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] Craving Soup at a Warhol Exhibit: Britney Spears’ “Pretty Girls” VS PC Music

britney-spears-iggy-azalea-pretty-girls-2015-billboard-650-promoPretty Girls” has been born into what may prove to be an ideal climate. This is not merely in reference to Britney Spears’ apparent appeal for a summer hit; although the presence of Iggy Azalea and a sticky, “Fancy”-mimicking beat are perhaps enough to account for whatever vitriol may be levelled by detractors of the single, the first to be lifted from Spear’s upcoming album.

Instead, one may take interest in the fact that Spears’ return coincides with A.G. Cook’s ambitions to proliferate both the sound and philosophy of his London-based label PC Music. This month sees the UK releases of what could be viewed as two integral pillars in Cook’s musical colosseum: PC Music Vol. 1, the label’s first official compilation, and the single “Hey QT”, an electro-europop earworm that works as both a parody and celebration of the often shallow nature of mainstream music.

Cook and his collaborators and protégées are receiving praise for applying a thick gloss of irony to pop music’s inherent immediacy. At the core of “Hey QT” is an infectious Aqua-esque melody, one that could have easily been tamed into a legitimate, chart-ready anthem. But the focus is instead on the individual cogs that keep the engine of an effective tune chugging along. As a result, “Hey QT” boasts few layers; the drizzles of crisp synth evaporate on impact, while the decidedly artificial treatment of QT’s (AKA Quinn Thomas, as portrayed by performance artist Hayden Dunham) vocal is a clear nod to artists of Spears’ questionably talented ilk.

These are hallmarks of PC Music’s output, however, and the QT project is certainly witty in its promotion of the titular star as both a pop music siren and a refreshing energy elixir – two essential ingredients for a transcendent dancefloor experience. But it is also rather galling that Spears’ “Pretty Girls” seems destined to be criticised for being built on the same foundations that “Hey QT” coldly sifts through to rapturous applause.

“Pretty Girls” mocks the male gaze (“Is it true all these men are from Mars? / Is that why they be acting bizarre?”) and salutes female vanity in the vaguest possible terms; lyrically, at least, the track never backs its headliners into a corner of self-objectification, and this novel air of innocence is somewhat striking.

But with such an unnerving distinction between Spears’ digital detachment and Azalea’s comparable lucidity, their collaboration is almost a parody in itself. As the designated driver tasked with bringing Spears’ drunken cyber-chipmunk home safely, Azalea emerges as the track’s MVP by default. Her brief but confident verse even harks back to Spears’ own heyday with a tip of the hat to “… Baby One More Time”. While the reference does serve to commemorate the singer’s seventeen-year long career, it also highlights her regression as an imposing presence on her own work; with every yelp of “We’re just so prett-EH!”, Spears’ once inimitably nasal purr is stretched and smooshed into the mix in order to emulate the brassy Brit snarl of Azalea’s “Fancy” co-conspirator Charli XCX.

While one can appreciate the respective merits of “Hey QT” and “Pretty Girls”, we feel compelled to honour the track most purposefully built to entertain. In addition to possessing a smattering of hooks and beefy production from The Invisible Men, the components of Spears’ new single can be delineated and fitted around PC Music’s pseudo-cynical agenda. Like a soup kitchen adjacent to a Warhol exhibit, “Pretty Girls” feeds both the very human needs to observe and participate. RG

[Music] Top 20 Tracks of 2014, Part One (#20 – 11)

No musical trend in recent memory has maintained its credibility quite as strongly as the house resurgence. In it’s purest form, the sparse but meticulously built beats affiliated with the genre are putty in the hands of a capable songwriter. Repetition is a hallmark, but so is solidity; with a serviceable melody locked down, certain artists thrive in their adventures with the blank canvas, an honest musical space that leaves orthodox themes (love, sex, heartbreak, repeat) ugly and exposed. This inherent pluckiness means that even the most chart-chomping house cut can find some love from the alt-music blogosphere, if not for its emotional resonance, then for a semi-ironic admiration of it’s 90’s credentials.

The house movement has been something of a trojan horse in the UK, ushering a host of homegrown talents – MNEK, Duke Dumont, Clean Bandit – into the Top 40, as well as allowing comparably exotic acts – Kiesza, Faul & Wad Ad – to be welcomed with open arms (Take that, UKIP). Our list reflects this popularity, but also bridges the gap between radio-friendly hits and Pitchfork-approved gems. Also on our radar this year are talent show also-rans, a Cuban sex-pest and a smattering of “conscious uncouplings”.

Enjoy.

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20. Pitbull – Timber [feat. Ke$ha], TBA

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Available to buy on iTunes

The unlikely union of country music and dance arrived last year in the form of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”, but that was a rather stony-faced foundation for what should have been an unashamedly tacky subgenre.

Enter mediocre rapper Pitbull, LOL-pop refugee Ke$ha, and a tangy, harmonica-led instrumental. “Timber” is purpose-built for dance floor domination; Mr. Worldwide’s verses are mercifully brief, serving as clumsy foreplay for the song’s infectious hook and riotous breakdown. He isn’t a complete spare part, however: that pre-chorus is what sweaty, late hour nightclub-based dreams are made of.

See also: “Wild Wild Love” [feat. GRL], “Wake Me Up” / “Hey Brother” by Avicii

19. Le Youth – Dance With Me [feat. Dominique Young Unique], TBA

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Available to buy on iTunes

On his second single, L.A.-based DJ Le Youth eschews the sumptuous ebb and flow of his Cassie-sampling breakthrough hit “C O O L”, instead turning in a relentlessly funky jam built on curt snippets from TLC’s iconic “No Scrubs”. Jubilant house piano stabs and a spongy bassline negate Dominique Young Unique’s limp rap.

See also: Le Youth’s excellent Fixtape, “Falling Scrubs” (TLC vs. Haim – Carlos Serrano Mash-Up)

18. MNEK – Every Little Word, TBA

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Available to buy on iTunes

Considering the current ubiquity of the genre, rising British star Uzoechi Osisioma Emenike (A.K.A MNEK) took a gamble in not following up his Gorgon City collaboration “Ready For Your Love” with another sleek house-inspired gem. “Every Little Word” is arguably just as sweet in its content, but frames MNEK’s soulful voice with confrontational production tricks. Drums pound, basslines wobble comically, and a randy Darth Vader asks repeatedly if we “fuck to this sh*t”.

No judgment if you do.

See also: Ready for Your Love, Baby”  by Rudimental [feat. MNEK & Sinead Harnett]

17. Faul & Wad Ad VS. Pnau – Changes, Changes E.P.

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Available to buy on iTunes

With a whirling saxophone, euphoric synths and a children’s choir (lifted from Pnau’s frankly creepy 2007 single “Baby”) all vying for your attention over the course of six minutes, it’s a miracle this debut effort from French producers Faul & Wad Ad isn’t a convoluted mess. The duo take care to ensure the separate elements all get a chance to shine, but it’s that sax-lad denouement that lends “Changes” its earthy beauty.

See also: Changes” (Bontan Remix)

16. Kiesza – Hideaway, TBA

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Available to buy on iTunes

This ridiculously assured debut from Canadian pop ingénue Kiesza hit the UK No. 1 spot in April, although punters were perhaps so entranced by the transcendent deep-house cut’s one-take, choreography-heavy video that they failed to notice a crucial lack of identity between the strong verses and understated breakdown.

As much she feels like a guest vocalist on her own track, Kiesza still has the makings of a top tier popstar.

See also: What Is Love

15. St. Vincent – Digital Witness, St. Vincent

St-Vincent

Available to buy on iTunes

Critics bemoaned the lack of Anne “St. Vincent” Clark’s signature riffing on her latest self-titled record, but the glossy, pseudo-psychedelic saunter of “Digital Witness” is all the better for it, instead leaving the heavy-lifting to a rubbery horn section and stonking bass.

A scathing treatise on social media, Clark asks “If you can’t see me / What’s the point of doing anything?” – skewering our if-a-tree-falls-in-a-forest approach to what were once life’s simple pleasures.

See also: Birth In Reverse”, “Prince Johnny

14. Ariana Grande – Problem [feat. Iggy Azalea], TBA

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Available to buy on iTunes

An underfed chorus mars this otherwise brilliant slice of summery hip-hop-pop, courtesy of perennial hit-maker Max Martin (Britney Spears, Katy Perry). Nickelodeon star Grande has been on our radars since last year’s “The Way” positioned her as the new Mariah Carey, but “Problem” ushers the twenty year old into more club-friendly territory.

Her sugary but powerful voice contrasts nicely with the track’s thumping beat and post-“Thrift Shop” saxophone breakdown, but it’s rapper Iggy Azalea who really impresses, putting tired assertions of her “swag” aside for a moment to deliver an attitude-packed verse.

See also:The Way”, “Wait (The Whisper Song)” by Ying Yang Twins, “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea [feat. Charli xcx]

13. Shift K3Y – Touch, Touch E.P.

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Available to buy on iTunes

There’s a whiff of Craig David’s early noughties forays into garage on “Touch”, thanks in part to Shift K3Y’s (nee Lewis Jankel) soft, nasally timbre. The italo disco-flavoured production is surprisingly minimalist, although the track whirls by at such a pace that mistaking it for a kitchen-sink affair would be forgivable.

See also: Make It Good, Keep Your Mouth Shut (Things That We Do)” [feat. Griminal]

12. Soft Lit – Ocean King, GODMODE: Common Interests Were Not Enough to Keep Us Together

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Available to buy from Godmode’s online store 

New York-based roommates-turned-musical duo Tyler McCauley and visual artist Tara Chacon meld R&B-friendly melodies with airy, organic production on “Ocean King”, one of the many highlights from Godmode’s excellent label showcase compilation Common Interests Were Not Enough to Keep Us Together.

McCauley contrasts almost-murmured verses with dark, fizzing synths and rattling drum machines come the chorus, with Chacon’s Kate Bush-style harmonies selling a dramatic tale of a love gone sour.

See also: Lately

11. Shakira – Empire, Shakira

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Available to buy from iTunes

Blank out all memories of the underwhelming Rihanna duet “Can’t Remember to Forget You”; pop’s ultimate bohemian streamlined her baroque musical style into an Alanis Morissette-esque piano ballad-cum-rock number that only she could pull off, complete with distorted stadium-sized howls.

See also: Chasing Shadows“, “Cut Me Deep” [feat. Magic!]

Continued – Tracks #10 – #1

[Music] Top 35 Tracks of 2013 (#35 – #21)

35. Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines [feat. Pharrell and T.I.], Blurred Lines

Available from iTunes

YouTube-Bans-RB-Singers-Video-+18-2As divisive as the track may be, it would be churlish to ignore Robin Thicke’s monstrously successful ode to dodgy dance floor-based ethics when summing up the last year in music. The presence of the currently infallible Pharrell Williams and a warm, Marvin Gaye-aping instrumental – not to mention a notoriously ‘stripped-back’ promo video – combined to create a heady cocktail that had punters checking their social consciousnesses at the door. For better or for worse, “Blurred Lines” is the sound of pure carnal lust left unspoiled by the pressures of political correctness.

34. Britney Spears – Work Bitch, Britney Jean

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It would seem the record-buying public didn’t appreciate the irony of being told to work harder by one of the laziest ladies in pop, which may explain their apathy towards the first offering from Spears’ eighth studio album, Britney Jean. Following the ubiquity of last year’s “Scream & Shout”, launching with a Will.i.am-penned banger was a no-brainer, but no one could anticipate that their reunion could yield a song as devoid of grey matter as “Work Bitch”. What the track lacks in brains, however, it makes up for with the strength of its steely balls. Eschewing any form of tangible structure, relying on only a hard, repetitive beat and Spears’ trademark British accent, the song feels as alien to the wants of radio as the woman singing it feels removed from the wants of the industry, and in that sense it makes for a fascinating listen.

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