It’s alive! IT’S ALIVE! P&J has risen from the grave!
à la Anthony, here’s my P&J ballot, slightly tweaked from my Uproxx ballot, along with points and comments.
1 Jeremy Dutcher, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (23) – Jeremy Dutcher’s marriage of his classically trained vocals and composition with 100+-year-old recordings of his First Nations tribe in New Brunswick is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. The power in both Dutcher’s tenor and the way in which he’s arranged his music and these vintage Wolastoqiyik recordings in dialogue is stunning, and shocking, and so emotional. His being openly two-spirit just renders this all the more powerful; I don’t speak this language, but can’t help but be moved. God bless Canada’s Polaris Prize, which, upon awarding this year’s accolade to Dutcher’s debut album, introduced his work to legions of people, including myself.
2 Me’shell Ndegeocello, Ventriloquism (21) – Me’shell Ndegeocello, one of America’s trickiest and smartest R&B reconstructionists of the past quarter-century, may have outdone herself on her thirteenth album. She took a stack of some of the best R&B singles of the 1980s and reverse-engineered them, turning these digital, largely synth-laden marvels (in their original form) into analog songs suitable for the campfire. Some of her re-arrangements here are shocking, such as the way she gives Force M.D.’s’ “Tender Love” the Harvest treatment, but every one of them works, thanks to the unifying power of Ndegeocello’s vocals and the love pouring from each re-versioning.
3 Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour (10) – It took Kacey Musgraves’s CMA Awards performance of “Slow Burn,” in November, to open this record up for me beyond the “country for people who don’t like country” bullshit hype. And I’m glad it finally happened, because goddamn the songwriting here. And — much less credited, but no less deserving — her singing! The epitome of gorgeous.
4 Pusha T, Daytona (9) – Say what you will about the year in Kanye, but at least he gave Pusha T his best work in 2018, producing an incredibly tight, taut album for the rapper of the year. I’ll stack Daytona up against We Got It 4 Cheap — either volume.
5 Mariah Carey, Caution (9) – Welcome back, Mimi. Working with 10 different producers across 10 different tracks? Smart. Knowing how to best use your voice across these songs? Smarter. And your songwriting? Smartest. Not to mention that as great as “GTFO” is, it’s not even the best track on Caution: that award goes to the “Crush on You”-twisting “A No No,” which sends me into paroxysms of glee with each and every play.
6 Hubert Lenoir, Darlène (7)
7 Emery, Eve (6)
8 Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth (5)
9 Toni Braxton, Sex & Cigarettes (5)
10 Tracey Thorn, Record (5)
1 “End Game” – Taylor Swift feat. Ed Sheeran & Future – I didn’t care much for Reputation (and loathed its first single, “Look What You Made Me Do”), can’t stand Ed Sheeran, rarely find Future pleasurable, and am no fan of Max Martin nor any of his proteges. So what the fuck is this doing as my single of the year? Frankly, I’m as surprised as anyone. “End Game” is the exception that proves every rule, a collision of musical elements I generally can’t stand that, somehow, works as a sum. T-Swift sounds sincere, I love the song’s sentiment, the synth chords behind the chorus sound gorgeous and expensive, the too-loud-but-so-right drums sound delightfully cheap — and honestly, you know when Sheero is at his least annoying? When he’s rapping. Really. I first heard this on top 40 radio just after the first of the year, and nothing ever topped it. I’m befuddled that this flopped.
2 “GTFO” – Mariah Carey – Not just the source of a million Gay Twitter™ memes in 2018, “GTFO” is also Mariah’s best single since “Touch My Body,” and maybe even longer. Nineteen85 somehow flips a Porter Robinson sample into a delicate R&B record, Mariah smartly sings against the beat, and when she sings the “get the fuck out” chorus, of course I believe her. I’m befuddled that this flopped.
3 “joy.” – for KING & COUNTRY – Spent a lot of 2018 dealing with depression and anxiety, and “joy.” truly provided what it promises in its title. A trop-house record by a pair of Aussie brothers/Christian music superstars — with a 100-person choir on its chorus, no less — shouldn’t work. But this does more than work; it felt life-changing. At a minimum, every time I heard “joy.” this year, it was mood-elevating, better than an antidepressant.
4 “Long As I Live” – Toni Braxton – The natural follow-up to her 2013 Babyface collabo. Parent album Sex & Cigarettes rides the coattails of this sterling, heartbreaking single. Her voice is still devastating.
5 “Back & Forth” – MK, Jonas Blue, & Becky Hill – “Back & Forth” fills my USDA requirement this year for uplifting-as-fuck hit-the-floor piano house. Becky Hill sounds like Lorde if Lorde had really gone for it in her bid for the dancefloor, and Marc Kinchen is of course a legend. He can do this shit in his sleep, but luckily for us he doesn’t; he puts much more effort into it, crafting perfect 3:30 pop singles out of house heaven.
6 “Come e Baza” – Titica feat. Pabllo Vittar – Titica’s hips really don’t lie; neither do Pabllo Vittar’s. And the fact that this high energy team-up single by an Angolan transwoman and a Brazilian drag queen was a huge smash in Brazil, in a year when the country elected a new head who makes 45 look moderate, means plenty.
7 “The Story of Adidon” – Pusha T – The year’s finest hip hop single was made by the same guy who made the year’s finest hip hop album, but “The Story of Adidon” doesn’t feature on Daytona, because this was Pusha T’s sharpest, most on-target arrow in his musical feud with Drake. And when was the last time you heard a beef single this good? “Ether,” maybe? Over the track of Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.,” Push lacerates Drizzy with surgical precision. “Adidon” is shockingly brutal, and 100% on point.
8 “Lady” – Yubin – Yubin, the former rapper for K-Pop girl group legends Wonder Girls (RIP), returned in 2018 with a total surprise, going full-on city pop on her debut solo single. And of course, as the Wonder Girls were always the masters of successfully executed retro styles, it works like crazy.
9 “APESHIT” – The Carters – a/k/a Beyoncé’s “I can rap, too, motherfuckers” moment, even if her husband got the most quotable lines — “Tell the Grammys fuck that 0-for-8 shit” — but then again, Bey did tell us to “get off [her] dick,” so maybe it was a draw? Also, the year’s best Migos single.
10 “Nice for What” – Drake – More than any song on my list, this got better every time I heard (or watched) it, all year long. I love the use of Big Freedia (though I dearly wish the label credit on this had read “Drake featuring Big Freedia” — how amazing would it have been to see THAT ruling the Hot 100 for eight weeks), I love that BOOM! bassline, I love the stupid sped-up Lauryn sample, and I love that for once in his life Drake is neither a) posturing nor b) whining. It makes MY ass jump, too. And the video rules.
This song is the single greatest Prince rip of all time — yes, even moreso than “Oh Sheila” — and it’s not just due to the highly effective way that Marsha Ambrosius uses the Linn drum here. No, it’s also the song’s subject matter (sex, of course) and the way she teases it out, very much a la “Do Me Baby.” This isn’t just a song about sex, it’s a sexy song about sex. Oh, and her falsetto? Total Prince, too.
I recently had a moment of reckoning with Marvin Gaye’s “Sanctified Lady.” I was driving north up the California coast on US 1, from Santa Cruz (which I call home) to San Francisco (where I lived for 9 years and still have friends). The windows were down, this song was cranked, I was singing along and occasionally laughing — because the song’s lyrics are in many ways ridiculous. And then the chorus comes in, after the second (?) bridge, and starts singing about all-caps “JESUS!” Because Marvin wants a woman who’s a freak in the sheets (he sings the title phrase as “sanctified pussy” numerous times throughout the song) but also really, really loves Jesus. No: JESUS!
I laughed aloud and said something along the lines of, “Marvin, mister, you had some issues!” But then I stopped myself, almost immediately, and said: waitadamnminute. I’m a churchgoing freak in the sheets, so why can’t (couldn’t) Marvin openly call for that, albeit on a much more public scale? (To be fair, “Lady” was an outtake from the Midnight Love sessions, so maybe he didn’t intend for it to be heard?) (OTOH, who are we kidding?)
I needed to hear that message, I needed to call myself on that shit. And I especially needed to do so in the service of this sensational, body-rockin’ anthem. I love the ur-cheesy simple synths that Marvin’s brother-in-law Gordon Banks added, I love the silly vocoder at the song’s start, and bringing in the Waters to do the backing vocals is genius. Semi-minimalist ’80s R&B? I’m here for that all day. And when you add in that it’s Marvin Gaye singing about how much he wants a “girl” to “suck,” etc., and to be a “good ol’ church girl”? I mean, c’mon, how obviously great does this song have to be? Now, I just need to find a guy with the same qualifications for me as Marvin had for his ladies…
58% on Rotten Tomatoes is frankly higher than I expected for Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic, as most reviews I’ve heard or read have been scathing. But there’s one good thing in all this hubbub over the film: it’s making people talk about the brilliance of Queen again. And that’s something we should never stop doing, because holy fuckballs they were great, one of the best rock bands of the quarter-century 1970-1995 (which was also my first 25 years, though to be honest I didn’t pay them much attention until the Wayne’s World-led revival of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1991).
First of all, stop reading this, take 25 minutes, and watch their 1985 Live Aid performance again. (I can only assume you’ve seen it. And if not, why not?!) The highlight for me is “Hammer to Fall,” which the band absolutely rips into. But I mean: the entire performance should be shown to every single aspiring rock star as Exhibit A in HOW TO DO IT. One of the greatest live sets of all time, period.
The copious amount of live material by Queen that’s been released in the past decade-plus is actually a blessing, I’ll argue. They were really in their element in concert, and I love hearing all the nuances across the shows. Plus Freddie was the greatest rock frontman of all time; Mick can suck it. I’m particularly fond of the Live at Wembley Stadium double, recorded just a year later at the same venue as Live Aid.
As for their studio work, don’t sleep. My top 25 list is basically singles; I’m a singles guy. Why is my #1 Queen song 1982’s “Body Language,” from their much-maligned (and unfairly so) Hot Space? Because it’s simultaneously ridiculous and totally believable. Freddie sounds committed — he did love his sex songs — and the spare funk groove fucking works. Said album provides a trio of songs to my list; it’s time to re-evaluate it, folks. Also: yes, they did good work after it — through the ’80s, in fact.
1. “Body Language” (Hot Space, 1982)
2. “Hammer to Fall” (The Works, 1984)
3. “Under Pressure” (Queen & David Bowie) (single, 1981)
4. “Killer Queen” (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)
5. “One Vision” (A Kind of Magic, 1985)
6. “Radio Gaga” (The Works, 1984)
7. “Another One Bites the Dust” (The Game, 1980)
8. “Fat Bottomed Girls” (Jazz, 1978)
9. “I Want It All” (The Miracle, 1989)
10. “Somebody to Love” (A Day at the Races, 1976)
11. “Tie Your Mother Down” (A Day at the Races, 1976)
12. “Seven Seas of Rhye” (Queen II, 1974)
13. “You’re My Best Friend” (A Night at the Opera, 1975)
14. “Staying Power” (Hot Space, 1982)
15. “Don’t Stop Me Now” (Jazz, 1978)
16. “A Kind of Magic” (A Kind of Magic, 1985)
17. “Bohemian Rhapsody” (A Night at the Opera, 1975)
18. “The Show Must Go On” (Innuendo, 1991)
19. “Back Chat” (Hot Space, 1982)
20. “Sheer Heart Attack” (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)
21. “Who Wants to Live Forever” (A Kind of Magic, 1985)
22. “I Want to Break Free” (The Works, 1984)
23. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (The Game, 1980)
24. “Thank God It’s Christmas” (single, 1984)
25. “Flash” (Flash Gordon Soundtrack, 1980)
On Monday, The Singles Jukebox tributed Aretha Franklin. I had a pair of entries that I meant to get in, but didn’t make the deadline. Here’s the first, on two of her ’80s duets.
“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (Duet with George Michael) (1987) “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” (Duet with Whitney Houston) (1989)
The first a global #1 smash in 1987, the second an R&B-only hit two years later (interestingly, both peaked at #5 on the Billboard R&B chart) these songs have a lot in common, apart from their differing chart fortunes — proof that you never can tell what’s going to be a hit and what won’t. Both are duets Aretha recorded with artists who a) were younger than her, b) were hotter than her (in commercial terms, at their respective times), c) preceded her in death. Arista Records impresario Clive Davis just loved, in the ‘80s, to pair Aretha up with artists who were, or who he perceived to be, hotter than her, to help give her singles added relevance/charting potential. Davis also loved Narada Michael Walden, who was essentially Davis’s pet pop/R&B producer for much of the decade, helming lots of tracks for Franklin and for Whitney Houston (his two top priorities at the label).
“It Isn’t,” which only made it to #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 — when Houston was in the midst of her Imperial Phase — is a cluttered, overly busy production, full of orchestra hits (the song opens with one) and synth handclaps. It’s a New Jack Swing production by someone who wasn’t really equipped to make New Jack Swing, and for that you can blame Walden. For the song, however, a fairly silly catfight between two women over a man (like a much lesser version of Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine”), you can blame Albert Hammond and Diane Warren; it sounds like an attempt at “hipness” by a couple of songwriters who wouldn’t know it if it hit them in the face. All isn’t lost, though, thanks to the banter and “battling” between the divas singing it. Much of the song was clearly recorded with both Franklin and Houston on the mic simultaneously, as evidenced by their back-and-forth at the song’s end. Genius.com provides a handy guide to what it calls the “Spoken Interaction.” Here’s an excerpt:
A: You know, I realize that you’re under pressure W: Yes, I am A: And that you are suffering from delusions, but uh W: Well A: Don’t be ridiculous W: I’m not A: Get Real! W: You better get real!
It’s clearly playful, though, as Whitney’s heard not only saying “That’s Aretha” after a bit of Franklin’s scatting, but pointing out “Well you know that’s what you are,” in response to Aretha referring to herself as “the queen.” Franklin seems to bring out a playfulness in Houston that had already vanished by the end of her second album cycle; don’t forget that Houston’s mother Cissy was a member of the Sweet Inspirations, who backed up Franklin on a number of her Atlantic singles, so there was already a relationship there.
In contrast, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” did something else: its intent, ostensibly, was to elevate Franklin, but it ended up doing that instead for her duet partner, Michael. The single was released as the second official single from Franklin’s 1986 album Aretha, and it did something that not only none of her Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Singles did, but none of her singles, period, had done on the Hot 100 in two full decades: it went to #1. Michael was in the midst of his transition from Wham! heartthrob to international superstar (“I Want Your Sex” would follow “Waiting” into the top 2 just four months later), but Franklin would never hit the US top 10 again. However, artistically speaking “Waiting” made the world look at Michael in a new light, as a soul/ful singer who could actually keep up with Franklin. (Her duet with Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” two years prior, simply sounded like Annie Lennox was attempting the impossible, to outsing the Queen of Soul.) The song’s video is a joy, as well, with the pair initially singing to each other on video screens (first verse), then in front of old videos of each other (second verse), not appearing together until 2:33 in. The exultation on Michael’s face is obvious, to be singing with the Queen.
Walden produced this one as well, but went for a much more classic sound, featuring revved-up (synth) guitars alongside bass (from Randy Jackson!), drums, and Simmons percussion. Accordingly, it’s held up much better across time, as is still heard on Classic Hits radio stations the world over. On both records, Aretha herself sounds incredible, wailing yet still controlled (she was the master of that vocal technique) and always 100% committed to servicing the song’s lyric. You can hear her giving her all on every single record she ever made, good or bad. And she brought different things to each duet partner, because a singer like Franklin couldn’t help but bring out things in other singers; that was part of her brilliance. Rest In Power, Queen.
There’s a bunch of great singles out right now, across numerous formats. Some I’ve blurbed for The Singles Jukebox, and some I’ve missed. Here’s a brief round-up.
Welcome back to the pop world, Aubrey! I mean, obviously he’s not been gone — “God’s Plan” just spent 11 weeks atop the Hot 100, felled only by Drake himself — but that was more of that bullshit Soundcloud/streaming ecoverse sadcore rap. “Nice for What” is a jam, a banger, a gonna-sound-awesome-on-the-radio-all-summer-long HIT. I’ve never responded to New Orleans bounce music before, largely because there’s not enough there there for my tastes. But finally, here’s N.O. bounce married to a real pop song, with verses, chorus, and ohmygod that sample from Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” which underpins the whole thing. The video’s glorious, too. Faux-feminist or not, this kicks. (Also, read what Chris has to say about why it’s #1.) 
More gorgeous deep house from Mondo Grosso, mixing in a touch of Timbaland ca. ’98 on the verses (which remind me of some of his most spatial work for Aaliyah). Aina the End, out of her comfort zone, sounds perfect against Mondo Grosso’s textures. Everything about this rings true. 
Everybody knows that Carrie Underwood sings big, but she really kinda outdoes herself here. This is a stellar slice of Nashville feminism penned by Underwood herself with three of the town’s greatest songwriters, Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna (talk about a murderer’s row), also co-produced by Underwood, and it balances tenderness with just the right touch of bombast. This is a declaration of intent from the biggest woman in contemporary country music; she’s not fucking around. Neither is this song. 
Moby gets a “feat.” credit because this is basically A$AP Rocky spitting bars over a huge chunk of “Porcelain.” And that alone — from a major-label-signed platinum-selling rapper — makes this some avant-garde shit. 
Been listening to a lot of early ’70s music lately, most of it previously unknown (or at least not terribly familiar) to me. And this song, Carly Simon‘s first single (from her debut album) — goddamn, how lacerating. The musical version of an Albee or Pinter play, this paints an entirely unappetizing portrait of marriage in the early ’70s. And it made it to #10 pop! Produced by Eddie Kramer (!!!), this is arranged perfectly, and Carly sounds gorgeous. But these lyrics, which she wrote, are just phenomenal.
Slim Jxmmi is just okay for my money, and Juicy J is coasting hard these days, but goddamn, I can listen to Swae Lee sing anything — I mean, c’mon, he’s the reason that French Montana’s “Unforgettable” became such a big hit in 2017 (650M views and counting!) (well, Swae + that killer beat). The groove on “Powerglide” just bumps and bumps and bumps, too. And don’t forget: Juicy J is an Oscar winner, which will never not make me happy.
The first time I heard Matthews’ Southern Comfort‘s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” (thanks, iHeart’s Classic American Top 40 channel!), I didn’t recognize the song until about the second pass through the chorus — that’s how unique their arrangement is. #1 in the UK, top 30 in the US, and the best take on the song.
One of the best uses of Morris Day’s, uh, unique gifts, in the service of a great Prince, er the Time single.
Toni Braxton‘s Sex & Cigarettes might be my favorite album of the year so far, and this single is a perfect exemplification why: those creamy, deep vocals by Braxton, with complimentary production and lyrics that play to her strengths (she’s often best singing from a place of pain, akin to MJB).