Hello pals, welcome to the end of this unseasonable February! I started writing this from the patio where it was weirdly warmer outside than in my living room, where I was genuinely getting numb fingers, and I’m ending it inside, in a onesie, wrapped in a blanket because it’s suddenly much more like what I expect February to feel like. What’s that all about? Honestly, climate change is such a blight. I spent 10 days in LA expecting to get so much sun I didn’t even bother taking my vitamin D spray, but it was freezing and raining pretty much the whole time I was there? Sigh… we’ll all be dead soon. Anyway, enough of this morbid and frankly boring weather talk. Moving on to the music I have paid money for in the past few weeks!
Firstly some songs that were actually released in January but I decided to commit to a few weeks ago. I am like, the only person I know that thinks anything of the James Morrison & Joss Stone duet, but look, not everything I like has to be actually good, you know, like… as a fact. Things can be relatively good, as in, good because I enjoy them. And I really do enjoy ‘My Love Goes On’, a raucous, foot-stomp/hand-clap churchy-sounding love song that gives me what I imagine songs from The Greatest Showman give to people who are into songs from The Greatest Showman. It’s a bit theatrical and uplifting, it has a really good momentum building bridge into the chorus and a big gospel choir. I have listened to it a fair bit, and honestly the only thing stopping me purchasing on the day of release was shame. But I’m not ashamed to live my truth anymore!
Also worming their way into my brain and my iTunes library are 1975wave band joan. It has long been established fact that I am a sucker pop bands in the 80s synth lane so, you know, call me predictable if you want, but I prefer to think of it as consistent. ‘drive all night’ signals the point in their development where joan begin to kick things up a notch, start sounding a little less like a niche playlist band for cool kids and more like a shiny, polished mainstream prospect. The lyrics evoke a kind of dishevelled retro glamour – vintage Mercedes cars, drive thrus, deadbeats… – while the winding energy of the melody really does feel like a joyride at night with someone you fancy.
My final January leftover comes from superstar-in-waiting Alice Chater, with a song that I immediately loved on release but held back from purchasing because it had the potential to do what a lot of these upcoming pop girl singles do and burn out very quickly. Do you know how many tracks I rinsed in the early months of last year, never to even remember how the chorus goes come summer? ‘Thief’ has sticking power though – perhaps because it may well be an early draft of Ariana Grande’s ‘One Last Time’, which I already know and love – and I find myself searching for it to play to get me up and about in the mornings and singing it around the house absentmindedly. Not necessarily a game-changing banger, but a reliable bop.
I’m gonna get around to the thank u, next album later, but I cannot talk about the songs I was banging in February without referring specifically to ‘break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored’. The last time I was this heavily into a single song, to the point I was playing it on repeat to complete ignorance of every other song in the world was probably three years ago when Zara Larsson released ‘Lush Life’. I just… love everything about this song? Firstly, the spectacularly bratty concept makes it an exquisite addition to the “rich, hot and chaotic” canon of music in the genre I am experimentally calling Riverdalecore. Secondly, the interpolation of an *NSYNC deep cut? Genius. Thirdly, the melody of the hook is so goddamn fucking infectious – I just need to think about it one time and the song is stuck in my head for 24 hours. Ariana Grande’s evolution into millennial saint has been enjoyable to watch – whatever may or not be the case around her reputation of being rude and unpleasant towards the beginning of her career, the exemplar way she has carried herself through a very difficult couple of years have certainly mitigated those rumours. Still, I’d like to think ‘break up with your girlfriend…’ shows there might be just a little bit of high camp, snotty diva in there somewhere. No one likes a wholly virtuous popstar.
Perhaps it’s been my obsession with the Ariana album that has left me apathetic to much of the other stuff released this month, given that my long list is stacked, but only three tracks got bought and paid for. Making an appearance in my iTunes library for the first time since 2014 is Austin Mahone with the Charlie Puth-penned ‘Why Don’t We’, the type of song that should really be a big boyband smash if we had any boybands active and capable of handling a soft R&B hit. It hits all the beats: smirking, knowing opening verse by The Cheeky One, throwing to a confident bridge by The Lead Singer, punchy chorus designed for a choreographed routine, second verse by The Sexy One punctuated by “yeah”s and “huh”s from The Rapper One, a slow, sincere middle 8 for The Sensitive One to take a moment to shine breaking down into a harmonised acapella to show they have talent actually, and wrapped up with one final explosive chorus in under three minutes. Such a throwback. Austin Mahone is the king of TRL jams, I love this song.
Switching to a wildly different mood fast enough for whiplash, I put down 99p for Anna of the North and her gorgeously relatable ‘Leaning On Myself’ the moment I heard it. As someone who doesn’t tend to approach others when I have shit to handle (and doesn’t have anyone to turn to even if I wanted to) I get a lot of affirming strength from this percussion driven song and the perfect vocal performance – resolute yet isolated. In Anna’s own words: “it’s sad but powerful… in the end you only have yourself, you know, and that’s okay”. A self-care anthem.
At the back end of last year, I was complaining that Khalid was so ubiquitous as to be almost lost in his own output – his voice is everywhere but his identity is nowhere. So imagine my delight when I pressed play on the Disclosure produced ‘Talk’ which sounds almost exactly what I would expect the lead single from Khalid’s sophomore album to sound like. ‘Talk’ tackles the issue of defining a new relationship, not uncharted territory, but something about Khalid’s earnest request for conversation makes it sound new. The house music elements I wasn’t banking on, but they make for such a vibrant update to his relaxed brand of pop R&B that immediately turned me into such a stan in the first place. This song sounds like summer already – I can see it hitting hard once the sun is out on a more permanent basis.
Finally, as mentioned, yes of course I paid ever devaluing pound sterling for the thank u, next album from Ariana Grande, which I will say confidently is her best work. There is not a single skippable song on this all killer, no filler record. Even weaker tracks like ‘make up’ and ‘imagine’, which don’t lend themselves to stand-alone listening sound completely unmissable in the context of the entire body of work. Early standouts for me, ‘break up with your girlfriend…’ of course, the bold and brassy kiss off of ‘bloodline’, the distracted rush of ‘bad idea’ and the sweet but assertive ‘NASA’ but it may just be ‘fake smile’ that is the jewel in the crown. If you ever watched the Beats 1 interview where Ariana broke down in tears that she apologised through profusely with a half-serious line about going back to being a robot for her fans, you can probably get a glimpse of understanding of the immense pressure Ariana Grande is under to be Ariana Grande, particularly under the microscope lens post-Manchester attack where one misplaced word (or perhaps even a joke your boyfriend may have told in the past) can invite scrutiny. Talking about the downside to fame, and setting it to a catchy beat is pretty standard A-list fare, but ‘fake smile’ puts Ariana’s complicity in it all front and centre, as she trills “I’m happy for the love and all of the above” before confessing “if I’m being honest I done been through way too much, I can’t fake another smile…” It’s, excuse the turn of phrase, Ariana’s most personal album to date, her character is unmistakably woven into every single track. In the same way as Rihanna releasing Anti seemed to unlock something in her artistically, thank u, next may have done the same for Ari. A lot of talk about whether Ariana has “classics” in her discography undermines the argument that she is one of the pop greats, but I’m not sure that’s going to be a salient point for much longer.