2015 just started, but we already have a handful of great songs to write home about! Kind of, some of these we heard last year, but we're just now getting around to writing about them.
Anyway, welcome to the year's first installment of Tracking, the regular roundup of our favorite new songs of the year. Next up are superlative new tunes from Madonna, Kanye West, Panda Bear, D'Angelo, LXURY and POP ETC.
"Living For Love"
Madonna’s latest single, the soaring “Living for Love,” fits squarely within a long and proud tradition: the Gay Empowerment Dance Anthem. The ur-GEDA is, of course, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” of which “Living for Love” is somewhat a continuation, if not a rewrite. Madonna, a master of the form, already has a few GEDAs under her belt (those being, in order of both chronology and ascending quality, “Express Yourself,” “Vogue,” and “Deeper and Deeper”). Every GEDA contains two defining characteristics. First, its theme — usually one of breakup — should be an easy substitute for coming out; and, crucially, it must also present the singer’s current and near-future state as one of unadulterated triumph. Second, the song must fit comfortably within a DJ’s standard gay-club artillery, usually (but not always) with a four-on-the-floor conceit. Of the pair, point two is more important.
A GEDA rarely references homosexuality explicitly (see below for Gaga’s booming counterexample). George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90,” written and sung by a once-closeted gay man, concerns the shedding of his former personas, as a sex symbol and a pretend heterosexual. It’s masterful. It’s also an anthem. But a GEDA it’s not. On the other hand, “Strong Enough” — a towering and evergreen GEDA — earns its queer credentials by virtue of Cher herself. The track’s GEDA-ness remains empirical: gay men continue to writhe, chests bared, along with her words of self-victory. (I witnessed as much just last week in South Beach, and the week before in Ft. Lauderdale.) “Born This Way,” the most recent GEDA blockbuster, is also the most self-conscious and overt of them all, exhibiting zero subtext.
Produced by Diplo and Madonna — who also share songwriting credits with a handful of collaborators, including Alicia Keys and Ariel Rechtshaid — “Living for Love” easily approaches the glory of Madge’s late 80s/early 90s pinnacle. Few singles of her post-Music run have come as close to approaching her extended Imperial phase. “Hung Up” was a riveting exception, though it’s worth noting that nearly a decade separates it and “Living for Love.” Both are great, well, because they sound like great Madonna songs. This may seem like a lazy tautology, but it’s the best I can do without diving into the miserable recent history of an artist, once on the thrilling vanguard of pop music, who’s been playing an unsuccessful game of catch-up in her latter years.
“Living for Love” erases those sad memories with beguiling piano accents, majestic gospel flourishes, whooshing electronics, a thumping bass beat, and a reminder that Madonna is, in fact, a one-of-a-kind vocalist. She may not have the pipes of a Beyoncé, or even a Gaga. But her piercing vocal timbre is as distinctive, and forceful, as ever. This (routinely underappreciated) instrument is the centerpiece of “Living for Love,” placed at the forefront, pleading and defiant, a vector for her strongest melody since “Beautiful Stranger.”
By the time “Living for Love” reaches its final chorus, Madonna — bolstered by a joyous choir of sonics and supporting vocals — returns to church. And, like a prayer, her voice takes us there too. — Peter Tabakis
"Only One" (feat. Paul McCartney)
“Only One” is a curveball, a sleeper even. Ever since the very underrated 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye has built up this seemingly invincible persona, but only externally, through some really distorted beats and barbaric speech. He’s been regal, divine even. So one would naturally expect a follow-up to something like Yeezus to show Kanye as maybe metaphysically omnipotent? Not claiming that he is a god, but rather, that he is everything? I don’t know. But “Only One,” this stripped-down modicum of glory is by no means a detour in that process—it features a Beatle for God’s sake. So the argument that it’s a step backwards is already invalid.
I will make the claim that “Only One” is not a watershed in Kanye’s career. It does not mark a permanent shift toward baby ballads (that is, a “new” Kanye), but rather, a new manifestation, an abyss of more insight into one of the most important figures of this century. Instead of hogging the limelight personally, he projects himself onto a new canvas, that of his mother. Whether the song is actually the product of a supernatural experience or not (I’m skeptical, of course), it gives us the ability to love/hate/apathetically cherish Kanye in a way that we cannot with any other artist. It’s obnoxious, obviously. But allowing ourselves to be hung up on something as trivial as arrogance is a waste of time. We see him now, still in sharp focus, in a family portrait, with Donda shading in the colors and textures that her son could not himself. And even lovelier, it manages (much like Dark Twisted Fantasy did) to simultaneously exert symbiotic tinges of vulnerability and power. Kanye is the rising sun and the chosen one, but he also needs his mother to tell him so. The song is one big Percocet for the man, a vital piece of reassurance that he is meaningful.
But analytics aside, it’s beautiful! Each phrase trembles between cheesy and endearing, but never falls victim to either. And the autotune that invokes winners like “Lost in the World” and “See You In My Nightmares” solidifies as a staple to West’s style. The gospelly chorus does sound pretty ethereal, and the verses are equally touching. There’s no need for horn ensembles and thirty-five-minute music videos when a daughter and a mother will suffice. As to what this means for the new album, I’m dumbfounded. Will it include that intense tribal snippet “All Day”? Or will it take the, albeit restricting, route of “Only One”? There’s no telling with the unpredictable Kanye, but since he’s laid a solid foundation in most genre realms, I don’t think see any imminent disappointment. — Matthew Malone
"Tropic of Cancer"
Animal Collective’s amassed critical goodwill soured as quickly and unexpectedly as any band's in recent memory. Though not a poor album by any stretch (and, in this reviewer’s opinion, slightly underrated), Centipede Hz was easily the group’s most unkempt effort since formalizing themselves a decade prior. Aside from the requisite tour, an unprecedented period of dormancy has followed Centipede Hz. Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) has been busy though, doin’ it right with robots, touring and rehearsing new material, and dropping a mixtape and an EP.
Lennox is now in his mid-30s, a father to two young children, and clearly wrestling with some weighty thoughts. His latest full-length, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, is pretty explicit in its thematic ambitions. From its play-on-words title to its deeply melancholic undercurrent, “Tropic of Cancer” is the most complex, compelling subplot of the bunch. The wafting, dreamlike bed of synths is almost uncomfortably hallucinatory, and the impact of Lennox’s raw, dark exploration of terminal illness is cumulative rather than instant. Less a mid-life crisis than a patient, thoughtful take on mortality and the ways in which we handle it, “Tropic of Cancer” finds Lennox using his sonic toolkit to new, unsettling ends. — Brendan Frank
"Ain't That Easy"
Even though we are almost a month removed from the surprise of Black Messiah, it still doesn’t quite feel real. The yawning chasm between D’Angelo’s releases had begun to take on its own mythos before being promptly swallowed in the shadow of the Virginian recluse’s finest record yet. However long you may have been waiting, it’s hard to argue with the end product: a masterful record so saturated with analog detail that no two listens will ever be alike.
The magnitude of D’Angelo’s achievement is apparent from the mercurial, stumbling guitar line of “Ain’t That Easy”. Splicing the spirit of R&B greats into his mutant musical DNA, D’Angelo effortlessly transitions from devilish gospel to butter-smooth soul and back again. Tucked in amongst a simple but eloquently told love story is an arabesque banquet that demands to be devoured over and over: the off-time handclap that precedes those thunderous snare hits, the ribbons of guitar that ripple out at the chorus, the backing choir. I could go on. It takes a lot of effort to make things seem this effortless, but with D’Angelo at the helm, it’s just part of the package. — Brendan Frank
For as wide-ranging as it sometimes appears to be, dance music often feels like a trap. Innovating within the genre is encouraged, but one step too far left will leave the product feeling disconnected or obtuse. Coloring inside the lines, however, is even more dangerous, posing the potential problem of washing out those critical elements needed to convey any authenticity at all. So it’s no wonder why the most successful acts have found a way of turning that scenario into a Venn diagram. Disclosure and Jamie xx share very few production-related similarities, but one characteristic they have in common is the ability to market abstraction in a remarkably likeable way. That line is incredibly hard to find, but they tread it like they drew it themselves. It’s a good thing, then, that both acts have garnered enough approval to challenge their peer group and every peer group that comes after them.
Enter LXURY, a London-based producer who boasts an equally formidable awareness. Last year’s Playground EP was a gut shot of espresso-induced, sample-heavy house with an affable personality. At the very least, it was good enough to make listeners salivate at the thought of a second LXURY EP, and earlier this week, Annie Mac served up the aperitif.
Rife with big-bounce samples and enough staccato to perform a rhythmic U-turn on a dime, “Let Down,” showcases just exactly how much learning and growing LXURY has done since Playground. Delicately exposing the cadential side of looped vocals, “Let Down,” is a beast of a track, shifting direction and emphasis with surgical precision. But at its heart, the song is dedicated to deep house, which only makes the final product that much more potent. Bar after bar is an earnest exploration of each piece as it affects the whole—what fits where, and why? Diagramming this relationship is tough enough as it is, but doing so under the cover of an insanely catchy hook and an effortlessly danceable beat is dark magic. And I fucking love magic.
The release of “Let Down,” came with the announcement of a second EP, currently in the works. If LXURY has exposed any certain trend in the formula, we’re in for a seriously epic second offering. It’s really hard to type with crossed fingers. — Austin Reed
"Running In Circles"
Chris Chu and his bandmates in POP ETC could hold a master class in nostalgia. In their previous incarnation as the Morning Benders, they gifted the world with the sublime, endless summer 2010 anthem “Excuses,” a pitch-perfect replication of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Since changing their name and losing some of their blogosphere spotlight in the process, POP ETC altered their sound considerably, moving from 1960s dream-rock to dub-inflected, electropop.
As the first single from their recently announced second album, “Running in Circles” goes right for the FM sweet spot and pilots the DeLorean into the 1980s for a synthy splash of Miami Vice-flavored soul. Beginning innocently enough with a thumping bassline and electrified chirps that resemble M83’s similarly conceived “Midnight City,” the track builds to an exhilarating, crunching guitar crescendo strangely reminiscent of Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart).” Right when the song teeters on the verge of explosion, the chorus drops away simply to Chu singing in hushed tones about the ashes of a crumbling relationship.
What pushes “Running in Circles” past the point of mere pastiche is the way in which it nails a crucial element of 1980s pop that so many other mimics fail to channel. Beneath the flashy videos and opulent fashion, the best 80s music, from Duran Duran to Prince, concealed a certain darkness, a lyrical preoccupation with love gone wrong and unfulfilled desires. Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” made a paternity suit sound downright terrifying. Despite its title, no one could honestly be expected to fall asleep after hearing the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” Synths can switch from cuddly to creepy depending upon the mood - this is the music of robots, after all. So when Chris Chu sings in his boyish whisper, “now I’m running in circles without you,” he sounds more than a little bit crazy. That ominous and unexpected chord change halfway through the refrain tells you all you really need to know about this song’s mindset. The single art sets the tone perfectly – a cartoonish car against a neon nighttime cityscape, driving off towards intentions and streets unknown. “Running in Circles” offers a shiny veneer that conceals a tempest of conflicted emotion – precisely the complicated cocktail that makes pop artifacts so continually compelling. — Zach Bernstein