2016 saw a wealth of excellent music spanning all genres. Distilling this down into ten tracks proved an exercise in tough decision-making – but here are my personal favourite songs released this year.
All the tracks have also been compiled into a playlist embedded below.
- ANOHNI- ‘Drone Bomb Me’
The expansive spread of frequencies in the song’s twinkling production becomes the war-torn, distraught setting inhabited by two characters: Anohni’s persona, a young girl who has lost everything, and (up in the clouds) the hovering drone that she begs to “blow my head off, explode my crystal guts”. As disturbing as this idea is, the real horror of ‘Drone Bomb Me’ materialises in the final lines. “Choose me,” Anohni pleads, “let me be the one that you choose.” For what the drone sees, down below in the waste, are meaningless, indiscriminate targets waiting to be randomly erased, as belies the perceived futility of civilian lives in modern war.
- David Bowie- ‘Lazarus’
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but when we first heard ‘Lazarus’, nobody guessed it would be Bowie’s self-penned epitaph. It’s undoubtedly a dark song: the saxophones sigh with uncomfortable harmonies more than they sing, and Bowie’s lyrics are fearful (“Look up here, man, I’m in danger”). Although Bowie himself may have come to peace with his fate – “I’ll be free,” he sings, “just like that bluebird!” – it is still wounding to hear those two menacing guitar stabs that signal the track’s outro with terrible finality.
- Run the Jewels- ‘2100’
In the hours following the news that Donald Trump had been elected America’s next president, Run the Jewels weighed in with ‘2100’, stating that they hadn’t intended to release the track yet – but felt that they needed to for those that are “hurting or scared”. As a result, Killer Mike drops darkly prophetic lines (“it’s too clear nuclear’s too near”) over a charged and seething tick-tock six-eight production.
- Childish Gambino- ‘Redbone’
Off-beat bass pops and a glockenspiel-led riff introduce ‘Redbone’. Breathy whispers soon follow, veiling the track in dry ice and prepping a catwalk for the steady drum groove to strut up and down. When Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) makes his lyrical entry, it’s impossible to deny that ‘Redbone’ captures the spirit of Prince. This nostalgic sound is contrasted in Glover’s lyrics, however, which remain grounded in the present and urge the listener to “stay woke”, remaining vigilant in both the political and the personal.
- Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds- ‘I Need You’
Skeleton Tree is an album now infamously defined by the tragic death of Cave’s son during production. In ‘I Need You’, Cave presents simple images of him and his partner: disembodied and confused, wandering supermarket aisles, isolated in their world of grief. The refrain “I need you” is a brave expression of encouragement, an urge to “stay with me” on “the night we wrecked like a train”. Although we can see Cave’s world through his depiction of mundane, suburban life, we hope never to relate.
- Father John Misty- ‘Real Love Baby’
Entrenched within so many layers of irony and cynicism he may essentially be a human meme, Josh Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) earns his sarcastic wit through his marriage of intricate composition and varied instrumentation. Though Tillman never leaves the same three chords for the entirety of ‘Real Love Baby’, his clever deployment of masterful guitar noodling, balanced vocal harmonies, and a playful bassline establish this as one of summer ‘16’s best.
- James Blake (feat. Bon Iver)- ‘I Need a Forest Fire’
A murky vocal ostinato emerges, underpinned by a minimal beat. The understated production is a playground for Blake and Vernon to bounce harmonies off one another, and the track plays around with increasingly intermingling falsettos and chromatic touches. The hook is good enough to earn its repetition; “I request another dream,” Vernon coos, “I need a forest fire.” That second “I” hosts much of the track’s magic, with additional embellishments hooked on each cycle.
- ScHoolboy Q- ‘Groovy Tony/ Eddie Kane’
The aggressive beats and violent lyrics of the track’s first persona, ‘Groovy Tony’, back high-octane flows detailing the exploits of “the devil in all blue”. That abrasive tone carries into the latter half, dominated by ‘Eddie Kane’, but when the track breaks down to a scream, “Nights like this, I wish cocaine drops would fall!”, ‘Eddie Kane’ gives way to brooding synths and chromatic chords, and with this shift in production, builds to a surprisingly ethereal finale, with Q’s ‘Kane’ persona finally consumed: “Your soul is mine.”
- Bon Iver- ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’
As ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’ opens, we are confronted by the sound of the Messina, a combined rig of software and hardware that weaves so many Justin Vernon vocal harmonies and timbres together at once – some gurgling, some squeaking – that the acapella track actually feels richly instrumental. During its short run, ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’ cycles us through a series of stanzas, each progressively more harmonically and lyrically intense than the last. Finally, the listener is abruptly abandoned with Vernon’s imperative, “Goddamn turn around now, you’re my A-team!”
- Frank Ocean- ‘Nights’
My family can’t listen to ‘Nights’ any more: a holiday in the Forest of Dean, in which I confirmed that Ocean’s track passes the replay-value test with flying colours, made sure of that. Explaining where ‘Nights’ finds this quality, however, is a little more difficult. The production scales bar-to-bar within the first few chords of the song, alternatively fuelling and satiating our desire to hear all the component instruments come together again. Ocean’s intimate lyrics address a relationship with a very definite place in his life: back when he “didn’t have a address [and] didn’t own a mattress”. The song’s second half is carried by an exquisitely dynamic drum sample and clean, nostalgic synths, and culminates with the many distinct voices Ocean uses on Blonde singing in rounds, the lyrics shared with the track’s former half tying the two parts together. ‘Nights’ is a masterpiece of production, lyricism, and pacing; despite its personal subject matter, it allows Ocean’s memories to resonate.