It is easy to forget in this crazy year that a lot of great music came out. Some of it was from well established artists whose albums were expected to a) be released this year and b) be at good at the very least. But the vast majority of the best music was announced and released out of the blue or came from an unlikely source. In fact, I would go as far to say that music was probably the only consistently positive thing about 2016.
As a result, it was very difficult to choose a top 10 (11) songs of the year. But after a lot of deliberation, here they are:
Honourable Mention: Black Star by David Bowie
Generally speaking, I am not a fan of David Bowie’s music. I appreciate how influential it is and I understand how much talent Bowie has but very little of it resonates with me. However, for some inexplicable reason, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Blackstar’. Its strange, morbid jazz elements combined with Bowie’s reedy, yet emotional, voice appealed to me a great deal. It is the song where I finally appreciated how Bowie’s lyrics can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways (is a black star his cancer? or just some evocative religious symbolism?). ‘Black Star’ is a superb song and a fitting finale for such a great man.
10) Work by Rihanna (Feat. Drake)
For all the criticism levelled at this song – its repetition and the incomprehensible patois – I still enjoyed ‘Work’ a great deal. It was cool to hear Rihanna embrace her Caribbean roots in the lyrics and the style. It would have been really easy for her to get Max Martin to pump out some club banger for her. But no, Rihanna took a gamble (a relatively safe gamble, admittedly, but a gamble none-the-less) by being a bit more subtle and it paid off massively. I still listen to ‘Work’ on the occasion which, for a pop song released so early in the year, is a pretty big compliment.
9) Body Language by Carly Rae Jepsen
Much like ‘Into You’ later on in the list, ‘Body Language’ is yet another anthemic pop song. But what makes it transcend other pop songs is, surprisingly enough, the lyrics. It’s a song all about not “over-thinking” falling in love, which is something I don’t hear very much in pop music. The genre puts a lot of emphasis on intrinsically knowing that someone is ‘the one’ right from the get go. It is a breath of fresh air to hear a song that basically calls that stuff out for the nonsense it is.
8) California Kids by Weezer
I didn’t think Weezer had it in them anymore. Everything post-Pinkerton has either been a supremely underwhelming. So imagine my surprise when I listened to Weezer’s The White Album and discovered it was fantastic! It was like they decided to stop messing about and go back to The Blue Album and Pinkerton. It sounds like a back-handed compliment to a band 20+ years into their career, but returning to such a high watermark is and incredible achievement that few bands can do. And the song that evokes that era the most is, of course, ‘California Kids’.
7) Really Doe by Danny Brown (Feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul & Earl Sweatshirt)
I love a good posse cut. There is something so invigorating about a bunch of rappers trying to one-up each other by just spitting bars on the same song. ‘Really Doe’ is one hell of a posse cut. Danny Brown, Ab-Soul and Kendrick rap their hearts out, but the real winner is Earl Sweatshirt. He is the youngest rapper on the song but he spits some absolute fire. Also, shout out to Black Milk for such a disturbing beat. Sometimes the production can suffer in posse cuts but he creates grimy beat that just fits each rappers style perfectly.
6) Into You by Ariana Grande
I thought my fawning over Ariana Grande was over once My Everything faded away. But she not only released yet another classic pop album this year, ‘Into You’ may very well be the best song in Ariana Grande’s discography. Yet again Grande’s powerful vocals during the bridge and the chorus that really catapults the song, and the rote production, into the stratosphere. I was walking in the street listening to Dangerous Woman when ‘Into You’ came on, and my immediate reaction was: “I have to turn this all the way up right now” which is the best thing you could say about a song.
5) FDT by YG (Feat. Nipsey Hussle)
Is it too on the nose to choose this song? I mean, there isn’t a bad song on Still Brazy and there are some are better than ‘FDT’ but…if there was a better song that protests against Trump I haven’t heard it. What I really enjoyed was just how direct YG and Nipsey Hussle are with their message. There is no allegory or metaphor here, both rappers call out Trump in very violent and vivid ways. It is a political side I didn’t expect from YG and in a year of mincing of words, ‘FDT’ was a breath of fresh air.
4) Don’t Touch My Hair by Solange (Feat. Sampha)
‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is a song whose message I will never truly understand. As a white lower middle class man, no one has asked to touch my hair because of the way it looks. This act of microaggression is something I won’t ever experience and I can only hope I don’t do it to someone else. Unlike the brazen ‘FDT’, ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is a far more subtle and subdued protest song against white people invading black people’s safe spaces and identities by asking (or not even that) to touch their hair. It is a powerful song, masterfully made, about a subject that is almost never sung about and it deserves huge props for that.
3) Real Friends by Kanye West (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
Kanye West has certainly had one hell of a 2016. It is easy to forget he released The Life of Pablo earlier in the year. Which is a shame because it is a fascinating album, for better and for worse. There was some of the worst material West has ever released on it but also some of the best. The crème de la crème of the album is ‘Real Friends’. It is a sober and understated track about Kanye West blaming himself for struggling to juggle friends, family and his hectic life. It is this honesty, coupled with a simple if evocative beat and golden Ty Dolla $ign vocals that leads to one of the best songs I have heard all year.
2) Dis Generation by A Tribe Called Quest (Feat. Busta Rhymes)
After Phife Dawg died, I wasn’t expecting to ever hear anything about A Tribe Called Quest again. Thank God I was proved wrong, and in such a spectacular way, because We Got It From Here… is best rap album of the year. It is topical, well produced (if a tad muddy), mature and filled with fantastic verses from Tribe and all the guests. ‘Dis Generation’ typifies all of that. The song is about Tribe shouting out and praising the newer generation of rappers like Kendrick and J. Cole whilst spitting hot fire themselves, showing that they aren’t being put out to pasture just yet. Hell all four of the rappers on the song trade bars with an ease that showcases not only their individual talents but also their brilliance as a group. I love the beat as well, it has that jazzy Tribe feel but with a modern lilt to it. ‘Dis Generation’ is both modern and a throw-back in the best way possible.
1) Daydreaming by Radiohead
‘Daydreaming’ is top-tier Radiohead. Which, when you consider their discography, should explain why it number one on this list. What makes it top-tier? The haunting, yet simple, instrumental, Thom Yorke’s pained voice and the oblique lyrics combine to make something utterly beautiful. And, like all great Radiohead songs, there are a multitude of interpretations to what it is actually about. Is it a down-beat protestation against climate change (“this goes beyond me…beyond you”) or is it more personal and the song actually about Thom Yorke’s divorce (“its too late…the damage is done”). I don’t know, but what I do know is that when the patented Johnny Greenwood strings come it at the tail end of the song, all I hear is ear sex in the purest form.
Other great songs released this year:
Black Beatles by Rae Stremmund (Feat Gucci Mane), Cranes in the Sky by Solange, Saint Pablo by Kanye West (Feat Sampha), Party Monster by The Weeknd, Low Life by Future (Feat. The Weeknd), Lyk Dis by NxWorries, 24k Magic by Bruno Mars, Drone Bomb Me by Anohni, Lifted by CL, Kanye West by Young Thug (Feat. Wyclef Jean), One Too Many by Kaytranada (Feat. Phonte), Twist My Fingaz by YG and Touch It by Ariana Grande