Ed. note: This feature has been reposted to celebrate the end of summer.
In this special edition of Tracking, we look back to the jams that we've had stuck on repeat over the last few months. Out of a really long list, we've narrowed it down to 20 songs that, for us, embody summer of 2014.
Read our takes on each of the songs below, then take the Soundcloud playlist with you.
It has been four years since Sia Furler dropped her last album, the fantastic We Are Born, whose pop-oriented slant portended her future. However, just as her career trajectory pointed towards on-the-verge stardom, Sia decided to take a sabbatical from the stage, choosing instead to be the MVP of Top 40 songwriting. And when it seemed that she had settled into her newfound niche comfortably, as ghostwriter for the new crop of pop divas and occasional collaborator with David Guetta (to the dismay of those, who like me, fell in love with the downtempo Sia circa “Breathe Me”), she dropped “Chandelier.”
“Chandelier” requires a disclaimer: Sia has not gone back to basics. This is not a redux of “Breathe Me” or even “I’m In Here.” This is Sia applying every skill within her pop arsenal to her particular emotional brand. As a product of her newfound environment, Sia, naturally, aims her newest effort at the party scene. However, she takes the YOLO-anthem and completely inverts it, exploring the darker, psychological side of the play-all-night lifestyle. Sia comes unhinged, swinging from chandeliers and shit, living a debauched nightmare of booze and insincere attention, partying just to keep the pain at bay, while she knowingly spirals deeper into the vicious cycle. If the Weeknd had a conscience, this is what it would sound like. Her voice, the same emotive rasp that even managed to breathe life into “Titanium,” is at full force here, reaching towards the heavens for the light of the sun, or simply a helping hand. If her performance does not make you want to dance like the girl in the music video, then you might want to check your pulse.
This is Sia the pop star, transcendent siren, patron saint of the lost, running on all cylinders while burning a torch for the aimless. She left her previous, downtrodden singer-songwriter self somewhere in the late-aughts. With “Chandelier,” Sia is reborn, and it seems that she plans to stick around for a while. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Ariana Grande, "Problem (featuring Iggy Azalea)"
Starting with its "99 Problems"-biting lyrical conceit, "Problem" offers very little that's really new. It’s a post-Le1f-v.-Macklemore world, after all, and raunchy saxophone loops might even qualify as a trend at this point. It’s not like Mariah Carey’s going anywhere soon, so what’s fresh about octave-spanning R&B diva melismatics? Build-it-up-to-break-it-down song structure is everywhere, and so is floor-shuddering bass, and the third-act verse from a guest rapper is a trick nearly as old as rap itself. Ariana Grande already tried and failed to attain success on both sides of the mythical indie-mainstream aisle with 2013's Yours Truly, and with her own full-length currently running the charts, Iggy Azalea's hardly news. Hey, you know what’s really not new in pop? Swedish producer Max Martin, the mastermind responsible for basically everything you love, from “…Baby One More Time” to “Since U Been Gone” to “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” to “Teenage Dream.” Well, here’s something else to love. Something new.
What Martin does here is take these elements, some of which were cherry-picked from the sounds of the moment and some of which were selected for their timelessness, and stitch them together so smoothly that the results sound as though they could never have been any other way. What is Ariana Grande’s appealing, technically flawless performance without the tonal and textural counterpoint of massive synth hits and that awesome growling sax? What would the enormous, aching upward swell of that pre-chorus be for, if not to suddenly drop roller-coaster-style all the way down to the floor for the year’s most gloriously badass and eloquently minimal pop refrain? How tedious it would be if those components simply repeated three times through – hence Iggy Azalea, rewriting Jay Z in what might be the cleverest verse of her career (not saying much but still), providing a welcome zig/”Igz” to the rest of the song’s delirious zag. “Problem” is perfect, but it’s delicate, subsisting solely on an internally generated, self-perpetuating compositional pressure. Take any part away from it, and the whole thing falls out of balance.
Yet “Problem” exudes such a surfeit of charisma, confidence, and cool that this would be easy to miss. Grande, Martin, and Azalea transmute negative feelings most listeners can probably identify with all too closely – confusion, disorientation, unrequited desire, loathing, regret, entrapment – into an effervescent fantasy-come-true of independence, empowerment, style, and fun. That is to say, “Problem” does what most would-be pop hits are trying to do, but it achieves that goal more efficiently and entertainingly than most. It’s likely you’ll hear this song a lot in the coming summer months, so you should probably get started on learning the lyrics: “I got one less problem withoutcha” is going to be the new “You’re from the ‘70s, but I’m a ‘90s bitch!” You’ll probably never hear it at any volume other than “LOUD,” though, which is good – you won’t have to strain to hear the sound of a star (or at least a one-hit wonder) being born. [Samuel Tolzmann]
FKA twigs, "Two Weeks"
The way each of FKA twigs’s songs capitalizes on her breathy coo, spreading it throughout the compositions as a source of sonic texture rather than a mere vehicle for meaning, is a move torn straight out of an R&B playbook written by the late Aaliyah and her producers at the turn of the millennium. Consequently, the apparently unanimous declaration that twigs is the second coming of Aaliyah makes a great deal of sense; certainly, twigs’s music sounds a lot like the kind of forward-thinking pop music Aaliyah might be making today, under the resurgent influence of ‘90s trip-hop and contemporary U.K. bass music. But listening to the sumptuous new single “Two Weeks,” from twigs’s glorious debut album, I think those widespread comparisons to the late R&B great feel inaccurate. Aaliyah’s evasive, subtle musical grammar broke new ground, but her content was never as actively, emphatically weird as the stuff twigs is covering these days. “Two Weeks” luxuriates in its oddness. In more than one figurative sense, it’s a song you can get lost in, and twigs (who seems most comfortable when she’s being evil) plays the siren beckoning us on; she frightens where Aaliyah soothes, because she presents the possibility that once you sink deeply enough into “Two Weeks,” you might never get out.
If the endless comparisons tell us anything, it’s that as much as twigs seems like an original, she has distinct musical heritage, and I’m of the opinion that it lies at least as much with Kate Bush – another singer whose style, like twigs’s and Aaliyah’s, could be described as simultaneously ethereal and vividly physical. “Two Weeks” captures the main quality that makes Bush’s early work some of pop’s most enduring and essential: the sensitive, sensuous exploration of sexual experience. None of Bush’s more obvious acolytes (Patrick Wolf, Bat For Lashes, et. al.) has approached the nuance, complexity, mysticism, and ambiguity that’s always made Bush’s perspective on sex compelling, and not for want of trying. I’ve never heard any pop music that’s quite managed to mimic Bush’s way of interrogating the power dynamics of sex while expressing ecstatic, spiritual, even worshipful delight in the carnal act itself. FKA twigs does all of those things on “Two Weeks.” “Feel your body closing, I can rip it open,” she whispers, and it’s many things at once: threat, boast, promise, offer, request, discovery. Its multivalent quality makes it a very Kate Bush-esque lyric, and if Bush were to sing it, she’d make sure each of those possibilities came through in the execution; twigs can do that, too. Aaliyah, whose thematic sensitivities weren’t as developed as her technique, probably could not have handled it so adroitly. It is astonishing vocal work.
Bush has a distinct aesthetic sensibility, one that was both of its era and unlike that of any of her peers. The same could be said of twigs, who self-produced “Two Weeks.” The song contains all of her very 2010s sonic trademarks: a minimal patter of a drum track, eerie echoes and vocal fragments, muscular synth tones, an undertow of out-of-frequency bass. Note that all of those elements were present in last year’s standout “Water Me,” produced not by twigs but by Kanye West collaborator Arca. Note that all of twigs’s videos are visually arresting and stylistically cohesive, whether directed by herself (the desert-bound “FKA twigs x inc.”) or another (Nabil is responsible for the mindfuck that is the “Two Weeks” video). Note the cohesion between her album artwork. Note that “FKA twigs x inc.” sounded a lot more like “FKA twigs (feat. inc.).” It’s become increasingly clear that this is an artist who’s very willing to collaborate, but always on her own terms, bending others’ voices to suit her objectives rather than the other way around. Given how strong her work is – and make no mistake, “Two Weeks” is the best thing she’s done – it's no surprise that with LP1, her singularity of vision and effective execution have conspired to make her a star. [Samuel Tolzmann]
Vic Mensa, "Down On My Luck"
To those of you who are resting laurels on “Problem,” as the unofficial Song of the Summer, do me a favor: Hold up for a second.
Because last month Vic Mensa dropped “Down On My Luck,” a diabolically deep-house hydrogen bomb that replaces light-heartedness with real-life frustration, repeatability with an awe-inspiringly complex vocal structure, and universally melodic appeal with a blistering bass groove that swallows you whole. It’s not formulaic. It’s not even radio-relevant. At best, it’s a club-ready representation of what happens when you take a chance on an outcome you can’t predict.
And the chance Vic takes is apparent from the get-go. “Down On My Luck,” resembles nothing from his superbly sinister 2013 debut INNANETAPE—the dissimilarities not the least of which comprising his comprehensive trade-in of brain-busting Chicago lyrical rap for a seductively gossamer croon that glides without ever losing control. For a guy who just got named to XXL’s Freshman 2014 list, he seems to have a few previously unrevealed tricks up his sleeve.
I say “a few” because the only element more shocking than Mensa’s vocal talent is his brutally unorthodox vocal approach. “Down On My Luck,” at its simplest, is a cerebral, borderline-nonsensical valuation that pits the anxiety of public perception against the repose of public disinterest. This disparity has existed for centuries. It’s nothing new, especially within the realm of run-of-the-mill Summer Songs. But rather than breaking down this worldview using traditional verse-chorus structure, Vic instead employs a steady-gait, liquefied stream of consciousness that drives restlessly and relentlessly forward, breaking the speed limit the entire way. The fact that you can barely understand anything he says is a fitting illustration of his passion on the subject.
But the crux of the message exists in four simple words that summarize his point clearly and concisely. “Fuck that. Get down,” he urges with vicious zeal, and the ensuing drop provides the most chilled out exclamation point I’ve ever heard. In fact, its elemental construction is the primary takeaway associated with “Down On My Luck.” Just as soon as you think Vic’s less-than-subtle call to action highlights the track’s importance, the beat migrates, exposing itself to be this fully activated warhead of a groove that has existed the entire time.
To call this a stylistic departure would be to severely downplay the trajectory Vic has been busy creating for himself. We’re talking about a guy who spent much of early 2014 touring with Disclosure, and if nothing else, “Down On My Luck,” ascertains that his time with Guy and Howard Lawrence was spent learning, cultivating and apparently perfecting a brand of hip-hop he can own and operate for as long as he decides. And do you really think a talent of Mensa’s caliber is going to hang it up anytime soon? Fuck that. Get down. [Austin Reed]
Grimes, "Go (featuring Blood Diamonds)"
Claire Boucher may have just snaked the Sandbagger of the Year Award.
Don’t get me wrong: Visions was one of the few uncontested success stories of 2012. Without breaking a sweat, it posited Grimes as the sole proprietor of an altogether different (and possibly unclaimed) version of dance music. She blended esoteric lyrical ambiance with unconstrained, light-as-air vocals, and she did so as if to prove how much of a no-brainer this combination was in the first place. Like she was surprised it hadn’t been done already.
Which, don’t get me wrong, is remarkable on about a dozen levels. But as of two weeks ago, we now know that it was only the second-most impressive variable to the Grimes equation, and we have the straight-up-ridiculous trap accelerator “Go,” to thank for the admission.
Because above being one of the more wholly enjoyable releases of the summer, “Go,” exposes a lot about Grimes that we didn’t already know. For starters, “Go,” was originally written for Rihanna. Now, why that collaboration never went down will probably be a mystery forever. But it’s a moot point, because no one on the planet could perform it like Boucher does. Her timbre is inimitable, and her conviction borders ferocious. “Go,” might have had Rihanna’s name on it, but it never belonged to anyone but Grimes.
By that same token, “Go,” worries me a little. One could contend that we always sort-of knew Boucher had the stylistic chops needed to write decent R&B tracks, but a) “Go,” is a thousand miles from decent, and b) she performs it even more movingly than she wrote it. The most impressive variable to the Grimes equation is the imminent threat of how deep Grimes’ talent actually goes, and I hope we never know. [Austin Reed]
Caribou, "Can't Do Without You"
The first three and a half minutes of “Can’t Do Without You,” the lead single from Caribou’s upcoming album, Our Love, function like the mind of a guy pumping himself up to tell his crush he loves her. The lyrics are looped over and over again—Caribou is unable to get his love off his mind. These hazy vocal samples softly echo over plucky, reverbing synths, each time providing deeper understanding to his yearning. A vibrating hum builds in the background, like a rush of blood to his head as he starts to consider actually proclaiming his (nearly obsessive) love.
The volume starts to build, the pace picks up, and about three minutes in, new, muted, uplifting tones mix with electric synths. This lovesick crescendo is the final rush of adrenaline, the “screw it, I’m just gonna go for it, I’m gonna tell her” moment. Then, silence. In the final thirty seconds of the track, instrumentals revert back to their quietest. “You’re the only thing I think about, it’s all that I can still do,” Caribou finally confesses, which you may have already figured it out from him saying “can’t do without you” 88 times in a row earlier in the track.
If the soundscape of the track weren’t so beautifully fragile, the repetition, which suggests a more house-influenced direction for this album, could seem emotionally forceful to the point of creepiness. A press release notes that Our Love will be the Canadian artist’s “most soulful record to date,” and comparing this single to 2010’s Swim hints that the new album will be equally sprawling, less hectic and emotionally deeper. Caribou has revealed his love. We’ll have to wait for the rest of Our Love to drop to find out her response. [Charlie Dulik]
I have hundreds of questions to ask SOPHIE, and almost none of them have anything to do with his veiled identity as a human being, his absurd domain name or his affinity for a 96-point all-caps typeface. In fact, only a handful of them address how he plans to pull off a multi-stop international tour while maintaining anonymity or his recent collaboration with J-Pop wunderkind/cultural head-scratch Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
My hundreds of questions are loosely aesthetic-based, and if you refuse to empathize, you clearly haven’t heard “Lemonade,” or “Hard,” SOPHIE’s two brand-new, totally awesome, completely unclassifiable offerings.
I’m nitpicking, because by his own unspoken definition, SOPHIE’s a pretty unclassifiable producer. 2013 releases “Bipp,” and “Elle,” generated some serious blogosphere buzz and almost unanimous acclaim for their originality, precision and borderline-mathematical technical arrangement. Their themes were uncharted in 2013, and their authenticity holds up even today.
SOPHIE’s 2014 breakout “Lemonade,” operates using the same construction. Between its elastic bass line, an instantly repeatable vocal sample (“Lemonade. Luh-Luh-Lemonade,” and end-scene, pretty much), and a modulated choral uptick, “Lemonade,” mutates back and forth from filthy-as-fuck bass rumble to hyper-caffeinated melodic gossamer. It’s brilliant and confusing, and by the time you think you might be onto something, you’ve already listened to it too many times to care about whatever you think you might be onto.
Meanwhile, B-side “Hard,” operates like the even-more-manic-yet-slightly-more-depressed older sibling to “Lemonade.” Rife with bass sweeps, melodic chirps, syncopated highs, erratic synth breaks and a decidedly PC Music-inspired vocal sample, “Hard,” is the sonic equivalent to a rubber ball careening down an aluminum laundry chute. Several known electronic music elements are at play, here, but practically none of them stick around long enough to blossom into anything recognizable.
Which was totally the point. “Hard,” might not be a club-ready electronic banger, but its hairpin adjustments and gradated nuances showcase what happens when the comfort zone of bass drops and rudimentary melodic accouterments is abandoned in favor of something new. And by “something new,” I mean “a slightly modified version of something old.” It’s a brilliant move made by one of the world’s most unique and truly exciting producers. [Austin Reed]
Perfume Genius, "Queen"
It will not do to forget that Seattle singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas’s big break as Perfume Genius was a live video of “Mr. Peterson,” in which Hadreas tears up while elegizing about the teacher who seduced him in high school…and then leapt from a high building. That ending was a sucker punch: the tears might have been all too real and the repetitive piano melody might have been disarmingly simple, but the playful manipulation of expectations and the stark but mundanely rendered brutality signaled an artist whose (often autobiographical) narratives were worth more than their weight in exorcised personal pain, an artist willing to bend or even break the “rules” in order to prevent his work from being so dismissed. Yes, his 2010 debut Learning sounded wispy and maudlin, but that was part of the poker face: the content of the songs was both too impolitely horrific (Jamie Stewart-worthy levels of alienation, abuse, sexual transgression, fucked-up power dynamics, and self-destructive tendencies) to ignore and too modestly, humanely presented to write off as a Stewart-esque exercise in exhibitionist melodrama. Taking Hadreas seriously meant admitting there was no box that could quite contain his work, no matter its surface appearances.
“Mr. Peterson” was our first peek at Learning; do you remember our first taste of sophomore effort Put Your Back N 2 It? It was “Hood,” the video that Google and YouTube banned despite its lack of a single explicit image, the one that found a gender-bending Hadreas striking tender, loving poses with gay porn star Arpad Miklos. The song’s about a relationship founded on lies, lies in turn founded on self-loathing. On paper, the song didn’t read politically, but the video’s images, their censorship, and the ensuing outrage drew out a sly double meaning from the opening sigh, “You would never call me baby, if you knew me true.” Put Your Back N 2 It, like its predecessor, was an exquisitely lovely record. But also like its predecessor, it questioned the relative value of sonic beauty. If the poses in the “Hood” video were so demure, why did they make so many people uncomfortable? Call it Sucker Punch #2.
Hadreas knows a great first single when he writes one. “Queen” is, once again, the first thing we’ve heard from upcoming third LP Too Bright. “Sucker punch” once again applies, and with the hand that’s not doing the punching, Hadreas is flipping us all the bird. “Don’t you know your queen?” he asks at the cold open, with a sneer icy enough to put him in equal running against Beyoncé and Mick Jagger. It’s a rhetorical question. He sounds tough as fuck over a chugging bassline, a context in which a delicate faux-harpsichord hook is regal court music; saccharine Disney-fied harmonies become a choir of avenging angels. In Hadreas’s own words, it’s a song about taking pride in causing “gay panic,” about wordlessly striking confusion and fear into the hearts of homophobic strangers he passes on the street. “Underneath this hood you kiss, I tick like bomb,” he warned on “Hood,” and on “All Waters,” about internalized homophobia, he pined for a non-future “when I can take your hand on any crowded street with no hesitation.” This is the fulfillment of those promises. In the year’s best chorus, he declares, “No family is safe when I sashay.” After two records depicting the grim reality of living in an openly hostile world, of trying to flourish or even just survive under the burden of constant and blinding terror, a sea change has certainly taken place. It’s Mike Hadreas’s world now, and we’re all just living in it. [Samuel Tolzmann]
Röyksopp & Robyn, "Do It Again"
Robyn has risen! And what a return it is. For this round of dance floor domination, she teams up with fellow Scandinavian beat-smiths and routine collaborators, Röyksopp, to craft a sleek, endlessly catchy, modern dance gem that only serves as further proof that we should bow down to our Nordic pop overlords now rather than later.
The rhythm is a perfectly calibrated sequence of swells, pulses, and drops straight out of the Norwegian underground. Production masterminds Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland stand at the helm of this creation, engineering a melody that moves in perfect synchronicity with Robyn’s unmistakable vox, elevating “Do It Again” from a well-built banger to a complete and utter jam. Robyn’s soprano climbs out over the throbbing mass of synthesizers, at times a chilly robotic refrain, and at others a fiery self-admonition. Where the lyrics skew rather simple, she picks up the slack with a riveting performance, crossing the line between human and machine several times throughout the track, her voice occasionally manipulated by Berge and Brundtland, but always given command over the melody. Then the breakdown hits, and 8-bit chirps abound as Robyn asserts, “we should not be friends,” a dance-floor queen rendered steely amidst the splashes of sound. And after getting that out of the way, she breaks the trance with a forceful iteration of the title lyric. It comes just in time for Röyksopp’s detonation of the final sonic supernova, giving the Swedish chanteuse cover as she fades into the coda, heading, presumably, towards her next dance floor smash. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Jessie Ware, "Tough Love"
Following a subtly sweltering debut album in the form of 2012’s landmark Devotion, as well as a relatively quiet 2013, Jessie Ware returns with “Tough Love,” the first intoxicating taste of her forthcoming second record. Ware’s highly ordered approach to romance and music remains intact, preserving the restraint that made Devotion such a seminal moment in the maximalist soundscape that dominated 2012.
But evolution is evident here, albeit in small quantities. “Tough Love” has a higher BPM than a large portion of Devotion, and in addition to a quickening of the tempo, Ware has made room for some sonic experimentation within her music, allowing synthesizers to build, bloom, and fall away as she soars gracefully with a seraphic falsetto. “Tough Love,” while not inherently challenging in any form to Ware’s musical tendencies, brings a breeze of change. It might be the bridge to a more adventurous sophomore effort, taking greater risks where previously control was the name of the game. Or it might not be. Either way, the worst-case scenario is a repeat of Devotion, something nary a soul would complain about. For now, “Tough Love” stands tantalizingly as Jessie Ware at the crossroads, leading us towards the future while keeping us hooked with hints of the past. The answers are not quite evident yet, but that is tough love. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Charli XCX, "Boom Clap"
From the moment it begins, “Boom Clap,” Charli XCX’s contribution to the soundtrack of tragic blockbuster The Fault In Our Stars, yanks you in by your collar with a triple assault. However, this first saccharine burst of pop perfection serves a secondary purpose, keeping you invested in what is to come and catalyzing the chase after the sugar high that must surely follow. Clocking in at under three minutes, XCX delivers on that promise, jamming high-octane, handclapping, off-kilter pop into a concentrated dose, then wasting no time in administering it.
In terms of material, XCX treads on trails she has walked before: namely, adolescent attraction in all of its euphoria and giddiness. The palpitations resulting from such feelings form the basis for the track’s title and its energetic chorus. But what is remarkable here is how quickly XCX is able to build back up to these heights, almost entirely sidestepping the need for a sonic refractory period, requiring nothing more than a paltry thirty seconds to throw out a verse and return to the bubbly chorus. The bridge itself, a twenty-second affair, is particularly telling of this tendency. Most astounding though, smart songwriting aside (as XCX has always shown a spark for), is the fact that she is able to keep a couple recycled phrases sounding so fresh even after their umpteenth iteration. This is a feat within itself, especially considering that the final minute of “Boom Clap” is a victory round consisting of pure chorus.
At only twenty-one years old, and dominating the airwaves at the moment, XCX seems poised for a takeover upon the release of her still-amorphous second album later this year, especially if she can accomplish so much sonically in only three minutes. “Boom Clap” is more than a song title. It is the onomatopoeic rendering of XCX’s meteoric rise and the many bursts of pop innovation yet to come. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Spoon, "Do You"
Spoon’s modest exterior has been their calling card ever since the days of Girls Can Tell, but the in-studio tweaking that they’ve gotten progressively better at is often differentiates good Spoon songs from great Spoon songs. “Do You” falls into the latter category for that exact reason. The most economic band in rock and roll return make their return with their eighth LP They Want My Soul in August, and “Do You” stands emphatically beside every lead single the band have spun out in their twenty year history. Here, the Texas quintet take stock of their massive inventory of sounds and knead them into dazzling new shapes.
From Jim Eno’s watertight rhythm to newcomer Alex Fischel’s buoyant keys, everything on “Do You” is loose but locked in. There isn’t a single wasted note. It also doesn’t hurt that you’ll find more hooks and more emotion range in the first minute than some bands could be troubled to spread across an entire album. “Do You” is something of a paradox in that regard; it has long moments of tension, but it’s also filled with a joy that was too often absent on Transference. On every iteration of the song’s refrain is Britt Daniel sings, hums and hoos with fire mostly reserved for kids half his age: “Do you wanna get understood/Do you run when it’s just getting good” The Texan quintet have gotten uncannily proficient at making matters of the heart sound off the cuff. [Brendan Frank]
Ariana Grande, "Break Free (featuring Zedd)"
Ariana Grande was already one of the more prominent candidates for breakout pop star of 2014 with early summer saxobeat-stunner, “Problem,” arresting our ears with something funky, streamlined, and improbably infectious. That she could have done anything to top or even approach that seemed nigh impossible, her status already stratospheric (along with her voice). But then she went ahead and dropped “Break Free,” the second salvo from her forthcoming album, and it seemed lightning had stuck twice.
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea is swapped for German producer Zedd (of “Clarity” fame), and the marriage of seraphic vocals and unabashed EDM goodness, despite not being a novel idea in any sense, results in a concoction more contagious than the common cold. It is difficult not to get swept away almost immediately by the opening barrage of synthesizers, but after that initial burst, Zedd takes a step back. His relatively restrained production pays due deference to Grande and her formidable pipes, giving her the necessary space to show off some serious vocal acrobatics. He complements her lyrics instead of crowding them, letting the music pick up the slack when she takes a breath, the blips and bursts acting as a form of encouragement, cheering on the pint-size chanteuse to do exactly what the track’s title lays claim to.
“Break Free,” trounces “Problem” in terms of scope and sheer exuberance. Where “Problem” threw shade with a whispered chorus, “Break Free” is blunt, letting it all, endearingly, hang out in a series of galvanic bursts. Saxobeat may have been the word on everybody’s lips a month ago (deservedly so), but Grande’s latest epic seems poised to paint over the mark “Problem” had made on the zeitgeist with the neon washes of synths and a cotton-candy falsetto to match. It would be a feat for any artist to dethrone “Problem” so soon, making it seem two-thousand-and-late despite being merely months old. That Grande managed to do it only makes it more impressive. The question everyone will be asking now is; can she manage a three-peat? [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Rustie, "Attak (featuring Danny Brown)"
Danny Brown songs generally fall into one of two categories. There’s down-tempo, more accessible, introspective Danny, featured on tracks like Grown Up, 25 Bucks and Float On, then there’s insane, turn up or die, pure aggression Danny, featured on basically the entire second half of the 2013 album Old (three songs of which were produced by Rustie). “Attak,” a single for Rustie’s upcoming Green Language, finds the Scottish producer releasing his long-awaited first rap collaboration, one that somehow fits into both categories of Danny Brown’s style.
Rustie’s booming, glowing synths sound like the ambulances coming to pick up your mangled body after the track destroys you. The instrumental immediately grabs your attention and overwhelms, without the Brown’s normal abrasiveness, which often alienates fans of his (relatively) softer music. Brown’s voice matches, occasionally slipping into growls and shouts but never breaking from a ceaseless continuation of spitting fire. When the bass hits, it stabs in and out like a strobe light, and the beat races forward at breakneck speed. There isn’t even time for a chorus in the mad dash to go dumb, plus the catchiness of the synth hook accomplishes the same goal as one.
“Attak” encapsulates Brown’s persona of a wildman with a penchant for progressive beats. His raw aggression is on display, but it augments high quality bars instead of the other way around. “Attak” dabbles in all areas of Brown’s skill. It makes a perfect Danny Brown song—which just goes to show how perfect Rustie is at producing a hype-filled ambiance, and why you should be very, very stoked for his album to drop later this month. [Charlie Dulik]
Shamir, "If It Wasn't True"
“If It Wasn’t True” starts off pleasantly enough: a gurgling, disco-tinted groove and a voice straddling the line between Dev Hynes and Donna Summer. Yet, two minutes in, following the lengthened delivery of words such as “become” and “through,” it becomes apparent that something else needs to occur, a denouement, so to speak. Then it happens. Following a somewhat stripped iteration of the title lyric, the percussion snaps into place, and the electro-bit pulses take control for a sublime fifteen seconds in which bursts of Technicolor dance to the disco beat. It is back to business immediately afterward, with the rhythm returning to its previous cadence, keeping its cool after a blinding show of energy.
Functioning as Shamir’s coming-out party to much of the world, “If It Wasn’t True” betrays none of his roots. Gone is the ostentation of Las Vegas, his glitzy hometown. Instead, Shamir dives deep into the fertile house scene to look for inspiration, and resurfaces beneath the lustrous reflections of the disco ball. The marriage of the two is marvelous, and facilitated by Shamir’s androgynous voice, which serves as the tether between the two mutually exclusive realms. His thin range works in his favor here, maintaining a remarkably even performance throughout, remaining for the most part within one register, and making the departures from it (the elongated elocution of “girl” before the beat drops) seem even more earth shaking. The result: confident, simple, and instantly accessible. So go ahead, “have a cow.” [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Zola Jesus, "Dangerous Days"
This week, Grimes released the awesome “Go,” a song she originally co-wrote with Blood Diamonds for Rihanna. It’s interesting to think about how bad “Go” would have been if Rihanna had sung it, versus how great it sounds with Claire Boucher at the mic (and behind the boards). At the same time, Wisconsin-born gloom merchant Nike Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus, released “Dangerous Days,” the first single from upcoming LP Taiga, and I couldn’t help noting a small but telling coincidence. For Zola Jesus, too, has tackled music originally meant for Rihanna: last year, she covered the Sia Furler-penned hit “Diamonds.” Grimes singing a Rihanna castaway is a delightful novelty that hints at future potential; Zola Jesus singing a Rihanna hit is present potential fully realized. Danilova’s last two LPs, Conatus and Versions, were all about arrangement and texture, but her greatest asset – her unstoppable, primal, opera-trained voice – was downplayed, even though her best songs have long been those in which she sets that voice loose within the confines of pop structure. There’s a reason “Poor Animal” remains Zola Jesus’s finest work, and there’s a reason her biggest hit to date is her guest spot on M83’s “Intro.” Her “Diamonds” wasn’t quite amazing, but it felt right – one of the best voices in music today finally being given material worthy of it.
The sublime, addictively catchy “Dangerous Days” hints that Danilova might be warming up to that fact. It’s still dark electronic pop with an industrial edge, but hell, this thing’s basically radio-ready. The first Zola Jesus song that’s anthemic on purpose, it’s staggering in both scope and execution. It might be a quirk of timing, but “Dangerous Days” coincides not only with “Go” but also the nascent supremacy of “Chandelier,” the result of Sia deciding to take on one of her own massive pop songs instead of selling it to a superstar (like, say, Rihanna). Heard alongside “Go” and “Chandelier,” “Dangerous Days” sounds like a gauntlet being thrown. There’s no tentativeness here, only conviction. Danilova’s not merely trying on the pop anthem for size, she’s out to win the game. If Taiga is an album full of songs like these, it seems likely she’ll succeed. With a voice like that, who could possibly stand in her way? [Samuel Tolzmann]
SBTRKT, "NEW DORP. NEW YORK. (featuring Ezra Koenig)"
I have to hand it to SBTRKT on this one, because I genuinely thought, “dorp,” was a word he made up.
It wasn’t (it’s a South African slang reference to a small rural village, JSYK). And even if it was, it wouldn’t matter. “NEW DORP. NEW YORK.” despite its inexplicably loud title and goose-chase verbiage, is one of the most ridiculously groovy tracks to be released all year.
What we have with “NEW DORP. NEW YORK,” is an exercise in an almost-minimalist methodology. A handful of otherwise-nominal musical elements compound into a pressurized three-minute banger that only further enforces SBTRKT’s commitment to vilifying technical pragmatism. Cross-stitching manmade melodic values into a formula that works is a backbreaking feat. That SBTRKT can tweak it in a way that sounds sleek and new and altogether brilliant—well, that’s a completely different grade of math.
His proclivity for flipping the script, however, is nothing new. In fact, it’s barely even worth mentioning. When he dropped the stupid-good EP Transitions earlier this year, much ado was made over whether the removal of his borderline-signature guest vocals would reduce SBTRKT’s product into something shallower and more two-dimensional. To the surprise of pretty much no one, Transitions eradicated that idea before anyone began seriously asking questions.
But it’s an interesting theory that might actually hold up if twisted around. Would SBTRKT’s product become deeper and more meaningful if the vocal track was a more prominent fixture, delivered by a more widely known figure in pop music?
If “NEW DORP. NEW YORK.” was the barometer, the answer is, emphatically, yes. SBTRKT’s newest offering explodes with a fresh degree of intrinsic intensity. His flair for heartbeat bass lines and periphery percussion has never been more apparent. Vampire Weekend front man Ezra Koenig elevates the vocal sample from latent accessory to center-stage science project that operates as much like a second rhythm section as it does a spoken-word directive.
Which, by the way, doesn’t direct very much. Despite my shortcomings in the realm of South African colloquialism, these lyrics make almost no sense whatsoever. But again, it doesn’t matter. “NEW DORP. NEW YORK.” was made for dancing, and it deftly succeeds with style points to spare. [Austin Reed]
Shabazz Palaces, "Forerunner Foray"
About a month ago, Shabazz Palaces were in an interesting spot. All the pomp and circumstance leading up to the launch of sophomore Sup Pop LP Lese Majesty had positioned it as one of the most prolific albums of the year. Supporting this posit were pre-release singles “They Come In Gold,” “Dawn In Luxor,” and “#CAKE,” a series of tracks that illustrated with crystalline clarity just exactly how intent Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire were on breaking their own standard. 2011’s Black Up was incredible, but based solely on the preliminary content, Lese Majesty was going to revolutionize.
The strength of the three initial releases made it hard to imagine needing more any more of a leg to stand on. But seven days prior to the album’s release, Shabazz Palaces dropped one last single—a sturdily slammed final nail into the coffin of the argument. “Forerunner Foray,” decimated everything around it, and any contention to the validity of Lese Majesty went away forever.
Because for as incomprehensible as Shabazz Palaces can sometimes be, “Forerunner Foray,” is a delightfully comprehensible examination of past-tense hip-hop in a future-tense spacesuit. It glides forward without ever ebbing backward. Swift introductory vocal samples lead into Butler’s slightly adjusted, never-tire rhythmic rumble. Maraire creates a beat lush and woozy enough to soundtrack a tranquilizer injection. Arguably the most digestible of any other track, “Foray,” provides a sound foundation for the rest of Lese Majesty, which is no small feat when considering how sonically superior it is from front to back.
As Brendan Frank postulated in his review of Lese Majesty, Shabazz Palaces don’t seem too interested in ensuring universal grasp. Which isn’t to say they ever did—this isn’t the type of game Shabazz Palaces enjoy running. Back in 2011, Black Up firmly established Butler and Maraire as the type of guys who insist on furthering hip-hop’s footprint by recklessly abandoning every convention of hip-hop in existence. To wit, decades-old track samples from prior hits take a backseat to space-aged samples direct from the brain of Maraire. The only semi-obvious link that can be drawn to anything corporeal is in Butler’s Q-Tip-esque vocal delivery, but even that association is a stretch to the most open-minded. At their most intelligible, Shabazz Palaces occupy (and remain committed to) the grey area between groove-laced hip-hop and menacing back-alley poetry. “Forerunner Foray,” does well to capture what it sounds like when you blend the two in equal measure. It’s a track comprising enough gravity to crush but enough charisma to reassemble. [Austin Reed]
Lil Silva, "Mabel"
Lil Silva is not quite a household name in the UK music scene yet, but his latest is a promising step towards that end. The London producer has been around for over half a decade, starting in the underground grime scene, and moving inexorably towards the marriage of R&B and house that seems so inescapable nowadays, doing his best work with little fanfare. In fact, the most well-known work of TJ Carter, Lil Silva’s secret identity, is the production done for L.A.-chanteuse BANKS. Yet Lil Silva is taking steps towards the limelight with his latest solo EP. Though two out of the five tracks feature BANKS, it is on “Mabel” where Lil Silva steps the farthest out of his comfort zone, adding his own voice to the mix.
It is a gamble that pays off. “Mabel” already flows with a confident liquidity, its bass line snaking through light-footed percussion and layers of reverb. Woozy plucks of guitar give way to echoed vocalizations and transient notes that quiver and fade after a few seconds. However, the thread that ties the entirety of “Mabel” together is Carter’s most natural contribution: his voice. His lyrics are minimalist, a looped refrain whose most prominent portion is something resembling a hushed attempt to hold on to an ephemeral affection. “Your love don’t fade away,” croons Carter, simultaneously hollow and haunting. The identity of this mysterious individual is easy to glean. Just listen past the flourishes, deep into the cavernous space, where the name “Mabel” resounds quietly with the force of a thunderclap. Sometimes the softest words speak volumes. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
A.G. Cook, "Beautiful"
PC Music are at the precipice of pop’s ever evolving state, and man-at-the-helm A.G. Cook has recently bestowed upon the world “Beautiful,” a track that personifies pop as equal parts a disposable commodity and an indispensable realm of artistic creation. In an airy space that’s carefully filled with novel sounds as well as stereotypical dance tropes, Cook’s work rises and falls through sun drenched sounds and bubble-gum sentiment. “Beautiful” is immediately infectious, and proves that if and when upstart groups like PC Music gain any ground, they can really make waves in the greater pop zeitgeist.
Unlike past releases, “Beautiful” seems to be more of a loving adoption of modern pop ideals more than its subversion in an experimental or dance frame. Take Cook’s “Keri Baby,” where a conventional (but contagious) hook is laid carefully upon inverted radar synths that jump in and out of plucking tones and heavy, yet smooth horns. Cook is intentionally breaking down the pop framework of the track to inject sonic creativity, and there’s an assumption that both he and the listener are in on the musical joke that’s being played out. In “Beautiful” however, Cook introduces this interplay with praise instead of parody.
The track's beauty comes in its unabashed devotion to adopting the weird and integrating it into an easily consumable product. The pitch-shifted, repeating vocals, the chopped “ohhs” and “ahhs” prancing on top of screechy and hazy keys, the cheesy, frenetic “Sandstorm” quality of the climax that links the track to some euro-trance construct somewhere in my subconscious, all shouldn't make sense in conventional pop standards. And they’re not supposed to in all actuality, but Cook’s ability to take such disparaging ideas and morph them into a cohesive, candy coated unit speak to his talents and explains his rising popularity. The best pop music can be immediately, superficially digestible and intricately, if at least subtly, thought-provoking. A.G. Cook is showing that he is the next wizard of this craft to be reckoned with. [Dorian Mendoza]