Cue up those playlists, folks.
Bet you thought I’d given up this little yearly tradition, didn’t ya? Long-time followers of me across the vast spindly networks of The Web will be aware that, every year for the past 6 years, I have put together a list of my 50 favourite songs of the year, because I have a pathological addiction to lists and telling people that my music taste is better than theirs. The first was for personal amusement, the next 3 were posted one a day across January (so only 31 got revealed) on a now-defunct social music service called This Is My Jam, and last year I wasted almost 9,000 words, across 3 whole articles posted on 3 separate days, on writing up my list for this very site, like I think I’m some kind of Pitchfork-wannabe or something. I take this completely pointless little ritual very seriously, as you may be able to tell.
Which is why this list hasn’t been put out until now. Because I didn’t actually listen to much New Music last year. Yes, even though I was technically still Hullfire Radio’s Head of Music for half of it. Look, the death of David Bowie at the year’s beginning was a major blow – he was an icon who meant a lot to me and, at least subconsciously, helped me come to terms at an early age with the fact that it’s ok to be Male yet not act in ways that are traditionally masculine… and also I only owned Best of Bowie and Let’s Dance before his passing (I was planning on picking up Blackstar the morning the news broke even before it did). So, a lot of this year has involved me diving down that rabbit hole, and connecting a lot with Lodger in particular. Much of this year also involved big 3rd Year Uni essays, and I can’t write whilst listening to New Music, I like to try and properly soak in any I hear. Plus, I moved back home away from any nearby album shops, and I still have an iffy relationship with streaming services – it all comes back to my preference for physical media as my initial experience of a work and in general, in all mediums. Plus plus, this year I got real into Jimmy Eat World and that band has been a great comfort these past 6 months, especially…
I have my reasons, basically. That’s not to knock the year in music, which has been pretty great, particularly since I started spending this past week screeching through albums to catch up and discovered that, yeah, a lot of great music was put out last year by bands and artists I either don’t pay attention to or just never got around to listening to. Some disappointments here and there, several great discoveries – I’m not going to talk about it here, but y’all should really check out the debut full-length by Swet Shop Boys, it is surprisingly excellent and properly banging – and a few big surprises by artists I’d always sort of liked but never expected to make the kinds of phenomenal records that they did (that’s my way of joining the chorus declaring “Awaken, My Love!” to be fire). My Top 10 still turned out pretty much exactly as I expected it to, though, as is what happens when you’ve (mostly) lived with the songs in question for most of the year.
I imagine, far more so than my prior lists, I’ll feel a lot differently about 80% of this list once I’ve lived with many of the lower songs on it for more than a fortnight – I already feel like I’ve placed A Tribe Called Quest waaaay too low, but I’ve futzed with the placements on this list for too long already and shuffling about placements on a Spotify playlist is way too much of a pain in the arse for me to go through again – but that’s the beauty of lists! They’re snapshots of a moment in time, no matter how much one tries to claim that they’re definitive in some way, and hindsight will always get the better of them in some way. For just one example, I didn’t hear “Uptown Funk” for the first time until exactly 2 weeks into revealing my Top 50 for 2014 and immediately realised that whole list was wrong, as a result. In any case, the winner of this year’s list gets to join a prestigious club! Let’s kill a bit more time by listing those past winners, so you can also judge me mercilessly!
2011: Florence + The Machine – What The Water Gave Me
2012: Tame Impala – Elephant
2013: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Sacrilege
2014: The Juan MacLean – A Place Called Space
2015: Jamie xx – Loud Places (Feat. Romy)
Well, let’s get on with it, then. Now, because I’m super lazy and I’ve done more than enough writing over the past 3 weeks and just want to finally play videogames and watch movies, already, I’m gonna do something different than usual. Rather than write out paragraph-long explanations for everything, like some kind of “Professional Writer,” I’m just gonna speed through the list from #50 to #11, and only provide explanations for the Top 10. There’s also a Spotify playlist of the whole lot – save for #3, which isn’t on Spotify and, at this point, likely never will be – embedded at the end that you can give 3 hours and 10 minutes of your life to in order to hear for yourself if I’ve gotten it right. Most likely not, but, then again, my music taste is better than yours and I won’t apologise for that fact.
Callum Petch’s Top 50 Songs of 2016
50] Sixty Minute Man – You Made Me Say Please
49] Poliça – Wedding
48] A Tribe Called Quest – Melatonin
47] Holy Fuck – Tom Tom
46] Bearstronaut – Shadow
45] Philip George & Dragonette – Feel This Way
44] Frank Ocean – Self Control (Feat. Yung Lean & Austin Feinstein)
43] Milk Teeth – Brain Food
42] Ciaran Lavery – Return To Form
41] Parlour Bells – Never Let ‘Em Hold Ya Back!
40] INHEAVEN – Baby’s Alright
39] The Last Shadow Puppets – Bad Habits
38] Suuns – Translate
37] WHITE – Fight The Feeling
36] Solange – Don’t Touch My Hair (Feat. Sampha)
35] Kungs vs. Cookin’ On 3 Burners – This Girl
34] Sampha – Blood On Me
33] Savages – Adore
32] Primal Scream – Where The Light Gets In (Feat. Sky Ferreira)
31] Azealia Banks – The Big Big Beat
30] Swet Shop Boys – Zayn Malik
29] Childish Gambino – Boogieman
28] Snakehips – Falling (Feat. Malia)
27] Lush – Out Of Control
26] Sylvan Esso – Radio
25] Tegan And Sara – Boyfriend
24] The Age Of L.U.N.A – Freddie
23] Run The Jewels – Hey Kids (Bumaye) (Feat. Danny Brown)
22] Jimmy Eat World – You With Me
21] Radiohead – True Love Waits
20] Sleigh Bells – Rule Number One
19] All Saints – One Strike
18] Tokyo Police Club – Not My Girl
17] The Heavy – Since You Been Gone
16] Kinds – Turn It Out
15] AURORA – Conqueror
14] Ray LaMontagne – In My Own Way
13] DJ Shadow – Nobody Speak (Feat. Run The Jewels)
12] Jóhann Jóhannsson – Kangaru
11] Justice – Safe And Sound
10] Justin Timberlake – Can’t Stop The Feeling!
Yeah, I love this song, something that anybody who has had a cursory glance across this site will likely already have figured out. Now, it’s not that Timberlake is infallible – even the briefest of listens to The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 will disprove that theory, flat out – but he does have a power to him that’s able to sell most everything put in front of him. You put the lyrics to “Can’t Stop The Feeling!” in front of anybody else, particularly the occasional Trolls reference to remind people in a few years’ time that this did come from a kids’ movie, and the song collapses on its face. Put them in front of Timberlake, though, and you get this weirdly joyous, genuine song that’s capable of putting a huge smile on my face almost every time I hear it. Plus, yeah, the music is basically a slightly more up-tempo version of “Can’t Feel My Face” and that song still rules.
09] Sløtface – Kill Em With Kindness
Remember on last year’s list I placed a B-side by a just-starting Norwegian Feminist Garage Rock band called Slutface at #49? One minor name change due to “controversy” later, and Sløtface were back, spending much of 2016 bashing out certifiable Tunes one after another. However, they were never better than their first hit out of the gates for the year, “Kill Em With Kindness.” Combining pointed lyrics about the media’s obsession with building up celebrity starlets into being The Next Big Thing only to then drive said star into ruin through deliberately-nasty coverage, with bouncy and rather danceable music, the song acts as a perfect primer to the band for any newcomers. Sløtface are headed for big things, I can tell, so let’s see what 2017 has in store for them.
08] The Julie Ruin – Mr. So And So
Kathleen Hanna has now been making music for 25 years and, even crazier than that, her output for 2016, the sophomore The Julie Ruin album Hit Reset, contains some of the best songs she’s ever written. Album standout, “Mr. So And So,” in particular ranks right up there, a brilliantly biting rebuke to male “feminists” who are instead only interested in appearing to do the right thing and otherwise act super-condescending and self-serving. What pushes it up into the highest echelons of Hanna’s lyrics, though, is just how specific she gets in the details with her rapid-fire delivery – Sleater-Kinney t-shirts, stealing autographs to show off in Women’s Studies classes, opportunistic festival promoters who misspell the token female band’s name on their posters, asking a woman for a personalised list of books on feminism that they should read – that are intentionally designed to make all male listeners, even those who are as far away from the character she and the band paint, uncomfortable and reflect upon themselves and their actions.
07] NAO – Fool To Love
Seeing NAO fully realise the potential she exhibited across her two debut EPs (So Good and February 15) last year – after inadvertently first discovering her back in November of 2014, when she put on a barnstormer of an opening set before Little Dragon on their Nabuma Rubberband tour – with the excellent full-length debut, For All We Know, was a genuine highlight of my 2016. An unabashed success story in a year that needed one. Her brand of Funk-inflected Neo-Soul, with the hidden ace of That Voice, was best embodied by single “Fool To Love,” a bouncy, hook-filled, kiss-off anthem with production that blows speakers clean off despite its relative-sparsity and one of NAO’s finest vocal performances to date. It’s an undeniable monster of a song, and a sold-out Leeds University Union back in late-October can testify to that.
06] Holy Ghost! – Crime Cutz
DFA is a vital record label for me, since many of the artists on there – LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, Holy Ghost!, The Juan MacLean – were instrumental in pushing me from being a predominately Indie Rock kid to somebody who really loved and appreciated a groove, around about the time I was in Sixth Form. (That’s not to say I wasn’t already into Dance music before then, but that can be a story for another time, cos we’ll get majorly off-topic otherwise.) The groove is something that “Crime Cutz,” the title track from last year’s Holy Ghost! EP, is very much all about, even taking a full minute to warm up before the song itself actually starts. It’s obviously indebted to the group’s own “Dumb Disco Ideas,” but I found it rather like a slightly darker, more neon-tinted flipside to The Juan MacLean’s “A Place Called Space,” one of my former Songs of the Year, which I think should adequately explain why it’s so high on this list.
05] RÜFÜS – Like An Animal (Yotto Remix)
The best remixes either re-contextualise a song by changing certain aspects of it to bring out new meanings in the song, or they hone in on the song’s intended-but-mostly-unrealised potential and bring that to the forefront, effectively subsuming the original entirely. Such is the case with Yotto’s remix of “Like An Animal,” a decent-but-not-outstanding single from RÜFÜS’s second album, Bloom. The original talks about raw animal, primal desire and lust, brought upon through unrealised sexual tension and excessive distance, but is too wedded to mid-tempo conventional Pop structures to truly embody that theme. That’s what Yotto capitalises on, upping the tempo, stripping out the vast majority of the instrumentation, then at the halfway point dropping any further verses in favour of looping that longing howl for the rest of the 7-minute runtime, that release only becoming more desperate the longer it runs. I’ve listened to the original maybe thrice since hearing this. Why would I bother when its job was better performed by this?
04] The xx – On Hold
You’re shocked, I can tell. Look, I will stop crushing majorly on The xx when they, and everybody involved with them, stop providing me with the absolute perfect music for the specific emotional condition I am in whenever they drop new stuff. xx was intimate, comforting music, Coexist was sparse and broken, the sound of relationships falling apart and the crushing sensation of empty space, Jamie xx’s solo effort (which is basically the third xx album by this point), In Colour, was Dance music for introverts, an album that could shift partygoers just as well as it could provide an immersive escape for those cripplingly lonely folks stuck at home. And now, with the first taste of I See You, the band appear to be shifting to something more hopeful, more outward, throwing open the curtains and letting the sunlight in, because continuing to exist nowadays is its own kind of hope. If I made this list in even just another month, I guarantee you this would be #1, which you are also shocked by, I know.
03] Beyoncé – Freedom (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)
Really, I am surprised that this ended up as high as it did. Not because it’s not a great song, it’s the best thing on Lemonade and that’s saying something, but that’s also kind of the problem. Lemonade is such a strong album – end-to-end perfect, not a wasted second, not a note out of place, not a feature that doesn’t fit – that singling out one particular song for a Top Songs of the Year list is so difficult that it usually ends up causing the song that does get picked to stall out lower down on the list. “Hold Up,” “Sorry,” “6 Inch,” hell, I was even giving “Love Drought” (one of my personal favourites) lengthy consideration for this list, but in the end I had to go back to the one that knocked me right back into my seat when I first heard it. The raw power, the defiant energy, the incredible production from Bey, Jonny Coffer, and Just Blaze… It’s the big emotional blow-off on the album, a Black Feminist Empowerment Anthem that deserves that capitalisation, and it’s a song that makes you feel like you can take on the world, something we need for the 12 months that are inbound. A winner don’t quit on themselves.
02] The 1975 – The Sound
In between writing 6 minute formless soundscapes, stream-of-consciousness verses that would even make academics want to clobber them around the ear for their pretentiousness, and album titles that are almost definitely the last words of a misogynist serial killer before he begins his reign of terror, The 1975 occasionally like to remind you that are also capable of writing REALLY FUCKING GOOD Pop songs. All of that is a part of their slightly-inexplicable charm, of course, and it makes the times when they do pen a song like “The Sound” all the sweeter. A shameless, unironic House Pop throwback, based around a melody catchier than Ebola, offset by Mattie’s multi-faceted and self-aware lyrics about a mutually-destructive relationship, and closed out by a guitar solo somehow cheesier than the one that showed up in “Love Me” yet is just as perfectly fitting. It is utterly irresistible, the best thing they’ve done in their relatively-short career, and somehow elevated by the knowledge that they actively choose to not make 17 Tunes just like this for their albums. Sure, they can clearly knock something this good out with ease, but why devalue a song like this by only making others just like it?
01] David Bowie – I Can’t Give Everything Away
Music, like any other piece of art, can gain added resonance by the circumstances surrounding it, whether that be through the artist and their life or what baggage the listener themselves brings to it. To bring it back to earlier, that’s a large reason as to why The xx connect with me so. To that end, I cannot tell you or even begin to imagine how I would have felt about “I Can’t Give Everything Away” if I had first heard it before the news of Bowie’s passing. Because I didn’t. As mentioned up top, I did not get my copy of Blackstar until the day after Bowie’s death, so I could only come to Blackstar and this song with the knowledge that this was one of the greatest artist’s, biggest icon’s, and best people of all-time’s farewell, one last bow before his time was up. I myself have a complicated, often-fearful relationship with death and the concept thereof, and works that tackle that in respectful and honest ways pierce me right to my very core. Those are the contexts I brought to this song.
And the first time I heard it, I broke down. Properly broke down into floods of tears. Blackstar as a whole processes the inevitability of death, specifically by a slowly debilitating disease, and all its various facets and resultant emotions – reflecting on legacies, past heartbreaks, the helplessness of its total control over one’s life – with a frank and often brutal honesty. But it’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away” that provides the true catharsis and gut-punch. It’s the sound of a man who has accepted death with grace and dignity, who wishes that he could have just a little more time and provide a little more to the world than he already has, but knows that his time is very soon and has come to terms with that fact. The vocal delivery is mournful and resigned yet at peace, the jazz instrumentation that sewed chaos across the rest of the album now provides comfort, and the brief sampling of the harmonica from Low’s “A New Career In A New Town” heralds the end of our show with a certain circularity. A reminder that Bowie may be gone, but Bowie will never be Gone.
And by the second time that Bowie repeats the title chorus, I just broke down. This graceful, controlled, accepting exit, a man staring his fast-approaching death in the face yet still manoeuvring his world to ensure that he goes out on his terms with no regrets, struck me with a pure force and beauty that I was told to expect but never believed would actually happen to the degree that it did. It really moved me, spoke to me, played to me both as a goodbye to a quietly influential part of my life and a frank addressing of one of my deepest fears. I didn’t listen to Blackstar again for almost 10 months after that, daunted as I was by that initial experience, but listening to it again after that distance solidified its greatness. I may not burst into tears listening to “I Can’t Give Everything Away” now, because how could I, but it still speaks directly to my core, and that initial hit was unlike anything else I have ever experienced in all my years as a music lover. Who knows how I would have felt if I’d heard this before Bowie’s death, who even cares.