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Pop CultureJuly 7, 2017

Best Songs Ever: The return of Steve Braunias, pop reviewer, and more…


Our regular round-up of new songs and singles, this week featuring Kesha, SWIDT, The National, ShaniaNiall Horan & more…


Kesha – ‘Praying’

Kesha’s returns with a single of goddamn saintly compassion for her (alleged) abuser.

Kesha, who has dropped the $ thanks to a long and ugly legal battle with producer Dr Luke, is the kind of singer you might assume would fall upsettingly between the cracks. And given her run of singles, and her party girl image, you would never assume that her comeback would address that legal battle directly. And third time lucky, you probably wouldn’t expect a goddamned power ballad.

And ‘Praying’ is, in every way, a goddamned caps-lock HUGE power ballad. Kesha’s never been known for her voice (though if you’re a doubter, I recommend checking out ‘The Harold Song’ from her Deconstructed EP), but this song puts her raw, crackly voice at the forefront for a good two minutes before bringing those drums – those drums! – in and building to a beautiful, triumphant crescendo. There’s a little bit of Demi Lovato’s ‘Skyscraper’ in here, and more than a little bit of The Dixie Chicks’ ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’; when she snarls “Oh sometimes I pray for you at night”, it chills straight to the bone.

It’s not a song you’d expect from Ke$ha, but it retains Sebert’s sharp-as-hell pop instincts, and it bodes well for the future of the new, liberated Kesha. / Sam Brooks


Niall Horan – ‘Slow Hands’

Is Niall the best solo artist to come out of One Direction? Yes, yes he is.

Funny the way things are working out post 1D. It’s like the great Nickelodeon kids TV sit-com Sam and Cat. Harry was the infinitely cool Sam and everyone else was Cat, adorable, harmless, essentially lame Cat. But the show ended, Sam’s a nobody, and Cat’s the artist better known as Ariana Grande. Life after 1D has seen Harry playing Jesus to the lepers in his head, walking on water in that endless video to his endless ballad, looking all profound and troubled and beautiful. ZZZZZZZZZZ! But good old Niall packed up his 1D bag containing a bottle of peroxide remover and got on with the business of making simple, awesome pop. ‘This Town’ was Niall as the sensitive singer-songwriter picking on his guitar. Follow-up “Slow Hands” is Niall laying down a sexy falsetto to a sexy lyric, although it does include the weird line, “like sweat dripping down our dirty laundry”. There’s a raunchy version on Ellen featuring a cat on wah-wah guitar, and the one on One Love Manchester is even better – it shows Niall in his element, a  relaxed cat in a hat, in total control of his art. If it wasn’t for “Bad Liar”, this would have been the best song of 2017 so far. / Steve Braunias

SWIDT – ‘Tonight’

SWIDT after dark (Or: SWIDT sealed section)

After the show, it’s the afterparty. And after the party, it’s the … well, you get the drift. ‘Tonight’, the latest single from SWIDT – New Zealand’s rap titans-to-be – sees the boys regroup for something a little more seductive than what we’ve become accustomed to from them. This is ‘adults only’ rap, no euphemisms needed. But give thanks to Bailey Wiley who delivers a hook that’s as enjoyable as it is X-rated. Along with ‘Alfred & Church’, ‘Little Did She Know’ and ‘Close One’, the song marks the fourth (and final) installment to a series that paints a picture of what it was like to grow up in Onehunga back in the day. The video picks up right there too, with SWIDT swapping out their trademark Hawaiian shirts for flannel and channeling the New Jack Swing era that dominated the time. A word of caution: don’t bother with the clean version. / Hussein Moses

Oneohtrix Point Never – ‘The Pure and the Damned’ ft. Iggy Pop

The soundtrack to your middle-distance stare

Okay, I’m a bit of an OPN stan to start with, but holy shit, this is amazing. The first single from his Cannes Film Festival winning soundtrack to the film Good Time, ‘The Pure and the Damned’ is a slow, droney, sometimes-twinkly piano song giving Iggy’s age-and-drug ragged voice the space to tear your existential shit up, turning your smile upside down and fixing your eyes to some undefined middle-distance for you to spend four and half minutes thinking about nothing in the vaguest, deepest way you know how. / Henry Oliver

The National – ‘Guilty Party’

I was very scared to listen to The National’s latest single ‘Guilty Party’. The year 2013 for Mad Chapman had a short soundtrack. It was Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend and Sea of Love by The National. That was it and that was more than enough. So when I saw the undeniably odd visuals that had taken over The National’s Facebook page (all washed in a kind of cheap looking blue hue), I worried that one of my favourite bands had followed another favourite, Bon Iver, to a place that even my massive fan mind couldn’t wholly follow. The opening bars of ‘Guilty Party’ didn’t help to calm my unease, with static-y electronic sounds making my heart drop. Thank bladdy Christ, as soon as Matt Berninger’s gloomy tone came in, the static went and I was back to 2013 and listening exclusively to The National for far too long. That’s not to say it sounds the same as their other work, because it’s the most risk they’ve taken with sound to date, but they stopped shy of voice effects and stayed a rock band, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. It’s new The National for old fans. / Madeleine Chapman

Queens of the Stone Age – ‘The Way You Used To Do’

Apparently, you can dance to rock music too…

When Mark Ronson announced he was producing the new Queens of the Stone Age album Villains, I immediately imagined something that sounds like ZZ Top and Cream crossed with Chic, playing a keg party in the middle of the desert. Remarkably this is pretty much exactly what first single ‘The Way You Used To Do’ sounds like. Built off synthetic handclaps and guitars so compressed and cheap sounding it borders on parody, this track is a rare thing in 2017 – a modern rock song simply meant to be danced to. After the emotional bloodletting of …Like Clockwork, Josh Homme is now ready to party, and it’s gonna be a hell of a good time. / Pete Douglas

LANY – ‘Super Far’

The Jimmy Eat World of the Calvin Harris era?

I don’t know anything about LANY and that’s probably a good thing; the more I knew about them the less I reckon I’d be inclined to enjoy this tune. With a blank slate, however, I can build my own image of the group, and, in my mind, they are the Jimmy Eat World of the Calvin Harris era. Lyrically, ‘Super Far’ could be a pop-punk song, never more so than its one perfect line: “If this is love / I don’t want it”. Musically it has all the trappings of the modern Top 40 dancefloor – that ubiquitous tropical keyboard tone and the ‘talking stick’ vocal hooks – but here it’s been pared back to bare bones, and that structural lightness allows ‘Super Far’ to get up on its foils and sail off into a dreamy pop sunset. / Calum Henderson

Shania Twain – ‘Life’s About to Get Good’  

Shania’s back, baby!

One of the underappreciated keys to what made Shania Twain such great pop star was her ability to write anthemic, universally relatable songs that revealed absolutely nothing about her personally. There was never any confessionalism in Shania’s music – she was simply a master of writing big shiny pop songs, capable of taking on whatever production her collaborator and then husband Robert “Mutt” Lange placed them in and sound great. That allowed Shania to cross way over from country – her albums Come on Over (the best pop album from the second half of the 90’s) and Up! were only tangentially related to country, spinning off hit after hit and selling tens of millions of copies.

All of which makes a Shania comeback 15 years later a tricky proposition. As any committed Shania fan knows her marriage to Lange ended after he cheated on her with her best friend (stay classy Mutt), and so it would be almost impossible for Twain not to address this in her comeback music, which ‘Life Is About to Get Good’ does. It’s a sunny, fun song about moving on that sounds a little dated, but pulls on all Shania’s strengths – a strong chorus, weird lyrical asides, and a production meant for the radio. If she can pull this off over a full album then it might result in a nice trip down memory lane for fans. / PD

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