Clean Bandit – Rather Be

If you were picking a list of the most rock and roll instruments, it’s unlikely that the violin or cello would feature high on the chart. Sure, indie bands will slap a string section over their latest four-chord plodalong to give it an unearned air of gravitas, but it’s rarely an integral part of the music. Even in dance and electronic, where a wider palette of sounds is the norm, they will usually synthesise their string players rather than resorting to creaky wooden instruments operated by real fleshy humans.

All of which makes the string-powered Clean Bandit pretty unusual. Coming together at Oxford University, they offer a lively concoction of chart-friendly dance music with cello and violin arrangements at its beating heart. Working with a range of different vocalists, a run of singles including ‘Dust Clears’ and ‘A&E’ alongside tireless work on the festival circuit has seen them quietly build up their profile – despite being lumbered what has to be one of the worst names in modern music.

Regardless of their lah-di-dah Oxbridge background and classical stylings, the members of Clean Bandit have an impressively wide array of musical influences.

“Well the first album I bought was by Ace of Base,” cellist Grace told Spark. “But before that a lot of Mozart, Haydn and Beatles etc via my parents. Then after leaving primary school I got into Nirvana and frequented a club called the Dome in North London. Jack and Luke frequented a similar club in Liverpool called the Crazy House, and have both played in rock and funk bands prior to Clean Bandit. Jack’s main love growing up has been jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Django Reinhardt etc. Neil is the DJ and violinist amongst us and grew up on garage and violin.”

Mmm, garage and violin. Two great tastes that taste great together.

Childish Gambino – 3005

Childish Gambino is one of those rappers that seems to have the power to really rub certain people the wrong way, largely due to his non-traditional hip-hop background. Real name Donald Glover, he’s a middle-class kid who also happens to be a comedy writer and actor. For a genre that prides itself on its hardscrabble roots that’s a tough sell. He’s also reviled/lauded for his lyrical approach, which draws on geeky, web-savvy subject matter more than the conspicuous capitalism that inspires many in the game. As a result, he’s regularly dismissed as hipster-hop by such bastions of rap authenticity as Pitchfork. It’s a no win situation. Try and occupy the space of rappers who really live the street life and you look phony. Rap about the things you know – TV shows, the internet – and everyone dismisses you as some sort of novelty.

Listening to ‘3005’ you can’t help put wish all this 4-real nonsense could be put to bed. Does Gambino have a good flow? Yes, he does. He might not be Kendrick Lamar, but he’s certainly better than a good proportion of the big name rappers out there. Are his lyrics interesting? Yes, they are. They are tricksy and complicated and are at least attempting to deal with some ideas outside of rap’s usual sphere. His latest album is called ‘Because the Internet’, a title that apparently came about through an offhand conversation with Beck.

Speaking to Time Magazine, he explained why the name makes sense: “Emailing, checking up on information, getting sent Vines, reading a tweet, any sort of information. The album’s sort of about how I only connect through that really. I mean, how often do you sit down and talk to someone for like two hours? It’s not like a bad thing. I don’t want anybody to think this is an indictment. But I thought it was an interesting thing. People used to talk a lot longer and now it’s, like, if I sit down and talk to someone for two hours and not look at my phone, not only is it like a great feat, like it’s hard to do, but I’d be probably in trouble. People would be like, ‘Where were you? Were you sick? Did you get in trouble?’ Something would be wrong.”

Pitbull feat. Ke$ha – Timber

You have to wonder if Pitbull – real name Armando Christian Pérez – ever regrets his choice of stage moniker. Barely a day goes by with out some profoundly depressing news report about a beloved family pet going haywire and chomping down on its owner. Far too many of these cases seem to involve pitbulls. Or perhaps that sense of unpredictability is precisely why he wants to be associated with this maligned breed? After all, Pitbull is not so much a musician as an advertising delivery system who happily shills for any brand that will have him. Being named after a scary dog could help him retain some sort of edge. Or maybe he simply picked it because it sounds cool and nobody would take him seriously if he was called Bichon Frise or Lurcher?

Anyhoo, all issues of canine nomenclature provenance aside, things seem to be going pretty well for Pitbull. He’s shifting records by the boatload and making mad stacks from his endless array of endorsements – everything from Vodka, to Dr. Pepper, to weird energy strips that dissolve on your tongue. He’s no longer the scrappy Miami kid releasing confrontational mixtapes about his street level life. Now he’s Mr. Worldwide, a perfectly 21st-century amalgam of YouTube-friendly pop star and indiscriminate corporate spokesbot. Take it from the man himself. “Look, Pitbull is a product,” he once told GQ. “Don’t get it fucked up – I’m a businessman. This industry is 90 percent business, 10 percent talent. It’s the people who think they’re talented, that their shit don’t stink, who get left behind.”

‘Timber’ sees Pitbull veering ever further from his Latin American roots towards a particularly surprising embrace of country and western. Kicking off with a sprightly harmonica loop, it isn’t long before Pit himself is exhorting the audience to swing their partners as if they’re at some alternate reality hoedown. He’s ably assisted by Ke$ha, who you have to suspect is a better fit for the track than Rihanna, who was originally slated to appear until scheduling difficulties reared their head.

Incidentally, that GQ interview mentioned above also reveals that he actually picked his name because ‘in dog fights, pitbulls are too stupid to lose’. Make of that what you will.

Busta Rhymes feat. Lil’ Wayne, Q-Tip and Kanye West – Thank You

He may be getting on a bit, but Busta Rhymes doesn’t seem to be slowing down just yet. He’s still the fastest mouth in the west, dropping knotty lines with a speed that would give lesser MCs a serious case of liplash.

He’s assembled quite a crew for his latest track. Lil Wayne’s contribution is fairly limited and Kanye only pops up for a couple of lines, but it’s always good to hear from Q-Tip. Like Busta himself, the former Tribe Called Quest man is an MC who can actually rap. His bars are always intricately constructed and delivered in a style that’s uniquely his.

Production-wise, the track also makes a nice change from many of the EDM-tinged floor-fillers that currently clog up the hip-hop charts. The jazzy, flickering guitars and old-skool R&B flavoured beats may be understated, but that willingness to take things down a notch makes it all the more striking.

If it all sounds like Busta is trying to recapture some bygone age when hip-hop was a little more innocent, that’s probably because he is. He clearly remembers his early days in the game with fondness.

“That shit was amazing homie because we ain’t have no overhead,” Busta told The Round Up. “You still living in your mom’s crib. So everything was just good, it was no bills. The only bill you had was your cell phone and whatever you was blowing your money on; weed and clothes. It was fun. I think that’s part of the reason why a lot of the shit was that was happening back then was so creative because a lot of us was young and we didn’t really have the stipulations and the rules of the politics of the industry to worry about.”

Jessie J – Thunder

For a generation raised on 80s TV show Fame, which detailed the life of aspiring performing arts students in New York, stage school has always seemed impossibly romantic. A spandex-clad dream of high-kicking life lessons progressing inexorably to a dazzling showbiz career. The reality is less glamorous. For every chart smashing Adele, there are a hundred graduates who will never progress beyond an understudy role in the chorus of a regional production of Cats.

So kids, if you are trying to persuade your folks to send you to a performing arts school, you’re best off focusing on the story of Jessie J and not the guy working in your local chip shop who totally had an audition for Hollyoaks that one time. Emerging from the same Brit School classrooms that produced Adele and Leona Lewis, Jessie J has shot up the slippery pole of fame as if she had rockets for legs.

She co-wrote Miley Cyrus mega smash ‘Party in the USA’ before going on to score huge hits of her own in the form of ‘Do it Like a Dude’ and ‘Price Tag’. She bagged a judge’s spot on TV show The Voice, alongside teak-skinned lover boyo Tom Jones and punctuation mangling swag delivery mannequin Will.I.Am, before narrowly missing out on the Most Ubiquitous Performer Award at the London Olympics to the omnipresent Emeli Sandé.

Still aged just 25, she’s recently released her second album ‘Alive’ which is doing very well, thank you very much. If the Brit School aren’t using her face on their recruitment posters, they’re definitely missing a trick.

Anyway, the song. ‘Thunder’ is a retro-futurist power ballad, full of 80s-tinged synth washes and rumbling drums that sound like they’ve been lifted from Toto’s immortal ‘Africa’. As the title suggests, it’s a stormy, emotional affair, complete with a big booming chorus.

“That’s the last song we wrote for the album,” Jessie told Digital Spy. “It got sent over by Stargate and Benny Blanco, and Claude Kelly and myself were like, ‘Thunder, thunder, thunder’. We just started writing and had it finished in about half an hour before I went to the airport to fly home from New York.” Looks like her career isn’t the only thing on fast forward.

Ariana Grande – Right There

North America’s obsession with producing teenage superstars has been an ongoing trend for decades on end. So it comes as no surprise whenever a newcomer quickly emerges on the scene once the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Miley Cyrus reach “adulthood”. The latest fresh faced hopeful comes in the form of 20 year old Ariana Grande, actress, singer and songwriter who is currently taking the States and Europe by storm. Having acquired a large following so early into her career, Grande’s campaign to become the next dominant pop princess continues with new single “Right There” which also features Hip Hop’s emerging star Big Sean.

“Right There” takes a slight edge towards urban pop rather than sugary, Disney-like material, although the music video’s familiar Romeo and Juliet narrative will instantly attract the under 18s market. Much like Miley Cyrus, Hilary Duff and others, Ariana’s first stint in show business was appearing in a range of popular kids TV programmes, most notably Nickelodeon’s Victorious as well as performing in numerous theatre productions. Having sang throughout her acting career, 2013 saw the singer release her debut album “Yours Truly” which “Right There” is taken from.

Having supported Justin Bieber on tour, hosted at the MTV European Music Awards as well as headlining her own concert, the Florida born starlet’s rounds off a monumental year by covering a number of classic Christmas hits in the run up to the big day. From later this month, Ariana will release a festive treat every Tuesday, with singles including “Santa Baby”, Wham’s “Last Christmas” and “Snow In California”.

Charli XCX – Superlove

For better or for worse, the internet has fundamentally altered the roadmap to success. Where once it was a hard slog that could decades of hard work, now a hit YouTube video can catapult you into the upper echelons overnight. Without the web, it’s unlikely that so many of us would have heard of Psy, Macklemore or that hilarious dramatic chipmunk.

Charli XCX is an artist who has grown up in the digital age, never really knowing what life was like without the instant connection offered by the likes of Instagram, Tumblr and whatever other web services the cool kids are currently using. Starting out at the tender age of 14 playing warehouse parties, her constant online presence has been a big factor in her development to the internationally renowned songwriter and performer she is at the still pretty tender age of 21. Her debut album ‘True Romance’ is a big reflection of this.

“For me, ‘True Romance’ was sort of based around the whole reblog/retweet style we live in,” she told Electronic Beats. “I wrote that record over five years, and I grew up over the course of writing it. During that time I started using Facebook, Twitter, and was beginning to learn about social networking at the same time I was learning how to make my own videos. That was a huge inspiration. I did this song with Brooke Candy, ‘Cloud Aura’, and the video was basically a montage of different icons crying—from Britney Spears to Lauren Conrad from The Hills to Pikachu. It’s so clearly taken from that online world, where life is replicated and aesthetics are pooled together to make something new for yourself. A own magazine bedroom wall collage, I suppose. True Romance feels like my diary… like being in my teenage bedroom.”

Thankfully, Charli’s diary is not the monochrome hormonal hell of the average Adrian Mole, but a Technicolor celebration of the possibilities of youth. She has a way with a catchy chorus – remember, she’s the writer behind Icona Pop’s inescapable ‘I Love It’ – that’s very much in evidence on ‘Superlove’. She’s done her growing up in public, but there’s plenty here to suggest that she’s only going to get bigger.

Afrojack – The Spark

You can’t help but feel that Afrojack has got his release schedule a little mixed up. With its bouncing rhythms, relentlessly positive vibe and puppyishly sunny disposition, ‘The Spark’ should surely have been unleashed in the summer. This is the kind of track that would go great guns on a warm beach in the Med while scantily clad dancers necked complex drinks bristling with fruit and umbrellas. Dropping it as winter’s icy fingers slowly begin to close around our throats for another year seems misguided.

But we suppose Afrojack knows what he’s up to. After all he is the mega successful DJ/producer and we’re the dude tapping away at a laptop in a tiny home office. His track record would suggest he’s going to ride this one out. He’s the first dance act signed to Def Jam and counts Kanye as a label mate. He’s produced hit records for Pitbull, Chris Brown and Paris Hilton. OK, maybe they weren’t all hit records. He’s also got to be one of the only DJs to have rung the opening bell at the NASDAQ Stock Exchange and announced plans to perform in space.

He’s clearly a guy with ambition. He may already be – in his own words – a ‘ridiculously high grossing musician’ but that’s not enough for our Afro.

Speaking to Billboard, he said: “People always say, ‘How is it to be so successful?’ I’m not successful yet. Richard Branson is successful. That’s successful. Michael Jackson was successful. U2 was successful. I’m just a guy, doing okay. But I’m a happy guy doing okay.”

Calvin Harris & Alesso Feat. Hurts – Under Control

Anthems! Get your anthems! Big belting house anthems! When it comes to precision-tooled stadium sized bangers, Calvin Harris takes some beating. He must be able to knock these things out in his sleep by now, which is a talent worthy of a great amount of respect.

He may have teamed up with Dutch DJ Alesso and Hurts vocalist (and best name in the English language haver) Theo Hutchcraft for ‘Under Control’, but this still feels very much like a Calvin Harris joint. As sure as night follows day, the vaguely yearning verse builds to a euphoric crescendo where everybody gets excited and spills their drinks. Textbook dancefloor manipulation.

All snarl aside, it’s a formula that works and one which Harris employs with his customary skill. There are a million blokes tweaking out dance tracks on their laptops all over the world, but not many of them manage to turn it into a multi million pound business. He may be working with the same building blocks as every other would-be superstar DJ, but he knows how to put them together in interesting ways. It’s what makes the difference between being another bedroom knob-twiddler and, well, Calvin Harris.

“Even if you have a big tune, live crowds can get sick of it,” he told The Guardian. “It’s not just about the song but also the staying power and if people have connected with it in a certain way. I know that the tracks I put more emotion and depth into are the ones that have the staying power in clubs.”

Eminem Feat. Rihanna – Monster

It seems like a long time ago that Eminem was the biggest hip-hop star in the universe. The ‘rap Elvis’ once bestrode the land like a foul-mouthed colossus, generating outrage and massive record sales wherever he went. But as is so often the case for those who shoot quickly up fame’s rickety ladder, things went a bit bendy somewhere along the line. Family strife, drug addiction and depression muscled their way in and Eminem largely withdrew from the spotlight

Taken from his (don’t call it a) comeback record ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’, ‘Monster’ addresses some of his troubles and details how the pressures of fame have weighed on the one-time Slim Shady in recent years.

In lesser hands, ‘Monster’ could easily come off as another ‘oh poor me’ complaint from some over-privileged whiner who wants all the cool stuff that comes from being a megastar, but with none of the downsides. Ask most people if they’d sacrifice their ability to walk anonymously down the street in exchange for worldwide adulation and mountains of cash and the answer is pretty predictable. Thankfully, Em’s skill as an MC and lyricist elevates what could be mundane material into something genuinely engaging.

That’s the thing about Eminem: love him or hate him, you have to admit he’s a pretty skilful rapper. Compared to many of the MCs who now occupy lofty positions in the charts, he’s on another level. For that, at least, it’s good to have him back.

His choice of collaborator also makes a certain amount of sense. Whether she’s getting chucked out of mosques for wearing too much lipstick or live-Tweeting Thai sex shows, she’s no stranger to controversy.

“The perception of the record, what it’s saying, I thought it would be a good idea to have her on it because I think people look at us like we’re both a little nuts,” Eminem told MTV News. “That’s one of the things that I was telling her in making the record. I think that people look at us a little crazy. As soon as I got the beat I just heard her on it. I wanted to make sure that I had it finished first to be able to present to her, but once I had the rhymes done, I sent it to her. She laid the hook, sent it back. She smashed it like she does always. It’s pretty incredible.”