As the mercury rises, the pools open and the grills are set ablaze, thoughts turn to soundtracking the summer of 2016.
Every year gets a fresh batch of pop, hip-hop and rock songs to consider, and this year is no different — there are terrific offerings from superstars and unknowns alike, with something to satisfy just about everyone. So get comfy on your inner tube, turn up your waterproof speakers, and let us guide you through our picks for the Songs of Summer 2016.
A bubbly, infectious pop smash, this opening salvo from the Trolls soundtrack features Timberlake crooning atop a slick Max Martin production. It’s a song all but guaranteed heavy rotation at your next pool party.
Preston Jones: It’s kind of already being held up as the song of summer. What did you think?
Cary Darling: I don’t think it’s prime Justin Timberlake, but it’s a fun song — you can see why it’s a hit this time of year.
Jones: Do you think there is any truth to the charges he’s trying to rip off Pharrell’s Happy?
Darling: It is reminiscent of that, with a little Michael Jackson thrown in, but it doesn’t bother me.
Jones: It’s from the movie Trolls, which Timberlake is in, and the soundtrack doesn’t come out until September, with the movie out in November, so he’s really getting a jump on the whole year, not just summer.
A raw, acoustic lament from onetime rising star Mike Posner was recast by Seeb as a brooding, melodic slice of electronic dance music, which, ironically, has made Posner the hottest he has been in years.
Jones: It’s worth noting there are two versions of this song, and we’re talking about the more recent version, which is a remix. I guess it’s an EDM-folk song?
Darling: With sort of sad lyrics.
Jones: That’s the thing I gravitated toward — the lyrics are very reflective, but also kind of bleak, which is not something you get in a lot of mainstream pop.
Darling: Especially you don’t get it in EDM — it reminds me of that Lukas Graham song 7 Years. That’s a very lyrical song as well.
Jones: I feel like there are a lot of millennials that are being very existential, sort of staring into the void, because Posner’s not that old — he’s in his 20s, and he’s talking like he’s lived an entire life.
Darling: Well, he’s been to Ibiza, so —
Jones: I guess that’s all he needs.
Darling: And I like the Castilian pronunciation.
Jones: He’s accurate — that’s good, you want that.
A promising talent from across the pond, charismatic singer Fleur East rose to fame as a finalist on the British X Factor, and while she has enjoyed some European success, her career is just starting to take shape in America.
Jones: She might be kind of an unknown quantity for American audiences. She is just now starting to make inroads into America. What was your take?
Darling: The title is a bit misleading, because there’s no sax in the song, so I was disappointed by that. It’s a fine song, but I don’t know if it’s going to do it for her in America because it’s really not that different from a lot of what else is out there right now.
Jones: It’s a toe in the water, because she hasn’t announced an EP or album yet. The label is putting out the single to see if it catches on at all, and if not, they’ll focus on her European career. She’s doing pretty well over there, and I think that has more to do with the X Factor halo than anything. Maybe she needs to do a remix with more saxophone.
Darling: Or maybe she needs to go to Ibiza.
Jones: Hook up with Mike Posner!
A stomping, electrifying anthem, this ferocious track from the Houston-born superstar’s Lemonade is one of the most aggressive songs she’s ever released, and Kendrick Lamar’s guest verse only ratchets up the intensity.
Jones: It certainly seems to be the only thing around about which any conversation is taking place, certainly more than Radiohead or Drake or anyone else who surprise-released an album. What was your take?
Darling: I liked Freedom. It certainly sounds different than a lot of what’s out there, and her working with Kendrick Lamar — it’s not a flighty song of summer. It actually has some substance as well.
Jones: It makes a nice bookend with Posner — a serious summer song. She worked in a ’60s soul band’s sample that’s underneath everything. The thing that’s impressive to me about Lemonade altogether, but especially this song, is she’s really shed that playing-it-safe mentality she had when she was first coming out of Destiny’s Child. Now she’s got a brash —
Darling: Well, she can do whatever she wants.
Jones: Yeah — it’s Freedom!
The Arlington native is being hailed as one of the year’s breakout stars on the strength of her major-label debut, Hero, which spawned this soulful, infectious single, a track that has gone gold (moving more than 500,000 units) since its release.
Jones: What were your thoughts on Maren?
Darling: It’s a nice little country-pop song, and nice to see someone from around here follow in the footsteps of Leon Bridges. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes from here; it’s an interesting little teaser. It’ll be interesting to see what she does with the follow-up.
Jones: The thing that’s interesting about her is the next single is 80’s Mercedes, which is even more of a poppy feel. She’s being marketed as a country breakout star, but the album owes a lot more to R&B and pop than it does strictly country, so it’s interesting to see how she doesn’t quite fit in the box she’s being pushed out in.
I think she can pull it off, it’s just — in a weird way, it’s like what Leon went through. Everyone categorized him as one thing and he thought he was doing something else, and it’s sort of that same thing again with Maren.
Darling: You don’t think this will hurt her?
Jones: No, especially with Nashville now; the younger artists are genre-blind. She co-exists with Jake Owen or Florida Georgia Line — these people slide around, and it’s not like it was 10 years ago.
Hypnotic and unsettling, this single from Anohni (pronounced ah-no-nee), a transgender performer who previously earned critical acclaim as the frontman for avant-garde rock outfit Antony and the Johnsons, is a blast of chilly air amid so many sizzling tracks.
Jones: There’s always one left-field choice, and I think this track fits this description. You liked it a lot.
Darling: This is probably my favorite song of the ones we’re discussing today. It has a little bit of a Bjork feel to it: atmospheric, electronic, not something you’re used to hearing on mainstream radio. But I hope it succeeds.
Jones: And really confrontational lyrics — it sounds like one thing, but when you listen to it, it’s really almost angry.
Darling: Most people don’t put “drone” in their song titles.
Jones: I’ll be interested to see how she — I know critics like it, but I don’t know if people are into it.
Darling: I don’t think most people know about her. There hasn’t been a lot of push.
This single from Paak’s breakthrough album, Malibu, straddles the line between laid-back R&B and forward-thinking hip-hop, suggesting the young singer-songwriter has an endless horizon stretching out before him.
Jones: He’s one of the buzzier R&B stars this year, and his album is starting to get some traction. What were your thoughts?
Darling: I liked it. I actually found his personal story more compelling than the music. He was homeless at one point and worked with Dr. Dre. Again, I’ll be curious to see where he takes it from here.
Jones: That’s the thing that’s both exciting and frustrating about R&B and hip-hop at the moment. There are so many collisions of genres, but you don’t really know how or where they’re going to take it next. I feel like it’s a period of time where people are just throwing things at the wall to —
Darling: To see what happens.
Jones: — yeah, to see what happens and see what sticks. I don’t know why now, why this moment in time lends itself to that.
Darling: We’ll probably still be talking about him this time next year.
A deceptively upbeat kiss-off, Adele continues to be pop music’s pre-eminent survivor, turning scars and broken promises into potent anthems and stormy ballads. This track finds her working, for once, with a slightly sunnier sensibility.
Jones: She’s in the midst of her victory lap, on an arena tour, selling out everywhere, and people are still going nuts for her. What did you think of the song?
Darling: It’s good — it’s no Hello.
Jones: What is?
Darling: It’s a nice, solid song. I don’t think it’s the best one on the album by any means, but she needs something to be out there while she’s doing this victory lap, as you call it, so it serves its purpose.
Jones: It’s a little bit different for her, in that it’s up-tempo. It’s not some big, string-laden, gloom-and-doom ballad, which I appreciate just to hear her in a different context.
Darling: I wonder, for her next album, if it’s going to be a different direction, more up-tempo.
Jones: I think this album is half what people expected, and half trying on different styles to see what suits her going forward and what people respond to.
Darling: I don’t know if she can repeat this. I think she’s peaked in this version of Adele.
A nonsensical blast that has proven exceptionally popular. This new group, which features Joe Jonas among its ranks, has gotten tremendous mileage out of this hooky hit.
Jones: I saw them play this song at KISS Jingle Ball back in December, and it was far and away — they probably played a 15- to 20-minute set, and it far and away generated the most reaction. So, even though it makes my skin crawl, people seem to love it. I don’t know what it is.
Darling: It’s very hooky. It’s one of those songs you hear everywhere and it sort of gets burrowed in your brain. But I think they’re a flash in the pan. I doubt we’ll be hearing from them next summer.
Jones: I tried to read the lyrics at one point, and I gave up.
Darling: This is not the type of song you read the lyrics for.
Jones: Well, I know, but I was trying — what are they singing about? It made no sense.
Darling: Apparently, the Swedish producers misheard or misinterpreted the term “sex on the beach” and thought —
Darling: — “cake by the ocean,” according to Wikipedia. So that’s the genesis.
Grinding and sultry, this hit from Rihanna’s latest studio album, Anti, harkens to the early days of her career, even as it confirms her status as one of the most effortlessly magnetic pop stars in the game.
Jones: I really liked this song when I first heard it, and with repeated listens, I like it a little less, but I like it because it’s a throwback to her really early stuff, like a decade ago when she was first coming up, because she did a lot more Caribbean-inflected — she really leaned into her heritage, being a native of Barbados. She kind of got away from that, and this is a tack back in that direction.
Darling: It has a bit of that dancehall flavor, which I like, and you don’t hear that much on the radio. It is overplayed, that’s for sure, but I guess it’s not a song of summer if it’s not overplayed. Kind of goes with the definition.