Must-lis­ten mu­sic

Freshen up those playlists — L.A. Times writ­ers pick their fa­vorite songs of ’16

Los Angeles Times - - POP & HISS -

Anohni “Ex­e­cu­tion” (Se­cretly Cana­dian)

The trans­gen­der artist now known as Anohni earned early fame with her group Antony and the John­sons, and for the first project un­der her new name she stormed the dance floor in ser­vice of hard­ened, po­lit­i­cal bangers. Taken from the al­bum “Hope­less­ness,” the track “Ex­e­cu­tion” typ­i­fies her Tro­jan Horse ap­proach: She de­cries cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment via a strik­ing, house-in­spired beat. The re­sult is a kind of nega­tion, one that sub­verts dance-floor pos­i­tiv­ity in ser­vice of a less palat­able truth. — Ran­dall Roberts

Bey­oncé “For­ma­tion” (Park­wood/Columbia)

Bey­oncé is a mas­ter of sus­pense, re­leas­ing pop cul­ture-shift­ing state­ments how­ever she pleases. But not even her most ador­ing fans were ready for “For­ma­tion.” The record is a provoca­tive mission state­ment from a singer who has spent her en­tire ca­reer unit­ing myr­iad au­di­ences. It’s a song about fe­male em­pow­er­ment and sex­u­al­ity, her fre­quent touch­stones, but she chose to speak specif­i­cally and di­rectly to her black­ness. She proudly sang about lov­ing her “Ne­gro nose with Jackson Five nos­trils,” lik­ing her “baby hair with baby hair and afros” (ref­er­ences a breadth of her au­di­ence prob­a­bly still doesn’t un­der­stand) and cel­e­brat­ing her South­ern her­itage amid a Mike WiLL Made-It beat that ex­plodes into a march­ing-band stomp. — Ger­rick D. Kennedy

Danny Brown “Gold­dust” (Warp Records)

It’s a won­der that Detroit rap­per Brown made it out of “Gold­dust” alive, given the many drugs he con­sumes dur­ing the song. Over the course of 2½ in­tense min­utes, the fran­tic, im­me­di­ately iden­ti­fi­able Brown rhymes about par­tak­ing in co­caine, a Bloody Mary, Ad­der­all, mar­i­juana, more co­caine, more liquor, a mi­mosa, MDMA and, yes, more co­caine. Mirac­u­lously, not only does Brown sur­vive, but he prevails through­out “Gold­dust,” which is taken from his al­bum “Atrocity Ex­hi­bi­tion.” He’s urged on by pro­ducer Paul White’s in­tense, snare-rolling beat, which sam­ples post-punk band Joy Divi­sion and a deep bass line from Ger­man jazz-rock band Em­bryo. So sin­gu­lar is that rhythm, and Brown’s de­liv­ery, that it could spawn its own chaotic hip-hop sub­genre. — R.R.

The Chainsmok­ers fea­tur­ing Halsey “Closer” (Dis­rup­tor Records/Columbia)

In a year as screwy as 2016, it made sense that mu­sic’s dopi­est new act would be the one to nail the sense of eco­nomic anx­i­ety fi­nally trick­ling down to Amer­ica’s mil­len­ni­als. “Baby, pull me closer in the back­seat of your Rover that I know you can’t af­ford,” the Chainsmok­ers’ An­drew Tag­gart sings in this pop-EDM smash, be­fore his duet part­ner, Halsey, moves the ac­tion to the mat­tress she stole from her room­mate back in Boul­der. The song’s thump­ing cho­rus tries to brush off those money troubles: “We ain’t ever get­ting older,” the two de­clare, look­ing for es­cape en route to the club. But what makes “Closer” stick is how un­con­vinced they sound. — Mikael Wood

Leonard Co­hen “You Want It Darker” (Columbia)

The veteran poet-shaman was al­ways a mas­ter of con­jur­ing pri­mal emo­tions words and mu­sic, and the ti­tle track from the fi­nal stu­dio al­bum be­fore his death in Novem­ber is a text­book ex­am­ple. A sin­gle cou­plet evokes a world of an­guish over the hu­man con­di­tion as he ap­plies that coal-mine deep bari­tone, a mi­nor-key chant and haunt­ing rhyth­mic un­der­cur­rent to the lyrics: “A mil­lion can­dles burn­ing for the help that never came/You want it darker— we kill the flame.” That’s fol­lowed by some­thing of a con­fes­sion, in He­brew and English: “Hi­neni, Hi­neni — I’m ready my Lord.” As Co­hen and the pre­cious few mu­si­cians who might call them­selves his peers know so well, with­out the dark, there is noth­ing against which we mea­sure the light. — Randy Lewis

Drake fea­tur­ing Ri­hanna “Too Good” (Young Money / Cash Money)

Was “Views” a hit or not? Sure, it smashed stream­ing records and yielded the un­stop­pable “One Dance,” but fans and crit­ics seemed to turn on the al­bum from the sec­ond it landed. “Too Good” should have been the hit that changed minds, how­ever. A U.K. Funky beat in­fused with just enough of the year’s ubiq­ui­tous Caribbean smol­der as well as a heart­felt duet be­tween Drake and Ri­hanna that put Drake on blast as a self­ish lover on his own al­bum. — Au­gust Brown

Drive By Truck­ers “What It Means” (ATO Records)

A fine protest an­them — one that asks more ques­tions than it an­swers — and one that also feels down­right brave. The song, a ca­sual, rootsy strum­mer that grows more ur­gent through­out its six min­utes, deals with racial di­vides, the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, po­lice vi­o­lence, do­mes­tic as­sault and a pun­dit-driven me­dia, and does it all from the per­spec­tive of a South­ern white man. “If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks, well I guess that means that you ain’t black,” sings Pat­ter­son Hood with a con­ver­sa­tional scratch in his voice. He doesn’t sound an­gry — just ex­hausted. — Todd Martens

Colleen Green “U Coulda Been an A” (In­fin­ity Cat)

Los An­ge­les singer and song­writer Green writes terse, smart pop songs that sug­gest Ra­mones-es­que punk in­ten­sity, but she presents them not lead­ing a band of leather­clad thugs but on her own through a lit­tle beat-box and an elec­tric gui­tar. “U Coulda Been an A,” taken from her “Colleen Green EP,” has a ba­sic con­ceit: her lover could have earned high marks in the school of love but, in­stead, set­tled for a barely pass­ing grade. Green laments her fate not with tan­gled, ac­cusatory lines but through a se­ries of word­less, in­dif­fer­ent vo­cal “ohs” and “ahs.” It’s your loss, she seems to say. — R.R.

Ari­ana Grande “Into You” (Repub­lic)

Some­times the right balm for hard times is a bom­bas­tic pop jam to get lost in. Grande’s third al­bum was stuffed with siz­zling dance-pop and moody R&B over­seen by pop sa­vant Max Martin. “Into You” is proof of Martin’s Mi­das touch. With a heady EDM club beat, disco flour­ishes and an in­fec­tious hook that man­ages to evoke Elvis and Mariah Carey in the same line, “Into You” is pop es­capism at its finest. — G.K.

Ka­maiyah “I’m On” (Self-re­leased)

“I’m On” cel­e­brates leav­ing behind the days of liv­ing pay­check to pay­check with­out ven­tur­ing into clichéd ma­te­ri­al­ism like most as­pi­ra­tional raps. The Oak­land rap­per ef­fort­lessly glides be­tween rap­ping and singing over a swing­ing, trop­i­cal beat that’s a feel-good throw­back to ’90s R&B/hip-hop in­no­va­tors Missy El­liott and TLC (the late ’80s R&B sam­ple also boosts its retro vibes). — G.K.

Lady Gaga “Mil­lion Rea­sons” (In­ter­scope Records)

Re­leased less than two months ago, Lady Gaga’s ul­tra-hyped “Joanne” seems al­ready to have slipped from mem­ory — not an un­fair fate for an al­bum with some pretty shal­low ideas about how roots mu­sic works. But this ma­jes­tic coun­try bal­lad made a deeper im­pres­sion, thanks in part to a pun­gent lyric by one of Nashville’s crafti­est song­writ­ers, Hil­lary Lind­sey: “Lord, show me the way to cut through all this worn-out leather,” goes one line Mi­randa Lam­bert would be proud to sing. But Lam­bert wouldn’t sing “Mil­lion Rea­sons” like Gaga does: throaty, dra­matic, even a bit vul­gar. Call it “Phan­tom of the Opry.” — M.W.

Mit­ski “Your Best Amer­i­can Girl” (Dead Oceans)

One of the year’s best songs was about fail­ing to live up to the All-Amer­i­can sweet­heart ideal. The Ja­panese Amer­i­can singer­song­writer Mit­ski had a break­out with “Your Best Amer­i­can Girl” and found a po­tent lyri­cal well in the pain of be­ing oth­ered by a lover. But she comes around to emthrough brace her di­vides in his­tory and per­spec­tive, and comes out stronger for giv­ing up on that old and use­less — but still some­how al­lur­ing — dream. If you need more in­duce­ment: the track ab­so­lutely slays, with one of the heav­i­est and best-pro­duced gui­tar sounds of this year. — A.B.

Priests “Pink White House” (Sis­ter Poly­gon)

A wild, un­tamed rock song from one of the more promis­ing in­de­pen­dent bands around. “Pink White House” is four min­utes of hu­mor­ously youth­ful dis­con­tent led by the noth­ing-but-ex­trem­i­ties vo­cals of Katie Alice Greer. Sav­age and howl­ing in one mo­ment, she’s just as com­fort­able slow­ing things down to the point where it sounds like she’s look­ing the lis­tener in the eyes the next. One after an­other, the song touches on some of the more ridicu­lous as­pects of the Amer­i­can dream, and as rhythms set­tle into a gal­lop and gui­tars go from shred­ding to lock­ing into a groove, Priests al­most —

al­most — sound tam­able. — T.M.

Margo Price “Hurtin’ (On the Bot­tle)” (Third Man Records)

The Illi­nois-reared singer-song­writer scored a home run with her lat­est al­bum, “Mid­west Farmer’s Daugh­ter,” bring­ing gritty re­al­ity, savvy word­play and lyri­cal in­sight to its 10 songs, among them this in­stant honky-tonk clas­sic. She by­passes breezy feel-good sen­ti­ment of so much con­tem­po­rary coun­try mu­sic dom­i­nat­ing the ra­dio air­waves, hark­ing back in­stead to the deep-reach­ing songs of Merle Hag­gard, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn: “I put a hurtin’ on the bot­tle/Baby now I’m blind enough to see/Been drinkin’ whisky like it’s wa­ters/But that don’t touch the pain you put in me.” No won­der Jack White flipped when he heard her and promptly put her al­bum out on his Third Man Records la­bel. — R.L.

Ri­hanna fea­tur­ing Drake “Work” (Roc Na­tion)

The beat is barely there, more the sug­ges­tion of a dance-hall rhythm than the thing it­self. And though the bass line has some mus­cle, it doesn’t re­ally do much — just a sim­ple as­cend­ing fig­ure that keeps re­turn­ing to the bot­tom and go­ing up again, like an es­ca­la­tor. That leaves Ri­hanna to live up to the song’s ti­tle, and boy does she ever: Veer­ing into pa­tois as blurred as the groove is pre­cise, the singer fills the am­ple avail­able space in “Work” with so much vo­cal charisma that she had to make two mu­sic videos to prop­erly vi­su­al­ize it. And the lyrics! “You took my heart and my keys and my pa­tience / You took my heart on my sleeve as dec­o­ra­tion.” Who this year had bet­ter lines than those? — M.W.

Them Are Us Too “False Moon” (Dais Records)

Of all the death and loss in mu­sic this year, the Oak­land Ghost Ship fire was the worst, most un­fath­omable tragedy of all. There’s much work to be done to make artist hous­ing and ware­house venues safe (and af­ford­able), but in the face of so much grief, some­times listening to the dead is all there is to do. Cherushii’s “Far Away So Close” is a beau­ti­ful, up­lift­ing deep-house sin­gle that will hope­fully re­mind fans of how much love can live on in mem­ory. But the late 22-year-old Cash Askew’s band Them Are Us Too is so gor­geous and ele­giac that it’s al­most too painful to lis­ten to now. But please try. — A.B.

Kevin Win­ter Getty Images

LADY GAGA per­forms se­lec­tions from “Joanne” in Oc­to­ber in Los An­ge­les.

Matt Slocum AP

BEY­ONCÉ lets her hair down at Super Bowl half­time show in Santa Clara, Calif.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

DRAKE and Ri­hanna at ’11 Gram­mys.

Chris Pizzello AP

LEONARD CO­HEN in 2009.

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