First things first: DON'T PANIC.
Yes, this is a nerve-racking time to be a pop music fan. It's hard to relax knowing that lurking around every corner is the next big surprise album, dumped in the dead of night on some streaming service you swore you'd never sign up for. Or that there's some new one-hit wonder in town, going viral on Snapchat while you're still dropping cash for CDs like a chump.
Halfway through 2016, this already feels like one of the most chaotic music years in memory, from the deaths of Prince and David Bowie to surprise albums from Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye West and Radiohead. Everything we think we know today could flip and become irrelevant by tomorrow.
And now we're in the sweaty grip of summer, when the rules and the stakes get even crazier. This is the time of year when we're supposed to get all tingly about one song, one album, one artist, one moment to excite and unite us all. But doesn't it feel like we're all still trapped in some vast cone of uncertainty, biting our nails as we wait for the Big One to hit?
Remain calm, we say: Summer's only just getting started; Labor Day's an eon away. There's still time to prepare, to stock your phone or iPod with new music for the gym, the beach, the cookout or the road trip to Nana's. When the dust of 2016 settles, some of these songs may even stand the test of time and become classics.
Before we begin our 2016 Summer Music Guide, however, let's take a few general questions. Yes, you in the Sperry Top-Siders.
Why does summer music matter so much?
Because youth conquers all when it comes to popular music — always has, always will, from Jan and Dean to Drake and Rihanna. Summer is when so many of our fondest early memories are made, from beach days to broken curfews to the smell of her hair in line outside the Dairy Hut. The songs that soundtrack those memories live with you forever. That's why every year, pop-watchers trip over themselves to crown a Song of Summer, that one pop anthem you can't escape at any turn, and will forever remind you of a time when anything was possible.
Refresh me: What was 2015's Song of Summer again?
Last year was a weird one. Billboard said it was Omi's Cheerleader, but Billboard is wrong, because that song is the sonic equivalent of lukewarm oatmeal. Even a year later, it's not clear if there was one worthy champion. You can make a case for the Weeknd's Can't Feel My Face or Skrillex, Diplo and Justin Bieber's Where Are U Now, but the correct answer is probably Trap Queen by Fetty Wap or Lean On by Major Lazer, DJ Snake and MO — two songs that felt inescapable at the time and only slightly less so now.
I have the perfect song in mind! Can I nominate it for Song of Summer?
No. The Song of Summer isn't elected democratically; it is anointed by force majeure. It's the song Weird Al will parody, the song your mom can whistle, the song clogging your feed with a million unfunny memes. You might not know it the first time you hear it, but you definitely will by the 1,000th.
What should I be listening for?
A collaboration, for starters. Almost every major single these days is credited to "So-and-so featuring such-and-such," often with a third what's-his-name thrown in for good measure. It's smart branding — it helps cross-pollinate fan bases and makes a song feel like a once-in-a-lifetime event — though it can feel frustratingly clunky on the tongue. If today's production climate existed in 1963, Be My Baby would be credited to "Phil Spector and the Ronettes featuring the Wrecking Crew." Doesn't have the same ring, does it?
Also keep an ear out for anything that sounds vaguely tropical — airy marimbas, clicks and finger-snaps; dancehall-like syncopation; clean, sparse vocals. It's music rooted in the Caribbean and swept into a pop-electronic movement called "tropical house," which eschews crushing beats and bass in favor of sleek, synthetic minimalism. Among the hits that have succeeded with this approach: Justin Bieber's Sorry and What Do You Mean, Rihanna and Drake's Work and Ellie Goulding's On My Mind.
Okay, so: Inescapable, tropical and credited to more than one artist. Is there a song out there now that fits that description?
Yes. Read on.
THE FORECAST: 10 Summer Singles to Keep on Your Radar
It's only mid June, but we've already heard a few songs we'll still be humming come fall. Another new hit could sneak up and surprise us all, but don't be surprised if one of these 10 tracks ends up on top.
The Chainsmokers featuring Daya, Don't Let Me Down: It's the year's No. 1 dance track, an enticing mix of delicate melody and freaked-out bass. But here's a secret: In concert, the Chainsmokers have been spinning an unreleased song, tentatively titled Closer, that sounds like a huge hit in waiting. If it drops this summer, buy stock early.
Justin Timberlake, Can't Stop the Feeling: Many have anointed this retro-disco hit because it's upbeat, has a ton of radio support and, well, it's J.T., and who doesn't love J.T.? Unfortunately, it's also fairly generic — an appealing enough crowd-pleaser, but far from Timberlake and co-writer Max Martin at their finest.
Desiigner, Panda: This year's Trap Queen, an unlikely anthem from a hip-hop oddball who came out of nowhere. Its mumbly mantra "I got broads in Atlanta" is already one of the year's signature catchphrase lyrics.
Twenty One Pilots, Ride: The Ohio alt-pop duo's hit Stressed Out is still a freight train, but the reggae-flavored Ride is gaining. It'll be this summer's most inescapable rock song, the one that crosses genre lines and appeals to multiple demographics. It's not going anywhere.
Ariana Grande, Into You: Grande's Dangerous Woman is brimming with potential hits, but the one everyone is watching is this sleek, snappy single, an exquisitely crafted slice of Max Martin songcraft that could finally be the solo No. 1 hit she has been building toward the last three years.
Sia, Cheap Thrills: Perfectly on brand with pop music's tropical proclivities, its reggaeton bones (Sean Paul drops in for a remix) and chanting-children chorus play well against Sia's huger-than-huge voice. Released in December, it has aged well and is still rising.
DNCE, Cake by the Ocean: A pop-rock song so simple, silly and slight it might be this year's Shut Up and Dance — a juggernaut we just keep underrating until it has been on the chart for months. Chalk its eternal appeal up to DNCE's energetic live performances, which often feature singer Joe Jonas meandering through the crowd.
Thomas Rhett, Vacation: Had Rhett released Vacation a month ago, it might already be No. 1. Like Die a Happy Man and T-Shirt, it's a poppy party anthem clearly crafted for summer dominance, shouting out Billabong bikinis, Coppertone sunscreen and Walgreens beach chairs. It's bound to be all over the country airwaves — and perhaps beyond — by Labor Day.
Fifth Harmony, Write on Me: The tween-idol girl group already has one big summer hit in Work From Home, but their followup, the equally fun and flirty Write on Me, is a better song. This should be the Fifth Harmony song we remember from 2016.
Drake featuring Wizkid and Kyla, One Dance: See "A Word on Drake," below.
STOCK UP: 6 Albums to Break Out in an Emergency
LUIS SANTANA | Times
Singles are one thing, but what about full albums? If you don't have time to make a playlist, here are seven solid LPs you can rock from top to bottom without getting laughed out of the pool.
Ariana Grande, Dangerous Woman: Whatever your expectations were for Grande's third album, Dangerous Woman crushes 'em. There are at least a half-dozen strong Song of Summer contenders on here, from the vampy title track to the dancehall-tinged Nicki Minaj duet Side to Side. Take your pick, and take your time picking, because there's just so much here.
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book: The word most associated with Coloring Book is gospel, and for good reason: The free album's soaring voices and Chance's earnest, uplifting lyrics do inspire come-to-Jesus emotions. But Chance can rock a party jam, too, and All Night (featuring Knox Fortune) and No Problem (featuring Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz) are both instant cookout classics.
Flume, Skin: Australian producer Flume's sophomore album blends ethereal, downbeat synth-pop with glitchy, trippy hip-hop, creating a strange, soothing and supercool backdrop for late, liquefied nights on the town. Plus it ends with the uplifting Tiny Cities, featuring what might be Beck's best-ever vocal performance.
Tegan and Sara, Love You to Death: This summer's victor in the category of Irresistible '80s Throwback Album goes to everyone's favorite indie twin sisters, who have once again proved themselves masters of the sugar-sweet, sweep-you-off-your-feet three-minute pop song. Boyfriend clocks in at 2:47, leaving you 13 full seconds to click repeat.
Prince, Purple Rain: Sad but true. Prince's album sales skyrocketed in the weeks after his death, as listeners were desperate to get reacquainted with the Purple One's vast genius. But, funny thing, it's no passing infatuation. The song Purple Rain has once again become a stadium-sized anthem, wailed loudly and proudly by fans at concerts by Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Darius Rucker, among others. Spin this soundtrack and everyone at your pool party will have something to talk about — and sing along to.
Drake, Views: See "A Word on Drake," below.
ELSEWHERE ON THE RADAR
You might find this hard to believe, but not every music lover is 100-emoji into Drake and Ariana Grande. Let's survey a few other genres.
Just because there are no rock singles contending for Song of Summer (no, Lukas Graham's 7 Years doesn't count) doesn't mean there's no rock music worth hearing.
Two festival heavyweights dropping new albums this month are the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Avett Brothers, two acts whose latest singles — the Chili Peppers' Dark Necessities and Avetts' Ain't No Man — are built on basslines thicker and tastier than extra-crunchy Jif. That's par for the course for Flea and the Peps, but it doesn't account for Dark Necessities' soulfulness — an effect, perhaps, of their work with Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich on new album The Getaway. Ain't No Man, on the other hand, is a pure back-porch-pickin' hoot, and a good example of the eclectic adventurousness the Avetts embrace on True Sadness, which drops June 24.
Beyond the mainstream, we find ourselves in a bit of an emo revival, which is good news for Philadelphia's Modern Baseball and Vancouver's White Lung. The former's Holy Ghost brings more wry lyrics from dual singer-songwriters Brendan Lukens and Jake Ewald, both mewling their hearts out over grinding, tumbling guitars; while the latter's Paradise is a nonstop blitzkrieg of pop-punk and melodic hardcore, fueled by Mish Way's searing voice.
For something fun and retro, try The Ride, from Welsh alternative outfit Catfish and the Bottlemen — it's a springy, stuttery nod to 40 years of glam and Britrock, from Bowie and the Jam to Oasis and Blur. Why Are You OK, the fifth album from Seattle's Band of Horses, adds Americana touches to the band's jangly alterna-pop, particularly on Throw My Mess and Solemn Oath. And check out the self-titled debut from L.A. garage rockers the Shelters, co-produced by none other than Tom Petty. A devout homage to '60s shag-rock and psychedelia, it sounds like a long-lost demo Little Steven Van Zandt dug up in the back of his garage and FedExed straight to Quentin Tarantino.
Three studs are dominating the country landscape right now, but a generation of risk-taking ladies are matching them measure for measure.
Keith Urban's genre-hopping Ripcord is all over the place, blending banjos, dance-rock, R&B and New Wave on catchy dance-pop tracks like Wasted Time and the Sun Don't Let Me Down, a collaboration with Pitbull and Nile Rodgers. Blake Shelton's breakup album If I'm Honest hews much closer to mainstream country tastes, and is loaded with witty lyrics (She's Got a Way With Words), sing-along choruses (Every Time I Hear That Song) and even a delightful Oak Ridge Boys cameo (Doin' it to Country Songs). But Dierks Bentley's Black might have 'em both beat. It's got palatable hits (Somewhere on a Beach, which spent several weeks at No. 1), but also a slight outlaw-country rawness that might catch favor with fans of Eric Church or Chris Stapleton.
But if it's new-school country you want, turn to the women. Months-old releases like Aubrie Sellers' New City Blues and Cam's Untamed remain splendid listens as we head into tailgate season. So is Margo Price's Midwest Farmer's Daughter, a feisty, jittery throwback to the days of classic country divas like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. This month brought two more good ones. Brandy Clark's Big Day In a Small Town is a heartfelt hoot, loaded with razor-sharp lyrics about booze, boredom, poverty, dysfunctional love and the persnickety gossip-mongers who can't get enough of it all. And with a confident voice and style that calls to mind Rihanna, Maren Morris brings flirty hooks for days on Hero, from the languid groove of Rich to the gas-on-the-pedal attitude of '80s Mercedes.
FOLK, SOUL AND R&B
Do you think all pop music nowadays is terrible? You're not alone! Thankfully, there's new music out there for you, too.
British singer-songwriter Corrine Bailey Rae is best known stateside for her breezy 2006 hit Put Your Records On, but her first album in six years, the warm and heartfelt The Heart Speaks in Whispers, is proof she hasn't lost her touch. Pulling from folk, jazz and vintage pop, it somehow sounds both familiar and futuristic, playing off your sense memories while inspiring you to shuffle your hips (Been To the Moon).
Like Rae, Michael Kiwanuka is a throwback British singer-songwriter who pulls from influences as disparate as Bill Withers, Joni Mitchell and the Band. Expect his forthcoming Love & Hate, due July 15, to be loaded with smoky soul suitable for a Gulfside sunset at your favorite seafood shack.
Few R&B albums this year are more anticipated than Blacksummers'night, the first LP in seven years from velvet-throated neo-soul crooner Maxwell. If lead single Lake By the Ocean is any indication, the album, due July 1, will be another fluttering kaleidoscope of hope, heartache and Maxwell's feathery falsetto.
What happens when you ask three women over 40 to start writing pop songs? You get case/lang/veirs, a new collaborative project between Neko Case, k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs, Lushly, dreamily orchestrated singles like Best Kept Secret and Honey and Smoke combine the sonic strengths of all three artists into one intelligent, irresistible embrace.
Finally, don't miss Fantasia's new single Sleeping With the One I Love, a slow-burning slab of smoky noir. It's a five-minute show-stopper from one of American Idol's most fiery vocalists, and suggests her forthcoming album The Definition Of..., due July 29, might jolt summer pop out of its overproduced stupor.
A word on Drake
A month ago, Drake had 20 songs chart on the Billboard Hot 100. That's not a typo: A full fifth of the 100 most popular songs in America that week belonged to Aubrey Drake Graham.
Among them were 18 songs from the 29-year-old rapper's fourth studio album, Views, including his first No. 1 single as a lead artist, One Dance; along with blockbuster collaborations with Rihanna (Work) and Future (Summer Sixteen). Views, by the way, was streamed 245.1 million times the week it dropped, topping the previous record by, oh, 130 million. Again: not a typo.
Such numbers boggle the mind, especially when you consider how divisive Drake can be. To legions he's known as the 6 God, a reference to his idollike status in his hometown of Toronto. To them, every bar Drake drops is straight fire, every move he makes is pure genius, every trace of his digital presence deserves to go viral — and often does.
And then there are those who simply don't get it. They see a tasteful and talented self-marketer, sure, but not a great rapper, not a great singer, not as creatively ambitious as his peers, too touchy-feely and sedate to be embraced by casual listeners.
Views is, in some ways, the quintessential Drake album. Lyrically, he's in classic navel-gazing form, moaning about "mixing vodka and emotions," planning his retirement at age 35 ("It's already funded," he assures) and informing us that "this year for Christmas, I just want apologies." He gets all sad-sack about losing true friends and trying to find a good woman, and even acknowledges that he might not be for everyone: "If I was you, I wouldn't like me either," he confesses on the title track.
So how does an album like this become the soundtrack of summer? With 20 songs, it would be hard for an artist as popular and well-resourced as Drake to whiff on a single — and indeed he's got more here than he knows what to do with. Too Good, Controlla and Grammys are all hits in their own ways, but the dominant jam of the moment is One Dance, featuring Wizkid and Kyla, which skips and stomps between genres like dancehall and African pop. Remember the advice I offered earlier about the power of tropical-flavored pop collaborations? As a famous Canadian rapper once said: Thank me later.
Views is overlong, sure, but weirdly, in the streaming era, that might work to its advantage — it's 80 minutes of mostly safe, moderately modulated R&B you won't have to skip through on each listen. Just press play and enter Drake's world of ennui and disillusionment, and you'll feel like you're perched right beside him atop the CN Tower, watching the frosty Ontario cityscape melt into a summer he's fully primed to dominate.
ON THE SCENE: What Does It Feel Like To Have a Huge Summer Hit?
Courtesy of Ben Watts (2015)
What are the Drakes and Arianas of the world feeling right now, as their songs sizzle up the summer charts? Ask Rob Thomas. The Matchbox Twenty singer has had a couple of smash summer singles, including Bent, which Billboard proclaimed the Song of Summer in 2000, and Smooth, his inescapable, Grammy-winning duet with Carlos Santana, which debuted on June 29, 1999. We asked Thomas what having a song as big as Smooth feels like.
"With Bent, we were really excited, because it was the first single of our second record — and the first had sold like 15 million records. So everyone had written us off and was convinced that was a one-hit wonder, and we should just pack it up. The fact that we could come out with the first single and have it be our first No. 1 single was kind of cool.
"With Smooth, that was not just a summer hit. That was lightning in a bottle. It was one thing to come off of selling a bunch of records and feeling like, 'Well, I'm a big ol' rock star.' But then you become part of something cultural like that, that's bigger than you and bigger than Carlos — it was like being a part of Thriller. You were a part of Supernatural, and Supernatural was the f-----' record. It was more than just a summer thing. That was crazy, to see this little brainchild between me and (Smooth's co-writer) Itaal Shur just pop up everywhere.
"I knew it was going to be a giant hit when I was walking down in Soho in New York, and this convertible stopped at the red light, just full of hot girls, and I heard it blaring out of their car. I didn't even know it was a single. I was like: Holy s---. Hot girls, New York, the car — this is definitely going to be a hit."