowns – is as purpose-built for sorority house party playlists as ‘Tik Tok’ or ‘We R Who We R’. At its heart is a message of salvation through sin, a textbook credo for a Kesha song, written for the ‘misfits of creation’.
A welcome difference this time is a dose of churchy delirium (handclaps, dramatic pianos, chintzy organs) that not only allows Kesha to really SANG, but also dovetails nicely with 2017’s GRAMMY-nominated ‘Praying’.
But where that ballad was a searing account of alleged abuse at the hands of disgraced über-producer Dr. Luke, ‘Raising Hell’ is a rapturous celebration of freedom. Even when the unmistakable voice of bounce legend Big Freedia commands you to ‘drop it down low’, this is a party where the guests are drunk on gratitude more than anything else.
Watch Kesha preach the good word and kill her abusive husband(!) in the ‘Raising Hell’ video below:
Psychedelic gloss and a midway U-turn towards gospel make this a pleasingly soulful return.
Harry Styles is very good at writing songs about nothing. That skill has been a liability in the past – see laughably hollow solo debut ‘Sign of the Times’ – yet new single ‘Lights Up’ somehow makes sense of his flair for nebulous lyrical imagery.
Presumably the first offering from the singer’s upcoming sophomore album, the song emulates the hushed ecstasy of indie-pop heavyweights like Miguel or Tame Impala, with a midway U-turn towards gospel and a psychedelic finish.
Musings on knowing ‘who you are’ and shining ‘so bright sometimes’ land with all the sagacity of that guy who brings his acoustic guitar to every house party doing shrooms for the first time. Thankfully, the lush milieu and stacked harmonies add a soulfulness that would otherwise be missing. For three magical minutes, Harry Styles sounds like he’s got something to say.
Watch Harry brush skin with some sweaty people (yes, woman AND men) in the ‘Lights Up’ video below:
Are those the macho revs of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle you hear? Or the enthused purrs of KatyCats the world over?
‘Harleys In Hawaii’, the latest single from Katy Perry’s yet-to-be-announced fifth studio album, promises both.
Produced by Charlie Puth and Johann Carlsson, it’s a tantalising midtempo built on guitar plucks and woozy synths. Giving her sexiest performance in years, Katy invites her lover – who may or may not hold a Hells Angels membership card – to join her on a tropical escapade. According to the fanciful lyrics, she apparently makes this suggestion on a rather humdrum Sunday, because that’s what being a millionaire is like.
‘Harleys’ bridges the optimism of summer with the cool resistance of autumn, lying somewhere between Lana Del Rey’s ‘Doin’ Time’ and Camila Cabello’s ‘Havana’. Like the latter’s now-iconic ‘Havana-na-na-na’ hook, the titular island state is immortalised with its own equivalent: a breathy ‘Hawaii-aii-aii’. At least it should be a hit somewhere.
Watch Katy burn rubber in the ‘Harleys In Hawaii’ video below:
Featuring collaborations with Christine and the Queens, Troye Sivan, Lizzo, HAIM, and Sky Ferreira.
Booking festival stages and Taylor Swift support slots might be a breeze with a couple of transatlantic smashes in your back pocket. But Charli XCX is a popstar who evolves so quickly, and challenges her creative limits so regularly, that her most accessible work – think the punchy, shout-along hooks of ‘I Love It’ or ‘Boom Clap’ – is simply trite compared to her post-2014 pivot to PC Music’s hyper-futuristic robo-pop.
The conflict between these two opposing creative avenues has defined the last four years of Charli’s career: an agonising yet fruitful chapter of label interference, one scrapped third album, two critically-acclaimed mixtapes and an EP, plus an endless stream of singles.
After seven attempts at landing a hit, one of those singles, the Troye Sivan duet ‘1999’, miraculously climbed to #13 in the UK charts last year. Songs like that fluffy bit of Y2K-nostalgia porn aren’t what make long-gestating third album Charli a triumph. If you look at the popstar’s recent body of work as a hedonistic, orgy-fuelled beach resort – housed within an alien dimension where it rains champagne and snows cocaine – ‘1999’ conveys as much of that fun as an official website. But it’s probably the reason Charli has been released at all.
Because here’s the genius of Charli XCX. So deeply ingrained is her pop know-how that, alongside years of reckless experimentation, she has continued to write enough chart hits – for herself and others, see: song of the summer ‘Señorita’ by Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello – and rack up enough industry goodwill to sneak the abstruse synth gimmickry of hipster darlings A.G. Cook, SOPHIE and Danny L Harle into the mainstream.
Take ‘Click’, for example. As soon as the aforementioned single’s gentrified house-pop makes its tidy exit, a protracted blast of feverish synth confirms we’re in business-as-unusual mode. Co-starring Kim Petras and eccentric Estonian rapper Tommy Cash, it’s a godless hymn honouring the whips, the gold, and the instant gratification that comes with being a rockstar: ‘Get what I want like “click” / They want a pic like “click”’. The cocky rhymes are propped up by simple, evocative percussion – until Cash starts rapping about Sudoku and hashtags, and the production becomes openly hostile around him. The final 30 seconds is a collection of twisted, nightmarish sounds typically associated with demonic possession, seemingly added for no other reason than for the amusement of scaring the shit out of any Taylor Swift fans picked up from the Reputation Tour. Bewildering moments like these are what make Charli a triumph.
Thankfully, there are plenty of them. The belligerent ‘Cross You Out’ slow-dances to 80s-prom drums and extraterrestrial rumblings. On ‘2099’, Charli backs up her self-anointed avant-garde status with high-tech, and highly-textured, production. Best of the lot is the Missy Elliot-recalling ‘Shake It’ – a four-way battle royale between Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy, and Pabllo Vittar. Charli plays the part of referee, regularly stepping into the ring to remind you to shake it. Each of these iterations comes flavoured in a new vocal effect, with the singer mutating into everything from a malfunctioning android to sentient liquid.
Whatever creative lane Charli XCX has navigated over the years, she has never stopped writing inherently catchy hooks. Charli is a world where aggressive futurism coexists with comparatively meek but charming single options like ‘White Mercedes’ and ‘Official’. That alone makes it one of the most important pop records of the 2010s, and – if I may be so bold – the next decade to come.
‘Slide Away’ by Miley Cyrus isn’t just a dignified response to a tumultuous year. It’s also an instant classic.
A campfire ballad drunk on late-90s electronica, the new single is patched together using assorted threads of inspiration that unspool with every listen.
‘Bittersweet Symphony’ is an obvious one, while the delicate string-laden outro mirrors the denouement to Madonna’s ‘Don’t Tell Me’, layered with bubbles of altered background vocals by way of Moby. The song’s title is utilised as a clipped and effective hook á la ‘Wide Awake’ by Katy Perry.
Unexpectedly, producers Andrew Wyatt and Mike Will Made It evolve these melancholic elements into an R&B-slanted ambience that feels bracing and comfortingly familiar all at once. Were there no words, you could almost call it an uplifting piece of music.
But there are words. Very sad words.
Addressing her fresh split from teenage sweetheart Liam Hemsworth after nine months of marriage, Miley isn’t angry anymore – just impatient. ‘Move on, we’re not 17,’ she instructs with characteristic grit. ‘You say that everything’s changed / You’re right, we’re grown now’.
The song plays like a comprehensive checklist of a couple’s incompatibilities. Drinking. Drugs. Malibu mansions destroyed by fire. It’s a very mature genre of emotion, told – with brutal honesty – from a beautifully immature perspective.