In the year of Trump and Brexit, music served as both distraction and defiance. Here are the top tracks of 2016
10. Skrux – Our Fragment
In a year defined by trap in both the hip hop and EDM spheres, Skrux had an underground hit with a mix of piano melodies, distorted vocal chops and ticking clock percussion. It was a burst of sunshine in the year’s EDM scene, but also a peak at what the electronic landscape may look like in 2017
9. Cruel Youth – Hatefuck
Teddy Sinclair has always been heavy. Under the name Natalia Kills, she made dark electric guitar pop that caught the ear of will.i.am. Her new project alongside Willy Moon takes that idea to the extreme. Their third single chronicles a dysfunctional relationship through 60s-inspired vocals and trap instrumentation. With its fusion of darkness and pop, hatefuck serves as an expression of just what a melting pot indie music has become in the post-Snapchat era.
8. Chance the Rapper – No Problem
2016 was Chance’s year. From a scene-stealing guest spot on Kanye West’s ‘Ultralight Beam’ to the success of his third mixtape, Coloring Book, Chancellor Bennett might have produced the most fully-realized hip hop of his career. With his first album proper on the horizon, it appears that the Chicago rapper is moving from strength to strength.
7. Flume – Say It ft. Tove Lo
Flume’s album Skin delivered on the promises of his debut, overflowing with oddball takes on genres ranging from hip hop to psy trance. With his Tove Lo collaboration ‘Say It’, Flume scored over 20 million YouTube views and spawned a thousand remixes. In the process, he made a strong case that few electronic artists walk the line between experimental and populist as deftly as he does.
6. James Blake – Radio Silence
On Radio Silence, Blake imbues his characteristic blend of R&B and bleak electronic soundscapes with a maximalist feel. The end result? A track that is as postmodern as they come without sacrificing a shred of jammability.
5) Frank Ocean – Ivy
Sigh. Frank Ocean only released two albums this year. At least we can take heart in ‘Ivy’ – the quiet masterpiece from his long-awaited LP Blonde (Blond?). The guitar-driven song sums up everything that made Ocean’s 2016 work so potent: where he could have followed Channel Orange with traditional pop fare, he instead opted for vulnerability and experimentation. His peers should take note.
4) Bon Iver – 22(Over Soon)
Justin Vernon recorded his 2008 work For Emma, Forever Ago in his father’s hunting cabin in the woods, according to legend. Its Auto-Tune heavy folk sound represents a very specific kind of Americana: the album deals with issues of break-ups and breakdowns against backdrops of Wisconsin’s bars and woodlands. This mostly continued on Bon Iver’s second album, but with his 2016 release 22, a Million, it seems at first that Vernon has abandoned his sound completely. The album trades guitars and folk arrangements for electronic glitches, distorted vocals and stray bursts of sound. When one looks a little closer at tracks like ‘Over Soon’, however, it becomes clear that Vernon is just as intent on representing America sonically as ever.
3) Beyonce – Formation
No song in recent memory has affected pop culture as much as Beyonce’s political fireball. Mike Will Made It’s synths are simple, ominous – and became instantly iconic. But what really makes the song is Beyonce’s performance, which more than matches the incendiary subject matter. Debuted at the Super Bowl, the track’s reverberations still continue, proving that its message of resilience and defiance isn’t just relevant but essential.
2 . Kanye West – Real Friends
After the critical acclaim of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus, the stakes were unimaginably high for Kanye West’s seventh solo album. Speculation was rampant over what new sound he would pursue with it. An extension of the maximalist progressive rock of Dark Fantasy? More of the industrial noise of his 2013 work? Despite all the guesswork, Kanye’s first lead single single in three years came as a surprise: the song features little more than a drum loop and a synth. In hindsight, however, the track is both the most daring and most logical follow up to West’s previous works. More than that, it functions as bridge between the many iterations of Kanye West: the classic samples of College Dropout Kanye, the lyrical bleakness of 808s and Heartbreak, and mournful synthesizers reminiscent of Yeezus.
In light of West’s recent hospitalization for mental health concerns, Real Friends – and ‘The Life of Pablo’ as whole – reveals itself as the work of an artist at the height of his powers but far from the end of his struggle.
- Radiohead – Daydreaming
2016 was kind to Radiohead fans. We finally got to hear official versions of tracks that had been drifting around Reddit, unfinished, for years. We even got to see the band headline major festivals like they did in their heyday. But their greatest gift was A Moon Shaped Pool, a return to form after their disappointing 2011 album King of Limbs. The LP has no shortage of great additions to the paranoid androids’ canon: the schizophrenic strings of ‘Burn the Witch’, the driving guitars of ‘Identikit’. But the album’s centerpiece has to be ‘Daydreaming’. The track is based around a simple piano melody, but delivers an emotional gut-punch to rival anything Thom Yorke has written in the past. “Dreamers'”the song goes, “They never learn.” In this fractured year, that line reads like both praise and admonition.