From jazz-flavoured electronica through crushing anthems about mythical Norweigan trees and everything in between, these are the tracks that quickened our writers' pulses in 2016.
Kate Tempest – ‘Europe Is Lost’
In a humbling set at London’s Roundhouse last weekend, it was this song which swam out of the rapper/performance poet’s mouth with the most momentum. Kate Tempest’s second album, Let Them Eat Chaos, is a poem, full of London grit, set to music. ‘Europe is Lost’ is the centrepiece; a brash, no-nonsense look at the world we live in, where “Half a generation live beneath the breadline / Oh, but it’s happy hour on the high street.” Tempest sets “massacres” against “new shoes” with such eloquent clarity you wonder why world leaders aren’t stopping in their tracks to listen to human advice from this South East Londoner.
Kristin Kontrol – ‘X-Communicate’
When Dum Dum Girls’ Kristin Welchez transformed herself into Kristin Kontrol this year, she also morphed herself into a pop juggernaut, following in the footsteps of childhood icons such as Janet Jackson and Madonna. ‘X-Communicate’, the title track from her debut album under the new moniker, was a bold step into new territory, mixing together shimmering synths and beats and even throwing in a climactic guitar solo reminiscent of New Order. Taking it over the top was Kristin’s own voice, swiftly moving between whispering and a powerhouse chorus, making ‘X-Communicate’ the all-conquering pop hit 2016 deserved.
Noname – ‘Forever’
On Noname’s masterpiece of a debut Telefone, eighth track ‘Forever’ tells a very specific love story. Following straight on from ‘Casket Pretty’ and two tracks before ‘Shadowman’, the importance of context here can’t be overstated; amidst these harrowing songs about young black people’s lives being under constant threat in America, Noname articulates her happiness in her relationship (‘Fuck it, we’ll live forever’), and her euphoria is affirmed as revolutionary, their love an act of defiance (‘They ain’t tryna see us shine / Bullet on our time’).
Noname and Joseph Chilliams’ rap verses combine a beautiful sensuality with thorough discussions of racial issues; Noname’s lyrics about class a reminder of Claudia Jones’ triple oppression theory while Chilliams tackles racism and colorism in all their complexity. Ravyn Lenae’s chorus, meanwhile, is nothing short of stunning, her perfectly-suited voice as heavenly-yet-wistful as the picture painted by the song.
Skinny Girl Diet – ‘DMT’
Stand back. We’re about to blow this joint. Set this sucker at the door and run as fast as you can. Skinny Girl Diet cannot be stopped – with massive riffs and drums careening off the rails, they can blast steel doors off their hinges. Pity the blokes who try to stand in their way. Any song from Heavy Flow would’ve done the trick, but ‘DMT’ never fails to beat me senseless.
PJ Harvey – ‘River Anacostia’
PJ Harvey, sensitive soul that she is, foresaw the need in this difficult year to reinterpret a spiritual. ‘River Anacostia’, an ode to a polluted Washington DC river, is the softly rhythmic emotional cleansing we need, whatever your religious inclinations. It addresses the myriad worries in the air and invites us to slough those same worries off. The regular closing song of her set on this year’s tour, “River Anacostia” has served as a literal coming together of Harvey and her band, and a powerful end to the show. Listening alone at home, it feels like a statement of solidarity.
ANOHNI – ‘4 DEGREES’
A study found earlier in the year that if we continued to produce the same level of greenhouse gases, Earth’s temperature would rise by four degrees come the end of the century. Having “grown tired of grieving for humanity,” ANOHNI’s vision of an apocalypse onset by climate change on ‘4 Degrees’ is both dramatic in its swelling, brass-filled instrumentation (courtesy of Hudson Mohawke) but it’s also curiously nonchalant. She sings “It’s only four degrees” as a justification of draining the world’s resources while seemingly content to see the planet burn. The result is one of the year’s most chilling indictments of both human action and inaction, and probably the finest moment on ANOHNI’s aptly-titled debut album Hopelessness.
MJ Guider – ‘Evencycle’
Breathe in. Breathe out. Do you feel that? The slow, steady turn of the planet? No one does, because the Earth has always spun – but through MJ Guider, infinite rotation condenses into a tangible ecstasy. Here, in the magnum opus of her ponderous debut, we spin through a 10-minute orbit across the horizon – and the wonder of cosmic motion unfolds gently before us.
Anna Meredith – ‘The Vapours’
Ever come across an instrumental track that makes you laugh out loud? Me neither, until this year when I first gave Anna Meredith’s Varmints a spin. It turned out to be my favourite record of 2016, the one I’ve listened to the most, and the one that continues to dish out untold pleasures. ‘Scrimshaw’, ‘R-Type’, ‘Something Helpful’, and ‘Blackfriars’ are all treasures that I could have/nearly did plump for, but when pushed - in a year that has left a not insignificant number feeling more than a little browbeaten – the one that left the corners of my mouth touching my ears won out.
If you’ve yet to experience ‘The Vapours’, hold on to your hats; it’s quite simply the most ridiculous, visceral, and exciting pieces of music you're likely to hear. Meredith takes a shock and awe approach that aligns her with the Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka, as a creator of a fantastical, multicoloured-world void of saccharine cartoonism via its brutal and glorious build.
Feels - 'Tell Me'
It's been a while since Los Angeles produced a band with a unique snarl. With their mixture of psych and punk, future-rockers Feels are by far my favourite discovery of 2016. In the eye of this raucous storm is Laena Geronimo, who in the flick of an eyelash manages to pogo from grunge badass to delightful-verging-on-evil shoegazer. 'Tell Me' - taken from their self-titled debut LP - plays with space and time before smashing your head in two with blissfully brutal riffs. Complex and clever but also, as they say in LA, 'super rad'.
Jamila Woods – ‘Blk Girl Soldier’
Several of this year’s most staggering, righteous and infectious numbers, for me, came from Jamila Woods, perhaps best known for her scene-stealing work with Chance the Rapper and The Social Experiment. Her album HEAVN is a treat through and through, one in which anger and disillusionment are tempered by hope and beauty, not to mention Woods’ sweet, caramel delivery. “They want us in the kitchen / Kill our sons with lynchings / We get loud about it / Oh, now we’re the bitches?” she asks - or states, it isn’t really clear - on ‘Blk Girl Soldier’. The song isn’t concerned with recriminations, though; the message is one of resilience, of not giving up - something that we should keep in mind as we plunge into a year that promises to be every bit as challenging as 2016 has felt bleak.
Floating Points – ‘Kuiper - Part 1’
‘Kuiper’ was one on many new tracks released by Sam Shepherd – otherwise known as Floating Points – and his newly assembled, live touring band. This new style is a more jazz-flavoured, krautrock sounding opus that moves away from his deeper-house sounding 12”s he’s released previously. Shepherd’s talent is unnerving and simultaneously gargantuan, like the asteroid-belt the track is named after. ‘Kuiper’ is spacious and vast, and show’s what a hidden talent Shepherd is. It’s somehow difficult to know what he isn’t capable and what he’ll do next.
Marissa Nadler - 'Janie In Love'
Marissa could probably sing a Trump speech and I'd be swept away by it. 'Janie in Love' is a breathy dark-dream with smoke machines gushing from its chorus and visions of Roxy Music haunting the verses. There's a real magic here that's had me coming back for more and more all year.
Amber Arcades – ‘Turning Light’
With a title like 'Turning Light' anyone could be forgiven for thinking it's a song about OCD. Which it isn't. Not there's anything wrong with having OCD. Instead, it's a near seven-minute long opus that collects all the best bits of Stereolab, Broadcast, and Camera Obscura into one motorik beat-driven melting pot. The best song on the best album of 2016
Backpacks – ‘Feels Like’
In a year which sees more interesting music is being released on Bandcamp than on record labels, new London Punk label Dirty Sushi has made a bold stand and bucked the trend. It's merely two releases old, but both have been bangers. The fledgling release, Backpacks' 'Still Life' EP, is the finest piece of emo-tinged guitar pop that has come out for a long long time. In 'Feels Like' the Michigan four-piece achieve what thousands of bands can only aspire to, to be the act that takes Fugazi and makes them a pop band.
The Sweet Release Of Death – ‘Smutek’
With a name like The Sweet Release Of Death, surely, there's no need to double down on heaviness and angst. Instead, this Rotterdam trio commands its sadcore noise/shoegaze malaise shrewdly. There's an elegant, streamlined quality to ‘Smutek’ (the Polish word for "sad"), with no wasted movements whatsoever. Which makes the song's cataclysmic final outburst a red-hot, high stakes affair to relish in.
Christine & The Queens - ‘iT’
For a popstar on a major label, Christine (aka Héloïse Letissier) kinda swooped in very slowly and slyly into the record buying public’s consciousness. Her skewed legit chart hit ‘Tilted’ turned out to be a bit of a red herring (albeit a great one), as ‘iT’ aptly demonstrates Letissier’s cool, calm songwriting ability. A lesson in Galic chic, it’s non-throttle music, downbeat and layered, delivered with her soaring, bone rattling voice. Introspective and fiercely intelligent, the album Chaleur Humaine was one of 2016’s surprise packages, and an instant favourite with me.
The Kills - 'Siberian Nights'
A head-boppin' groove has always been a given with killer Kills songs but I wasn't quite prepared for the stabbing strings. 'Siberian Nights' has been my wriggling ear worm throughout 2016, with Alison Mosshart whispering "I could make you cum in threes" and duh-duh-uh-doo-ooh-ing over and over again atop that bellowing bassline, those hip-hop twisted disco beats, and them evil strings.
The Black Queen - 'Secret Scream'
"I wouldn't have been able to write Dissociation or give that performance if I hadn't done Fever Daydream. That album was a representation of vulnerability and a shedding of any possible cartoonish genre cage that I felt might be on me.”
The words of Greg Puciatio; frontman for both The Dillinger Escape Plan and The Black Queen as he reflected on the death and birth of his respective projects. The Black Queen is a considerably more 'accessible' outfit at least as far as Puciato's vocals are concerned, as he flexes more soothing chords amidst a knowing retro landscape. Debut offering Fever Daydream isn't just full of promise, it's a challenging and damn fine record in its own right. 'Secret Scream' is just one of several notable highlights, and it's the perfect place to start.
Fews – ‘The Queen’
When Fews debut album Means came out in May, it represented one of the few records that actually mirrors a band's live set in terms of dynamic, intensity, and structure. Any of the ten songs off that record could have sat proudly on this mixtape, but I've chosen this one purely because of the sentiment behind its lyrics.
Laura Gibson – ‘Empire Builder’
Laura Gibson has been turning out unremittingly lovely folk music for a decade now, across four albums that are warm, wise, vulnerable and aching in turn. The title track of this year’s offering finds her at her quiet, unassuming best, mulling over her part in the collapse of a relationship atop pitter-patter percussion, chiming electric guitars and a soft, dissonant swell that rumbles ever more presently into life. The lyric video depicts the train journey across the Northern USA the song is named for, and much like the song, it is a gorgeous, hazy thing. “I’ll pass a thousand lonely pines that bend their backs against the sun,” sighs Gibson; “But I’ll mistake the station birds for the sound of my phone ringing.”
Jenny Hval – ‘Female Vampire’
It's dumbfounding how this track off Jenny Hval's mind-warping Blood Bitch creates such ominous atmospherics with billowy instrumentation, sounds that would generally be considered benign. The dim John Carpenter-ish synth trails and Hval's deft vocal delivery quiver like faint candlelight disturbing a pitch-black solitude. One of Blood Bitch's more pristine tracks, but no less intrusive than the album's more abrasive moments.
Hooton Tennis Club – ‘Katy-Anne Bellis’
Big Box Of Chocolates was one of 2016's finest long players while reinventing the purpose of the concept album in the process, and 'Katy-Anne Bellis' is possibly the year's finest pop song that won't ever find itself on a Radio One playlist. For me, it's a timely reminder of long drives up and down the M6 throughout October and November with this on repeat play for company.
Mouses – ‘Hollywood’
I’ve yet to see Teesside two-piece Mouses’ eponymous(ish) debut album on any 2016 lists, which is a shame, because The Mouses Album is wall-to-wall fuzz-rock thrills. Nothing encapsulates its cocktail of blood, sweat, and glitter quite so succinctly as ‘Hollywood’. It’s a 90-second burst of bubble-gum energy so intoxicating that the band themselves need to slow down for a little breather part-way through. The whole album’s much of the same, hurtling by in an instant, fired by the youthful charisma of Ste Bardgett’s vocal and riffs. One to catch up on over Christmas if you’ve missed it.
Jenny Hval – ‘Conceptual Romance’
A year ago Jenny Hval looked at the present as a full-blown neoliberal dystopia: "You say I'm free now, that battle is over, and feminism is over / Socialism's over. Yeah, I say I can consume what I want now", she chanted in 'That Battle Is Over'. As usual, we can trust her 100% with an analysis of the contemporary that’s just as cerebral as it is visceral. In 'Conceptual Romance', Hval addresses the anxiety to function in a world that has no time for the failing and the self-questioning. It’s immensely liberating to hear her murmur “I don’t know who I am but… I am working on it” over a relaxing, near-idyllic arrangement that floats and soars in a mid-space between ambient and industrial, love and the heartbreak.
Tough Tits – ‘Hairless’
There are statements of intent, and there is ‘Hairless’. With the opening song of their first release, Tough Tits have achieved more than some bands do in a lifetime. The menacing intro gives way to an explosion of white noise where Ayesha Linton-Whittle furiously calls out prescribed societal standards of what feminine beauty is 'supposed' to be. The key moment comes a minute in with the gut-punch lines: “I fucking hate myself / But I’ll always love you / And I hope to fucking God / You’ll never love anybody else”. An incredible first song from an absolutely vital band.
Conor Oberst – ‘Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out’
Without getting into it too much, I had a bit of a rough time lately; couple that with the relentless misery that is reading the news in 2016, and the record I turned to most for comfort was Conor Oberst’s Ruminations, a sparse affair by my favourite singer that, as ever, is filled with delicate observations and beautiful, melancholy songs. (“Dying cats” is what a friend of mine dubs the singers I like best, not without affection.) This song, in particular, is compassion crystallised: a lost evening in Manhattan’s East Village in which one friend offers solace to another; gentle, honest reassurance for tumultuous times.
Funeral Suits - 'Tree Of Life'
The spellbinding House of Leaves closes with a dedication to Yggdrasil, the mythical tree of immense proportions so worshipped in Norwegian lore.
"What miracle is this? This giant tree. It stands ten thousand feet high But doesn't reach the ground. Still it stands. Its roots must touch the sky."
Fitting that Irish musical explorers Funeral Suits would name the most sky-scraping belter off what would ultimately emerge as their final bow after such monumental wonder. 'Tree Of Life' hellaciously bounces - almost literally - from the minutiae of every-day life to musings both light and dark to one of the most immediate and infectious choruses that all of 2016 had to offer. It's the kind of anthem that makes their sudden demise feel especially cruel.
Lionlimb – ‘Turnstile’
The strange alchemy that leads to certain bands catching the prevailing wind of internet hype may never be fully understood, but Lionlimb were one of this year’s most unfairly overlooked new faces. Formed by former members of Angel Olsen’s backing band (which alone should have guaranteed more coverage than they got), their deliciously woozy, memory-dazed psych pop fits very sleekly into one of the decade’s most fruitful and best loved musical trends. ‘Shoo’ is their wistfully jangled debut album, and ‘Turnstile’ is the best encapsulation of their highly addictive sound. Stewart Bronaugh may sound like Elliott Smith, and they may share an inclination towards the melancholy, but Lionlimb come across with a fundamentally more nostalgic and hopeful point of view.
Las Aves – ‘N.E.M’
In short, it takes all the best bits of pop, hip-hop, electro, avant-garde experimentalism and mixes it up into a sticky ball and repeatedly throws it at your face and pulls it off slowly. In a weird way, Las Aves are a neo version of Bran Van 3000. They encompass everything that has happened musically before, while predicting what is to come. ‘N.E.M.’ is loosely based around a simple piano loop and tight beat while Geraldine Baux sings, raps, and croons over the top. Lyrics like “It’s a thin line between dangerous and mad, will you be my danger? / It’s a thin line before reasonable and sad, and I know you aren’t sad” show that this is not your average pop group. The basic crux of the song is that her nickname is N.E.M., but it’s cool if you call her that; this might not seem that amazing on paper, but when the hook meets the music it becomes the ultimate earworm of the year.
Cabbage – ‘Necroflat In The Palace’
Cabbage might have one of the silliest names in the history of music but they also happen to be one of -if not THE - most exciting live band in the UK right now. Plus, there aren't enough songs about necrophilia in Buckingham Palace while celebrating the good old NHS.
Nicolas Jaar - 'Three Sides of Nazareth'
A pummelling beat and children chattering and tiger-growlin' greets you at the start of this almost ten-minute masterpiece. Jaar has seemingly thrown his downbeat hyper-dub trunk off a cliff and whilst diving behind it into the infinite abyss he's managed to make one of biggest floor-fillers of the year. If anyone was going to soundtrack a Party in the Sky, with lightning flickering at your feet, then you could bet Jaar would do it. Of course, it remains a production masterclass with the slinky, snarling, super-smart, shape-shifting, almost philosophical exercise. It's a voyage that revels in making your synapses shake as much as your hips, but boy oh boy, if this isn't one of the songs of the year then you better hurry up and tell me what is better than this utter bliss. "I found my broken bones by the side of the road..."
Grandaddy - 'Way We Won't'
We've waited a long time for the return of one of indie's best-loved and influential bands, and if you're familiar at all with Grandaddy's story, you'll know the fact that they're still around doing what they do is remarkable in and of itself. Comebacks are never easy - just ask James Murphy - but this track has a scuzzy, languid charm and that familiar sweetness that suggests that Lytle still knows how to write great songs. As comfortable as old sweater, it bodes well for their new album which is due in March next year; it's good to have them back.