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

 

[Music] Top Tracks of 2014, Part Two (#30 – #16)

Part One:

#20 – #11 // #10 – #1

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Thanks in no small part to Beyoncé’s still-legendary surprise album drop last December, music lovers spent most of 2014 in anticipation for a similarly strategised blockbuster release that never really came. U2 were brave to test the novel idea of occupying your digital library pretty much by force; the reactions were mixed, with some Apple users describing the move as a violation, although we can only hope the subsequent iCloud-hacking scandal helped put things into perspective for them.

Despite the vaguest hint of a popstar working on new material sparking a raft of paranoid articles detailing an imminent midnight release, Beyoncé’s influence reaches beyond this palpitation-inducing phenomenon. The success of her self-titled record seems to have coaxed labels away from archaically prolonged release dates and woken them up to the lucrative realities of the instant gratification sought after by the internet generation. For this we are grateful, as it was such spontaneity that allowed a strong portion of our Top 30 to fall into our laps. And of course we extend our thanks to you, the music-buying public, for demonstrating the demand necessary for a competitive and stimulating industry. Happy New Year.

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30. Charli XCX – Boom Clap, Sucker

charli-xcx-bella-howard

Available to buy on iTunes

After owning the airwaves this summer with her inescapable Iggy Azalea collaboration “Fancy” – following on from her work on Icona Pop’s 2013 smash “I Love It” – Charli XCX bagged herself a well-deserved solo hit with “Boom Clap”, an old-fashioned power pop love song that’s as warm and light as cappuccino foam. Thank heavens Hilary Duff’s team turned it down; whatever heft “Boom Clap” has comes courtesy of Charli’s smoky Cambridge intonations and punk spirit.

See also:Breaking Up 

29. Mariah Carey – You Don’t Know What To Do [feat. Wale], Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse

me-i-am-mariah-review

Available to buy on iTunes

Smothered within the often soporific mood of Mariah Carey’s latest album, the piano-led intro to “You Don’t Know What To Do” initially sparks fears of more mid-tempo mediocrity. Thankfully, it’s a sonic red-herring; a quick tribute to Gloria Gaynor’s infamous “At first I was afraid, I was petrified…” before launching into a sassy, disco-infused strut.

See also:#Beautiful” [feat. Miguel]

28. Game – Or Nah [feat. Too $hort, Problem, AV & Eric Bellinger], Blood Moon: Year of the Wolf

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Available to buy on iTunes

Chart-chasing pop-rap tracks don’t get any more shameless than “Or Nah”, a Frankenstein’s monster of a jam that stitches catchy but disparate parts – spoken word come-ons (“You gon’ let me hit it, or nah?”), Eric Bellinger’s Usher circa 2005-aping chorus – to the same sticky synths that made Iggy’s “Fancy” so addictive. Game turns in a fun verse (“Tell her hop in my bed, tell her hop off my roof / My baby mama trippin’, and that bitch can shoot”), and while healthy use of the B-word may be off-putting to the some, props to the boys for literally giving the modern, sexually-assured woman a voice on that hilariously blunt pre-chorus.

See also: “The Purge (Year of the Wolf)

27. Lana Del Rey – West Coast, Ultraviolence

Lana-Del-Rey-Ultraviolence

Available to buy on iTunes

The hypnotic “West Coast” reroutes Lana Del Rey’s trademark idealisation of volatile love affairs from the glamour of 1960s Hollywood to a 1990s San Francisco crack den. The scuzzy, psychedelic production fits Del Rey’s new whisky-bathed voice as well as the string-heavy, hermetically-sealed stylings of her debut, particularly whenever the chorus’s bracing shift in tempo kicks in.

See also: “Ultraviolence

26. Ergo Phizmiz – Consequences, The Peacock

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Available to buy on iTunes

Although his name may very well have been generated on a website frequented by wannabe rappers, Ergo Phizmiz is not an up-and-coming hip-hop sensation but a maddeningly prolific purveyor of eccentric chamber pop. The lively “Consequences” blends his gentleman drawl with gloriously nonsensical lyrics and a musty organ shuffle, like your favourite Divine Comedy number with a Britpop swing.

See also: Open Artery Surgery

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