2016 was a difficult year for music. It lost a host of legends – David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen chief amongst them – while landmark events and albums (Muse and Coldplay at Glastonbury again?) were thin on the ground. Meanwhile, not a single new UK act went platinum, and the singles charts became clogged up with easy listening, ‘nothing’ tracks which fitted nicely on playlists – yes, Drake, we’re looking at you.
Nonetheless, there were still some nuggets of gold out there to enjoy. In fact, at least 50 of them were undeniable pieces of musical brilliance.
Read on for our selection of what you need to listen to from this year’s releases – and there’s a Spotify playlist of the lot at the end.
50. Ed Harcourt – Furnaces
Ed Harcourt attracted a host of critical acclaim for his new album Furnaces, and rightly so, with our pick of the record being the title track - a gloriously dense, bluesy howl of anguish, with lyrics that dealt with themes of impending environmental disaster and the continual effort to 'keep the furnace burning'. Harcourt himself said, "I wanted this song to sound like a loping, clanking fire-breathing giant made out of machinery eating up the earth and spewing vast projectiles of junk out, leaving chaos and emptiness in its wake… I hasten to add that hope is never far away - but it is a distant lantern swaying precariously in the darkness." We couldn't have put it better ourselves.
49. Zack de la Rocha – Digging For Windows
2016 was a good year for Rage Against The Machine fans. Hot on the heels of three-quarters of the band getting their groove on again with Prophets of Rage (see below), singer Zach de la Rocha released his hugely long-awaited debut single proper in the form of Digging For Windows. A de la Rocha solo album has been in the works ever since Rage first split back in 2000 with only a few guest appearances and the One Day as a Lion EP in 2008 actually emerging. But finally, here it was, with the track seeing him work with Run The Jewels' El-P once again, after featuring on their 2014 track Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck), The results were excellent, with a dark, dense beat - reminscent of a slightly tougher Massive Attack - providing the backdrop for de la Rocha's familiarly angry vocals. Please, can we finally have an album soon Zack? Cheers.
48. Super Furry Animals – Bing Bong
Everything went right for the Welsh this summer, as their football team – at their first major tournament since 1958, managed to reach the semi-finals of the Euros. And we think it’s no coincidence that this was the year that the Super Furries finally brought out their long-threatened football song which was a) very little to do with football, b) accompanied by a truly brilliant video and c) yet another example of the classic surrealism, married with an infuriatingly insistent groove and lyrical hook that the Furries do so well. We imagine Gareth Bale played this before every match to get pumped up.
47. Beyonce – Formation
2016 marked the year that Beyoncé finally went political. And she did it in uncompromising style, with the February unveiling of Formation at the Super Bowl, a celebration of her black heritage, complete with Black Panther-inspired imagery. The tune itself was another fine example of the tougher, more beat-driven and militant Beyoncé 2.0 we’ve seen since 4. She goes hard, she’s a star, and she most certainly slays.
46. Nina Nesbitt – Chewing Gum
Getting the year off to a riproaring start was Nina Nesbitt, who announced her transformation from ever-so-slightly-dull folk songstress to raging electro ice queen with this banger, co-written with Preston from the Ordinary Boys no less. Clearly, we were in a minority in loving this track, as it failed to chart and she was subsequently dropped from her label, but we stand proudly by our choice.
45. Bruno Mars – 24K Magic
How to follow a hit like Uptown Funk? By basically doing it again, that’s how. Bruno didn’t mess about on 24K Magic, the eponymous single from his third album, funking, strutting and generally swaggering his way through 3 minutes and 46 seconds of tight pop-soul, with hooks, licks and groove aplenty. We recently wrote extensively about how he’s won us round since his saccharine early days, and this is a track by a man operating at the peak of his powers.
44. Eliza Shaddad – Run
In this age of instant gratification and attention deficit it's very pleasing to hear a piece of music that pays absolutely no heed to the concepts of getting to the chorus within a minute and getting to the big bit quickly. Run, by the half-Scottish, half-Sudanese artist Eliza Shaddad is a stunning piece of work, building and building with an icy chill until finally exploding into life fully three and a half minutes in.
43. Iggy Pop – Gardenia
In the year that we lost David Bowie, it was pleasing to see his Berlin contemporary Iggy Pop continue his good work of not letting age dim his creative tendencies, as he teamed up with Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Dean Fertita for the most tuneful – and yet still snarling – work he’d done in years. Gardenia was a soulful, groovy blast showing Iggy’s still got it at the ripe old age of 69.
42. The Weeknd featuring Daft Punk – Starboy
Wasting no time following up 2015’s enormous Beauty Behind The Madness, The Weeknd continued his newfound love for straight up pop music by teaming up with Daft Punk (you might have heard of them) for a pair of songs, taken from his self-titled third album, which rounded off the year nicely. Starboy was our personal fave, a restrained, yet big song which contained hidden powers: listen to it just once and try dislodging its insistent keyboard and vocal hooks – which seem innocuous at first - from your head. Yeah, they’re still there aren’t they?
41. The Monkees – She Makes Me Laugh
The Monkees are one of the great underrated bands in popular music history. Perhaps due to their 'pretend band' TV beginnings, you'll rarely find them mentioned amongst more illustrious and, perhaps, cooler peers, but they were brilliant songwriters who influenced a generation of other artists (not to mention selling a staggering 75 million records). Clearly, though, one person paying attention was Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, who wrote this fantastic song for The Monkees new album Good Times!, the first since 1996's Justus and the first since the death in 2012 of founding member Davy Jones. She Makes Me Laugh is an irresistibly upbeat slice of sixties-influenced pop - jangly guitars, sweet harmonies, tambourines and all the rest. If this doesn't brighten up your day then there's something wrong with you.
40. Portishead – SOS
It'd been six years since we’d heard new music from Portishead but, following the tragic death of MP Jo Cox, they released this video for their cover of ABBA's SOS. The track, originally heard in the J.G. Ballard film adaptation High-Rise, was uploaded to YouTube with an accompanying visual which featured singer Beth Gibbons sitting motionless until the very end, before reaching out a hand while a quote from Cox's maiden speech in parliament displays - “We have far more in common than which divides us”. The track itself was a stunning, minimal affair with merely a simple drum pattern and some ominous bass notes providing the backing, while Gibbons' plaintive vocals ring out on top. A truly fitting tribute.
39. The Stone Roses – Beautiful Thing
We’ve had a few months to reflect on the recorded comeback of The Stone Roses and we’re pleased to say that we’re still pretty happy with the results. While All For One and Beautiful Thing weren’t quite up to the standard of their classic debut or much of their actually-brilliant Second Coming, they were a more-than-acceptable addition to their canon and, frankly, far better than any new tracks by a band estranged for two decades had any right to be. Beautiful Thing gets the nod from us just for reminding us of that classic laid-back Roses groove, led by one of rock’s greatest rhythm sections, John Squire’s glorious guitar work and Brownie’s unmistakable vocals.
38. Disciples – Daylight
After a brief sojourn working with Calvin Harris on his brilliant How Deep Is Your Love, the London producers hit the day job again with another chilled out banger in the same vein as previous 2014 hit They Don't Know. Effortlessly groovesome.
37. Primal Scream feat. Sky Ferreira – Where The Light Gets In
Indie legends Primal Scream teaming up an out-and-out pop star - albeit one who rejected her initial major label style to produce an impressive debut album in Night Time, My Time - in the form of Sky Ferriera might have seemed a strange move, but as soon as you hit play on this track, you can hear it fit together perfectly. Sounding like a long-lost New Order track, this was an absolute blast.
36. Lonely The Brave – Black Mire
It’s scientific fact that you can’t beat a bit dense, heavy rock in your musical diet, and Cambridge quintet Lonely The Brave provided a glorious slice of Deftones and Brand New-inspired tuneage back in February with the excellent Black Mire, taken from their second album Things Will Matter. A big, hulking beast of a track.
35. Solange – Cranes in the Sky
Solange’s new album A Seat At The Table emerged to much fanfare and instant critical acclaim in September and, while it was possibly a little over-hyped – while stylish as hell, there was little in the way of memorable hooks – there were moments of brilliance, such as this great track. Talented lot the Knowles, aren’t they?
34. James – Nothing But Love
As the world slowly grinds us down, sometimes you need a bit of unabashed positivity injected into your life, and this song, Nothing But Love, is here to provide it, sounding exactly like you'd expect a James song called Nothing But Love to sound: anthemic, joyful, and with Tim Booth's gloriously wonky enthusiastic vocals ringing out.
33. Elbow – Magnificent (She Says)
A late entry to this list, but one we feel is justified. And while Magnificent (She Says) is possibly the most blatant attempt to write an advert-ready song since Take That’s Greatest Day, who really cares when it’s written by the geniuses of Elbow? As usual, the backing is quirky and interesting, the strings are beautiful, and Guy Garvey’s voice is like a lovely giant hug. Leave the cynicism at the door and embrace it.
32. Justin Timberlake – Can’t Stop The Feeling
Yes, it was a shamelessly obvious stab at writing a ‘song of the summer’ but – let’s face it – it worked a treat. Written with – of course – Max Martin – it was a joy to hear Timberlake move away from the super-slick R&B stuff and embrace a bit of straight-up popness, just like he used to do. Funky, summery good times, you’ll be hearing this at weddings for a long while to come yet.
31. Stormzy – Scary
We’re still waiting for the full length debut from Stormzy, but the stage is set for a classic, demonstrated by the consistent quality of the tracks he’s put out so far. 2016 saw us blessed with the release of Scary, which more than lived up to its name: a another foreboding, minimal effort, with a Carmina Burana choir soundtracking an aggressive, captivating rap. Come on - let's have that album sooner rather than later.
30. Krrum – Hard On You
As if we needed any further evidence of the impact that Prince had on, well, 95 per cent of modern music, along came an absolute belter of an electro-funk tune that was clearly at least partially-inspired by the Purple One's amazing music. Hard on You, sporting silky vocals, proper funk and squelching synths was just the second track released by the 24-year-old Leeds artist and producer Krrum. Big things await, we reckon.
29. Two Door Cinema Club – Bad Decisions
Try as you might, there’s no escaping Two Door Cinema Club. And, while you’d be hard-pressed to pick the trio out of a police lineup, you’d know their songs anywhere. Bad Decisions was another absolute earworm, like The Bee Gees updated for 2016. Resistance is futile: just give in and groove along.
28. Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage
Announcing their return with the sound of sirens, this is what we've been waiting for - for a long time. Formed earlier this year by Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave comrades Brad Wilk, Tim Commerford together with Public Enemy's Chuck D and DJ Lord and Cypress Hill's B-Real, they declared to Rolling Stone that, "We're an elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing." While it didn’t stop Trump getting elected, at least the music was great, being - excellently - exactly what you'd expect, opening up like the beginning of Testify before a giant riff kicked in, with Wilk's drumming particularly brutal.
27. Anohni – Drone Bomb Me
When you think of a true artist, you think of someone like Anohni. The critical acclaim for her album Hopelessness, was fully justified – with another Mercury nomination to boot – as it took in a host of political and environmental themes, with Drone Bomb Me one of many highlights.. And if you want to read probably the most interesting artist interview of the year? Well click this way.
26. Lady Leshurr – Queen’s Speech Ep. 6
Lady Leshurr continues to be a distinctive, brilliant voice in grime, and her Queen’s Speech series continued with Halloween’s episode 6 yet another brilliant instalment, in turns clever, unexpected, observational and, above all, funny. One of the smartest artists around, it’s surely a matter of when, not if, she breaks into the mainstream.