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 the second half of what you need to listen to from this year’s releases (numbers 50-26 can be found here) – and there’s a Spotify playlist of the lot at the end.
25. Radiohead – Burn The Witch
Let’s be honest: this is the best track Radiohead have done in a long time. Despite the critical hyperbole, A Moon Shaped Pool was a good, rather than great album, but this song was of the quality that Radiohead used to regularly churn out: foreboding lyrics from Thom Yorke, an actual structure of verse and chorus – or at least as close to a chorus as we're going to get from Radiohead these days - and, excitingly, Colin Greenwood even reprised the bassline from Airbag in the second half of the second verse. Atmospherically second-to-none and boasting a magnificent, brooding string arrangement together with a fantastic video: it’s not OK Computer, but we’ll take it.
24. Olly Murs – You Don’t Know Love
Yes, we know what you’re thinking: Olly Murs? Well hear us out, because every so often the Essex cheeky chappy comes up with a belter amongst his more ropey material, and this was his one for 2016 (previous entries include Heart Skips a Beat and Wrapped Up. And don’t try and tell us we’re wrong, because we’re not). Ever-so-slighty ripping off Disclosure to great effect in the verses, this had a giant chorus, lovely washes of synths and a generally lovely late-night, melancholic feel. Who would ever have expected him to a) still be around and b) be making great pop like this when he was runner-up on The X Factor seven years ago?
23. The Rhythm Method – Party Politics
What do you get if you combine, in equal parts, The Streets and The Pet Shop Boys? Brilliant results, that’s what, as South London duo The Rhythm Method created this piece of excellence which contained the best bits of both of those great artists. Uplifting, wistful, nostalgic – an unexpected leftfield banger.
22. Walking On Cars – Speeding Cars
Technically released in Ireland 2015, this only saw its UK push this year, so we’ll let it sneak in, on account of its unashamedly stadium-ready, hook-filled excellence. Singer Patrick Sheehy sounds weirdly like Charlie Simpson - but there's something a little darker and restrained about it which really appeals: it’s AOR rock at its absolute finest.
21. Zayn – Pillowtalk
After all the talk of wanting to leave One Direction in order to explore a more edgy, artistic path, more ‘true to himself’ – giving us visions of some sort of Steve Reich meets Aphex Twin experimental direction - Zayn launched his solo career with a straight-up mega pop banger featuring an utterly giant, commercial chorus – so much for wanting to avoid the limelight. To give him credit, this was a cooler, more interesting, ahem, direction than his previous work, with the lyrics following the traditional ‘I’m grown up and a serious artist so I’ll do a song about the sex and put some swearing it too to prove it’ route. A worthy winner of the 2016 Popjustice Twenty Quid Music prize, this is an unarguably excellent pop song.
20. Royksopp featuring Susanne Sundfør – Never Ever
Our heart jumped when we saw that Norwegian electro gods Röyksopp had teamed up once again with Susanne Sundfør, who guested with the band on the stunning Running to the Sea, the highlight of 2014 record The Inevitable End. We were pleased to discover that the results were just as good, albeit via a completely different style of song, being a funky, fidgety electro-pop blast, rather than a sweeping epic. If Daft Punk had come back with this, it would have been number one for weeks.
19. Pet Shop Boys – The Pop Kids
The Pet Shop Boys simply show no signs of either slowing down, or letting up in quality, releasing their thirteenth studio album Super in April. Teaming up once again with superproducer Stuart Price, almost every track on it was an uptempo banger, with this track, The Pop Kids, being possibly the most ‘Pet Shop Boys’ Pet Shop Boys song they’d ever made: rave pianos; arch-but-heartfelt lyrics; deadpan Tennant delivery. Triumphantly playing a residency at The Royal Opera House to launch the album – how many bands can you think of that could get away with that – they are truly a British musical treasure.
18. Skepta – Man
Skepta’s Konnichiwa was, for once, a worthy winner of the Mercury Prize, finally bringing the grime scene the mainstream attention it deserved. Practically every track on it was fantastic and the pick of the ‘new’ ones (ie. that hadn’t been released prior to this year) was Man, featuring his usual fire lyrics – including referencing his legendary mum - and a tough beat, which employed a Queens of the Stone Age sample to great effect.
17. Tegan and Sara – 100x
Tegan and Sara’s new album Love You To Death was another masterclass in thoughtful pop, with the fizzing brilliance of tracks like U-Turn and Boyfriendalmost taking up residence in this list. However, 100x was an understated piece of melancholic brilliance, which could only improved by having a load of dogs being blow-dried in an accompanying video. Fortunately, this is exactly what they provided.
16. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled #5
Kendrick’s unexpected, Untitled, Unmastered, companion album to To Pimp a Butterfly emerged in March and maintained Lamar’s position as an artist at the top of his game. In many ways, it was every bit as good as its ‘mother’ record, going in further on the free jazz and soul side of things, fantastically demonstrated by this mesmerising track, featuring some truly great bass playing.
15. Katy B & Chris Lorenzo – I Wanna Be
Despite scoring a number of hit singles, we still get the feeling that Katy B is a little underrated. Perhaps it's because what she does - soulful, simple vocals which never indulge in needless acrobatics - sounds so easy that we take it for granted. But while the likes of Jess Glynne have gone huge, Katy has preferred to stay a little cooler, and a little more underground, demonstrated by this brilliant track, taken from her album Honey which saw her collaborate with a host of artists including Chris Lorenzo. Effortless class.
14. Bruno Mars – Versace on the Floor
A second appearance for Bruno on this list, and it’s fully merited. It’s hard to imagine another artist right now having the balls, and the musical chops, to make a song like this. Unapologetically aiming for the stars – aka. making a song that sounds like peak-era Michael Jackson – Mars achieves it with aplomb. The production is tight and slinky, the vocals are superb and somehow – somehow – he gets away with the lyrics, “Oooh I love that dress, but you won't need it anymore...Let's just kiss 'til we're naked, baby, Versace on the floor”, without sounding like a total creep. Now that’s 24K Magic for you.
13. Biffy Clyro – Re-arrange
Biffy’s seventh album Ellipsis was yet another fantastic collection of songs, showcasing what Biffy do best: hard-rocking, slightly off-kilter weirdness, and – increasingly – hauntingly beautiful ballads. Re-arrange was the pick of the album, reminiscent of R.E.M’s falsetto classic Tongue, with beautifully restrained production and heartfelt lyrics from everyone’s favourite hairy frontman Simon Neil.
12. Muna – Winterbreak
Unsigned at the time, LA trio Muna topped our list of the best tracks of 2015 with the still-amazing Loudspeaker and they make another justified appearance in this year’s list with the brilliant Winterbreak. A glitchy, brooding, pensive verse giving way to shards of light as a gloriously bittersweet chorus chimes in, while Katie Gavin's distinctive vocals and mournful lyrics tie the whole thing together. After recently playing a storming set at London’s Notting Hill Arts Club, we’re counting down the days until the release of their debut album, due in February next year.
11. James Blake featuring Bon Iver – I Need a Forest Fire
James Blake returned with another excellent collection in the form of third album The Colour In Anything, with this song, I Need a Forest Fire, a collaboration with Bon Iver, an undoubted highlight. Unsurprisingly, their voices work together beautifully, creating an enthralling three and a half minutes of minimal electronica.
10. David Bowie – I Can’t Give Everything Away
Bowie’s death was the event that set the tone for the rest of 2016, but before he left this mortal coil he left us a glorious present, in the form of his final album Blackstar, a truly brilliant avant-garde record full of twists and turns. However, the final track on that record – and his parting gift – was a straight-from-the-heart, relatively straightforward song, which spoke straight to us. Typically, it featured a cryptic message: "Seeing more and feeling less/Saying no but meaning yes/This is all I ever meant/That's the message that I sent...I can't give everything away". Ever the mysterious pop star until the end: we'll see you on the other side.
9. Christine and the Queens – Tilted
She’s since been picked up by Radio 1, Jools Holland (not literally) and the fashion crowd, but upon first hearing Tilted, when it received its UK release back in February, it immediately stood out as a beautifully wonky piece of restrained, yet catchy electropop, with a truly distinctive video, showcasing her amazing choreography. The best bit? The French rapping and the brilliantly bizarre ‘I’m doing my face with magic marker’ lyric of course.
8. The Daydream Club – Improv #10 – One Last Thought
A great ambient record is a seemingly-simple, yet maddeningly-difficult thing to pull off. Trying to make something minimal and almost background-esque, whilst still drawing the listener in is a tricky task indeed, but Leicester-based duo The Daydream Club managed it with aplomb on their entirely-improvised Piano Project album. This track, is quite simply beautiful, calling to mind the great works of Jonsi (of Sigur Ros fame) & Alex, as well as Brian Eno.
7. Gregory Porter – Holding On
Originally released in a collaboration with Disclosure in 2015, this version saw the tempo reduced, the beats disappear, and some glorious melancholic chords introduced to the mix. This opening up of space means that Porter's utterly gorgeous, honeyed voice is allowed to unfold and showcase his control of dynamic and emotion. It's jaw-droppingly good - and just when you think it can't get any more beautiful, out comes a muted trumpet solo. Hold us in your big strong arms Gregory.
6. Niki & The Dove – So Much It Hurts
A few months before we lost the great man, Swedish duo Niki & The Dove demonstrated the enduring influence of the purple one with this utterly glorious track: by turns funky, heartbreaking, retro and futuristic. With pure Time After Time-era Cyndi Lauper vocals from Malin Dahlström, it’s nothing short of a Prince-style masterpiece.
5. Jorja Smith – Blue Lights
She’s found her way onto the BBC Sound of 2017 longlist but we were writing about Walsall teenager Jorja Smith back in February, when she released this remarkable debut track, ticking every single box of what you'd want from a potential new global superstar, featuring (no pressure): distinct echoes of Amy Winehouse; the sass of Rihanna; the purity of voice of Adele; the easy switch between singing and rapping shown before by Lauryn Hill; and even chucking in a cool Dizzee Rascal sample for good measure. For our money, she’s the only one on that list that we could see genuinely crossing over into the mainstream in a big way next year.
4. Shura – What’s It Gonna Be?
A second consecutive appearance on this esteemed list for Shura, who followed up the brilliant 2Shy (which made our 2015 selection) with a full, equally brilliant album, Nothing’s Real, which came out in July. The highlight of the record was this superb song. Featuring gorgeous production, what lured us in was the complete, open honesty of the lyrics - content that anyone who's ever suffered from self-doubt and insecurity could immediately identify with, marrying it with a driving, electronic musical backdrop and glorious, aching melancholy throughout. Is this the best sadbanger since Robyn's Dancing On My Own? It could well be, and it doesn't get much better than that.
3. Ariana Grande – Into You
“Ariana Grande? Are you sure? Really?” These are the words which several friends have said to me when I have urged them to check out this track without delay. And they’ve usually been followed up with a subsequent message saying “I’m currently listening to it for the 10th consecutive time”. This is, without doubt, one of the best pop songs in a decade. The production and mix is quite simply astonishing: a super-restrained verse, an indecently giant chorus, with synths practically spitting in your face, and a classic middle eight-to-breakdown-to-megachorus ending. Of course it was written by Swedish pop god Max Martin. Of course it was. Why this wasn’t number one for six months is still a mystery to us; we’re still seriously considering starting a club night that only plays this song on repeat.
2. Massive Attack – The Spoils
Massive Attack returned this year with their first material since 2010’s dense, difficult Heligoland, releasing two EPs – one written by 3D and one by Daddy G. The six songs were all fantastic in their own way – particularly the reunion with Tricky on Take It There – but The Spoils, teaming up once again with Hope Sandoval on vocals, was a staggeringly beautiful piece of work and the emotional highlight of their year. Whisper it quietly, but it’s probably their best song since Teardrop.
1. The 1975 – Somebody Else
There are so many things to dislike about the 1975. Frontman Matt Healy’s resolute commitment to being incredibly annoying at every juncture, their shameless appropriation of a host of eighties acts’ sonic signatures, their r e a l l y i r r i t a t i n g social media style, their ludicrous album title and their ham-fisted attempts to copy the likes of Sigur Rós on several tracks on that same album.
But, at the same time, these are all strengths. Healy is, at least, a divisive figure who can inspire love as well as hate, the eighties acts they rip off are really good ones (INXS, Huey Lewis & The News, Peter Gabriel) and no one can begrudge someone being influenced by Iceland’s finest-ever export. So far, so marmite – but what is beyond reproach is that this song is a little piece of bottled magic. It doesn’t really have a big chorus, it grooves along without ever really getting anywhere and yet – it’s just beautiful. Put it on, and before you know it, you’re dreaming, staring into space: transported into your past; into the future; remembering a failed relationship; imagining what lies ahead. We have no idea why it works. It just does. And songs like that are very, very special indeed.
Click here to see numbers 50-26.