Let’s be honest, it’s been a pretty rough year all around. Randomly exploding phones, celebrity deaths, and a human Cheeto as a President-elect. Most of us are half-tempted to just curl up into a sad burrito and pretend the whole thing never happened, and to be fair, that does sound pretty good right now…
But don’t start folding your teary tortilla just yet! There is still hope and reason to rejoice. Despite the drab backdrop of literally everything else going on in the universe, the musicians of the world have still been absolutely killing it. We’ve had new stars rising, old stars saying goodbye, the Blackstar giving his final, fantastic twinkle, and the reminder that music will always be an amazing force for social change. So without further ado, let’s sink our teeth in.
Angel Olsen’s explosion onto the scene was more of a dreamy glide, and this track combines Miss Olsen’s propensity for lyrics involving yearning and love with a surprisingly upbeat and danceable guitar work that belies the tracks story of a desperate love.
Frank really loves to tease, doesn’t he? After what felt like 50 ‘confirmed’ release dates, Franky took us all by surprise by releasing Blonde relatively out of the blue, and no song exemplifies the dreamy aesthetic of the album like ‘Pink + White’. With relatively sparse instrumentation allowing the almost breathless vocals to shine, this song will leave you asking “who on earth gets Beyonce to feature on their song, and then only uses her for the background ‘ooh’s?” Frank goddamn Ocean, that’s who!
Rather than follow in her sister’s legendary footsteps, Solange has decided to blaze her own trail in the musical landscape. Combining elements of minimal house and neo-soul, this song is Solange’s unapolagetic reclamation of her agency and ownership of her body in a time where women of colour everywhere are demanding change. Backing vocals provided by south London singer-songwriter Sampha enhance the ethereality of what is a deeply moving tune.
There’s not much that can be said about A Tribe Called Quest that hasn’t already been said. One of the most prolific hip-hop acts of all time, ‘We The People’ is a continuation of their sterling record of conscious yet intricate lyricism backed with a booming drum line and a ringing synth melody. An incredible swangsong to a thirty year musical partnership and a fitting ode to the late Phife Dawg.
2016 was the year of the dab, and the iconic dance move can trace its development to Georgia trap stars Migos, and ‘Bad and Bouje’ is the trio at their club-banger best. Sticking a middle-finger up to basically everyone who isn’t them, this tune consists of raw unapologetic flexing, and with a feature from emerging star Lil Uzi Vert, this song will get even the most sour-faced of you throw up a gunfinger.
No matter what your opinion of Kanye West is, you can’t deny he knows how to craft a song. Nowhere is the diversity of his production more apparent then on the opener to The Life Of Pablo, ‘Ultralight Beam’, showing clear gospel inspirations. This was perhaps to be expected when Kanye proclaimed his work “a gospel album” in a January tweet, but the distinct Kanye flavour, as well as a feature from Chance the Rapper, turn this into one of the most memorable hip-hop tracks in recent memory.
New York garage punk duo, PWR BTTM, have been slowly making their mark on the underground scene as of late, and with their recent signing with Polyvinyl Records a potential platform from which they can really take off, ‘Projection’ provides reason to be optimistic. Ben Hopkins distinct guitar style really shines through on this track.
Few artists releases are anticipated so thoroughly as Simon Green, better known as Bonobo, and fans have been waiting with baited breath since 2013s The North Borders. It almost goes without saying that it was worth the wait. With a classic clicky drum track, and breathy vocal samples, this song is an early confirmation that next years album migration will be making even bigger waves than the ones we’ve seen.
Ok, maybe there’s one act who’s releases are more hyped, but come on, it’s Radiohead! Every time Thom Yorke and his band of merry men release something, music fans everywhere rush to hear the latest reinvention. This time, they released a track that they had been working on on-and-off since the Kid A sessions back in 2000, but it sounds as fresh as ever, with an excellent mix of synthesisers and live strings.
Two of the most recognisable voices on the UK hip hop scene collaborate again after Giggs’ feature on last years remix of CasIsDead’s banger, ‘What’s My Name?’, and it’s more of the same; visceral, unapologetically aggressive, and so damn good. This track continues Cas’ rapid ascent to the top of the UK underground hip-hop mountain, and further consolidates Giggs’ reputation as a grime legend.
Mercury Prize nominees, Savages, have been tearing up the post-punk scene since forming in 2011, with their January release Adore Life landing itself on plenty of end of year lists, it would be absurd not to give them a look in on this one. The second single of this record, ‘Adore’, slowly builds to a moving crescendo after meandering through the smoky blues delivery of French singer, Jehnny Beth. It’s hard not to be moved by this story of human fallibility and hope.
Death Grips seem to love messing with their fans; after a series of mysterious videos such as the strange 15 minute clip released last year of the late Karen Black, or the even stranger Interview 2016 video, Death Grips released their fifth album out of the blue a week early. No song on this album shows the evolution of the Sacramento-based trio more than ‘Spikes’, combining the traditional violent, noisy elements of Death Grips with a surprisingly (for lack of a better word) poppy hook. Despite their constant experimentation, this track sits perfectly on one of their most cohesive releases yet.
If anyone ever tries to tell you that the internet is inconsequential in the grander scheme of music, point them to Desiigner’s entire career. This infectious trap banger filled the air of what seemed like every Snapchat, Vine, and Instagram for a while, and even found itself being sampled by Lord Yeezus. Inspired by Desiigner’s own black-and-white BMW X6, this song shows that the 19-year-old Brooklyn native already has the ability to craft a song with staying power, and it remains to be seen what 2017 will bring for GOOD Music’s latest signee.
It goes without saying that Schoolboy Q is one of the most exciting rappers on the scene at the minute, and the first single from his Blank Face LP really shows his versatility. With a slower, choppy vocal delivery, and a sinister boom-bap beat courtesy of TDE compatriot Sounwave, Groovy Tony tells the story of a blank faced outlaw who wants his damn money. The album version even features a verse from hip-hop legend Jadakiss and a super funky breakdown into the next track, Eddie Kane.
Drake has made a few attempts to make waves in the UK grime scene, such as getting a Boy Better Know tattoo, making a surprising appearance on-stage with Section Boyz, and allegedly helping fund a third season of urban crime-drama Top Boy, and this has generally been met with derision. However, the surprise release of his remix of Streatham-based rapper Dave’s (yes, his name is genuinely just Dave) took everyone by surprise by actually being really good. Adding his signature flavour without over-powering what is obviously Dave’s song, it seems like Drake might finally be starting to understand the grime scene.
Utterly heartbreaking; the easiest way to describe the finale to Nick Cave’s sixteenth album. Hardly surprising when you take a look at his previous work, and likely compounded by the recent tragic death of his son. Achingly sparse, and with and rather less polished than his previous work, the raw simplicity coupled with Cave’s signature vocals leads to an incredible sonic experience. This track is a fitting end to what may be Cave’s greatest work ever.
It’s been a big year for Skepta. Still riding the wave of 2015s Goliath, Shutdown, the BBK de-facto top dog managed to win the prestigious Mercury Prize, beating juggernauts like Radiohead and the late David Bowie, and becoming the first grime act to win the award in 13 years. But no one gets to the top on their own, and ‘Man’ is an anthem to dedicate to the gang, the crew, the squad, the mandem, or whatever you want to call it. Skepta seems to want to get one message across with this track; if you’re not in the gang, you’re no one, and admit, you all want to be in the gang.
Showing up for the second time in this list, Drake truly dominated the airwaves this year with this track. One of the most infectious tunes of the year, it had even the most cynical amongst you singing along, and anyone who tries to tell you that this song wasn’t stuck in their brain for a good while is a damn liar. You don’t become the most streamed song ever on Spotify (nearly one billion individual streams) without it being something a little special, and with guest vocals from UK Funky artist Kyla (see, trying to make waves), providing a sweet counterpoint to Drake’s own mellifluous tones, this is a track that will be played on repeat for years to come.
Remember earlier when I mentioned celebrity deaths? Chances are your mind went immediately to the Starman himself. The living embodiment of the avant-garde, Bowie’s death left the world shocked, especially coming just two days after the release of his swansong, Blackstar. A fitting ode to one of the most unique artists ever to grace the world of art and music, Blackstar and the accompanying short-film-format music video took the world by storm and left many speculating as to whether this was meant to be a knowing goodbye from him to the world. Either way, his lasting legacy is unquestionable, and this was an excellent, heartbreaking way to cap off an incomparable career.
Come on, you must have seen this coming. Who else but Queen Bey could top this list? A certain word has been bandied about in relation to this track, and rightfully so; unapologetic. Released against the backdrop of ongoing racial strife in the United States, Beyonce appears to have decided that she doesn’t care who she upsets or makes uncomfortable with her attempts to reclaim her identity as a woman of colour, and on this track, it shows. Her southern heritage shines through, finding inspiration in New Orlean’s Bounce music, and featuring vocal interpolations from Big Freedia herself, this song is not only the best track of the year, but the best summation of the mood of the time.
By Omar Awad