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

[Music] Roughion – Ti & Me (review)

Ti & Me artworkAvailable to buy on iTunes, or stream on Soundcloud

Don’t let the opening slow waltz of homemade keyboards and gasping synths fool you – the first official release from welsh DJ act Roughion soon erupts into a gleaming piece of dance floor silver.

“Ti & Me” is ridiculously assured bedroom-electronica, and an exciting calling card for musicians Steffan Woodruff and Gwion Llyr, who premiered the track on BBC Radio on June 14th.

Refreshingly, this languid first impression doesn’t actually need to erupt into something bigger. Guesting vocalist Lois Shelton gives a soft yet convincing account of a relationship under threat, but the sparkling build-up does serve to match her growing determination to save it.

When the climax comes, the near-cosmic blend of instruments is as immersive as a flirtatiously dangerous river, while hollow drums machines skip past like rounded pebbles. It’s a winning sound, capturing the purity of the thoughts we can only have when we feel truly alone.

09/10

AlunaGeorge’s “I’m In Control” is calculated yet inspired

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Available to buy on iTunes

Very few acts could be said to be lucky not to have scored a single hit from their debut album, but AlunaGeorge may be one of them.

Laying claim to only half of the success of their stellar Disclosure collaboration “White Noise” and a smattering of Top 50 singles from 2013’s Body Music, the return of Aluna Francis and George Reid finds the duo unburdened by an association with a certain sound, or even a particular year of British music.

This relative anonymity allows the warm, tropical textures of new single “I’m In Control” to wash over Francis’ voice without drowning out the refreshing spark AlunaGeorge originally brought to cuts such as “You Know You Like It”. The track couldn’t be more on-trend, planting its flag firmly in the same swampy paradise as Diplo’s 2015-defining hit “Lean On”.

Francis’ voice is still girly and detached, but on “I’m In Control” she tests the limits of her cool enigmatism, singing as if she doesn’t give a hoot whether you listen or not. It’s a tug-of-war that Francis ultimately wins, with lyrics such as “You’ve gotta go deeper than deep / to get me off” practically pulling your ears towards the speaker.

When the beat inevitably drops, it’s insistent and addictive, if a little familiar. What should spare AlunaGeorge from accusations of trend-chasing is just how well both Francis’ chorus and the contributions of MOBO-winning reggae artist Popcaan mesh with the instrumental as the track ramps up, creating a single that feels both heavily calculated and inspired. 

10/10

[Music] Jess Glynne – I Cry When I Laugh (review)

15-JessGlynne_ICryWhenILaugh_NoText_0Available to buy on iTunes

Review: While Adele drifts in hypersleep around the outskirts of our pop galaxy, the British public’s enthusiasm for Jess Glynne’s similarly husky tones suggests that a disco-driven return for the platinum-selling singer could be particularly lucrative.

At least that’s what Glynne seems to be banking on throughout her debut album I Cry When I Laugh. The quinoa-flavoured dance-pop of “Hold My Hand”, “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself” and the Clean Bandit collaboration “Real Love” whizz by with a cheeriness that can be almost nauseating, but it’s difficult to fault their structures. Whether it’s a double-barreled chorus, rumbling choir or pirouetting piano stabs, each artifice is deployed with the utmost precision.

In an age when controversy seems to be the primary way of ushering fresh talent into the public consciousness, Glynne’s ascent has been a relatively quiet one. Yet the absence of a titanic personality is actually the album’s trump card. It’s refreshing to approach a record with no external drama to spoil or undermine a sense of relentless optimism that’s perceptible from the song titles alone.

The roller rink disco of “You Can Find Me” makes for a delightful standout. One could never describe Glynne’s delivery as fierce or even particularly charismatic, but she’s rarely less than engaging, and inside the track’s bubble of subtle synth, funky bass lines and soulful backing vocals, she casts a warm and enchanting presence. The clanking percussion and austere violin strokes of deluxe track “Home”, meanwhile, adds a much-needed variation in sound.

Glynne avoids an excess of guest stars; a wise move for an artist that’s credited as a feature artist on three out five of her number one singles. Still, the addition of a slushy Emeli Sandé duet entitled “Saddest Vanilla” shows she may be comically unaware of her own inoffensive persona.

More successful is “Take Me Home”, which excels within the narrow parameters set by the modern piano ballad.  It also seems destined to become a staple sing-a-long for those hoping to land a shag at the end of a night out – another mammoth achievement for Glynne in a career that’s been startlingly full of them.

6.5/10

[Music] Veruca Salt – Ghost Notes (review)

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Source: ladygunn.com
Available to buy on iTunes

Review: A bitchy little devil sits cross-legged on my shoulder, fanning himself while whispering banal observations in my ear: “Hey, look at those Veruca Salt chicks that gave your life meaning as a teenager. They look pretty hot for a pair of moms, no?”

I’ve always been a staunch ambassador for female dignity, but these shivers of sexism suggest that the urge to equate a woman’s worth with how youthful she appears can be irresistible – no matter how much you respect them.

Now it’s not as if singer-guitarists Nina Gordon and Louise Post ever rocked out with paper bags on their heads as a “fuck you” to those who found them attractive. It just felt like a rather lame thing for my mind to note.

Ghost Notes is the first album to feature the original Veruca Salt quartet since a bust-up between the band’s frontwomen saw Gordon jump ship in 1998. It begins by spreading a smooth, girlish voice across a crunchy bed of 90’s alt-rock riffs: “I wanted to live / so I pretended to die,” Gordon sings with a wink to fervent fans.

The Gospel According to Saint Me” is a bubbly toast to the band’s reformation, but from the sprightly spark of Gordon’s voice, you wouldn’t guess that it’s been nearly two decades since the full-fat arena rock of 1997’s Eight Arms to Hold You.

There are juicy allusions to Post and Gordon’s fall-out throughout the album, but “The Gospel…” is notable for looking firmly to the future. “It’s gonna get loud / it’s gonna get heavy,” Gordon and Post reiterate in harmony, and it’s often the bristling sugar-rush of these reunified voices that makes Ghost Notes sound so vital.

The moment I heard Gordon’s youthful tone, I thought I had found a loop-hole. “Perhaps you could judge women by how young they sound…” the bitchy devil began to plot.

This was until a barrage of Post-led tracks reacquainted me with her voice, which is coarser, more aged, and eminently more versatile than it was on 2006’s IV, the second of Veruca Salt’s two Gordon-less records. Atop the melancholy grind of power ballad “The Sound of Leaving”, Post’s soft confessionals lurch into serrated yowls with a fluidity that prevents the shift in tempo from sapping the record’s momentum.

So, if Ghost Notes confirms anything, it’s that getting older can be an absolute blast. In addition to the ensuing years putting a fresh spin Post and Gordon’s vocal synchronicity, the band’s songwriting has never been stronger. “Laughing in the Sugar Bowl” and “Eyes On You” are joyous celebrations of the rekindled friendship between Veruca Salt’s leading ladies, but it’s “Black and Blonde” that gives a sharp insight into their reparations.

Once an unflattering tribute to the formerly black-haired Post, this off-cut from Gordon’s solo debut has been rewritten to address the dude-feud that brought the band to a halt.

Gordon dispenses the read-between-the-lines gossip with indifference (“No one ever really has to know / ‘Cause he was just some bloody so-and-so”) before repackaging her and Post’s trauma as a bonding experience; first on an utter slugfest of a chorus (“You beat me black and blonde […] You break me down / and I’ll take you on”), then on a beautifully harmonised middle-eight (“Sleep, little child / I forgive you / and for the pain I caused, I’m sorry, too”).

Brad Wood, producer of the band’s debut American Thighs in 1994, wisely gives these harmonies pride of place among the expected storms of jagged guitar, Jim Shapiro’s whiplash drumming and Steve Lack’s prowling bass, with even the panting stampede of “Laughing in the Sugar Bowl” indebted to the pair’s vocal interplay and zany countdowns – solfeggio syllables erupting into an impatient “LA-LA-LA-LA!”, for instance – more than anything else.

Veruca Salt have never been known for their profound songwriting skills, and while the apologetic highlight “I’m Telling You Now” stacks cliché upon lyrical cliché, the band knows how to blow them away with an infectious confetti-canon finale. As they whoop and cheer beneath a spotlight that once probed every messy detail of their lives, you realise just how special this record is.

Beneath it’s bratty veneer, Ghost Notes is a fourteen-track paean to the virtue of forgiveness. Not only can it reignite a once glowing friendship; it can pave the way for the best record of your career.

9.0/10

[Television] Katy Perry’s Superbowl Halftime Show

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Like grief, the build-up to the National Football League’s crowning point yields a series of emotional stages to wade through. As a relative NFL neophyte, each year I am cyclically forced to come to terms with the fact that America’s ever-increasingly popular television event has very little to do with bowling – the one sport we can actually understand – and it is annually left to the promise of a glittery Halftime extravaganza to extinguish the disappointment that always seems to follow.

Instead of adhering to tradition by sourcing a dodgy stream of the musical centrepiece after being tipped off about a popstar’s imminent appearance through Twitter, on Sunday we treated ourselves to the full four-hour Super Bowl experience. Maybe it was down to the fact that our coverage came courtesy of Britain’s Channel 4, but the presentation felt devoid of the garish Americana we had been anticipating. The inherently stop-start nature of American Football – ten-minute bursts of ball-chasing sandwiched between pointlessly speculative studio-based commentary – doesn’t exactly lend itself to a thrilling viewing experience, so I had accepted that some tedium was a given, but the overall atmosphere within Phoenix Stadium seemed oddly non-existent.

That was of course before Katy Perry took to the stage. With its notorious aversion to live instrumentation and vocals, the Halftime show may seem tailor made for a star as gloriously unpretentious as Perry, allowing the thirty year-old hit-maker to play to her strengths, which coincidently do not include live singing and strenuous choreography. But what most people do not realise is that Perry has shown herself to be a very competent performer in more intimate settings on more than one occasion, so the best a fan could hope for as the singer’s big moment loomed closer was for her to not to be swallowed up in the spectacle that would inevitably ensue. Her entrance via a silver polygonally sculpted lion amidst a sea of luminous balloons to the tune of “Roar” set the tone of wacky opulence, with Jeremy Scott’s chintzy girl-on-fire dress well matched to the opening number’s call-to-arms vigour.

Perry followed it up with “Dark Horse”, that other megahit from her 2013 album PRISM, strutting atop a giant screen displaying a see-sawing chessboard with some humanoid chess-piece friends. Lenny Kravitz’s dropped in for an unexpectedly electrifying cameo on “I Kissed A Girl”, his thick guitar thrashes adding some welcome meat to the track’s bones. Next up was “Teenage Dream” – the least gimmicky and subsequently best single to be lifted from its behemoth of a parent album – which Perry took to a self-consciously weird, Yo Gabba Gabba!-esque beach set-up to deliver. The soon-to-be-timeless pop-rock anthem deserved its own staging as opposed to being reduced to a glorified preamble to “California Gurls”, but it was hard to not to raise a smile at the sight of Perry, complete with beach umbrella breasts, interact with plush sharks and beach paraphernalia when miming along to her dumbest single. The attention to detail throughout the production was impressive, right down to the microphones that were styled to match each individual outfit.

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It is perhaps just as well that Perry had no intention of launching a new single off the back of the performance, as when Missy Elliot emerged looking like Janet Jackson circa Rhythm Nation 1814 to perform a stupefyingly brilliant “Get Your Freak On” / “Work It” / “Lose Control” medley, it suddenly became all-too easy to forget just whose show this was supposed to be. Past performers have been burned in unexpected ways by their guests before, but if Perry was jealous of Missy’s attention-grabbing turn, it certainly didn’t show as she bopped and hooted along like only a true fan could. Some may call their reluctance to segue into the Missy remix of “Last Friday Night” a missed opportunity, but that collaboration was just one of the rapper’s many creative low points since her halcyon days ended with 2006’s singles compilation Respect M.E. and was wise to leave undisturbed.

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If the thought of Katy Perry drawing her Super Bowl Halftime concert to a close by ‘belting’ out “Firework” while riding around in mid-air on a – you guessed it! – firework emoji come to life seems a bit too predictable, then perhaps you’re forgetting that the catalyst for her mammoth success so far has been an enthusiastic adherence to formula. Perry has seen what happened to Lady Gaga – whose self-alienation from the public pretty much ran parallel to Katy’s own ascendance to pop’s upper echelons – and has since shown herself to be one of the few popstars who rarely fails to give the people what they want. What those behind the Super Bowl Halftime Show want is predictability, and as an event that must cater to such a humbling array of demographics, it is one of the few events where what the public wants and needs align perfectly. Perry’s somewhat bland reliability may have made her a frontrunner for the competitive slot, but it was the professionalism she demonstrated on Sunday night that proved her to be a worthy choice. RG

[Music] “Three”: The Peak of Suga Mountain

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Pop – or rather, the perception of it – has come a long way since 2003. As a forum-frequenting witness to the feverish hostility between fans of the UK’s most prolific noughties girl groups, I appreciate that crowbarring Girls Aloud into a reappraisal of a Sugababes album may scan as a mammoth failure of imagination. But while it’s safe to assume that at gunpoint any pinhead could muster a joke about the Sugababes’s infamous line-up changes and the philosophical implications they present, there appears to be significantly less interest in the Freaky Friday-style swap that took place between the perceived credibility of each band by the end of their Top 40 tenures.

Sugababes began life as young counterparts to All Saints, with their remarkably cohesive but underrated debut One Touch setting the precedent for the adolescent trio; they were moody, despondent and reluctantly cool. One change in personnel and one triple-platinum album (2002’s Angels with Dirty Faces) later, and the ‘Babes were bona fide popstars with a skilfully retained edge over the talent show-assembled Girls Aloud. The addition of glossy Liverpudlian Heidi Range may have resulted in some welcome lad mag coverage, but the Sugababes were still ostensibly seen as credible and streetwise when compared to their nubile pop puppet rivals. This is despite the fact that each group’s launch – or in the Babes’s case, relaunch – hinged on the work of the same production team.

“Round Round” and “Sound of the Underground” remain alien to cliché, and both came courtesy of Xenomania. Even though their full-time musical avatars Girls Aloud could knock out a flamboyantly aggressive masterpiece like “Graffiti My Soul” by their sophomore album, the band’s tacky image, along with the singer / songwriter marketing angle the Babes established with the release of One Touch, allowed the latter to emerge as identifiably credible. But as we learnt during the risible busker-rock revival of 2005-07, credibility means zilch if you have nothing else to offer. There’s no doubt Range, Mutya Buena, and Keisha Buchanan had something special between them, and it was the Three era that distilled this in its most potent form.

Try our own mix of “Three” via Spotify.

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