1. Miguel: “waves (Tame Impala Remix)”
I don’t get outright obsessed with songs very often. That may seem hard to believe, but it’s true. Even when I truly love a song to my core, it’s rare that I feel the need to endlessly play it on repeat. This Tame Impala remix of Miguel’s “waves” is a glowing exception. Miguel and Tame Impala are not only two of my favorite current artists, but they both had big breakout years in 2015. They both pushed toward each other’s worlds with their latest albums, past the boundaries of their respective “genres.” Miguel is known as an R&B/pop singer but I wouldn’t argue if you called last year’s Wildheart a rock album, while Tame Impala, the “rock band,” experimented with pop and funk on Currents. We can see evidence of this convergence between Tame Impala’s sound and the current pop landscape in Rihanna’s latest album ANTI. She straight-up took the production of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” note-for-note and sang over it herself to create “Same Ol’ Mistakes”, and somehow it sounds completely at home! No one would have thought that was possible five years ago. The pop star behind “Don’t Stop the Music” sang over a track from the guys who made “Lucidity”? I don’t know man, but it works.
So, it turns out Tame Impala is actually a natural fit for a Miguel remix. The original version of “waves” is amazing in and of itself, easily one of my 5 favorite Miguel tracks. Kevin Parker, the wizard behind Tame Impala, punches it up a notch with a little more “oomph.” The opening harmonies, which sound like they were ripped from a sun-soaked Beach Boys cut, give way to classic Tame Impala woozy, gauzy psych rock. This seamless Miguel-Tame Impala combination hits my sweet spot dead on. I have a feeling this is going to be a constant presence in 2016 summer playlists.
2. Bent Shapes: “What We Do Is Public”
Bent Shapes, a group from Boston, have taken a while to settle, changing their band name (formerly known as Girlfriends) and going through a few band member replacements. But apparently the turmoil hasn’t muddied the music in the slightest. “What We Do Is Public” gets me PUMPED. Sometimes, all you need is a burst of indie pop-punk energy to cut through the clutter. The track is brimming with hooks, sharp male-female harmonies, and amazing guitar-drum interplay.
3. Majid Jordan: “Learn From Each Other”
The R&B renaissance continues. Majid Jordan, a duo from Toronto and signee to Drake’s record label, first entered public consciousness as co-producers and contributing vocalists on Drake’s 2013 mega-hit “Hold On, We’re Going Home”. Originally, during the lead-up to their eponymous debut album, I wrote them off in my mind — “they’re probably just more derivative Drake understudies,” I thought — but their album is a strong exercise in smooth, sinuous R&B. It was hard to pick a representative (“Every Step Every Way” and “Make it Work” are also really solid), but I think my favorite is “Learn From Each Other,” with it’s synth bass tones and the constant bass drum. It’s slinky and seductive, perfect for dark-lit clubs or night drives.
4. DIIV: “Under the Sun”
DIIV (usually pronounced “dive”) have a really stupid name for their new album: Is The Is Are. Uh, okay. Ignore that though, because the album is really good. “Under the Sun” has a propulsive backbone, good for a drive on a clear day. The jangly guitar recalls other great surf rock bands, like Beach Fossils and Allah-Las, but the track has a My Bloody Valentine-type hazy shoegaze feel as well. It’s an easy song to get lost in.
5. Kanye West: “Ultralight Beam”
The last time we were here, we thought that Kanye’s album would be called WAVES, but since that was after he already changed the name twice, we should have known better. The album is here as promised, but it’s called The Life of Pablo and even though he released it to the world, he’s still not quite done with it, I guess? Anyway, The Life of Pablo is probably Kanye’s most uneven album, but it has moments as transcendent as ever. The record opens with “Ultralight Beam,” an honestly amazing piece of — and I’m not kidding — gospel music. It’s slow and steady with a lot of empty space, anchored by just a few crescendoing notes, periodically pierced by four emphatic bass and snare drum hits at the end of most of the 4-bar phrases. (By the way, I can’t stress enough how genius those groups of four drum hits are). After some random auto-tuned singing about praying for Paris and other things, Kanye mostly cedes the floor to his very talented featured guests. The-Dream croons the main hook, gospel singers Kirk Franklin and Kelly Price absolutely slay their verses, and a gospel choir adds climactic embellishments.
But Chance the Rapper steals the show. The young, rapidly-rising rapper from Kanye’s hometown of Chicago has been on a tear recently. Chance, who has looked up to Kanye since he was a kid, finally has the opportunity to feature on his idol’s newest album and he lives up to the challenge tremendously. His verse is packed with memorable lines: “My daughter look just like Sia, you can’t see her,” “I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail,” “Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard that there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet / This is my part, nobody else speak.” I also love when he throws in random bits of singing, like when he starts out with “When they come for you, I will shield your name / I will field their questions, I will feel your pain” and later, when he sings “This little light of mii-ine / Glory be to God, yeah.” But my absolute favorite part of the song is when Chance ramps it up, saying “Know what God said when he made the first rainbow / Just throw this at the end if I’m too late for the intro, UNNNNHHHHH!” The drums come back in after a bit of a break, the rhythm in Chance’s bars are infectious, and the “UNNNNHHHHH!” represents his utter joy of being there. He’s made it.
I really like The Life of Pablo, but it’s true that Kanye’s lyrical ability has faltered a lot since his earlier albums. He used to put a lot of thought into his verses, peppering them with humor and wit, but now it seems like he just says whatever random idea pops into his head first. That’s why Chance’s verse is so refreshing — it’s energetic, clever, funny, and full of life. But despite Kanye’s other lyrics, he is still unparalleled in his creative vision and the ability to execute that vision by bringing the most talented people together. “Ultralight Beam” is Exhibit A.