Katy Perry is wide awake on “Chained to the Rhythm”

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“Chained to the Rhythm” is the closest Katy Perry has come to a political statement. Over an italo-disco groove reminiscent of Carly Simon’s “Why”, the singer both condones and condemns a generation adept at blocking out the world’s woes.

Producer Max Martin doesn’t budge from his power-pop formula, swaddling Perry’s epiphanies in pastel synths and slippery bass. At times it even works as a snarky endorsement of cheap escapism (“Put your rose-coloured glasses on, and party on”).

The chorus is wordy and elastic, ending on a clunky hook that betrays Sia’s co-writing credit. Perry’s moral awakening is perhaps best summed up by Skip Marley (grandson of Bob) in a rousing and hopeful verse: “We’re about to riot / they woke up the lions!

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

Florence Welch is deeply impressive on “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful”

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Available to buy on iTunes

Countless singers have profited from subjecting their raw talents and pedestrian image to a trial by fire, often at the hands of discerning music execs. The synergism of a politely edgy aesthetic, expert media training and just a whiff of the charisma that once lit up their busking corner is often what propels artists to the upper echelons of pop.

Yet an artist’s embryonic incarnations can also prove fascinating to their fan base, and at times leave them pining churlishly for a purer distillation of their musical messiah. That nobody longs for Florence and the Machine to revert to the garage-rock of “Kiss with a Fist” goes to show how ingenious Florence Welch’s shift from Lily Allen peer to medieval wench-chic was.  

Her reinvention spurred 2009’s Lungs to soundtrack a summer of daisy chain-making for many a middle-class teenager. It is to Welch’s credit however, that her festival-friendly attire was the perfect accompaniment to the pompous, string-strewn production and fantastical lyrical imagery of her music.

This sound was arguably perfected on 2012’s Ceremonials, but those left exhausted by that record’s Gothic bombast may find reprieve with the more traditional rock of their latest effort, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.

Just don’t come expecting the puckishness of “Kiss with a Fist”. “What Kind of Man” flexes a few angry muscles with its edgy guitar strokes and indignant howls (“You let me dangle / at cruel angles” and so on and so forth), but the track’s one-line chorus and Will Gregory’s stiff brass section never emulsify, blunting the track’s ferocity when it should be charging into battle.

But this is a rare and minor fumble. Elsewhere, Gregory’s contributions add a swashbuckling flavour to otherwise sober assessments of modern relationships, particularly on the rallying stomp of “Queen of Peace”.

Aside from her voice, Welch’s trump card has always been her otherworldly expressions of familiar emotions. For the first time however, her lyrics shine a light on once foreboding shadows. Rather than a stab at spiritual titillation, the title track’s opening reference to a crucifix stands as nothing more than an allusion to the bland Los Angeles vista facing Welch as she jumped into an unhealthy romance with an indecisive man.

This man is the target of Welch’s scorn for much of the album, but only on “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” does she concede that there is a reward for those who persevere in love: “Like an atmosphere around me / I’m happy you’re beside me”. This sense of optimism is mirrored by Gregory, his swelling brass casting golden rays across the track’s curdling emotions.

Welch’s voice takes once again centre stage, with the guttural echo that made her a household name sounding stronger than ever on the album’s uptempo moments. She carries the skeletal arrangements of “Various Storms & Saints” and “Long & Lost” on her shoulders, occasionally dipping into beautifully hushed registers that ripple like a chill through the speakers .

Welch has always been a purveyor of multi-layered song structures, with songs such as “No Light, No Light” rolling out b-sections that a lesser artist would sever and stretch into top lines for separate songs. That tradition is upheld on “Third Eye”, a hands-in-the-air and (dare we say?) festival-friendly tribute to Fleetwood Mac, with a dash of gospel rhetoric for good measure.

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful does more than move Florence and the Machine away from the stylistic corner they had previously backed themselves into. Shorn of the dramatic production of Lungs and Ceremonials, tracks such as “Third Eye” and “Delilah” still deliver the same brand of sweeping ecstasy as well as any other song in the band’s catalogue, proving that sometimes it doesn’t matter what you wear or what your original intentions were – there are some people who simply belong on a festival stage.

9.0/10

[Music] Janet Jackson – Unbreakable (review)

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It was a sad thing to watch Janet Jackson’s fingers slip so rapidly from the pulse of contemporary pop music. Where exactly those fingers landed isn’t much of a mystery; in their own way, each one of her noughties albums strove to introduce her to a new generation as an empty-headed purveyor of perversity.

As a hallmark of her music, the potency of Jackson’s unbridled sexuality inarguably peaked on 1997’s The Velvet Rope, in which waltzes with pansexuality and S&M fantasies kicked away the dirt to reveal a crushing loneliness that was later sated through New Age musings about watering our spiritual gardens.

Jackson found new ways to keep moist on a series of glibly optimistic follow-up records, starting with 2001’s All For You and ending with 2008’s Discipline. Yet as a continuation of The Velvet Rope’s narrative, her lyrical focus on coitus could theoretically have been an effort to hush those that see sexual liberation as a mere veil for a tortured soul.

The problem was that the emotional anguish that once ran in tandem with Jackson’s sexual explorations had no real thematic successor, resulting in a decade of shockingly shallow music from a once innovative artist.

Fans left numb by a decade of dead-eyed studies in sexuality had every reason to be skeptical of “No Sleeep” – the first single from Unbreakable, Jackson’s eleventh studio album. The song is a brazen throwback to slippery nineties sex jams, complete with a breathy vocal from Jackson and a guest verse from rapper J. Cole.

Although not particularly ‘dark’, the lyrics aspire to more than come-hither titillation, adding nuance to an account of long-distance love by detailing the sky-high expectations of those involved (“Forty-eight hours of love / It’s gonna be a weekend marathon”) which up the stakes to near-unattainable levels.

(There’s also a fabulous moment during J. Cole’s rap when he notes that the sun’s coming up and a bemused Janet murmurs “Already?”. You just know she’s lying there with a single breast popping out of her sweater, having barely tired of foreplay.)

The track’s complexities are just one of many treats in store for long-suffering fans. Kicking off ‘Side One’ of the record with a nostalgic swirl of pitched-up vocal samples, hip-hop percussion and underplayed horns that’s warmer than the sum of its parts, the title track is a spangled celebration of their continued support: “The world can’t break down the connection / ‘Cause our love is divine / and it’s unbreakable”.

Unbreakable doesn’t attempt to recreate the industrial beats of Jackson’s biggest hits, but the club-friendly “Dammn Baby” – with its grubby bassline fighting off Jackson’s digitally-swollen voice for supremacy – does a solid job of updating her sound for a 2015 audience. Meanwhile, the gentle disco of “Broken Hearts Heal” and the cocktail-lounge throb of “Night” serve to remind listeners of the singer’s open-hearted positivity.

Aside from these tracks, Unbreakable is a mostly mellow effort, although Jackson’s newfound confidence in both her voice and her songwriting partners Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis – here overseeing a Janet Jackson album in its entirety for the first time since All For You – means that not a single one of the set’s seventeen tracks goes by without leaving an impression.

Under almost any other circumstance, wedging an atypically sparse piano ballad like “After You Fall” between obvious highlights such as the airy arena-pop of “Shoulda Known Better” and “Broken Hearts Heal” would just seem irresponsible. Yet the song’s arrangement is so beautiful in its simplicity, and Jackson’s voice is so effortlessly confiding in between crestfallen sighs, that it never feels like a rude interruption.

Jackson reinstates her dreams of a Rhythm Nation on “Shoulda Known Better” with a slight sense of embarrassment: “I don’t want my face to be / that poster child for being naive.” It’s a brave admittance, and her disappointment with the state of the world might explain the vacant sex drone that the noughties inherited. 

By the record’s end, it’s clear that Janet Jackson is still in love the possibility of a united world, but her assertion that “critics just wanna talk” suggests a fear of the media’s cynicism. The funny thing is that with Unbreakable, for the time in years, she’s finally given them a reason to listen.

9.0/10