After 17 years, January is finally winding down. In a week I will be on a plane to LA where the temperatures are still as good as below freezing according to my personal internal thermometer, but I won’t spend my every waking moment tensing against frigid winds so I may be able to roll my neck without it making a sound like I just skidded in gravel. What keeps me warm, in these horrid winter months? Good music! No, I’m kidding, it’s sitting on radiators and not leaving my bed unless absolutely necessary, but I also like to listen to good music while I’m doing these things and I’m pleased to say January has really delivered. There’s already quite a lot of songs I’m listening to (you can find them here) but here is a rundown of everything I have felt committed enough to spend cold hard cash on in the past month…
Like everyone else with two working ears, I have been obsessed with Lizzo – ‘Juice’, or as I like to think of it: what it would sound like if Bruno Mars – 24K Magic and Janelle Monaé – Dirty Computer had an illicit affair which resulted in a bouncing baby single. The first 99p of the year was entirely well spent on this nonchalantly confident and utterly relentless funk-jam. The way Lizzo lists off all her attributes in an almost laughingly matter-of-fact way is just irresistible to me, the smooth and self-assured start to 2019 I really needed. Not so long ago I tweeted about how at some point I stopped listening to “strut bops” and how much I wanted to get that energy back. ‘Juice’ is a flawless addition to the canon and I look forward to stanning Lizzo for the rest of the year and beyond.
The second week of the year brought three songs to the table worth investing in, courtesy of the ever reliable Kehlani and ex-Fifth Harmony members Lauren Jauregui and Normani. Yes, technically Normani is only part of the story of ‘Dancing With A Stranger’, which is a duet with Sam Smith, but to me she is the most important part, since I wouldn’t be voluntarily be listening to a Sam Smith song she wasn’t present on. The song is a melancholy, percussion driven mid-tempo about trying to move on from a former flame and both Sam and Normani accurately convey the hollow loneliness of dancing through it with any old someone in their vocal performances. Normani’s team have done an excellent job of making her relevant by association in every demographic – young “urban” music fans (Khalid, 6lack), chart compilation buyers of all ages (Calvin Harris) and now older, adult contemporary listeners (Sam Smith), but I’m sure I’m not the only one eager to see what she’s bringing to the table on her own at this point.
Though former bandmate Lauren Jauregui is off to a slower start than Normani – fewer releases, fewer collaborations – and her “artist proposition” is perhaps less defined, she is so front and centre on ‘More Than That’ you can’t help but pay more attention to her. The lavish artwork and the even more luxurious video demand attention, and so too does the song, a casually intimidating trap&B production from Murda Beatz. During her time in Fifth Harmony, Lauren’s vocal was always the most interesting to me – sweet, but with a rasp to it, like unrefined sugar – and it’s put to excellent use on this type of sparse beat.
For Kehlani, pregnancy is not slowing her roll any, as she kicked off the year with a song in my favourite pop sub-category: YEARNING. ‘Nights Like This’ features Ty Dolla $ign and recounts the experience of being caught out missing someone who doesn’t have the same depth of feeling you do over a lonely piano. “I just wanna text you, but for what?” is the type of blunt, succinct summation of a complex situation kind of typical in modern-day pop – particularly from the younger generation of American artists – and the chorus melody is so plaintive and raw, it’s hard not to succumb to the temptation of putting this on repeat and reminiscing. Also worth noting that it took me a couple spins before I noticed the pronouns in this song – it’s a good time to be alive when same-sex relationships being the narrative focus of a track are becoming less novel.
Sorry to anyone who thought Ariana Grande fever might hit its burning peak and start to sweat out in 2019 – ‘7 rings’ dropped to just as much overzealous stanning as anything else Ms Grande has so much as flipped her iconic ponytail in the direction of this year, and honestly, I think it’s deserved. From the jacked Soulja Boy flow, through to the the hashtag lyrics, all the way to the Toddlers & Tiaras version of the ‘M.I.L.F. $’ video that serves as the visual – everything about ‘7 rings’ is an ostentatious, slightly ludicrous flex, designed for the financially challenged to get an ironic kick out of when they caption their mundane social media posts with the outsize statements of the lyrics. Much has been made of the cultural appropriation that Ariana may or may not be guilty of, that fact that it’s kind of tacky when white people talk about wealth in this way, and there has even been some good old-fashioned criticism of the sonic quality of the song itself. Perhaps the biggest indication of how high Ariana’s star has risen in the past 18-months is how suddenly polarising she has become – you can no longer be Ariana-ambivalent, you must have an, ahem, black or white opinion on her, and her artistry, and her every tabloid headline. Any little weakness or fault line must be extrapolated or exploited. The grace period after the Manchester attack is well and truly over. For me personally, I enjoy witnessing Ariana finding her feet and asserting herself as a woman and an artist too much to discourse the shit out of her. ‘7 rings’ slaps, and I am more than willing to pay 99p for the privilege of having Ariana Grande tell me how poor I am over a ‘Favourite Things’ sample.
The last week of January saw a new girlband enter the pop arena. Full disclosure, I have knowledge<of this project, but I don’t think that should get in the way of the fact that the first release from a revamped and somewhat restructured Xenomania deserves having its horn tooted. Once “merely” a legendary production house, Xenomania are now also operating as a fully independent label and unperfect is the first act on the roster to get out of the gates, almost, but not quite, hobbled by their heritage. ‘Gots To Give The Girl’ is not a Girls Aloud song, nor is it a Sugababes song, and neither does it sound like something The Saturdays could have released. Instead, unperfect, and their debut single, are a disruption in the lineage, a mutated gene, a disconcerting evolution. Unlike any of their predecessors, unperfect were not formed on a reality TV show and they are not signed to major label, unusual but not unheard of for a girlband. Furthermore, ‘Gots To Give The Girl’ has zero things in common with anything in the charts or being played on radio, and more egregiously in some quarters, has none of the clatter and cacophony of a traditional Xenomania production. Instead it rolls out like a hazy cloud of smoke over four minutes of guitar, saturated in warm funk/soul and 90s R&B vibes, vocals pitching up and down, three choruses and no verse. It’s fair to say the usual girlband signposts have been abandoned by the road side, we’re into uncharted territory, and some people may get lost along the way. That would be troublesome if there were no destination ahead. But Xenomania, and unperfect, are going somewhere with this. Stick with it.
Rounding the month off with the first brilliant album of the year, Terror Jr have three “mixtapes” in the bag already, but Unfortunately, Terror Jr, their debut LP takes all the best ingredients from their past releases and bakes them into this mousse cake of cocktail froth, boss bitch posturing and millennial anxiety. Standouts include ‘Yamaguchi’, ‘Pretty’ and ‘Loner’ but it’s ‘Terrified’, in all of its nakedly honest glory that is the biggest jewel in this frankly encrusted crown. “I’m not afraid of love, I’m terrified / It never feels like how they advertise” goes the chorus, a MOOD if ever I heard one. What would happen if Teen Vogue remade A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships? It would sound a lot like this I think – bitter socio-political commentary disguised as pastel-coloured sugar pills. The state of the world, through a distinctly female lens, hung on aggressively catchy hooks. Get this record on your speakers or in your headphones immediately.