The best pop music of 2016 (so far)
So much about the first few months of pop in 2016 has been about mourning. David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, Paul Kantner, George Martin, Prince, Scotty Moore, Maurice White, Bernie Worrell and the just-starting-out Christina Grimmie are among those who have left us.
But while the music community has been dealt some serious blows, the first six months of 2016 have also given us much to celebrate. What follows is a look at some of the most notable albums and singles of 2016, as picked by the pop staff of The Times.
There are plenty of recognizable names -- and one artist has made such an impact she’s listed twice -- but the emphasis here is on those who may have been overlooked. Happy listening.
ANOHNI, “Hopelessness” (Secretly Canadian). A protest album set to exuberant house and techno beats, “Hopelessness” is as forceful as it is thrilling. Now identifying as ANOHNI, the transgender artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty has undertaken a musical shift from experimental balladry to dance music, and the result is as natural a fit as it is memorable. (R.R.)
Dayme Arocena, “Stuck” (Brownswood Recordings). Arocena is a spectacularly gifted young rumba singer from Havana, and her recent set at the Center for the Arts Eagle Rock was a pristine showcase. But her cover of Peven Everett’s house music jam is ingenious: dice up vintage Latin horn arrangements and pianos into a diva-ready banger, and let Arocena wail to bring it home. (A.B.)
Beyoncé, “Lemonade” (Parkwood/Columbia). Beyoncé’s latest visual album is the boldest, most nuanced work of her solo career. Having spent the past two decades striving for pop perfection, she released a deeply experimental album and accompanying film that dismantled her public persona. Rage, bitterness, revenge, heartbreak, pain, triumph and reconciliation are addressed. It’s a painful and redeeming journey through the trials of womanhood, particularly black womanhood. Beyoncé, and a shed of multi- collaborators, packed electronic R&B, country, blues, rock, soul, trap, folk, gospel and piano balladry into an album that boasted some of her most incendiary lyrics. (G.K.)
Beyoncé, “Hold Up” (Parkwood/Columbia). “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy, jealous or crazy?” If you’re Beyoncé, you look good no matter what, but for the rest of us, these lyrics off her single from “Lemonade” encapsulate the rage, shame and pain of being cheated on by your famous husband, or otherwise. Produced by Major Lazer’s Diplo and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Beyoncé sing/speaks and then belts her indignation over an ambitious arrangement inspired by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps.” This unlikely meeting of artistic forces from separate corners of the musical universe is as powerful as it is eclectic, a superhero combo of sorts that makes “Hold Up” the most dynamic song of 2016 so far. (L.A.)
David Bowie, “Blackstar” (Columbia). Bowie’s “Blackstar” was, by design, released in the days following his January death, and it’s a profoundly moving farewell. As was true of his entire body of work, each note and each word on the record is precisely placed but not preciously so, with the artist harnessing a miraculous backing band in service of songs about mortality, memory and things left behind. (R.R.)
Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book” (Self-released). A work of protest that finds solace and redemption in community and music -- and what a glorious sound this is -- “Coloring Book” is hip-hop filtered through the soul of a church on the South Side of Chicago. It possesses an old-school attitude, a worried-but-upbeat tone and an activist bent toward urban storytelling. And yet this streaming album, which is equal parts gospel, pop and hip-hop, is never less than joyous. (T.M.)
DAWN, “Infrared” (Fade to Mind). Her iconoclastic spin on R&B has made Dawn a singular force and this four-track EP continues her knack for delivering lush, shape-shifting work. The union of spacey productions paired with DAWN’s complex lyrics, emotional storytelling and elastic vocals has resulted in a dark, sensual trip that dives between erotic, trippy and heart-wrenching. (G.K.)
Dvsn, “Sept. 5th” (OVO Sound/Warner Bros.). One of the year’s most exciting debuts came from an elusive act signed to Drake’s OVO imprint. A collaboration between producer Nineteen85 and singer Daniel Daley, Dvsn — pronounced “division” — keeps an eye toward the heady, electronic progressive R&B of late while being deeply informed by the genre’s golden ’90s era. Copulation is a constant through-line here, but these aren’t tawdry sex jams. The album bursts with bedroom knockers for adults who have moved beyond casual one-flings to long-term commitment. (G.K.)
Fifth Harmony, “7/27” (Epic). Who would have suspected that one of the year’s best top 40 pop hits would be about telecommuting? Kidding: Of course “Work From Home” is a metaphor for ripping out of the office early to attend to more exciting activities at home. But it finally gives the teen-beloved, “X Factor”-formed quintet a trademark single, and helped make “7/27” one of the year’s most enjoyable pop LPs . (A.B.)
Alicia Keys, “In Common” (RCA). Keys’ work over the last few years has tended toward anthemic positivity — and often toward corny bombast. What a surprise, then, to hear how convincing she sounds in this moody, low-key single about a flawed romance between two misfits. “You wanna love somebody like me?” she sings with audible disbelief over a throbbing but restrained electro-soul groove. “If you could love somebody like me, you must be messed up too.” (M.W.)
KING, “We Are KING” (KING Creative). Had this mesmerizing R&B record been released on a more high-profile or hipper imprint, KING might have thrilled the masses at the BET Awards and on the Billboard charts. But the independent-minded twins Paris and Amber Strother and their longtime musical kin Anita Bias self-released “We Are KING,” so it’s earning accolades on its gorgeous textures, ethereal harmonies and sonic magnetism alone. (R.R.)
Jerry Lee Lewis, “At Sun Records — the Complete Works” (Bear Family). Generous doses from Lewis’ sessions at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio have long been available, but the wondrously obsessive folks at Germany’s Bear Family label have assembled a completist’s dream: an 18-CD box set with every take the Killer made at Sun with Phillips and engineer-producer Jack Clement from 1956 to ’63. That’s 623 tracks, running just 30 minutes shy of a full 24 hours. The set’s subtitle says it all: “What the hell else do you need?” (R.L.)
Mike & the Melvins, “Three Men and a Baby” (Sub Pop). In 1999, Los Angeles punk-metal heroes the Melvins teamed with former Godheadsilo singer-bassist Mike Kunka to make what ended up being “Three Men and a Baby.” They never actually finished it, but last year they unearthed the tapes and fixed them up. The result is a timelessly muscular piece of work that hits with distorted fury. The best track, “Read the Label (It’s Chili),” seems to have less to do with food in a can than the relentless futility of life. (R.R.)
Maren Morris, “Hero” (Columbia Nashville). Religion, drinking, family tradition: Twenty-six-year-old Morris hits all the country music bases on her first major-label album. What’s brilliant about “Hero,” though, is the way this pop-attuned singer and songwriter — a “’90s baby in my ’80s Mercedes,” as she describes herself — tweaks an established system from within. In “I Could Use a Love Song,” she’s searching for something to take her back “to a time when I wouldn’t roll my eyes at a guy and a girl.” (M.W.)
Laura Mvula, “The Dreaming Room” (RCA). How does a record this upbeat and anthemic come from such a deep darkness? Nominated for a Mercury Prize in 2013 for her debut “Sing to the Moon,” Mvula faced down divorce and a struggle with depression and panic attacks in the making of her follow-up, a record that shows a rare vulnerability even as her soaring voice reaches for the heavens. Mvula sounds right at home in the stomping funk of “Phenomenal Woman,” but the record’s delicate heart lies in the melancholy grandeur of its ballads. (C.B.)
Anderson .Paak, “Malibu” (EMPIRE / OBE / Steel Wool / Art Club). Covering genres from ’70s-era soul and psychedelic funk to jazz, rock, classic hip-hop, beat-driven electronic music and contemporary R&B, .Paak holds all it together with his soulful, warm rasp (at least when he’s not rapping). “Malibu” is a lush, layered listen befitting a church-raised soul singer, hip-hop purist and free-spirited musician that explores some heavy subjects here — incarcerated parents, depression and homelessness. (G.K.)
Mike Posner, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza (Seeb Remix)” (Island). Brutal self-knowledge set to a glistening club beat — that’s what Posner and Seeb deliver in the hit remix of Posner’s “I Took a Pill in Ibiza.” Familiar to “old-timers because my name’s a reminder of a pop song people forgot,” Posner spent much of the time since his 2010 single “Cooler Than Me” writing for other acts (including Justin Bieber and Maroon 5). And in the original album version of “Ibiza” — a strummy acoustic ballad with quiet coffee-shop percussion — he sounds happily resigned to that fate; it’s about how toxic fame turned out to be. So what happened when the Norwegian duo Seeb overhauled Posner’s ditty as a tropical house jam? It went right to the heart of darkness: No. 4 on the Hot 100. (M.W.)
Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool” (XL Recordings). Nine albums in, the members of Radiohead are specialists in chronicling loss. Loss of control, loss of self, loss of hope – but here, on a record framed by tangles of guitar and orchestral and choral swells that point to guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack work, Thom Yorke and Co. offer their most lush and intimate look at loss yet. Inevitably viewed through the lens of Yorke weathering the end of a 23-year relationship, “Moon Shaped Pool” is full of raw admissions and emotions that could be about lost love or a planet on the brink of self-destruction. (C.B.)
Rihanna, “Work” (Westbury Road Entertainment / Roc Nation). Lyrics be damned because sometimes, it’s all about intonation. “Work” is a mumbling masterpiece of mostly unintelligible lines by Rihanna, and a flatter-than-a-pancake response by Drake, both of whom play the part of a couple whose relationship has hit the point of exhaustion. The duo propel this single from Rihanna’s “Anti” on the fumes of regret and second chances, delivering the best comical answer to a break up/make up anthem in recent memory. Rihanna mixes exasperation and fatigue with Caribbean patois, turning repetitive word trains “Work, work, work, work, work, work/Ner ner ner ner ner ner” into rhythmic works of pop art. If 2016 had a half-year yearbook, they’d win for Dysfunctional Couple Most Likely to Turn Misery into Gold. (L.A.)
Savages, “Adore Life” (Matador). One of the most intensely aggressive rock bands around, Savages here have romance on the mind. It’s a work that views love — and our approach to it — as a force that guides every decision we make. Guitars slice at the verses at an angle, rhythms fasten around the lyrics like a noose and the band chronicles how passion, guilt and affection generally get all mixed up. Rarely do matters of the heart feel like a revolution. (T.M.)
Mikael Seifu, “Zelalem” (RVNG Intl.). The great thing about club music is that it’s just a format – any sound can go in and come out feeling new. Seifu is an Ethiopian producer who runs his country’s haunting, dramatic folk music through a gantlet of techno, ambient and experimental influences. The spooky, beguiling outcome is unlike anything you’ve heard on a dance floor before. (A.B.)
Paul Simon, “Stranger to Stranger” (Concord). At 74, the venerated singer and songwriter has delivered one of the richest, most consistently engrossing albums of his distinguished career. Humor, insight, compassion and curiosity abound, and his ear for irresistible melodic, harmonic and other sonic elements is as brilliantly catholic as ever. (R.L.)
Sturgill Simpson, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” (Atlantic). Even the accomplished songwriting on Simpson’s widely lauded 2014 album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” couldn’t prepare listeners for the quantum leap forward he’s taken with this album. It’s a deeply personal, musically expansive love letter cum manifesto to his son, born two years ago, but his songs about the importance of love, how to face loss and appreciate life in all its facets apply equally to all. (R.L.)
Esperanza Spalding, “Emily’s D+Evolution” (Concord Records). Spalding carved a new and compelling path with her fifth and finest album. Drawing from futuristic funk and odd-angled prog-rock, Spalding set aside her upright bass and familiar cloud of hair for the bespectacled and braided “Emily,” her middle name and the spiritual force behind a record that refuses to sit still on the strength of percolating rhythms, Matthew Stevens’ barbed guitar and Spalding’s acrobatic vocals, which recall the jazz-tilted explorations of Joni Mitchell. (C.B.)
Mavis Staples, “Livin’ On A High Note” (Anti-). When times are tough, one artist remains a voice of reason as well as a call to action: Mavis Staples. The venerable soul and gospel singer is equally fiery and heartbroken on “Livin’ On A High Note,” an album that features a dozen songs written for Staples by the likes of Nick Cave, Ben Harper, Justin Vernon and more. Elegant and refined, these songs put the emphasis on Staples’ lived-in voice, the sound of an artist who’s seen it all and still believes better days lie ahead. (T.M.)
Allen Toussaint, “American Tunes” (Nonesuch). An illuminating and joy-filled tour through 150 years of American popular music, guided by one of the great creative members of that community, New Orleans pianist, songwriter, producer, arranger and singer Allen Toussaint. His death last fall at age 77, just a few weeks after he’d finished recording it with producer Joe Henry, turned what was already an inspired work into a sublime epitaph. (R.L.)
Various artists, “Calentura: Global Bassment” (Fania Records). It’s a crate-digger’s dream and a remixer’s paradise: Access to the stems from one of Latin music’s most important labels. This mixtape came after the estimable NYC label Fania (and its current progeny Calentura) opened the vaults to experimental producers like Nguzunguzu, Bomba Estereo, Jose Marquez and many more. The results are always surprising, insistently modern and yet still aglow with vintage vibes. (A.B.)
M. Ward, “More Rain” (Merge). The singer, songwriter and guitarist Matt Ward is best known for She & Him, his poppy project with Zooey Deschanel, but his string of solo albums stretching back to 1999 reveal a writer equally at ease penning smart lyrics and curiously strong musical structures. Ward, raised in the Conejo Valley, has always been a sucker for a touch of twang. Across “More Rain” he infuses that accent into songs that suggest Buddy Holly’s rock ’n’ roll mixed with the great harmonies of Memphis pop band Big Star. (R.R.)
YG, “Still Brazy” (Def Jam). This Compton rapper broke out in 2014 with his hit debut “My Krazy Life,” and the residue of fresh stardom is all over his excellent follow-up, in songs about new people posing as his old friends and old friends looking to borrow his new money. (It’s there too in “Who Shot Me?,” inspired by an incident last year in which YG’s high profile became a danger.) But on the deeply funky “Still Brazy” he also uses his fame as a bully pulpit, speaking out against police violence and, most pointedly, the ascent of Donald Trump. “I like white folks, but I don’t like you,” he raps in the searing “FDT.” (M.W.)
Adrian Younge, “Something About April II’ (Linear Labs) / Terrace Martin “Velvet Portraits” (Ropeadope). A pair of producer-artists whose paths crossed on Kendrick Lamar’s odds-and-ends set “untitled unmastered,” these sprawling records offer two distinct sonic snapshots of Los Angeles. Younge mines Ennio Morricone and psychedelic soul for an updated take on blaxploitation funk built on orchestral flourishes, oddball keyboard textures and guest vocalists that include Bilal and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier. Martin offers a similarly widescreen view of the city, embracing and underscoring the West Coast’s musical past and present with golden-hour funk, quiet-storm R&B and open-ended jazz with cameos from like-minded Thundercat, Robert Glasper and last year’s breakout star, Kamasi Washington. (C.B.)
Contributors: Lorraine Ali (L.A.), Chris Barton (C.B.), August Brown (A.B.), Gerrick Kennedy (G.K.), Randy Lewis (R.L.), Todd Martens (T.M.) Randall Roberts (R.R.), Mikael Wood (M.W.)
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