music / Columns

The 20 Best Songs of January

February 13, 2016 | Posted by David Hayter

Thank goodness all those album, track, video and lyrics lists are over, I thought 2015 would never end. Well the good news is that I’ve had a break for a week and I’m ready to catch up on my monthly column….oh…the 20 Best New Songs from January 2016. Well it looks like I can’t escape from lists for the time being.

[Disclaimer: I am only one man and this is my column. I don’t hear every song released in the month, if something really awesome is missing, I probably didn’t hear it. The idea is to have some fun and share some exciting new music.]

20. “Summer 16” by Drake

Is “Summer 16” a great diss record? Nope. Is it up to the standard of the singles that Drizzy dropped in 2015? Of course not, but you know what? I’m utterly addicted to that hook. I’ve been wandering around crooning “looking for reveeeeeennnnge” all week long and the slippery yet mechanical beat still hasn’t overstayed its welcome. Despite this, I expect to see a more profound sonic evolution on Views From The 6.

19. “Move To Your Beat” by Njomza

Njomza may well of placed higher on this countdown if I hadn’t heard “Move To Your Beat” for the first time so recently, because, each time I press play, I fall deeper in love with this track. At first I was put off by the echo of dance trends past, but right now I’m just blown away by a series of micro hooks and gorgeous counterpoints: each contorted sample or warped vocal feels like a direct reaction to its predecessor, creating an experience that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The ante is constantly being upped, and yet, “Move To Your Beat” never becomes garish or overblown, Njomza is positively stately.

18. “Street Politician” by Novelist

If you thought Novelist was just going to be the latest hit maker trying to cash in on Grime’s sudden shift towards global recognition then think again. “Street Politician” isn’t pleasant, it’s dark and pugnacious, but it is the work of a teenage with balls of steel. Novelist delivers an inflamed verse either a side of a chorus that samples David Cameron (the UK’s Conservative prime minister) turning him into a megaphone-drone playing on repeat – creating immaculate echoes of both 1984 and V for Vendetta.

17. “No Problems” by J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League

Lupe Fiasco’s dense word play and Future’s party hardy nonsense are typically portrayed as two conflicting extremes – an angel and devil – whispering in rap’s ear and trying to stake a claim to hip hop’s soul. Diehards might use one’s intellects and the other’s imagination to batter their rival’s camp, but on this Justice League collaboration, the two extremes of modern hip hop stand shoulder to shoulder and the results are sublime. Perhaps, the rap game needs less tribalism and more collaboration?

16. “Smoke & Retribution” by Flume

Guest spots from Vince Staples and Kucka bring a level of serenity and braggadocio to Flume’s staggering, glitch laden arrangement. The fact that the two vocalists can sit comfortably alongside side one another is remarkable enough, but melding two such distinct deliveries into Flume’s prickly and disjointed soundscape is frankly miraculous. “Smoke & Retribution” should be a mess of conflicting suites, instead it’s a banger pure and simple. (If this floated your boat check out “Never Be Like You” which was also released in January)

15. “Cuban Cigars” by WALL

Time for a hype check on New Yorkers WALL and, right from the off, it’s easy to see why the critics are excited. The four piece masterfully recreate those wonky post-punk rhythms of the late 70s that sound so wilfully amateurish and yet so eminently dance-able. Anything that brings memories of Wire and Gang Of Four flooding back to the fore is welcome and the bratty, sardonic vocals are a delight. But you have to ask, do WALL have more to offer than retrospection? We’ll soon see, but “Cuban Cigars” is a promising start.

14. “Little Do I Know” by L.A. Girlfriend

“What do I, what do I do, when your in love with the person who don’t love you?” It’s a question that’s been haunting the human race throughout our collective existence and continues to provide fertile ground for great pop music. “Little Do i Know” sees L.A. Girlfriend drift from one forlorn thought to the next with a hint of dreamy resignation atop a seething and metronomic onslaught of 80s synths. This is impressive stuff, so let’s give Sydney Banta a few more listens (check out “XIV” if you enjoy “Little Do I Know”).

13. “Moth To The Flame” by Chairlift

Happy, head over heels joy suits Chairlift surprisingly well. “Moth To The Flame” does not have the wild abandon of “Ch-Ching”, instead it thrives on giddy enthusiasm and an immaculate hook. Caroline Polachek is having a whale of a time with her phrasing in 2016 (she’s a moth to “Fffla-ah-aim”), contrasting high notes with a deliciously disco, dead pan, spoken word retort: “he’s that kind of man mama”. “Moth To The Flame” is sweet and delicate enough to fall in love with, but exuberant enough to have you dancing all night long.

12. “Panda” by Desiigner

Desiigner appears to be enjoying life with GOOD Music and the starlet is set to feature on Kanye’s much delayed album, The Life Of Pablo. “Panda” is a strong introduction to his talents: mixing Future’s blurry hooks, with Thugger/Quan’s enigmatic blurts and a deep throated flow that recalls UK rapper Giggs – i.e gravelly, but not grave. Expect “Panda” and Desiigner to blow up in the near future.

11. “Florida” by The Range

Electronic craftsman James Hinton, aka The Range, sublimely weaves an understated Arianna Grande cover through a web of meaty and ethereal sonics to create one of the month’s most spellbinding listens. “Florida” packs plenty of punch during its nominal chorus, but the joy of the track comes in seeing this illusive vocal being pulled through the sonic ringer, as slight chimes slowly build into denser clunks and clangs. The final effect is sun flecked steamroller of heavy, imposing, arena ready sound – the polar opposite of the songs humble, high paced and yet spacious beginning.

10. “I&I” by LUH

Wu Lyf crumbled to ashes after one stellar but controversial debut album; having enlivened and influenced the UK’s indie scene Ellery James Roberts stood accused of being the creation of advertising firms rather than “real music”. Since then he’s more than proved his independent and avant-garde spirit and now, alongside his Ebony Hoorn, he’s back to creating gravel throated and deeply enigmatic music with a refreshing broad sense of scope.

9. “Chewing Gum” by Nina Nesbitt

“Before you jump in, try to get under my skin, something I should let you know, it’s gonna be impossible, because: I’m a made up mess in a backless dress”, “Chewing Gum” can’t quite live up to its bombastic opening salvo, but there’s plenty to love about this 21-year-old Scot’s latest single. This snappy single tells the tale of a young woman moving from one exploratory relationship to next, sticking around until “the flavor’s gone”, but no longer.

8. “The Wheel” by PJ Harvey

Well it turns out the World War I-inspired Let England Shake was not a stand alone, Harvey seems keen to continue mixing sweetly spectral vocals and happy handclaps with brutal and disturbing imagery. “The Wheel” concerns itself with 28,000 missing children. The lyrics are consciously mysterious: PJ could be observing deaths in war torn Syria, bemoaning trafficked children across the globe, railing against starvation or long term institutional neglect. The key to this nursery rhyme is not the who, the what or the why, but the sense of lingering apathy. “Now you see them, now you don’t” – you didn’t care before and you don’t now – shame on you, shame on us all.

7. “ISBD” by ZelooperZ

I can’t lie, I have no idea if I love or hate this song. I first heard it when Despot played it on Ezra Koenig’s Time Crisis and I was initially repulsed, but then I was drawn into the hypnotic psycho strip club beat and ZelooperZ demented pogo-stick on acid flow. Right now I love it, like eating hot peppers, “ISBD” is on some level unpleasant, but enjoyable all the same.

6. “Girl Next Door” by Brandy Clark

If you’ve followed pretty much any list 411mania has published in the last five years you’ll know that I’m partial to country pop with sweet hooks and a bad attitude. “Girl Next Door” is practically a dream, it starts a little too conventionally for my tastes, but that mid-tempo start is purely a tease as a false chorus slides away to reveal a stomping list of marching orders that prove eminently chantable: “So baby if you want the girl next door….then go next door, and go right now, and go right now, and don’t look back, don’t turn around, don’t call me when you get bored”.

5. “Come Down” by Anderson .Paak

Well I certainly got Anderson Paak 100% wrong. When he announced his arrival with a series of high profile guest slots on Dr. Dre’s Compton, I wrote the young songsmith off as another anonymous vocalist hoping to provide an anodyne contrast to Dre’s brutish gangsta rap. Sure he might have appeared to be the first post-Frank Ocean artist, but .Paak exploded out of both Dre and Ocean’s shadow on his wildly ambitious, utterly autonomous and pleasingly boundary free debut. “Come Down” is a riot, hardly typical of Malibu as a whole, but it is a buoyant and ballsy introduction. Has he pinched Kendrick’s flow? Quite possibly, but whatever copycat crimes .Paak stands accused off, he does too much, too well, to be dismissed as a plagiarist.

4. “It Means I Love You” by Jessy Lanza

So, basically, this is my jam. I’ve always been a sucker for music juxtaposes sweetie pie vocals with haunting and eerily spacious soundscapes. PC Music has spent the last four years pouring saccharine lyrics atop hyperactive maximalism – and it’s refreshing to see Lanza, a more traditional electronica star, gliding and glitching through her own endless echo chamber. Here the electronics are hypnotic, squeaking with a rigid formality, but somehow creating such a strong feeling of freedom. There is so much silence and stillness, and yet, “It Means I Love You” is loose hipped. Lanza is hyperactive and lost within her subconscious simultaneously – and that makes for a thrilling listen.

3. “Real Friends”/”No More Parties In L.A.” by Kanye West

Yeezy season approaching with the return of GOOD Fridays wiping away the bad taste of Kanye’s 2015. “No More Parties In L.A.” seems to have done the impossible, uniting the Ye fans of old with the true believers who’ve followed him through 808s and Yeezus (I’m in the latter category if your interested). Riding a gorgeously understated beat, both Lamar and West launch dense syllable laced assaults that leaves Kanye gasping for breathe as he rips on ex-lovers, bad music and worse parents. How “No More Parties…” missed the cut for The Life Of Pablo and “FACTS” made the final track list I’ll never know.

Here’s what I said about “Real Friends” on release:

“Kanye recognizes his own guilt. Like a million musicians and sports stars before him, Kanye has been catapulted into a different social class that creates distance between him and his boys. He is a public property, not a real human that you can comfortable talk to. Uncles don’t want to discuss personal feelings, they want to grab a picture for their daughters to whom Kanye is a distant star. He is a gatecrasher at family events. The unapproachable elephant in the room. Worse still, there is the danger that if he lets people in, that they will simply exploit him for headlines or cold hard cash. If he won’t pay his friends bills, they might just blackmail him.

It might sound like paranoia, but in a world where a friend steals your laptop in attempt to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars, who can you really trust? How do you relate when you’ve simply drifted apart, not only from family, but from any semblance of normalcy? It’s no one’s fault, but one day you will wake up to find yourself alone and unaided in a moment of personal crisis.”

2. “Dollar Days” by David Bowie

This needs to be said outright: “Dollar Days” is a fabulous song, a beautiful piece of music that wowed critics and fans before David Bowie’s death. The delicate melodies, the soft frailty and the underlying sense of sorrow, acceptance and remorse made for one of Bowie’s most tender pop songs, period. In the wake of his death, “Dollar Days” is devastating. The sound of a man coming to terms with his own death and carrying out one last masquerade: “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see…I’m dying to, push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again, I’m trying to”.

The sharply composed pop soon gives way to a weightless jazzy odysseys, as the guitars ruminate and the sax soars Bowie let’s the words “I’m dying too” hang in the air.

1. “Be Apart” by Porches

Now this is seriously gorgeous: a resolute plea from a newcomer to the big city who’s desperate to experience life (“to be apart of it all”), that feels utterly inhumane. Distance and stillness are key. “Be Apart” offers the sound of loneliness and resignation, a stark contrast to the lyrics which sing hymnal to that feeling of communal, physical exhilaration. Porches are speaking to the nagging desire in all of us, we know we’re missing out in an abstract but undeniable sense. There is a bigger, more transcendental experience going on somewhere out there and deep down we know we should be apart of it – if we could just run towards those city lights and find our kind.

Will they actually take that first step out the door? That is the question and the source of such delightful tension and unease.


Further Listening: “Stepping Stone” by Lemaitre,  “Low Life” by The Weeknd + Future, “Turning Lights” by Amber Arcades, “Sinister” by Frankie Cosmos, “Make Moves” by Benga, “Mothers” by Four Tet + Designer, “Adore” by Savages”, “Tokyo” by TEEN, “I Hate The Weekend” by Tarocat, “The Choir” by Morley, “How Many Times” by Eryn Allen Kane,