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

 

Katy B works the stickier side of the dance floor on “Turn The Music Louder”

THE ONEAs chart-ready bangers go, “Turn the Music Louder (Rumble)” is virtually foolproof.

KDA’s “Rumble” instrumental earned kudos from the likes of Annie Mac and Pete Tong when a re-edit from Shadow Child started doing the rounds back in April, while a guesting Tinie Tempah has already proven to be an enduring chart presence since scoring his sixth UK number one with “Not Letting Go” this summer.

Yet the track’s real pull is a riveting turn from London-born vocalist Katy B. The coalition that Katy’s cool but expressive voice forms with KDA’s ricocheting beats highlights just how badly 2014’s Little Red failed to capitalise on the singer’s innate understanding of dance music.

The success of electro-ballad “Crying For No Reason” allowed Katy to exhibit some versatility, but in a year where every other number one took cues from sounds Katy arguably helped usher into the charts with her 2011 debut On A Mission, it was frustrating to see her shine from the sidelines of pop.

KDA’s “Rumble” is a simple but heady cocktail of arcade synths and pummeling percussion, but without the pointed angles of something like Oliver Helden’s “Gecko” – another club-tested instrumental given the ‘vocal treatment’ to become last year’s chart-topping “Overdrive”– a rewrite would have had to be lyrically bold in order to truly impress.

Alas, Tinie Tempah’s raps are mere splashes from an alcohol-addled stream of consciousness. This isn’t normally a problem when dealing with a dance track, but the song’s superior second half presents a missed opportunity.

Morphing into what is essentially a solo track, the song allows Katy to reel off a bunch of clichéd observations about her ride-or-die infatuation (“I wish I could forget / the day that we first met / But now it’s blowing up / I just can’t get enough”). That Tinie never thought to play the Lothario to Katy’s blushing damsel throughout his verses is a disappointment, as this would added a sense of cohesion to the listener’s experience.

An unimaginative but infallible chart hit, “Turn the Music Louder (Rumble)” is most notable for returning Katy B to the stickier side of the dance floor. Here’s hoping her tears don’t wash her away from it yet again.

[Music] Top 20 Tracks of 2014, Part One (#10 – #1)

Tracks #20 – #11 Recap 

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10. Ben Khan – Youth, 1992 E.P.

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Available to buy on iTunes

On his debut E.P., London-born musician Ben Khan melds spirited guitar licks with soft, sugary synths and his own smoky tones. Standout track “Youth” adds gun clicks and spectral wails, providing an adventurous soundscape that offsets the cautionary lyrics. One to watch.

See also:Savage”, “Drive, Pt. 1

9. Coldplay – “Magic”, Ghost Stories

Available to buy on iTunes

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Gone are the homogenised chunks of Sky Sports advert-friendly pop-rock that Coldplay been both praised and reviled for over the years – “Magic” is a tasteful (and possibly unrequited) love letter recounted over bristling bass plucks, soft piano and ghostly atmospherics from producer Paul Epworth (Florence and the Machine, Adele).

With his voice front and centre throughout, Chris Martin’s pained falsetto splinters at all the right moments, but it’s the emotional sucker punch of a one-sided conversation come the finale that makes the band’s chart resilience something to cherish.

See also: Midnight

8. Veruca Salt – “The Museum of Broken Relationships”, TBA

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Available to buy from iTunes 

A reunion of Veruca Salt’s original line-up was so inconceivable for fans of the Chicago alt-pop-rock foursome that to see high-profile publications such as Pitchfork and Rolling Stone – who gave the group’s final record together a damning one and a half stars back in 1997 – come out to praise their latest track “The Museum of Broken Relationships” was merely icing on the cake.

It was only fitting, then, that this uncoiling bundle of frothy garage rock drips with Generation X apathy. “He loves me again” frontwomen Nina Gordon and Louise Post sing before clarifying their own stance on the matter: “I. DON’T. CARE!” The track breaks down into a storm of dark, jagged guitar and elated whoops, celebrating the re-arrival of a group who’ve transcended the need for industry approval.

See also:Seether“, “Volcano Girls

7. Ella Henderson – Ghost, Chapter One

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Available to buy on iTunes

Under normal circumstances, a two year wait between a X Factor contestant’s elimination and the release of their debut single is never a good sign. With a new roster of starry-eyed singers cropping up every year, it’s all too easy to slip through the cracks of the public’s consciousness. But the emergence of Gabriella ‘Ella’ Henderson this year is a rare case of a talent being nurtured, not just juiced for a quick buck.

Paired with One Republic frontman and don of the noughties power-ballad Ryan Tedder, Henderson concocted the gospel-tinged “Ghost”; a fusion of dry, testy verses and a tsunami-sized chorus, with an enraptured performance from Henderson that will make you a believer.

See also: “Believe” (Cher cover)

6. Cher Lloyd – Bind Your Love, Sorry I’m Late

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Available to buy on iTunes 

A self-proclaimed “brat” during her time on X Factor UK, Cher Lloyd was ill-served by the faux-urban EDM of “Swagger Jagger”, her first and only No. 1 single. Lloyd’s real strengths lie in either sweet’n’sour bubblegum pop (“Want U Back”) or graceful, rock-tinged torch songs (her cover of Shakespeare’s Sister’s “Stay”), with this cut from her latest album being a glossy combination of both.

See also:Sirens“, “I Wish” [feat. T.I.]

5. Beyoncé – Drunk In Love [feat. Jay Z], Beyoncé

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Available to buy on iTunes

On the closest thing Beyoncé’s guerilla album campaign had to a lead single, Mr. and Mrs. Carter update their marital status from “Crazy” to “Drunk” – and the shift is palpable.

In 2003, Bey was love’s bewildered victim. The symptoms were wild and incapacitating, but relatively innocent. Fast forward a decade and she’s a motor-mouthed potty-mouth with an obvious addiction. As endlessly quotable as they are, Bey’s punky, twisted verses also reveal a strong character at home with not only her sexuality, but her very being. To think millions of listeners have been exposed to a revered female saying she has no complaints with her body is a wonderful thing.

Jay’s Anna Mae faux-pas robs the song of a crack at full-on brilliance, which is a crying shame considering he otherwise adapts quite well to the track’s kinky irreverence, a tone kick-started by a sumptuously reverberating bass, finger-clicks and a Hatsune Miku-alike warble that may be very well be the best call to the dance floor since Britney famously declared her arrival. Bitch.

See also: Partition”, “Haunted”, “***Flawless

4. Katy B – Crying For No Reason, Little Red

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Available to buy on iTunes // Read our review of Little Red

There was a time in early 2014 where Brixton-born singer Katy B looked set to join the likes of Diana Vickers, Little Boots and Alexandra Burke in the Hall of Spurned British Females, pop stars who fell prey to the British music industry’s fickle nature. Tastemakers championed Katy as the Next Big Thing back in 2011, but last year saw the singles preceding her sophomore record struggle to go Top 10. As anyone who’s ever had a teary jive to “5 AM” will tell you, quality wasn’t an issue. So what was one of pop’s most lovable ingénues to do?

“Crying For No Reason” once again proves that every record label should have access to a big red button with the name “GUY CHAMBERS” on it. As a producer, Chambers is no stranger to commercial resurrections – even mid-campaign, as the success of Robbie William’s career-saving hit “Angels” will attest too – and his collaboration with Katy is a sprawling ballad, with spacey synths running parallel with an earnest piano riff before the song suddenly shifts towards breakstep territory.

Much of the excitement comes from the production being consistently on the verge of a Robyn-style dance-the-tears-away breakthrough, but Chambers never lets the clattering percussion overwhelm his star. Katy has never had a better showcase for her pure, gently accented voice, and the dexterity with which she ramps up the drama in the final chorus is captivating. In carefully choosing which buttons to push, she demonstrates the difference with painstaking acrobatics and simply flinging oneself from an unwise height.

See also: Still“, “Everything“, “Aaliyah” [feat. Jessie Ware]

3. Shamir – “If It Wasn’t True”, Northtown E.P.

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Available to buy on iTunes 

Las Vegas-born teenager Shamir Bailey boasts a raw, Nina Simone-alike timbre, one that effortlessly surfs the chilly house beats of his debut EP. On break-up track “If It Wasn’t True”, he summarises big emotions (“We can’t speak without a single shout”) with a knowingly dead-eyed delivery – that is until he trips what sounds like a nest of mechanised hornets, just in time for a last-minute eruption of relationship angst.

See also: I Know It’s A Good Thing“, “Sometimes A Man

2. Kelis – “Rumble”, FOOD

Kelis

Available to buy on iTunes // Read our review of FOOD

Thematically split between the joy of an estranged ex handing back their key and a last-minute appeal for them to stay, the swampy “Rumble” is almost a duet. But for every squall of “Baby, don’t go!”, there’s a dose of the iconoclastic diva we know and love (“We don’t need therapy / What I need is you to leave”), with the song’s relieved chorus suggesting a burgeoning independence.

See also:Jerk Ribs”, “Breakfast”, “Biscuits’n’Gravy

1. Clean Bandit – Rather Be [feat. Jess Glynne], New Eyes

Clean Bandit

Available to buy on iTunes 

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at XL Recordings when two executives find their argument over which direction the label cash cow Adele’s should take on her next LP interrupted by a spirited, string-laden ditty blaring from the office radio. Classy but catchy, sprightly but sagacious, and with a vocalist who has more than a few shades a certain Diamond-certified seller to her nuances, “Rather Be” is that rarest of things: a hit you can’t hate.

Dwelling on Jess Glynne’s appearance seems a little besides the point, however, considering she is merely one of a dozen singers to grace the band’s debut record. Primarily comprised of a bassist, cellist, violinist, and a drummer and keyboardist, Clean Bandit are a group who live to up their moniker with productions that are fresh, streamlined, and yes, clean, but rarely clinical.

Adding strings is a classic ploy for credibility in pop music – a crime Clean Bandit have arguably been guilty of previously – but on “Rather Be” they’re used almost exclusively to complement the accompanying piano and popping synths that signal the group’s deep house fascination.

For all the quartet’s musical finesse, however, it is Glynne who stands out as the track’s MVP. “Rather Be” may be a pleading love song, but it’s hard to recall the last time an artist made co-dependency sound quite so empowering.

See also: Extraordinary“, “Mozart’s House“, “Cologne

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[Music] Katy B – Little Red (review)

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Available to buy from iTunes.

Review: “I just can’t blend in…” Katy B laments as Little Red begins to wind down; a dangerous statement to make considering even her biggest fans would struggle to label the chirpy Brixtonian as an extrovert. One of the most refreshing things about her 2011 debut On a Mission was how she reclaimed partying for the people, breaking down the myriad emotions of a night out over racy house beats in a way that only a quasi-wallflower could. In an interview with The Quietus back in February, Katy explained the fate of “Hot Like Fire” – a sexy, raucous blast of attitude that positions the usually modest singer in a whole new light. But her account rather ironically paints her as disappointingly passive; apparently Geeneus, her producer and co-manager, was “unhappy with his bassline. Or something.” And so a potential game-changer festers on the deluxe edition.

Katy’s loyalty to the Rinse FM honcho is understandable; his continued guidance has yielded a cleaner, more well-oiled machine than her debut. Singles “5 AM” and “Crying for No Reason” showcase the album’s duality of dancefloor-ready bangers and gusty, synth-laden balladry. Katy once again thrives on tracks driven by intimate, often internalised scenarios. Jessie Ware joins her in confronting a DJ boyfriend’s temptress on “Aaliyah”, “5 AM” examines a post-party panic attack, while the clattering anxiety of “All My Lovin’” retraces those final steps towards an all-consuming desire.

The success of “Crying…” has most likely led to a mellower record than originally planned, but in a manner appropriate for a record once plagued by pushbacks and an aborted lead single, Little Red rewards perseverance. Both the greasy, hi-hat-heavy slog of “I Like You” and the aimless clipped beats of “Sapphire Blue” explode in their final stretches. In the latter, Katy takes a potentially banal breakdown (“No more walls / No more doors / No more windows / No more floors”) and sells it with a passion unheard of from her contemporaries. Whatever she may lack in showmanship, Katy more than makes for in her ability to transform what once bordered on filler material into an album highlight. Little Red deserves to be massive.

8.5/10

[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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