Pin It
Abra – Autum/Winter 2016
Photography Gregory Harris, fashion Nell Kalonji

The 20 best tracks of 2016

From Abra’s cathartic ‘Crybaby’ to YG’s anti-racist anthem ‘Fuck Donald Trump’, we pick the tracks we had on repeat the most this year

While 2016 was a year that saw more and more artists release statement albums, it was also an amazing year for songs. Straight-up bangers like Rihanna’s “Work”, Desiigner’s “Panda”, or D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli” were inescapable this year, while in the underground it seemed that newcomers were emerging with killer opening gambits every other week. We’ve rounded up our favourite tracks of the year, narrowing down a particularly solid 12 months to our top 20 releases.


“My Hood” sees Ray BLK reclaim, pardon, and celebrate her territory. The song explores the UK singer’s hometown of Catford, south east London, and her conflicting emotions about the place and its impact on her identity. There’s droll humour as she honours her local Morley’s (“Best fried chicken is in south”), while fellow south Londoner Stormzy offers his own perspective (“Man, there’s babies having babies / It’s all crazy up in my hood”). The result was one of 2016’s most personal and reflective songs. (Saoirse O’Leary)


Having previously showcased their music over a series of Soundcloud mixes, collaborations with Mykki Blanco and Holly Herndon, and their LEXACHAST A/V release, Amnesia Scanner revealed their chrome-plated, high definition take on club music on their first traditional EP. With its explosive beats, mangled melodies, and 4K sound design, EP highlight “AS Chingy” not only illustrated why the Berlin duo are such unique and exciting producers, but also proved to be one of the year’s most enduring underground anthems. (Selim Bulut)


If British pop duos like Soft Cell and the Pet Shop Boys grew up during the New Labour years, they might sound a bit like The Rhythm Method. “Party Politics” is a song about parties and about politics that sees frontman Joey Bradbury and producer/songwriter Rowan Martin imagine gospel house as if it were from the UK suburbs rather than inner city Chicago. It’s dry and a bit silly in a Chas & Dave way, but it’s also one of the most sincere, authentic, and genuinely poignant things released this year. (Selim Bulut)


Following last year’s “Papaya Lipgloss”, Night Slugs co-founder Bok Bok linked up with newcomer Sweyn J for a second time on “Unlimited”, this time bringing grime MC Flirta D along for the ride. A cool contrast to the more aggressive side of grime, “Unlimited” has an R&B-tinged flavour, with Sweyn delivering creamy piano chords and Flirta D adding some heartfelt bars to the tune, bringing some much-needed warmth to club music. (Saoirse O’Leary)


For all the column inches devoted to the resurgence of grime this year, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t the only homegrown success story of 2016. A crop of rappers have been pushing UK hip hop in new directions, and no one exemplifies the new generation as well as London-based musician, poet, and visual artist Kojey Radical. With a willingness to experiment with the formal conventions of the genre, “Gallons” is exciting not so much for what Kojey is saying as how he’s saying it. (Selim Bulut)


ANOHNI’s HOPELESSNESS was often described as an album of ‘protest music’, felt in the anger of songs like “Four Degrees” – but its title track isn’t really a protest song as there’s no clear target that ANOHNI is protesting against. Instead, it’s an attempt to articulate the abstract guilt that she and millions of others feel about the pestilence brought on by capitalism, and the despairing sense that any one individual is powerless to halt the planet’s slow but irreversible destruction: “Hopelessness / I feel the hopelessness / How did I become a virus?” It’s also just a beautiful piece of songwriting, with gorgeous, weightless sound courtesy of co-producer Oneohtrix Point Never. (Selim Bulut)


serpentwithfeet has been a part of NYC’s queer underground scene for a while now, but this year the gospel singer brought his operatic, majestic sound to the wider world with his debut EP, blisters. With its marching, procession-like drumbeat, theatrical sample of French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, and hair-raising lyrics (“How can I touch somebody who won’t even touch themselves?”), it was a perfect introduction to one of music’s most dramatic and unique new voices. (Selim Bulut)


This twinkly tune orbits the hyper-pop Milky Way, but while “Super Natural” is a fantastical example of PC Music’s carbonated bangers, it’s also an ode to that sweet spot in a relationship when you know each other inside out. Under the slick production and euphoric vocals lives a heart, and the partnership between Danny L Harle and Carly Rae Jepsen sees the union of two brilliant factions of cult pop. (Anna Cafolla)


Sampha is perhaps best known for lending his distinctively soulful vocals to songs by Drake, Kanye West, SBTRKT, and Solange, but what’s acknowledged less frequently is how great a songwriter he is in his own right. After releasing the more downbeat “Timmy’s Prayer” earlier this year, Sampha revealed “Blood On Me”, marking the moment he truly came into his own as a solo artist: with its propulsive rhythms and rousing chorus, it’s a pure pop moment and his most satisfying song yet. (Selim Bulut)


Clams Casino and Vince Staples is a tried and tested combination: the pioneering cloud rap producer already worked with the Long Beach rapper on a handful of tracks from last year’s Summertime 06. “All Nite”, their team-up for Clams’ own major label debut 32 Levels, doesn’t exactly rock the boat in that regard, but nor does it have to. Instead, it’s a straight-up banger that shows Staples ability to ride even the weirdest beats in Clams’ arsenal – and sometimes, that’s all you need to ask for. (Selim Bulut)


A melancholic track tinged ever-so-lightly with dancehall, gently whispered into a lover’s hair: “Lifted” is a Palmistry offering that takes lovelorn mourning done in dark bedrooms and transplants it to the dancefloor. The sunny lyrics and percolating synth loops of influences like Vybz Kartel and labelmate Popcaan are stripped right back to the introverted and soul-penetrating. “Lifted” maintains a quiet reverence for the moments of pain and loneliness that birthed it. (Anna Cafolla)


From the first shot of her mean mugging on top of a sinking police car in the wake of police killings to her vivid depiction of black southern American life, “Formation” was the most controversial video of 2016 – yet it wouldn’t have resonated so strongly if it weren’t for Beyoncé’s lyrics. Words like ‘unapologetically black’ and ‘empowering’ were thrown around as the world digested this new Bey – a noticeably black Bey talking about her Texas-creole-negro heritage and how she wants to be the black Bill Gates, wryly referencing the illuminati and her baby’s hair texture. Cue protests from easily offended police and ‘Boycott Beyoncé’ tees. (Kemi Alemoru)


“Black Beatles” would’ve landed high on this list with or without the Mannequin Challenge. The premise is simple – a slapping beat produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, a guest verse from a recently-freed and fresh-faced Gucci Mane, and sprightly, spirited verses from the Rae Sremmurd brothers – but all of the players carry off their part effortlessly. The song’s title isn’t just a “Black Skinhead”-style subversion of white iconography: this is straight-up rock’n’roll. (Selim Bulut)


In praise of little titties and fat bellies, Princess Nokia’s Harlem anthem is the self-love call to arms for brown and black girls beyond the Instagram standard for hip to waist ratios. Over a dissident club beat fit for an Alexander Wang show and New York basement club alike, the rapper unpacks her androgyny with a razor tongue in an arena that’s continually fetishized boobs and butts. Hair up, joint in hand and girls to the front – pow, pow, pow. (Anna Cafolla)


It may have taken four years and a series of constant delays and false starts for Frank Ocean to release a follow up to 2012’s channel ORANGE, but listening to “Pink + White” in isolation, you’d be forgiven for thinking Blonde came together effortlessly. It sounds so breezy, so carefree, so perfect. Ocean’s songwriting has come far over the past few years, with just a few simple components – lush piano melodies, wistful lyrics, and a slow, swinging rhythm – proving so simple and so effective. (Selim Bulut)


On an album that looks outwards to issues of race, mental health, and gender, on “Cranes In The Sky”, Solange looks inwards to express some of the most personal but relatable sentiments that can be found on pretty much any release this year. The song is remarkable for the honesty of Solange’s voice and lyrics, with the singer discussing mental illness as an obstacle to the view to the truth, serenity, and happiness. Solange’s personal pain is voiced as the turmoil of a generation living in one of most turbulent in recent memory. (Saoirse O’Leary)


Continuing with her sinewy strain of R&B, Abra’s wistful harmonies flow and swell to meet the shores of fuzzy rhythm and melodic synths in “Crybaby”. The first lady of Awful Records brings the cathartic affirmation that the ocean of emotion inside is powerful, those tears on the pillow charged with strength. But wrong the Darkwave Duchess and you’ll meet your watery end: “You always call me a crybaby / Well let me teach you how to cry, baby.” (Anna Cafolla)


“Work” brought in the ANTI era, an experimental Rihanna illustrating her own character arc – her disappointments, hardships and steadfast loves, catering to nobody but herself. The dancehall-deep number launched a thousand memes about Rihanna’s patois, but aside from the killer Boi-1da produced, hip-winding beat, there lies a moment of heart-skipping sadness. “Nobody text me in a crisis,” she sings in the lyric of the year. People were initially incredulous towards the simple yet brilliantly anthemic chorus, but it was the tip of the Rih/Drizzy musical combination that signaled an adept musical maturation. (Anna Cafolla)


2016 was not a good year, and 2017 is not likely to be an improvement. The messy Brexit negotiations are going to happen, the far right will continue to be legitimised in mainstream politics, and Donald Trump will be inaugurated as president of the USA. It’s naive to think that art and culture will somehow ‘get better’ when people’s material circumstances are getting demonstrably worse, but it’s nevertheless important that artists actively engage with the reality in front of them during these times rather than using it as an excuse to retreat from the world. And, as YG’s “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” showed, resistance can be both simple and fun.

When the Compton rapper released the track earlier this year, it was a rallying cry against the Republican presidential candidate; after November, it became an exasperated sigh – actually, fuck Donald Trump. It’s important to have an enemy, to know who you’re fighting against and why you’re fighting against them, and if “FDT” proved anything it’s that Trump is uniquely useful for unifying an opposition, with both YG (a Blood) and Nipsey Hussle (a Crip) putting their differences aside in their hatred for the former game show host. Then there was the ‘white rapper’ remix with G-Eazy and Macklemore who both, no lie, killed it – 2016 really was full of surprises. (Selim Bulut)


“High School Never Ends” is the cinematic centrepiece of Mykki Blanco’s triumphant debut record, described by him as “a jewel among my works”. Mykki tells a story of drugs, confusion, and emotional heartbreak over Woodkid’s production, with resplendent strings provided by the Paris Opera House. The song represents a leap for Mykki – not just in style, but also in ambition, and boldly puts a flag in the ground about where he wants to, and can go, next.

Matt Lambert’s powerful video complements the track, while still telling its own story. “This video was born out of months of conversations and writing between Mykki and myself, and a world and character Mykki knew he wanted to inhabit,” says Lambert. “While commenting on the still-very-alive racism in old world Europe and timeless ideas of us vs. them, we also explore and humanize characters who weren’t often humanized as well as show the moral flaws in all who preach hate and violence.”

It’s this story that has come to define our year – the rise of the far right, the idea of us vs. them. But great music has also defined our year and Mykki’s debut record marks him out as a serious artist. As Mykki confidently (and rightly) says, “creating original work is never easy, but we succeeded.” (Thomas Gorton)