I love lists very much. I have mental lists of almost everything. Animals, food, days of the week, Girls Aloud b-sides. That is why December is my favourite month of the whole year – it’s a time when every bastard and his dog is compiling some end of year list or other. And of course I am no different. So here you go, here are, in my humble opinion, the very best tracks of 2016. Don’t @ me.
20. I Sing In Silence – Goat
A warm fusion of sounds and styles characterises Goat’s ‘I Sing in Silence’, a twangy, summery track that unravels in a plethora of soft pipes and gentle percussion. Like a psychedelic lullaby, the track is soothing and comfortable, wrapping you up in its mesh of genres, at once totally unfamiliar and yet somehow cosy at the same time.
19. Milk Tooth – Keiandra
Daunting, harsh synths herald the start of Keiandra’s ‘Milk Tooth’ before unfurling into something far more gentle, yet more melancholic. Listening to ‘Milk Tooth’ is like lying on a lilo taking you down a river, knowing that around every corner could be a waterfall or a family of hungry alligators. But somehow, Keiandra navigates you safely away from danger, returning you to land physically unscathed but with your nerves in tatters. And as she sings of heartbreak and loneliness, you can’t help but think that’s exactly the point.
18. I Am Chemistry – Yeasayer
A sprawling, psychedelic voyage, Yeasayer’s comeback single was a delight. From the opening thrust of pipes and drums through choppy synth stylings and emerging to the sound of a choir, ‘I Am Chemistry’ is packed with unexpected twists and turns. An experimental jigsaw, Yeasayer’s first single in four years is everything it needed to be.
17. Pool Party – Julia Jacklin
Hued in a bittersweet nostalgia, Julia Jacklin’s ‘Pool Party’ is more melancholy afternoon spent alone than Spring Break, the title indicative of the singer’s ironic wit. ‘Pool Party’ details a lover’s drug habit with lazy guitars cushioned by soft, comfortable drums, Jacklin’s detached vocal at once forlorn and fed up, tired of the humdrum cycle of drug taking and swimming in the pool. Folksy and familiar, there’s something about ‘Pool Party’ that feels warm and cosy in spite of the dark subject matter, Jacklin demonstrating her lyrical prowess on a track that at once soothes and disturbs.
16. Cheap Thrills – Sia
Slurring her way through another chart smash, Sia shines on her ode to cheap Friday night fumblings. The production is typically tight, from the alien whining in the chorus to the relentless bop accompanying the verse and, accompanied by Sia’s detached but determined vocals, it merges to make a delectable shot of pop music that pulls you in more at every refrain. It’s common knowledge Sia knows how to knock together a good pop song, but ‘Cheap Thrills’ is undeniably one of her best.
15. Touch – Little Mix
Ignoring the slightly irksome tropical house vibe of the intro, ‘Touch’ is possibly Little Mix’s best single to date. Featuring the group’s trademark harmonies, ‘Touch’ is a burst of energetic pop, an addictive surge of sultry, sexy dance centred around one of the best choruses of the year.
14. False Alarm – The Weeknd
A throbbing, urgent eruption of sexual frustration, The Weeknd’s ‘False Alarm’ surges full speed ahead like a runaway train, a pent up rocket of slick RnB and smooth vocals that morph into panicked bellows as the track reaches its crescendo. Manic and deranged, ‘False Alarm’ mellows before sparking up once again into frenzied chaos – a perfect metaphor for 2016?
13. Not Harmless – Laura Gibson
A beautifully crafted, quietly defiant pop song, Laura Gibson’s ‘Not Harmless’ sees the singer refusing to be anyone’s victim. A mellow swell of electric guitar and drums accompany Gibson’s delicate but steadfast vocals as she delivers lyrics that are poetic and emotional. There’s a definite feminist stance to be found here too, in Gibson’s assertion that “I am no prize, I am not harmless” and in her disdain for men with saviour complexes (“Gonna light a flame for all the unsaved girls”). ‘Not Harmless’ is a firework of subtleties and nuances, you just have to listen carefully to hear them.
12. Crying In Public – Chairlift
Wistful and delicate, Chairlift’s melancholy ‘Crying In Public’ details the horrifying moment you realise you’re on a train, surrounded by people, crying uncontrollably. But like a soothing hand on your back, Chairlift’s lovelorn track is a cathartic medicine that strips away the public humiliation and exposes the raw emotion beneath.
11. Tunnel Vision – Kate Tempest
The closing track of Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos, the London rapper’s damning take on modern life, ‘Tunnel Vision’ is the most brutal of them all. No stone is left unturned here, Tempest dealing with everything from drones to bank bailouts, colonialisation and environmental disaster. Amidst all the politics, the rhymes and the isolating background hum is Tempest pleading with her listeners to act, to communicate, to do something to make things better. Whether or not this managed to find its way onto the PM’s playlist remains to be seen, however.
10. iT’s YoU – ZAYN
No one really knew what to expect from ZAYN’s solo output. As The Mysterious One of One Direction, he was always something of an enigma, though it was a safe bet he probably wouldn’t put out another arsenal of tween-friendly boyband bops. But few were expecting anything like this. iT’s YoU is an ethereal, eerie ballad, a love song that sounds like it was recorded in the midst of a fairly heavy comedown. Unexpected and beautiful, iT’s YoU is the antidote to every saccharine love song put out by various hair-gelled twits in 2016.
9. Alcatraz – King No-One
From the smooth opening riff to the synth flourishes that shimmer through the verses, ‘Alcatraz’ is a shiny, glitzy bit of modern indie pop that’s full of heart. A desolate vocal combined with the sleek, poppy arrangement makes for a sweet juxtaposition, making ‘Alcatraz’ a compelling sad-banger and finally heralding the return of decent indie music after a long, long drought.
8. Drone Bomb Me – Anohni
Sparse, desolate and desperate, the icy synths of Anohni’s war ballad reflect the landscapes of the Middle East destroyed by the West’s drone bombs. Sung from the perspective of a child who has lost her parents to drone warfare, Anohni embodies her hopelessness as she wails over a brutal blare of harsh electronica. ‘Drone Bomb Me’ manages to be at once personal and universal, a protest song that aims for the heartstrings and scores a direct hit.
7. Into You – Ariana Grande
Completing the transition from child star to fully-grown, bona fide pop star, ‘Into You’ is the apex of Ariana Grande’s career so far, a track that sizzles with lust and innuendo, Grande oozing both yearning and impatient, sexual energy as she croons through the snappy, urgent crush of the chorus. Like a head rush after one shot too many, ‘Into You’ is a dizzying, sublime surge of youthful pop, the sound of a woman finding her feet on the world stage and readying her sights firmly on the pop throne.
6. One Dance – Drake ft Wiz Kid, Kyla
The track that ruled the charts all summer, Drake’s ‘One Dance’ was a rare type of hit, neither gaudy nor brash, but a slow burner, subtle but persistent. From the percussive, dancehall inspired production to the simple but catchy chorus, Drake tiredly drawling over a hypnotic bop of beats and keys, ‘One Dance’ is an irresistible pop treat, even if it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why.
5. Work – Rihanna ft Drake
A tipsy, care-free slur of dancehall RnB, ‘Work’ wasn’t an instant fan favourite when it was released earlier in the year, Rihanna’s previous collab with Drake (2010’s ‘What’s My Name’) still fresh in everyone’s mind. But while ‘Work’ is more of a slow burner, it’s no less of a perfect pop song. Perhaps the best thing about it is how Rihanna it is. Because ‘Work’ is Rihanna through and through – cool, unbothered, a bit drunk. Rihanna murmurs her way through a lilt of steel drums, flirts with Drake and then shrugs off, leaving another pop masterpiece in her wake.
4. Consideration – Rihanna ft SZA
“I’ve got to do things my own way darling,” drawls Rihanna on perhaps her most experimental track to date. And that’s exactly what she did on her latest album Anti. ‘Consideration’, the album’s opener, is an introduction to the new Rihanna, less reliant on pop hooks and chart success and more keen on alternative sounds, music that’s intriguing, different and striking. Featuring a star turn from SZA, ‘Consideration’ is a sparse, black and white manifesto for the new Rihanna, a Rihanna tired of her own reflection and eager to do something unexpected.
3. Freedun – M.I.A ft ZAYN
“I’m a swagger man… from The People’s Republic of Swagistan” raps M.I.A, tongue firmly in cheek. Riding on a wave of floaty snares and whimsical vocal samples, the eternally polemic rapper freeflows over a dreamy arrangement of crunchy beats and hissing percussion. Serious artiste ZAYN delivers a woozy chorus, finally finding a track worthy of his lofty artistic ambitions. Sounding dazed but euphoric, his voice swells and swoops over the jagged arrangement, laying his vocals over it like a warm comfort blanket. Management take note – this is where ZAYN needs to be on his second album.
2. The Community of Hope – PJ Harvey
Who’d have thought a refrain of “They’re gonna put a Walmart here” could be so catchy? PJ Harvey’s ruthless take on one of Washington’s poorest districts caused controversy upon its release for its relentlessly unflattering view of the area, a place Harvey visited for inspiration for her album. Narrated with the detached formality of a true documentary maker, Harvey’s track is a sad indictment of the American government’s failure to support society’s poorest, delivered over a clash of rocky drums and guitar. Some might say the protest song is dead, but PJ Harvey proves them wrong.
1. Formation – Beyoncé
‘Formation’ is more than the best track of 2016. It’s a movement all on its own, a political and cultural statement, this generation’s biggest musical icon redefining herself as a mouthpiece to support America’s black community in a time of extreme turmoil. Nearly every line is a quote destined to be repeated and remembered for years – from Beyoncé declaring her pride for her “negro nose and Jackson 5 nostrils” to her love of a post-coital meal at Red Lobster. But ‘Formation’ would be nothing without the RnB power behind it, Beyoncé’s vocals on impeccable form, the arrangement as modern and pressing as its lyrics. During a period of near hopelessness for race relations in the US, ‘Formation’ was a light in the dark and the sound of Beyoncé reaching the peak of her incredible powers.