Am I late? Well, I won’t waste too much time. This month’s list includes black power, power pop, and a whole lot of Genesis. Quick shoutout to this month’s new songs by Moby, Sean Paul, Topaz Jones, and Nicki Minaj, who were last-minute removals from the list. Let’s get it underway.
15) TRAP – Juicy J feat. Gucci Mane and Peewee Longway
I wouldn’t expect a song from these three to make any list of mine. Juicy J is okay, I’m not a fan of PeeWee Longway but I haven’t heard enough from him to make a definitive call, and while Gucci Mane’s definitely been on a roll since he got out of prison, this still stands a few floors above most of the other music he’s put out this year. I think the reason is because this song is greater than the sum of its parts. It thrives because of how well the three of them work off of each other. While it is undoubtedly Juicy J’s song (he even gets a verse all to himself), all three artists get their time to shine and work off of each other. It’s cool how they keep the same rhyme and flow going for almost the entire song, and Gucci actually throws some pretty intricate bars in the mix.
14) I GET IT NOW – Tech N9ne feat. Krizz Kaliko
Tech N9ne’s never been afraid to go over-the-top. Overwritten, overproduced, overperformed, Tech embraces it all. And this new track off his upcoming album The Storm is as theatrical as they come. It almost has a Danny Elfman feel to it, and I’m not talking Oingo Boingo Danny Elfman. I mean it’s on some full-out Nightmare Before Christmas-type shit. As much as I’ve never been a fan of Tech’s “fuck the critics” mentality or his occasional dive into ICP/Death Grips-style “Look how cuh-rayyyyyy-zy this guy is!” schlock, but I admire this song for putting a goofier sound behind it and making it feel a little more self-aware.
13) BODY MOVES – DNCE
Who would’ve known Joe Jonas’ funk-pop outfit would be so… good? Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of appreciation for the Jonas Brothers when I was a kid, and I still do, but the extent to which Joe and Nick have been bringing unique and necessary voices to Top 40 radio is still astounding. This song off the band’s upcoming debut album lacks the unmitigated earwormness of “Toothbrush” or the refreshing weirdness of “Cake By the Ocean,” but it’s still a high-quality disco track.
12) EMPTY – Kevin Abstract
I’ve only just discovered Kevin Abstract, but I may be in love with him. He’s sort of like a more traditionally openly-gay Frank Ocean, with a little Tyler the Creator and Childish Gambino thrown in. This track off his forthcoming album American Boyfriend is vulnerable, catchy, powerful, unapologetic, devastating, and fun all at once. Listening to it, it feels so simple, and yet conveys so much, especially when paired with the video. I’m making it sound more intense than it actually is.
11) 92 BARS – The Game
The Game released two Meek Mill diss tracks this month, and while the latter (“Pest Control”) elicited a response, I still prefer the former (“92 Bars”) for its boldness and direction. “Pest Control” isn’t much shorter than “92 Bars,” but it’s bogged down by samples and occasional wackness that overall makes it feel less substantive. “92 Bars” is just that: 92 absolutely killer lines, laid out methodically to inflict maximum damage. Sure, it’s a bit of a slog to listen to, and “Pest Control” may have a few more quotables, but I’ll still give it up to “92.”
10) A.I. – OneRepublic feat. Peter Gabriel
Some may be baffled, even enraged that I would include a OneRepublic song on any best-of list. But keep in mind, this is also a Peter Gabriel song, and Peter Gabriel is dope. Also, even to the extent that this is a OneRepublic song, it’s a pretty atypical one. It plays around with the electro-dancehall sound that currently dominates the mainstream, and doesn’t totally fuck it up. While the concept behind the song is baffling, it’s really well-produced and catchy, and practically avant-garde by Ryan Tedder terms. Still, the best moment of the song is at the end where it has an absolutely rad instrumental breakdown and just kind turns into a Peter Gabriel song for the last two minutes.
9) PERFECT ILLUSION – Lady Gaga
It took me a while to decide, but yeah. I like “Perfect Illusion.” Does it feel a little sparse at times? Does the key change feel unearned? Sure. But when you get right down to it, it’s a simple-yet-grandiose piece of power pop that thrives thanks to a tremendous vocal performance by Gaga and the production powerhouse of Mark Ronson and Tame Impala. Also, it reminds me of “The Edge of Glory,” which is my favorite Lady Gaga song.
8) NAS ALBUM DONE – DJ Khaled feat. Nas
Let me start by pointing out that this video is garbage. Almost twice as much time is devoted to pointless DJ Khaled banter as the actual song, which doesn’t even start until over 3 minutes in. Still, it’s a pretty fantastic song. The chorus is a little lame, but Nas’ verses are fantastic even by Nas standards, managing to be fun, braggadocious, and socially conscious all at once. If this is our preview of Nas’ supposedly “done” album, I can’t wait.
7) REALLY DOE – Danny Brown feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt
While a lot of this song can be credited to Kendrick Lamar (as Danny himself admitted), its strength is in its numbers, with four of the most acclaimed rappers of the new generation coming together to make what is likely the best posse cut of 2016. Danny does his thing, which is great on the song but does sort of lose its place in an album full of it. The just-slightly-overrated Ab-Soul definitely delivers. Kendrick does an excellent job, even if it doesn’t hold up to some of his other verses this summer (“Holy Key,” “THat Part”). And Earl Sweatshirt, who I’m not generally interested in, actually has a great verse. Everyone shines, no one outshines the rest, Ab-Soul lags behind maybe a little. All the makings of a great posse cut.
6) ESP – The Faint
’00s indie rock group the Faint has gone full-on space-age with a cavalcade of new techno tracks this year. It’s not a totally new direction for them, but they’ve definitely embraced it wholeheartedly at this point. And the results are very good. Immaculately-produced, combining innumerable layers of space-age synths and fuzzy vocals effortlessly, and with pretty interesting lyrics. This is probably my favorite of the singles they’ve put out recently, but I couldn’t tell you precisely why. Either way, I should start listening to the Faint more.
5) NO LOVE – OG Maco
Speaking of lead singers of Genesis, OG Maco lost an eye and now he decided he’s gonna be Phil Collins. More accurately, his new EP is called BLVK PHIL COLLINS. And while a lot of it just sort of feels like a sort-of-Phil-Collins-influenced OG Maco mixtape, this song in particular is where he truly unleashes his inner “In the Air Tonight.” His heavily-modified voice fades in and out of the scenic, watery beat, produced in part by Maco himself. Towards the end, he throws down a really solid, if sometimes hard to make out, rapped verse, while still giving off that Phil Collins je ne sais quoi.
4) SURFIN’ – Kid Cudi feat. Pharrell Williams
Critics and audiences alike were thoroughly polarized by Kid Cudi’s 2015 neo-grunge album Speedin’ Bullet to Heaven. But after reports of a return to form and a brand-new Cudi altogether, no one really knew what to expect from his recently-delayed follow-up, Passion, Pain, and Demon Slayin’. Now, we’ve got our first glimpse into what it could be, “Surfin’,” an infectious tribal marching band anthem produced by the legendary Pharrell Williams. It’s well-written, Cudder’s vocals are smoother, and it just comes together and functions as a song better than almost anything on SB2H (Note: I liked SB2H).
3) HURTS – Emeli Sandé
Scottish soul-pop sensation Emeli Sandé has been making waves internationally since 2012, when she released her debut album and performed multiple times at the London Olympics (she had already been famous in the UK for a year or two). Now, we’re finally getting our first glimpse at her follow-up, and it’s pretty incredible. With intricate production, electric guitar, an entire choir on backup vocals, and much more, the song still manages to draw power from sparseness. Creatively, it wanes in and out of orchestration to juxtapose feelings of pain and triumph, often melding both to create the feeling of bluntness that a track about a physically and emotionally painful relationship requires.
2) BLACK AMERICA AGAIN – Common feat. Stevie Wonder
While we’re on the heavy shit, let’s take a headfirst dive into “Black America Again,” wherein two black icons come together, infusing a hard-hitting, urgent jazz instrumental by Robert Glasper with poignant lyrics and vocals about the necessity for change through unity both inside and outside black America. With samples of James Brown and the Alton Sterling murder, the track stays consistently hard-hitting, even if not much is being said (Stevie’s contribution consists of a single repeated phrase: “We are rewriting the black American story”). Still, for the majority of the song, the spotlight remains squarely on Common, whose strength is in his words. Intricate, powerful bars like “Who freed me: Lincoln or Cadillac? Drinking or battle raps? Or is it godspeed that we travel at?” are plentiful. In a very objective sense, this is the best and most important song that was released this month. Which is why it might seem a little cheap that it’s only at #2.
1) FALSE ALARM – The Weeknd
Look, I know it’s ridiculous. To put the Weeknd a step above Stevie Wonder, to put one of the most powerful and urgent songs of 2016 just a bit behind the 2nd single off a dark, experimental R&B/pop album. But at the end of the day, this list is purely superficial. And this song is so good. I’ve heard critics go back and forth on it. People say they love the verses and the buildup but think the climax is unsatisfying. People say they love the punk-infused drop but think it loses weight when we’re right back to another verse. And I respect and understand all that, but I’m sorry, I just love pretty much every second of this song. Okay, the sample at the end is a little pretentious, but it’ll probably feel better in the context of the album, and it’s definitely split off from the rest of the song, which is just pure gold. Sorry, Common. Your song is also phenomenal, but in a more substantive way.