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

 

Beatle collab battle: “Only One” VS “Four Five Seconds”

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While it’s obvious that an icon such as Paul McCartney will never be irrelevant, one would think a musician of his calibre would rather participate in the Identity Parade round of Never Mind the Buzzcocks than to have their name attached to a track as hollow and unimaginative as “Four Five Seconds”. In addition to McCartney’s acoustic strumming, the lead single from Rihanna’s as-yet untitled eighth album, which is available to listen to here, features a limp blast of organ and vocals from Kanye West, but sports none of the poignancy of “Only One”, West and McCartney’s previous – and ostensibly similar – collaboration.

Rihanna is a talented vocalist who has wrangled empathy from listeners in the past (“Russian Roulette”, “Cold Case Love”, “Stay”), but “Four Five Seconds” shoots for a salty, world-weary kind of exasperation, and struggles to draw pathos from Rihanna’s persona in the same way “Only One” could from West’s. The lucrative exposure that his marriage to Kim Kardashian has provided means his transition from startlingly talented whack-job to sensitive family man is public property, and this notion cannot help but feed into and influence a listener’s experience of the track.

It also helps that “Only One” – in which West acts as a conduit for his late mother’s wisdom – is beautifully written. “You’re not perfect but you’re not your mistakes” is a sublime lyric by its own merits, but those of “Four Five Seconds” (“I think I’ve had enough / I might get a little drunk / I say what’s on my mind,” Rihanna sings, conveying sentiments that have dotted her discography previously, just in a less catchy way) further reinforce its emotional resonance.

Although both tracks use minimal instrumentation, “Only One” acknowledges the signature sound of each headliner by pairing McCartney’s soft keyboards with an auto-tuned voice reminiscent of West’s 808s & Heartbreak days, which makes his switch to such a pared-down aesthetic a little bit easier to swallow. As one of the pop world’s greatest chameleons, Rihanna’s venture into country-lite isn’t entirely unrewarding – after some unpleasant hoarseness, there’s a nice enough belt at around the two minute mark – but after a two-year wait for new material, both her and her fans deserved a bigger and better comeback.

Perhaps she could consider getting by without a little help from her friends. RG

[Movies] This Is The End (review)

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Director: Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogan // Distributor: Sony Pictures // Release Date: June 28th // Starring: Jay Baruchel, Seth Rogan, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, and Jonah Hill. // Plot: A group of celebrities and their entourages flock to James Franco’s house for a massive party, only to the face the arrival of the apocalypse.

Review: Let it be known that This Is The End is a great film. Eventually. The messy first half of this Rogan/Goldberg comedy alternates between genuine hilarity and pitiful self-indulgence. But when it finds its feet, there’s a lot to enjoy. Security was tight at the screening I attended, obviously in the aim of preventing the film’s many surprises from hitting the net. And we’re not just talking about celebrity cameos – although there are plenty of those to go around – but nerve-shredding sequences, solid scares and some brilliantly realised monsters.

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