As a result of researching NY pop duo Tanlines for an interview I did last year, I discovered the winking sad face emoji — ;( — that was used to describe the duality of moods of their songs; at once danceable (happy) and lyrically heartbroken (sad). Now, what constitutes as ‘sad’ for me may not register as such to you. Maybe you’d think feeling sad while listening to a pop/dance track is trivial, maudlin, or possibly psychotic, but as you’d know, many a pop song thrives on melancholy – be it dealt head on in a ballad or hidden under the guise of an upbeat tempo. Here, the focus is on the latter. The onset of gloom comes when you don’t simply hear, but also listen to the lyrics delivered. Sometimes, the words reveal themselves in clarity when the music dips slightly, or maybe, it’s when you are just blithely bopping in your seat or dancing on your feet, singing away at the infectious yet vulnerable refrains until a polarity of feelings strike you. You keep grooving, but it won’t be the same as before.
1. Alicia Keys – In Common
Alicia Keys has returned with a new look that embraces her natural beauty and a new single that fuses a horde of influences from various cultures — there’s the utilisation of African drums and dancehall sensibilities that makes for the ideal single for the summertime. Alicia delivers very honest, possibly crushing words in a controlled manner that amplifies the sweeping rasp in her voice. She goes, “We got way too much in common, if I’m being honest with you.” A usually positive aspect becomes jarring, but in her discernment she answers her own rhetorical question as she discovers, “You wanna love somebody like me? If you could love somebody like me, you must be messed up too.” The lyrics could be a darkly lonesome lament if they were penned and sung by someone like, say, Lykke Li, but Alicia performs the song with a smile, so there’s no need to become too shattered.
2. Tegan and Sara – Boyfriend
The lead single from the Canadian twins’ album Love You to Death is arguably one of the best pop songs of this year. Sara, specifically, has achieved writing a love song that is simple but affecting. Given her queer identification, she writes about being treated as both like a lover and a best friend, but ultimately the girl she was seeing had not dated women before and wouldn’t make it official with her. In spite of the display of technicolour synths, the washboard percussion in the bridge is a tremendous detail. “You turn me on like you would your boyfriend, but I don’t want to be your secret anymore.” I’m not sure how closeted Sara was, but to reduce someone who struggled with their sexual identity to a secret? That’s cruel.
3. Wild Moccasins – Eye Makeup
In the video for Wild Moccasins’ ‘Eye Makeup’, frontwoman Zahira Gutierrez is a go-go dancer, donning glitter gold eye shadow. The song has a disco flair to it, and definitely plenty of groove with the guitar jangles, the four-on-the-floor rhythm, and Gutierrez’s impassioned yet anguished singing. The chorus goes, “I took my makeup off, eye makeup off. You said I looked tired.” She told NPR Music that it was about “being rejected by people if you decide to not wear a mask that day.” Tragic, but the disco appeal here is too infectious to mull over everyday trifles.
4. The Police – So Lonely
The major opinion about Sting is that he is pretentious, and with grandiose lyrics such as, “In this theatre that I call my soul, I always play the starring role,” it’s not hard to see why – the poetic intention reads as corny decades later. However, ‘So Lonely’ is still a magnificent piece of reggae-steeped rock, particularly Andy Summer’s guitar playing. It’s a fun song, the thrashing drums are fantastic, but when Sting announces that he feels “so low” and “so lonely,” with increasing intensity near the end of the song, empathy doesn’t come pouring for Sting. His delivery is passionate, but the weight of the message gets drowned out by the music.
5. Mark Ronson & The Business Intl. – Somebody To Love Me (feat. Boy George & Andrew Wyatt)
Mark Ronson takes on a new musical genre with each album; his sophomore album Record Collection saw him exploring synth pop of the ‘80s with a recruitment of musicians and singers who called themselves The Business Intl. One of the best singles on the album is ‘Somebody to Love Me’, which features frequent Ronson collaborator Andrew Wyatt and the icon that is Boy George. Over an excellent pronounced bass and percussion, the duet between the men presents a lovely marriage of Wyatt’s vocal agility as he switches from nasal to falsetto effortlessly with Boy George’s robust, faintly gritty voice. Also, listening to grown-ups, especially Boy George, hoping that someone can “see the boy I once was in my eyes” is poignant as hell, don’t you think?
6. Miike Snow – Animal
Here’s Andrew Wyatt again, but with his own electronic pop trio Miike Snow. ‘Animal’, I remembered, was very popular. I didn’t think much of the song until I saw a YouTube video of Sky Ferreira performing it a cappella and I was rapt by her visceral delivery as well as the unassumingly torturous lyrics that were shrouded by the pulsing synth-laden dance production of the original. Basically, it tackles the human need to fill the perennial void “with something, something, something” – hopes and dreams? Money? No, the void is actually an abyss… Oof, thank god it’s musically uplifting, which cements ‘Animal’ as the quintessential happy-sad song.
7. Katy B – Broken Record
Katy B’s garage and dubstep songs often showcase her confidence – whether it’s vocally or personality-wise. Taken off her glimmering debut On a Mission, ‘Broken Record’ shows a softer side of Katy. She sings vulnerably over a d’n’b bassline that shoulders the emotional weight, contributing to the adrenaline-inducing dance track. As the music whirs on, her lovelorn, fragile confessions imbue humanity to an otherwise mindlessly mechanic thumping and grating of beats. Are you familiar with the experience of emotionally breaking down in a tightly-packed club? This should simulate that instance.
8. Kelela – Rewind
This song is such a banger, there’s no doubt about it. While it sees production credits from Fade to Mind’s Kingdom, Nugget, and Kelela’s longtime collaborator Girl Unit, make no mistake, Kelela has the executive control on her sound and direction. Taken from her Hallucinogen EP, Kingdom told Pitchfork that she wanted him to extract and highlight the “booty bass vibe” from the demo recording, which ultimately led him to bolster the 808s and adding vocal samples and effects. If you hear her delivery, it’s quite coyly flirtatious but there is a hint of disappointment as she sings, “Turn my head to the right, now I’m looking for you for the rest of the night — and I can’t rewind.”
9. Basement Jaxx – Where’s Your Head At
Yes, this is the song that came with the (in)famous music video where the members of Basement Jaxx had their faces appended onto the bodies of primates. The track has been appropriately used in countless extreme sports video games – just listen to the warped, high octane, adrenaline surging dance production adorning the crazed shrieks of the titular refrain. When you’re coming down from relentlessly thrashing to it, you may find yourself picking up the words in the repose of a bridge, “You have found yourself trapped in this incomprehensible maze/ You don’t make it easy on yourself.” If you feel as though someone has read your mind, pause to listen to the comforting reassurance before you continue to mosh your frustrations away. “Don’t let the walls cave in on you, we can’t evolve alone without you.”
10. The Chemical Brothers – Wide Open (feat. Beck)
In the context of Born in the Echoes, ‘Wide Open’ can be considered as a ballad. It’s the album’s closer with a significantly gentler pace, but still retaining the dance-y aspects. Beck makes an appearance as he sings dulcetly about a relationship gradually receding from his welcoming grasp, “I’m wide open but don’t I please you anymore? You’re slipping away from me; you’re drifting away from me.” The production increases in intensity as the song moves along, instruments building upon one another as the obsessive chorus continues to be delivered.
Enabled by music or not, Writer Cindy Low frequently feels a combination of emotions. But please, do not relegate this condition as a disorder of being female.