Yuna featuring Usher, “Crush”
Yuna’s innovation: to completely ignore the R&B/hip-hop arms race without making a spineless, nostalgic re-tread. There are subtle strains of reggae — a cool nod to the top 40’s current obsession with Jamaican pop, but not a full embrace — vaporous, transfixing melodies, and Usher working wonders on his finest verse of the year, sounding like a wily veteran instead of the old-guy-trying-to-hard-to-be-young.
Other paralysis-inducing displays of beauty: Bibio featuring Gotye, “The Way You Talk,” CFCF, “Fleurs Laisses Dans Un Taxi,” Vince Gill, “Down to My Last Bad Habit,” and Bruno Mars’ “Calling All My Lovelies.”
Fat Joe and Remy Ma, “All The Way Up”
A feel-good comeback story for two rappers who needed a hit. A fence-mending opportunity between Joe and Remy, and then Joe and Jay Z. A superfluous French Montana feature. A savvy mix of nostalgia and modernity, which in turn allows radio DJs to use the song as a slick segue between new hits and throwbacks. Everyone wins.
And in general, it was a sterling year for New York rappers across boroughs and generations: honorable mention to Young M.A’s “Ooouuu,” Boogie With Da Hoodie’s “My Shit,” Desiigner’s “Timmy Turner” — is this the strangest thing in the mainstream, even in a year when Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” hit No. 1? — Rolling Stone P’s “Calvin Kleins” (he’s from nearby Newark), Timeless Truth’s “Wavelength,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “We The People,” and A$AP Ferg’s “New Level.”
William Michael Morgan, “I Met A Girl”
One of several songs in recent years that shows the laziness of the mainstream vs. alt/Americana dichotomy that infuses the discourse around country music. What’s even more impressive about “I Met a Girl” is that it’s originally co-written by the uber-modern Sam Hunt, which should make Morgan a hero for the censorious agitators that demand country remain faithful to a 40 year-old image: Morgan comes along, takes a Hunt demo decked out with Drake-indebted delivery and a drum machine, manhandles it back into country’s past, and succeeds on the airwaves.
Also look to Craig Morgan’s “A Whole Lot More To Me,” a fine defense of the genre.
Fort Romeau, “Secrets & Lies,” or Midland, “Final Credits”
The lethal effectiveness of modern pop — more pre-hooks and hooks and post-hooks and drops than you can count hitting you quicker than you can count them — can obscure the need for the slow build, the gradual accretion of small shifts that eventually reduce a dance floor to a heaving mass. There are pleasures in “Secrets & Lies” that a four minute song can only hint at, and the same goes for Midland’s track, which staples together samples of Gladys Knight and rare funk into an instant disco classic.
Come because there were months when this song was inescapable — you never had a choice. Stay for the giddy repetition, the moment when Rihanna’s vocals are suddenly multi-tracked, and the second half of the two-for-one video, which is charming even though the endless Rihanna/Drake will-they-or-won’t-they-shtick is tiresome. The results are gummy enough to push aside questions like: how long will the latest wave of pop’s dancehall infatuation last? Will Jamaican singers see benefits?
Liv, “Wings of Love”
This is close as modern music gets to the titans of L.A.’s past: the Mamas & the Papas, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Fleetwood Mac just after Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined the team. Don’t be fooled by the “indie rock supergroup” billing of Liv: Jeff Bhasker, one of pop’s most nimble minds, helped write this balmy yet punchy tune.
For another good approximation of Fleetwood Mac, try Little Big Town’s “Better Man,” written by Taylor Swift and produced by the regularly astounding Jay Joyce.
Guordan Banks, “Keep You In Mind”
A perfect steam-bath of a song, at ease with both the percussive power of modern R&B and the clunky electronic hybrids of the ’80s. In the past, Banks has penned tracks for John Legend and Keshia Cole and worked with Meek Mill; “Keep You in Mind” hit No. 1 on the Adult R&B chart; Bryson Tiller and Chris Brown recently hopped on the remix. Why didn’t this get more attention?
Other songs it’s not to late to hear on R&B radio: Johnny Gill and New Edition’s “This One’s for Me and You” (a nice retread of Charlie Wilson’s “There Goes My Baby,” one of the top R&B songs of the last decade), Annale’s “Roses” (the shrewdest neo-soul revival in a year littered with them), and Dreezy and T-Pain’s lusty duet, “Close to You.”
Travis Scott,Young Thug, and Quavo, “Pick Up the Phone”
There were a lot of transcendently off-kilter rap hits this year. On this happily inebriated number, Quavo displays a lovely croon, while Scott and Thug seemed unable to agree on a single hook, so they each sing one, and both are pine resin-sticky. For a more direct boost: Future’s “Wicked.”
Kanye West, The Life Of Pablo
Even in a pop world where everyone works with everyone else and genre lines hardly exist, no one else could make this record. And no other album this year came close to matching TLOP‘s mid-to-late stretch: “Waves” to “FML” to “Real Friends” — will Kanye please produce the next Ty Dolla $ign album? — to “Wolves” to “30 Hours.”
Moodymann, DJ Kicks, and Omar-S, The Best
Did anyone range farther with as much success as Moodymann? I expected a mix triangulated between funk, disco, and house, and techno, but got something different and impossible to pin down — to borrow from Gary Giddins, Moodymann always stays “one step ahead… and beyond category.” Omar-S, another Detroit producer, offered the flip-side of Moodymann’s reckless bounty, drilling down into a tight, repetitive, elemental blend of house and techno.
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
As a rule, double albums are too long, and Lambert’s is no different. But Lambert rarely records a bad song, and the willfully dirty production is a slap in the face of those who think big-ticket Nashville projects can’t slug it out in the muck.
Solange, A Seat at the Table
After bouncing from style to style on her last three albums (I’m counting True, even though it was billed as an EP), Solange truly arrives as a force to be reckoned with. A Seat at the Table is an elegant, gorgeous soul album. She’s not courting the ghosts of the ’70s, nor is she fishing for radio play — she keeps hip-hop drum programming at arm’s length — but Hot 97 is playing “Cranes In The Sky” anyway. King’s We Are King worked in a similar vein, bravely off-trend, tightly unified.
Diego El Cigala, Indestructible
A great singer inhabits a new style, paying tribute to the classic salsa of the ’60s and ’70s. The results are predictably great: El Cigala brings his richly textured voice and indomitable spirit, while musicians from various salsa hotbeds help recreate some of the most powerful live band dance music put to tape.