10. HELP ME RUN AWAY – St. Lucia
St. Lucia is an act that has flown under my radar for quite some time (ever). Apparently, he’s a South African synth pop musician who’s gained some indie cred thanks to Neon Gold Records, who also recently launched the careers of Charli XCX, Marina and the Diamonds, and Tove Lo. This song off his new album Matter is an downright Duran Duran-esque pop throwback about running away from the voices in his head. Also, some sort of deconstruction of the American Dream, I think. It’s a bit dense. Which is cool.
9. HOMETOWN GLORY (INTERPRETATION) – Kamau
You’ve probably never heard about Kamau, unless you and I have been reading the same Pigeons and Planes articles. He’s an experimental hip hop artist whom some have compared to Andre 3000. This one starts out as a fairly simple and accurate Adele cover before ramping up into one of the best verses of 2016 over an epic remix of the Adele beat. It’s just a really passionate experience.
8. PILLOWTALK – Zayn Malik
All eyes were on Zayn when, almost a year after splitting from (and ultimately, splitting up) One Direction, he finally announced his first solo single: “Pillowtalk”. Would it be the sort of breathy, lurid sex song the title seemed to imply? Would it be an epic, emotional “Cry Me a River”-style deviation from his boy band roots? Definitely the second one. It’s an expansive, raunchy number about “dirty and raw” sex and all the pleasure and pain that comes with it. It’s pretty rare to hear a pop song, or son in general, talk about sex in something other than total support. Zayn paints sex as an emotional rollercoaster, and as a result, he seems to know what he’s talking about much more than a lot of pop stars (looking at you, Meghan Trainor). It’s not what I expected, but it just might be better.
7. REAL FRIENDS – Kanye West feat. Ty Dolla $ign
When Kanye dropped the underwhelming “FACTS”– on New Year’s’ Eve, no less– people started to get worried about whether or not his next project, then titled SWISH, would be any good. Thankfully, Yeezy silenced those concerns with this track, released one week later as part of a short-lived G.O.O.D. Friday’s revival, “Real Friends”. Kanye is back in full Late Registration mode to talk about how he’s a shitty friend and family member. It’s the cleverest song we’ve heard from Kanye in a year and it bodes well for the currently-unnamed album dropping next Thursday (God, this album is a mess).
6. LA CONFIDENTIAL – Tory Lanez
I’ll admit that I never really paid attention to Tory Lanez until this month. I knew he was an up-and-coming R&B singer from Toronto, but it wasn’t until this song that I started really listening to him. It’s smooth and fun, with potential to be a huge hit if Lanez has a good marketing team. The song follows ol’ Tory going to LA to cheat on his girlfriend. Certainly not a brand-new concept, but it’s one exceptionally well on this song, trust me.
5. KNICKERS – Jidenna
It’s rare that a song makes me laugh as much as this one. In it, rapper Jidenna croons an ode to his knickers (say it out loud if you still don’t get it). There’s a ton of super clever double entendres. Is he talking about systemic racism or fancy pants? The world may never know! It also has a really unique beat. It has a DJ Mustard-esque modernness to it, but still feels vintage, fitting the song’s themes. It’s really an exceptional song, and in any old month, it could be #1. But this isn’t your grandma’s month. This is January 2016. So here’s four better songs.
4. CHASING SHADOWS – Santigold
Recent Vampire Weekend dropout Rostam Batmanglij produced this new jam from pop critical darling Santigold. It’s really cool. Santigold’s unique vocals are always a treat, and Batman(glij)’s lightweight beat is a delight. It’s basically the musical equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie. Stylized, incomprehensible, but oddly delightful.
3. ‘TIS A PITY SHE WAS A WHORE – David Bowie
Would this have still made the list if Bowie wasn’t dead? Eh, maybe. But it is really fun for a song about World War I. I never expected to hear David Bowie say “Man, she punched me like a dude”. I guess it was on his bucket list. I couldn’t have let this list go without mentioning Bowie’s final effort, Blackstar, and this was my favorite song from that record. So yeah.
2. UNTITLED 2 – Kendrick Lamar
While we’re on the subject of Blackstar, why not talk about the artist who inspired it? Best rapper alive Kendrick Lamar has created a truly unique experience with his “Untitled” series. You never know when it’s coming, you never know what it’ll be, and you never know what happens next. This time around, backed by a live band on The Tonight Show, he started by performing his verse from Funkadelic’s “Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard” before diving into an irresistible track about the ups and downs of having money. There’s also this whole Cornrow Kenny thing. Basically, he did a concert a little while ago where he had text on screen behind him that said “Never trust a n***a with cornrows”. Later, in the “God is Gangsta” video, we see a flash of text that says “Always trust a n***a with cornrows.” On this song, he calls himself Cornrow Kenny (and was wearing cornrows at the time). I guess we’ll find out what that’s all about.
Before I get to my #1 pick, here’s a couple honorable mentions:
MY SKIN – Lizzo
BEGGIN & PLEADIN – Brandy
GENGHIS KHAN – Miike Snow
SERIOUS – Young Thug
GPS – Saba
YAMBORGHINI HIGH – A$AP Mob
CHEWING GUM – Nina Nesbitt
HEAR ME – A$AP Rocky feat. Pharrell
And the #1 song of January 2016 is…
1. NO MORE PARTIES IN LA – Kanye West feat. Kendrick Lamar
Kanye West. Kendrick Lamar. Madlib on production. What more could a hip hop nerd want? Kendrick delivers a really solid verse, and the beat from Madlib is catchy and reminiscent of “Otis” (though technically, it was made before “Otis”), but at the end of the day, Yeezy takes the cake. His verse on this song is one of the best he’s ever written. It’s so fun, so well-made, so energetic. And there’s the thing: this is also a pretty clever song. It’s an ingenious deconstruction of both rappers’ public personas as well as the Hollywood lifestyle in general. I know it’s only January, but I’m getting a little bit of a “song of the year” vibe from this one. We’ll see.