Let’s wrap this one up, shall we? Don’t look back in anger – look back in pride at the 20 best songs to be released in 2016. If you are interested in songs 100 through 21: one, two, three, four, tell me that you love me more.
Thanks for reading!
– DJY, January 2017
20. Somos – Thorn in the Side
And the boy with the thorn in his side The Smiths so fondly sang of all those years ago grew up to be Michael Fiorentino, lead singer of (sadly now-defunct) midwestern alt-emo outfit Somos. It may be a generational and geographical leap, but the through-line is there – the off-beat vocal entry, sudden chordal shifts, the anthemic chorus destined to be reblogged for eternia. This tightly-wound, masterfully-spun tale emphasises the firm grip Somos held on melody, song structure and tone – lightyears ahead of the majority of their genre’s peers. Don’t get mad, don’t get even – just get sadder.
19. Mere Women – Numb
2016 was the year Mere Women reached down deeper and darker than they ever had before. This was thanks in no small part to the expansion of the line-up to feature a bass player, but also due to the bleak, unforgiving nature of “Numb,” which was their offering to a split seven-inch with hyped Melbournites Gold Class. The screech and scratch on Flyn McKinnirey’s guitar sound bristles against the cavernous sounds of the misanthropic, recalcitrant vocals and the bustling, stick-breaking rim-shots. “Nothing fills the void like you do,” pines Amy Wilson. The same, truly, can be said for Mere Women.
18. Cloud Nothings – Modern Act
“Here we are among the living,” Dylan Baldi reports after two years of silence. He’s at the helm of a new incarnation of Cloud Nothings, with a new guitarist to his right and a rejuvenated sense of perspective. The nihilist, implosive anger behind songs like “No Future, No Past” has been cautiously tweaked and shifted towards uncertain but determined hope: “I want a life/That’s all I need lately.” Having formed the group while still in college, Baldi has more or less grown up in public with Cloud Nothings as the soundtrack. “Modern Act” notes a fresh start and new beginnings.
17. The Hard Aches – Gut Full
Although they are not a blues act by any stretch, The Hard Aches are still able to dish out oh-lonesome-me break-up numbers quicker than you can say “today my woman left me.” It’s even an admission in the song in question: “We’ve seen this one before,” so goes the lyric. So what is it that puts “Gut Full” at the top of the entire Hard Aches canon? There are legs and lips that can’t be felt. There are stomach turns and fault lines. There are moments of complete futility and dissonance, culminating in complete catharsis. Essentially, it’s a full-body experience.
16. Camp Cope – Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams
Wake up, sheeple. Camp Cope were all guns blazing for single number two lifted from their instant-classic debut. They’re mad as hell – and, as far as street harrassment from your unfriendly neighbourhood fuckboys is concerned, they’re not going to take it anymore. And really, why the fuck should they? The three women of Camp Cope and countless more of their ilk have been told to excuse or even warmly receive this building block of rape culture. “Jet Fuel” takes the power back in the most righteous way. Those singing it back at every show have made it their own.
15. The Avalanches feat. Danny Brown and MF DOOM – Frankie Sinatra
Let it never be said they didn’t do it their way. Ever. By divine means – or perhaps thanks to that old black magic – The Avalanches returned at long last smack bang in the middle of 2016 with this tuba-tooting, eastern-flavoured oddity. Immediately indicating their recalibrated focus on hip-hop, a feverish Danny Brown bowls himself over the song’s seasick oom-pa-pa while the instantly indelible sample hook digs in. Once the “My Favourite Things” detour seals the deal after MF Doom lays down a killer verse, it’s official: The hills are alive with the sound of The Avalanches. That’s life!
14. Ceres – Choke
Tom Lanyon is a dog chasing a car. “I don’t know what I would do/If I got you in my bedroom,” he admits in a restrained, confessional manner to a significant – albeit abstract – other. His words are carried by the guiding light of his guitar, seemingly the only object that can best channel his lovelorn, late-twenties confusion. When his bandmates join, his words become burning effigies. He no longer cares who hears or what anyone will make of his affirmations. In moments like these, one sees a long future with Ceres. One filled with alt-rock perfection like “Choke.”
13. Alex Lahey – Let’s Go Out
Imagine, if you will, Robyn kicking around South Yarra rather than Stockholm. She may have ended up writing “Let’s Go Out” instead of “Dancing On My Own.” She’s not fixated on an ex – just trying to get a friend with benefits out of her head. She’s not defiantly carving up the dancefloor – just grateful to be out of the house. It might feel like a long tram ride to get from Robyn to Alex Lahey, but it’s closer than you might think. Both are pop anthems – they just take very different routes there. Hey, remember that time…
12. Camp Cope – Lost: Season One
There’s many valid reasons that a plethora of young people admire and idolise one Georgia Macdonald – or Georgia Maq, with a Q, to friends. One finds a lot of them within “Lost: Season One.” There’s her intrinsic relatability – “maybe I’ll never get it” is chanted with just the right tinge of exasperation. There’s her quips and pop culture references – “still living like dogs in space,” indeed. Above all, however, is her striking honesty that bleeds into every word. It’s songs like “Lost” that cemented Camp Cope as a sacred text to many battling their own smoke monsters.
11. The Monkees – Me and Magdalena
Starring Ben Gibbard in the role he was born to play: Monkees ballad writer. Setting up a gorgeous lead vocal to the dark horse of the group, Michael Nesmith, this California daydream is bound to cheer up even the sleepiest of Jeans; resulting in a quaint, stunningly beautiful slow-dance to believe in. The heartstrings are tenderly plucked at with every lyrical image vividly springing to life between the creak of the piano and the tried-and-true vocal harmonies. “Everything lost will be recovered,” Gibbard philosophises through the voices of his heroes. Truly, “Magdalena” sounds like falling in love all over again.
10. Anohni – Drone Bomb Me
For many, the chilling and unequivocally beautiful voice of the artist known as Anohni was first made apparent on “Hope There’s Someone,” the opening number from Antony and the Johnsons’ breakthrough 2005 album, I am a Bird Now. Across sparse piano, we are presented with perhaps one of the most succinct and powerful opening lines of the era: “Hope there’s someone to take care of me when I die.” Call it cautious optimism, call it a morose sealing of fate, call it facing the inevitable. The only thing you can’t call it is not powerful – it’s the kind of moment in music that truly stops one in their tracks entirely; stunning in a quite literal sense.
A decade on, Antony and the Johnsons are gone. In their place stands Anohni, a lone and mysterious figure that has gone back into hiding behind blurred press shots and black veil costumes when performing live. Everything around Anohni’s voice has changed – icy synthesizer spikes stick out and impose above you like sharpened stalactites, a drum machine whirring off in the distance. Both are care of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, acclaimed experimental composers and producers in their own right, who smartly arrange the background and environment for Anohni’s voice to thrive in. The opening line and moment that begins “Drone Bomb Me,” however, is just as resonant and jaw-dropping as “Hope There’s Someone.” That voice – pained, desperate, soul intact but bruised nonetheless – cries out: “Love, drone bomb me/Blow me from the mountains, and into the sea.”
That alone would have finalised “”Drone Bomb Me’”s place as one of the top-tier singles of 2016. Still, we’re not finished. We’re thrown among the cacophony of faux-truimphant synth brass, clattering hi-hats and that wailing, pained voice. The accompanying video sees former supermodel Naomi Campbell dancing to the song’s incessant beat while also crying as she lip-syncs the at-times unbearably emotional lyrics. This imagery alone is “Drone Bomb Me” incarnate: It’s warfare you can dance to.
9. Urthboy feat. Okenyo and Sampa the Great – Second Heartbeat
You can always judge a person by the vibe of their city
I’ve always believed that
It’s deeper than it seems
– Joni Rush
When Tim Levinson began working on his fifth album under the moniker of Urthboy, he researched aspects of modern history in relation to Sydney, hoping to create a linear conceptual piece taking listeners from the 1950s to now. That’s not what he ended up with. Instead, he found there was a bigger – and, it should be noted, better – concept that came with weaving the stories of a bygone era with that of his own family. It was here that Levinson lucked upon the album’s title: The Past Beats Inside Me Like a Second Heartbeat, itself a line lifted from writer John Banville. “Second Heartbeat” is the album’s titular number of sorts – a centrepiece of both the album and of Levinson’s two-decades-and-change career.
Guiding listeners from Africa to Lakemba and right into this very moment, Levinson and his cohorts – Play School presenter-cum-nu-soul sensation Okenyo and hip-hop dynamo Sampa the Great – make it a journey worth embarking upon. Their inclusion also adds to the deeper subtext of The Past… serving as much a tribute to history’s intersections as it is to the women in Levinson’s life. Whether family by blood or by circumstance, each play a vital role in the record. When Okenyo and Levinson sing the line “I won’t walk this road alone” in unison, it sends a clear message: We’re all in this together.
8. Alex Lahey – You Don’t Think You Like People Like Me
Earlier in the countdown, we discussed “Boyfriend,” the twirling electro-pop dancefloor filler from Tegan and Sara. It’s a song that, conceptually, deals with a new romance between an openly-queer person and someone that’s lived their entire life as a heterosexual. When the latter is reticent about being seen in public with the former, the song poses this heart-wrencher: “I don’t wanna be your secret anymore.” It’s a unique subject matter, especially as the ideas behind sexuality and gender are becoming more fluid and ambiguous within queer discourse. Enter “You Don’t Think You Like People Like Me,” the breakout smash from indie-pop Melbourne ledge Alex Lahey. It’s a song that, while not exactly on the same wavelength as that of “Boyfriend,” is certainly within the same ball park. A hint: the term “people” within the song’s title might also be used in the same context of the evergreen double entendre “What do you mean, ‘you people’?”
People like Lahey are not the kind of people the song’s target normally find themselves staying over with – “long after my lights go out,” as our hero dutifully notes. It’s for this reason, however, that the pursuit becomes all the more engaging. It’s out of the ordinary. It’s fresh. It’s new. It’s exciting. It’s a little surprising. The same can all be said for Lahey and her amazing technicolour dream song, too. As her prolix confessional is matched up to guitars that jangle, rattle and roll, it grows greater than one could ever think possible of a three-minute pop song. This song was destined for bigger things the second it hit radio. We now see it for what it is – one of the year’s most cleverly subversive and progressively-minded indie smashes. Now, where’s that copy of Mulholland Drive gotten to?
7. Drake feat. Rihanna – Too Good
Consider the history of the male-female duet throughout pop music’s history. There are several ways about this trope, all presenting fascinating studies in dynamics. There are instances where both sides are smitten – “Islands in the Stream,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” There are instances where it’s acrimonious and gnashing – “Somebody That I Used to Know” with its devastating final blow, or “Nothing Better” with its artful dissection of the “baby please don’t go” myth. There’s even cases like “In Spite of Ourselves” and “Jackson” where, although it’s clear the two in question aren’t on the same page, there’s still a co-dependency that is keeping their connection stable through whatever comes their way.
What makes “Too Good,” the fourth collaborative effort between Drake and Rihanna, such an interesting case is that it’s not necessarily a song that can be pigeonholed into any of those categories. Its story is inconclusive. Its arguments are never settled because the characters both singers are portraying see themselves – for better and for worse – in the other. That’s why their verses open with the exact same line – “I don’t know how to talk to you.”
It’s as honest and as open an admission as one can make – and when it comes from one of modern pop music’s ultimate will they/won’t they duos, it adds an extra sense of drama and tension. The Popcaan-sampling cloud-dancehall – all Lydian mode finger-picking and snare syncopation – is one of the most strikingly-painted backdrops Drake has ever performed in front of. It only makes sense that he bring Rihanna into the picture – it feels, in a lot of ways, like the spiritual successor to their 2011 single “Take Care,” with that relationship having developed and unravelled in the intervening years. Truthfully, there is so much one could say about the case study of “Too Good”’s approach to relationships and interpersonal connectivity. There’s an ongoing dialogue here. At the same time, however, you may well be left with no choice but to quit your analysis and get to dancing.
6. The 1975 – Somebody Else
The odds were stacked against them. A passing-fad pop group that was more than likely about to get wiped out from the plague that is Second Album Syndrome. An album that was revealed to be not only over 70 minutes long, but saddled with one of the worst titles in the history of pop music. 2016 was not meant to be the year of The 1975. Still, as a recent Popjustice readers’ poll attested to, the English heartthrobs didn’t have “it,” and found it in 2016. One could attest this to several key moments that lifted I like it when you sleep… to a level of truly unexpected greatness.
The Bowie/INXS swagger of “Love Me,” the Stock Aitken Waterman bombast of “She’s American” or even the soul-choir bop of “The Sound” all come to mind. There is one moment on the album, however, that single-handedly validates The 1975’s evolution from bubblegum teen-mag centrefolds to indisputable hook-laden force. “Somebody Else” is the year’s best pop ballad by a considerable margin – a resplendent, neon-tinged moment of 21st century heartbreak; where not even the glossiest sheen of production can cover the loneliness or desperation that lingers on every lyric.
To borrow a phrase from The Simpsons, you can even pinpoint the second where vocalist Matt Healy’s heart rips in half. It comes in the song’s chorus, where he takes a voyeuristic, vicarious glance across a crowded dancefloor: “I’m looking through you/While you’re looking through your phone/And then leaving with somebody else.” Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone? Despite running over five minutes – an abnormality in the rush-hour of the pop world – “Somebody Else” leaves one entranced for its entire run-time. A masterful take on modern love using vintage synth-pop tactics – this is one of those rare songs that feels like the past, the present and the future. The alpha, the omega, The 1975.
5. Mac Miller feat. Anderson .Paak – Dang!
As humans, we are bound to falter and make mistakes. Sometimes, it needs to happen time and time again for the message to sink in. There are times where the biggest step one can make as an adult is resolving to do better – not just by yourself, but by the people in your life. The mantra of “Dang!,” which was the lead single to Mac Miller’s fourth LP The Divine Feminine, goes as follows: “I can’t keep on losing you.” Both Miller and his hook provider Anderson .Paak – who had one of the best years out of pretty much anyone in the field of entertainment – have duly noted their faults after repeated fumbles and fuck-ups. This serves as their final plea to a lover about to slip through the doorway – quite literally, in the instance of the song’s bright, shiny video.
Although they note that the relationship is worth salvaging for both parties, there is certainly an insistence that it is the divine feminine itself that is the guiding light of their union. Both Miller and .Paak weave their way in, out and around a glorious Pomo beat; all augmented sevenths on the keys and well-timed horn section sizzle that accentuates the exact right moments. There’s even a delightful bit of text painting as the chorus fades into a cavern of reverb to demonstrate the lover walking away, to which Miller calls out from afar: “Where the hell you goin’? Where you takin’ this trip to?” The creation of a song like “Dang!” may seem simple purely on surface value, but it reveals a remarkably intricate interior once one spends a little extra time with it.
It’s a song that works just as well being blared from the whip on a cloudless summer day as it does being reconstructed by a jazz troupe on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. It’s one of the greatest achievements from either artist – particularly the former, who has certainly displayed a fair share of imperfections through previous LPs. “Dang!” is starting over, making good and – naturally – making love.
4. Ariana Grande – Into You
Good girls have gone bad more or less since the concept of pop music was introduced. We’ve seen teen idols grow into sex-positive twentysomethings time and time again – as Jane’s Addiction so succinctly put it all those years ago, nothing’s shocking. And why should it be? After all, it’s a natural reflection on the way that women and girls grow up and evolve their own perceptions and ideas. Ariana Grande began shedding her squeaky-clean image on her featured verse for “Bang Bang,” a song that is allegedly a Jessie J single but is about as much hers as “Monster” was a Rick Ross song. With Dangerous Woman, her big-business third LP, Grande fully embraced her new persona; replacing her cat ears for a leather mask and staking out her own righteous femininity. That alone is fine enough, but every starlet that has attempted to mature and failed (hi, Charlotte Church!) can attest to the fact that… well, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
In other words, it’s all for nothing if you don’t have the songs to back it up. That’s where “Into You” factors in – a song that backs it up so confidently that it more or less steamrolls over her entire discography prior to its release. It’s a song that is both an exercise in what great dynamics can be in 2010s pop music as well as an exorcism of Catholic girl guilt to make way for a truly dangerous woman. Although that delicate quiver that made her voice so distinctive in the first place remains, it’s now channelling Mariah and Christina in a way that sees the student become a master in their own right. How about that final squeal towards the end so high in pitch that only certain species are able to pick up its frequency? How about that low whisper in the verses that are mixed to make it feel as though Grande is cupping a hand to your ear to confess her innermost secrets?
That’s not even touching the chorus, where she even takes a swing at the King by referencing Elvis Presley’s posthumous smash “A Little Less Conversation.” A younger, sweeter Grande would not have dared even mention His name; let alone subtweet the motherfucker for the sake of another Mariah reference. “Into You” was everything that pop music got right in 2016. It earned all nine figures of its YouTube views and every single-digit chart position. The numbers do not lie.
3. Pinegrove – Old Friends
“Old Friends” first surfaced on YouTube in an unrecorded sense back in 2015. In a unique live setting, we watch two friends under the guise of Pinegrove – one playing guitar and singing, one playing a keyboard with a built-in drum machine – sharing a moment together out in the wilderness, some trees surrounding them and a lake ahead. The song is performed unplugged – the keyboard presumably running off batteries – while the two nod in unison to the tinny beat.
It’s a very unique way to be introduced to a song – some might even consider it indelible. Even when the song was eventually given the full-band treatment and officially released at the start of 2016, those not hearing the song for the first time were immediately taken back to those surrounds of serenity and tranquility – away from city life, all but a few sidesteps from suburbia. It’s here that Evan Stephens Hall – the collective’s figurehead and chief songwriter – positions his storytelling and depictions of self. Even if you didn’t see Hall and his companion performing “Old Friends” out in the quiet of the reserve, you’re quick to pick up on exactly where Pinegrove are coming from.
This is a small town song; a hometown song. This is a song of late-running buses, port authorities and self-confinement in dark bedrooms. Anyone who’s grown up away from any sort of hustle and bustle will see the second set of footprints next to Hall’s as he wonders the town he knows “grounded in a compass.” It’s a song about remembering where you came from, and taking the good and the bad that comes from such a scenario. It’s about appreciating those that are there for you, and those that fade away with time. Sometimes, it slips away in an instant: “I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago” is followed – immediately, devastatingly – by the line “I saw some old friends at her funeral.”
The music of Pinegrove is bred out of rural, big sky loneliness. It’s built on simple, twangy chord progressions that are guided by scuttling percussion and gently weeping pedal steel. It’s a new voice and a new sound for alt-country, borrowing just as freely from tropes of indie rock and emo to create something distinct and special. “Old Friends” is the band’s finest moment – and the best thing about that is that it’s so clear there are dozens more like it just waiting around the corner.
2. Gretta Ray – Drive
When now-former Triple J breakfast hosts Alex Dyson and Matt Okine decided to surprise Melbourne singer-songwriter Gretta Ray with the news she had won a competition through the station’s Unearthed initiative, they did not head over to her place of work. Nor did they go to her place of residence. Instead, they ended up at a high school, Princes Hill Secondary College – where Ray is a student. It’s worth bringing up that the person that wrote and sang this very song – without doubt the finest song to be produced from this sunburnt country within the calendar year – is yet to complete secondary schooling. Yes, the very same person who assembled a striking, emotive and instantly recognisable folk-rock masterpiece in the spirit of Bic Runga’s “Sway” or Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” is five and seven years younger than when those two artists, respectively, wrote their definitive songs.
Age may be just a number, but it is entirely pertinent to the context of a near-perfect love song. “Making your tired eyes widen/And your cheeks turn rogue”? That’s love. “Whenever in your presence, I am present/Imagination has me seated at your side/It’s nothing short of bliss”? That’s love, people. Old love. True love. It might be fantastical, cloud-gazing infatuation from afternoons alone, but in the world of “Drive” it’s as real as it gets. Listening to “Drive” is a stunning, jaw-dropping experience – not at first sight, but a sensation that builds and brims with passion upon every repeated listen that the song demands of itself. There’s no egos at stake, no greater agenda, no notion that there is anything sinister afoot. This is a song that comes from the heart. A heart that is young, that is fragile, that cannot be easily replaced – and yet, it floats freely in the air, guided by the gentle breeze and a young woman in the midst of discovering her innermost feelings anchoring it to herself to make sure it doesn’t float away.
Young musicians have played a big part in pop music and its ilk in the past, but it was often under the guise of their music being originally written and created by other people. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that at all – every artist boasts different strengths, naturally. There is a lot to be said, however, of the fact that “Drive” is entirely of Gretta Ray’s doing. What kind of timeless numbers will she be releasing unto the world when she hits her twenties? It truly is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, however, Gretta Ray is loving you like this. It’s the best thing.
1. Kanye West feat. Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, The-Dream and Kelly Price – Ultralight Beam
Let’s be clear about this: For many, many people, 2016 was a very tough year.
We lost heroes from the entertainment world that had served as beacons of hope. The U.S. election was more divisive and hate-filled than ever before. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamaphobia… all things that should have rusted into relics of an unfortunate past became more prevalent and invasive than they have in decades.
Let’s also be clear about this: For Kanye West, 2016 was a very tough year.
The Life of Pablo, intended as an ever-evolving art piece, was deemed by many critics to simply be an inconclusive or unfinished symphony. His family was threatened upon several occasions, with paparazzi haunting his every step. Issues with mental health turned his live shows into erratic clusterfucks, leaving many fans confused if Kanye would ever be the same again.
As far as both are concerned: We needed “Ultralight Beam.” Hell, Kanye probably needed “Ultralight Beam” more than it ever needed him.
Think about it. There is so much to the idea of even the first few moments of this song. A child yells authoritatively: “WE DON’T WANT NO DEVILS IN THE HOUSE! WE WANT THE LORD!” A woman eggs her on: “YES, child!” West’s voice emerges from the darkness: “We on an ultralight beam/This is a God dream/This is everything.”
Even if one isn’t religious, one can appreciate the context of the child’s wishes. Good riddance to everything evil that is holding us back. The ultralight beam, as used in gymnastics, is essentially walking a tightrope – a difficult balance, easy to stumble and fall. A “God dream” – whatever it may be that you worship – is what will get you from one side to the other. A song like “Ultralight Beam” is a guiding light. It’s a signal of hope. It’s a refusal to be dragged down into the muck and the mire; to be cast aside in favour of a new world order. “This is everything.” This is our livelihood. This is our one chance to unite and defeat our adversaries.
Religious iconography is nothing new to the music of Kanye West – lest we forget his breakthrough hit almost 13 years ago was literally named “Jesus Walks.” As he delivers his sermon from the pulpit, however, there is a sense that he needs it more than ever. “Pray for Paris,” he solemnly says. “Pray for the parents,” he adds; the extra context of being a father himself adding to the emotional weight. Again, that may not be what gets you through these days and nights. Here, it doesn’t matter. As long as you believe in a greater good, and you believe in working towards it, you are welcome here.
Of course, West is not alone. He has a church full of believers by his side. Kelly Price steps away from the choir and delivers a resonant, soulful solo vocal. Chance the Rapper, in what can only be described as revelatory, goes in on the year’s most important and impassioned rap verse; dropping references to everything from Arthur to the Bible to himself. If you weren’t sold on young Chancelor Bennett being the future of hip-hop before this, then this is the moment that changes everything. In one final moment, Kirk Franklin sends a message out into the ether to explain what “Ultralight Beam” is really about; and who will get the most out of its message:
Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they’re not good enough
This prayer’s for everybody that feels like they’re too messed up
For everyone that feels they’ve said “I’m sorry” too many times
You can never go too far when you can’t come back home again
There is a light. There is another world. There is a better world. There will be a revolution. “Ultralight Beam” is the notion of God incarnate. All that’s left to do is believe.
Thanks for reading! You can now listen to the DJY100 in its entirety (save for the Beyonce songs, which are not on Spotify – boo!) by streaming the playlist below.