10. Sweet Relief – Kimbra
Kicking off my countdown of the year’s best songs is one I’ve only discovered in the final throws of 2016. However, it’s simply too good to omit from this list. New Zealand singer Kimbra, whose diverse list of collaborators includes Gotye (with whom she won two Grammys in 2013 for Somebody That I Used To Know), John Legend, Muse’s Matt Bellamy (ed. and also Ben Weinman from The Dillinger Escape Plan), released this standalone single as a taster for her forthcoming third album and it certainly bodes well. If there’s a funkier song released this year, I haven’t heard it. I mean funk in the truly old-school sense. While Bruno Mars and The Weeknd have released some brilliant throwback tunes this year which capture the nostalgic essence of modern funk, Sweet Relief is a more original piece, cut from the cloth of the late, great Prince, replete with a popping bass line, swaggering drum beat, healthy use of cowbell and a gloriously over-the-top instrumental outro. Kimbra, like Sia, (watch out for her further down) possesses a voice which is at once unusual and accessible, helping her to twist the pop formula into something more distinctive. Kimbra has long defied genre categorisation, but on this release, which feels apt in the year we lost Prince’s extraordinary talents, she created one of the year’s hidden dancefloor gems.
9. Animal Style – Biffy Clyro
In a tempestuous political year, where the absence of a big political rock record akin to American Idiot or Rage Against The Machine’s finest felt palpable, it was refreshing to hear Scotland’s favourite sons return, all guns blazing, with this incendiary lead single from their comparatively underwhelming seventh album, Ellipsis. It boasts a mix of electronic-tinged production, the year’s catchiest guitar riff and a chorus which, although low on subtly and poeticism, neatly sums up, like last year’s ironic Happy Song by Bring Me The Horizon, bafflement in the face of Brexit and Trump: “can you realise my head’s a fucking carnival?” Part-ode to the cataclysmic pleasures of being single (“All I wanna feel’s a little chemical rush / All I really know is that it won’t take much”), part-anthem of millennial self-loathing (“Why d’you waste your time / on me, I’m just an animal”), this record was a much needed shot in the arm in a year devoid of much to shout about in the world of rock. It neatly captures the confusion and frustration of many, without becoming explicitly political, serves as a nostalgic trip back to the glory days of mid-00s indie rock and emo, and showed the Biff, after much flirtation with a radio-friendly sound, to be back to their visceral best.
8. Perfect Illusion – Lady Gaga
When your production team boasts those behind last year’s best single, Uptown Funk, and album, Tame Impala’s Currents, then you’re doing something wrong if your comeback isn’t anything short of spectacular. Producers and co-writers Mark Ronson and Kevin Parker didn’t disappoint and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better three-minute record released this year. However, for all Ronson and Parker’s pop nouse, incorporating shades of the ethereal funk found on their own brilliant 2015 albums, this song still belongs to the woman herself: Lady Gaga. With her lung-busting vocals and sheer force of presence, which feel palpable both here and throughout her new album Joanne, the best since her debut, there isn’t a more socially conscious, original or dynamic artist working in pop today (here’s looking at you Kanye). Perfect Illusion marks a return to her 80s-influenced roots, emerging as the missing link between Madonna and Bruce Springsteen, such is the combination of the synth-drenched verses and a driving rock-informed chorus. Since 2008’s The Fame, Gaga has often felt more performance artist than performer and, while this has kept her intriguing and original amongst a sea of generic pop acts, it’s a delight to have her back to her anthemic best, backed by a stellar production team.
7. The Game and the River – ROOKS
From one of the most established female voices in pop to another who is most definitely “one to watch”, singer and multi-instrumentalist Jenny Bulcraig released her first EP, The Game and The River under her Rooks monicker this year and it’s some of the best twenty minutes you’ll hear anywhere. Combining folk-tinged textures, guitars and vocals that recall Laura Marling and subtle yet epic electronic production, bass and drums which move her into the exalted company of Imogen Heap and Kimbra, Bulcraig has crafted a masterful first release and its title track is the best of the bunch. The song slowly swells from a plucked acoustic guitar riff, warped and chopped by electronic production, introducing a propulsive kick drum, to an ambient climax of synth-drenched glory, with chattering layers of keyboards making it a compelling listen right through to the very final guitar strum. Bulcraig’s voice, full of clarity, power and restraint, matches this instrumental build, creating one of the best examples all year of a song where voice and production are in complete harmony.
6. Best to You (feat. Empress Of) – Blood Orange
I’ve been a fan of Dev Hynes (the man behind Blood Orange) since his diverse work as a noisy guitarist for post-hardcore rockers Test Icicles and acoustic troubadour Lightspeed Champion. This song is no less eclectic and brilliant. As Blood Orange, Hynes moved away from folk and towards R&B and electronica. Best to You features a gorgeous guest appearance from Empress Of, who Hynes generously places front-and-centre, only including some crooning back-up vocals of his own, playing the placating male observer with his “do you really want to” refrain. He does more than his fair share with brilliantly percussive production and a luscious synth-based sound which makes the song sound like the kind of record you’d want playing as you hoist aloft a boombox in the 80s movie of your life, preferably directed by John Hughes. The song is a bittersweet tale of a one-sided relationship that, partly due to the girl-boy vocal dynamic and non-sexuality specific lyrics, becomes relatable to anyone listening who’s experienced or perpetrated those feelings of ignorance and neglect. Finally, it includes one of the most painfully honest lyrics of the year, set to some gorgeous harmonies and percussion which sounds like a ringtone endlessly ringing with no hope of answer: “I can’t be the girl you want / But I can be the thing you throw away”.
5. Needed Me – Rihanna
Hard as it is to believe, this slinky slice of electro R&B, Rihanna’s best song in years, appeared on the same album as one of the year’s biggest monstrosities in music: Work, her truly hideous collaboration with the hip-hop pariah that is Drake. However, taking that aside, Needed Me oozes cool, with Rihanna’s newfound interest in half-sung, half-rapped vocals, for once, working wonders on this track. DJ Mustard’s mellow production helps the song to wash over the listener in the best way possible, with the wave-like bass ebbing and flowing before giving way to a full-on dubstep onslaught in the song’s chorus, which laments lost love and romantic rejection. This track is perhaps the least complicated or subtle on this list and feels rather anomalous, given its inclusion on Rihanna’s otherwise unremarkable eighth album, ANTI. However, the Barbadian singer is the modern definition of a singles artist, with a knack for releasing well-produced, well-sung and memorable pop songs. With Needed Me combining those qualities with a move into darker, more atmospheric territory, it stands as one of the year’s most pulsating and exciting singles.
4. Nobody Speak (feat. Run The Jewels) – DJ Shadow
Despite being the featured artist on this track, Nobody Speak belongs to American rap duo, Run The Jewels, comprising El-P and Killer Mike. For a start, it features the year’s most topical rap couplet, delivered by El-P with uncompromising honesty, viciousness and humour: “Flame your crew quicker than Trump fucks his youngest / Now face the flame, fuckers, your fame and fate’s done with”. Run The Jewels feature quite possibly the two best MCs in hip-hop right now, trading rapid fire verses and delivering their witty, tongue-twisting lyrics with dexterity and verve. Another choice morsel is Killer Mike’s alliterative call-to-arms: “Valiant without villainy / Viciously foul victory / Burn towns and villages / Burning looting and pillaging”. Released in the midst of the grubbiest US election race in living memory, with Killer Mike having spoken at Bernie Sanders rallies, this song shows the two rappers to be some of the most uncompromising and vital political musicians working today. It would be remiss to ignore turntable legend DJ Shadow’s contribution as the song’s lead artist. The combination of spaghetti western guitars, grooving bass, horns and old school production perfectly compliments Run The Jewels’ own sound and make this a true match made in hip-hop heaven. A final mention should be made of the accompanying music video, arguably the year’s best, which sets the song in the context of a UN roundtable discussion which descends into murderous chaos, with El-P and Killer Mike’s lyrics lip-synched by the two oldest, white male politicians in sight. Few songs and videos were as topical and rabble-rousing in 2016.
3. Cheap Thrills – Sia
Probably the only certified hit I’ve included on this list is Sia’s anthemic single, which hit No.1 in the US and No. 2 in the UK. The reason for its inclusion is simple: the bouncing positivity in the face of darkness and anti-money message makes it an antithetical battlecry for many opposed to the bling-laden, image-centric pop music which occupies much of today’s charts. Sia remains one of the few contemporary pop songwriters capable of penning something which sounds equally like an instant classic and faintly left-field. While the song will win few prizes for it’s lyrical originality, Sia’s status as a pop musician who shields her face as a statement of artistic intent, makes this song all the more intriguing. It’s bouncy, reggae-tinged production and repetitive chorus make it sound, in passing, like many of her contemporaries, and yet, the song’s cynical rejection of materialism and wealth transforms it into an anti-establishment song masquerading as a club banger. Like Kimbra and Lady Gaga, Sia operates within the pop world as a musician and songwriter first, and star second. Cheap Thrills, with Sia’s defiant message that “I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight / I’ve got cheap thrills” is, like 2014’s Chandelier, a wonderful example of an electronic pop song which takes the club atmosphere for which much of that genre are supposedly intended, and turns it on its head, offering an empowering critique of, on the one hand, her audience’s self-destructive desire to “live like tomorrow doesn’t exist” and, on the other, many of her contemporaries’ more media-driven, vapid, oversexed images.
2. Decks Dark – Radiohead
Radiohead returned this year with one of their most beautiful, reflective and understated albums to date, A Moon Shaped Pool. While I believe the album is unlikely to gain the iconic status of early releases like Ok Computer and Kid A, and doesn’t quite scale the heights of more recent material on In Rainbows and The King of Limbs, the Oxford five-piece still managed to deliver 2016’s best rock record and provide a much needed voice of political paranoia in this turbulent year. However, while the singles released, the propulsive, orchestral Burn The Witch and hazy, reflective Daydreaming, were wonderful introductions to the album, the best song is it’s third: the haunting, yet grooving Decks Dark. The song reflects guitarist Jonny Greenwood recent work as a soundtrack composer, with his involvement on the brilliantly unsettling score for There Will Be Blood being particularly prevalent. The song opens with a plaintive, resigned vocal from the unique Thom Yorke, accompanied by jagged strings and a melancholic piano arpeggio. Like other piano-based Radiohead classics, particularly Pyramid Song and The Daily Mail, the song builds slowly towards its crescendo, slowly introducing the inventive bass of Colin Greenwood, with the addition here of a haunting choir to back Yorke’s bitter refrain that “it was just a laugh”. Just after the three minute mark, the song brilliantly changes tack, introducing two duelling, choppy guitar lines, a grooving bass line and a slight change in tempo which makes this darkest of songs end of an oddly upbeat note, combining bitter melancholy with perverse optimism in a way only Radiohead can achieve.
1. Redbone – Childish Gambino
Similarly to my favourite song of 2015, Tame Impala’s The Less I Know The Better, this song deals with suspicion through the medium of funk, tied to universal themes of social consciousness and self-identity. Childish Gambino, the musical monicker under which modern renaissance man Donald Glover operates, sprang a surprise with “Awaken, My Love!”, his third studio release. Gone were the rapid fire raps and eclectic, electronic samples and in came… a retro funk and soul album. If one needed proof that Glover can turn his hand to anything, then this is it. Redbone is the album’s standout track and pens a tale of uncertain love, revolving around his suspicions that, “I wake up feeling like you won’t play right / I used to know, but now that shit don’t feel right”. Remarkably, the song also has a more universal, social message at its otherwise personal core, referencing the phrase ‘Stay Woke’ on the hook, which came to prominence as part of Black Lives Matter. The song thus becomes a message to remain aware both of your loved ones’ indiscretions and to check your privilege. Glover’s pitched-up falsetto faintly recalls Prince, while the gorgeous instrumental backing, replete with Funkadelic-esque slap bass, wah-wah pedals and warm keyboard sounds, combine to create a shimmering, atmospheric dream-like texture. Most importantly, Redbone lulls the listener into a false sense of security, with Glover reminding us “don’t you close your eyes”. Whether this is to the immediate problems around you or those on a wider, global scale, the song feels immensely prescient in as difficult a year as this and it helps that, more than any other piece of music I’ve encountered in 2016, this record’s sonic texture feels like a warm, positive hug of reassurance.
After Midnight – Dorothy
Cake By The Ocean – DNCE
Genghis Khan – Miike Snow
Legend Has It – Run The Jewels
Quicksand – Tom Chaplin
Images: Warner Dance Labels; Warner Bros. Records; Interscope Records; ROOKS; Domino; Roc Nation; Liquid Amber; RCA; XL Recordings; Glassnote