Best Of 2016

31 December, 2016 in Features

Best Of 2016

Rest in peace 2016: you were a cruel mistress, yet you provided the music world with some magical moments

As a brand new year beckons, we look back at the singers, songs and songwriters that made 2016 their own

It’s that time again, folks! As the world turns its back on a tumultuous 12 months of vote-induced madness and welcomes a fresh start, the Songwriting team engaged in one final voting frenzy of its own. Yes, it’s time to unveil our selection of the year’s top songwriters, the finest songs in pop, rock and country, the biggest breakthroughs, the unsung heroes and the key moments that made this annum unique. So without further ado, we give you the very best of 2016…


Best songwriter

Max MartinMAX MARTIN
Pop’s perennial stalwart has made our annual top songwriters shortlist every year since we started this round-up, and now the Swedish songwriter-producer deservedly bags the top spot. After a decade of helping the likes of Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson conquer the charts, 2016 saw Martin work his songwriting magic on Can’t Stop The Feeling! for Justin Timberlake, contribute four tracks on The Weeknd’s album Starboy and co-wrote seven tracks for Ariana Grande’s platinum-selling record Dangerous Woman. And if you won’t take our word for it, look no further than ASCAP’s Pop Music Awards where Martin has been crowned Songwriter Of The Year six years in a row! AS [Pic: Wikimedia Commons/Näringsdepartementet]

Runners-up:

LORI MCKENNA
McKenna has forged some of the biggest songs to emerge from Nashville in the last few years – namely Little Big Town’s CMA Song Of The Year Girl Crush and Tim McGraw’s country chart-topper Humble And Kind – and provided tracks for the likes of Faith Hill, Alison Krauss and Keith Urban. Although 2016 saw McKenna refocus on her own career as a recording artist, she still managed to pick up multiple Grammy award nominations with her ninth studio album The Bird And The Rifle. AS

ADELE
Strictly speaking, Adele should have been included in 2015’s Best Songwriter shortlist, but with her all-conquering third album 25 coming out in November 2015, we’re recognising Ms Adkins’ songwriting prowess across the last 12 months. The Tottenham-born singer has the clout to enlist the cream of star collaborators, but Adele’s own songwriting has become as much her signature as her spellbinding voice and down-to-earth demeanour. AS

STURGILL SIMPSON
The Americana and country rock singer-songwriter is a new name on our list this year and a relative newcomer, having only emerged on the scene in 2013 with his self-funded, self-released debut album. In 2016, Simpson became an established force in the US music scene, with his multiple Grammy nominated third album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. AS

THE WEEKND
After years spent releasing mixtapes, 2015 saw Abel Tesfaye – better known by his musical project The Weeknd – burst onto the scene with the hugely successful album, Beauty Behind the Madness, spawning No 1 singles The Hills and Can’t Feel My Face. Instead of putting his feet up this year, his third album Starboy quickly followed and has already topped the charts in more than seven countries. Surely Tesfaye can afford to take a break in 2017? AS

GREG KURSTIN
The line between production and songwriting is frequently blurred, and it’s this grey area that Canadian multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin happily occupies. This is why you’ll also find his name cropping up across the writing and production credits of some of 2016’s biggest albums, including Sia’s This Is Acting, Gwen Stefani’s This Is What the Truth Feels Like and Tegan and Sara’s Love You to Death. AS


Best album

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds 'Skeleton Tree' album coverNICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – SKELETON TREE
In a year when the Thin White Duke gave us his last album as a parting gift and Radiohead released their first LP for half a decade, it was always going to take something special to secure the top spot in this category. The lesson you should take from the winner of 2016’s album of the year is never, ever, doubt Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Released amidst the cruel tragedy of his son dying before his life had begun to truly take shape, Skeleton Tree is a document of morose, cathartic and soul-wrenching artistry that further highlights Cave’s songwriting genius. DG

Runners up:

MICHAEL KIWANUKA – LOVE & HATE
It had been over four years since his remarkable debut Home Again was released, but the London-born, soul-inspired wunderkind’s long-awaited follow-up didn’t disappoint. With hot producers Danger Mouse and Inflo giving the album assured guidance, Love & Hate effortlessly blends hand-clapping gospel, infectious melodies and soulful grooves with no shortage of swagger. AS

RADIOHEAD – A MOON SHAPED POOL
Radiohead aren’t just any band, and A Moon Shaped Pool wasn’t just any album. The most eagerly awaited record of the year needed to be something special to meet the skyline level expectations of the Oxford legends’ fans, but thankfully it more than matched the hype, as another dark and dreamy masterpiece. DG

CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS – CHALEUR HUMAINE
Two years ago this was something of an underground gem; a record replete with brooding and brilliant synth-pop melodies, but one hamstrung by the barrier of language. An English reissue saw it given the acclaim that it dearly deserved, becoming the hipster’s listening choice for the year. DG

SPAIN – CAROLINA
Josh Haden’s homage to his family and musical heritage remains a staggering achievement which can rub shoulders with In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and The Magnolia Electric Co as the pinnacle of alt-country. Each song paints its own picture, while combining to reveal so much about their creator. As we said at the time, “This will surely be Spain’s enduring legacy”. DH

DAVID BOWIE – BLACKSTAR
It’s impossible to untangle Bowie’s final album from the loss of the man himself. Without the tragic events which followed, it could still rightly be classed as yet another dazzling statement of invention; taken in context, it’s a fitting last testament from an icon that can never be replaced – listening to Blackstar is a permanent reminder of just how great a talent we’ve lost. DH


Best pop song

Justin Timberlake 'Can't Stop The Feeling' artworkJUSTIN TIMBERLAKE – CAN’T STOP THE FEELING!
Songs recorded specifically for children’s movies don’t normally bring out the best in contemporary pop music – instead favouring the traditional, sickly sweet Disney musical template adopted for the likes of Frozen. But, with pop production masters Max Martin and Shellback on co-writing and producing duties, JT managed to craft a brilliantly hummable, danceable, radio-friendly disco-funk song. It just so happens to perfectly soundtrack the Trolls movie, but don’t let that put you off. As the title suggests, we defy anyone to listen to Can’t Stop The Feeling! and stop their toes from tapping. AS

Runners-up:

THE WEEKND – STARBOY
The title track and lead single from the Canadian’s chart-topping album is – as all good pop songs frequently are – deceptively simple, with a measured approach that featured Daft Punk as co-writers and producers. Lyrically, this isn’t breaking any boundaries, commenting on the extravagances of celebrity lifestyle, but as another winning product of The Weeknd pop formula, Starboy hit the mark yet again. AS

CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS – TILTED
French singer-songwriter Christine And The Queens exploded onto the scene in 2016 and it was this stylish synth-pop track that announced her arrival. Apparently the lyric was originally written in English with the chorus line: “I actually do enjoy being a cripple”, and an earlier version titled Christine topped Belgium’s pop charts in 2015. Whatever it’s called, it’s très bien! AS

ZAYN – PILLOWTALK
Leaving One Direction at the boy band’s dizzying height could’ve been career-suicide for Zayn Malik, but Pillowtalk was his confident first step as a solo artist and meant he’d never look back. The heavyweight pop smash made Zayn the first UK artist to debut at No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with a first charted single, and only the third UK act to go straight in at the top. AS

THE 1975 – THE SOUND
We could’ve picked any of the flawlessly crafted pop songs from The 1975’s excellent second album I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It but, with its four-to-the-floor energy and irresistible chorus, The Sound gets the nod. Peaking at No 15, it’s the Manchester band’s highest charting single in the UK – arguably it should’ve gone far higher. AS

BANKS – GEMINI FEED
The second single from American singer-songwriter Banks’ sophomore studio album, Gemini Feed sadly flew off the radar and didn’t get the acclaim we thought it deserved. Treading a fine line between edgy, moody electro and commercial urban pop, the track showcases Jillian Banks’ blunt lyric writing with lines like: “I’d follow you around like a dog that needs water.” AS


Best rock song

Radiohead 'Burn The Witch' coverRADIOHEAD – BURN THE WITCH
It might not have been the first song to be released from their stellar ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, with True Love Waits having featured on their 2001 record I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings. However, it was the first glimpse of the direction the band would be taking on their first LP in five years. And as introductions go, this one couldn’t have been better. It’s melodic, throbbing and features Thom Yorke’s trademark wail alongside a video that pays homage to Gordon Murray’s brilliant Trumptonshire trilogy. Had Radiohead lost it? Not a jot, and Burn The Witch made this point abundantly clear. DG

Runners up:

IGGY POP – GARDENIA
We’d barely had a chance to clear our heads from the post-Christmas and New Year’s Eve hangover when this gem landed from the godfather of punk. Sleek, saucy and supine, it’s everything you’d expect from a collaboration between Mr Pop and the desert Elvis, Josh Homme. DG

HIGHLY SUSPECT – MY NAME IS HUMAN
Massachusetts rock trio Highly Suspect have come a long way since their beginning as a Sublime cover band. Now they have achieved the sort of fame that will see their songs being covered by young upstarts, with this excellent blues-rock track receiving a Grammy nomination. DG

TWO INCH ASTRONAUT – PERSONAL LIFE
Colesville trio Two Inch Astronaut describe their style on their Facebook page as “influential street jazz”. But they actually play nothing of the sort, with the spirit of Fugazi and early 90s post-hardcore strongly felt on the furious and deliciously angular title track from their brilliant third album. DG



TUFF LOVE – THAT’S RIGHT
C86-style indie has experienced quite the revival over the last couple of years, with Shop Assistants, Black Tambourine and their ilk receiving a major love-in from noughties cardigan aficionados. Tuff Love are no exception and their lo-fi-fuzz-pop is captured perfectly on the two and a half minutes of magic of That’s Right. DG

WHITE LUNG – VEGAS
Vegas is not the most obvious winner from Canadian punks White Lung’s knock-out fourth album, Paradise, lacking the more obvious pop dynamic of Hungry. That, though, is not the point. It’s visceral, raging and comes replete with the finest riff of 2016 (at the 45-second mark). Disagree if you dare. DG


Best country song

Lori McKenna 'The Bird & The Rifle' artworkLORI MCKENNA – THE BIRD & THE RIFLE
In a year that rock stars such as Steven Tyler joined the country land-grab, the genre’s margins have blurred more than ever. There can be no doubting Lori McKenna’s credentials, though, and the title track from her most recent album is yet another remarkable piece of songwriting from the two-time CMA Song of the Year winner. The Bird & The Rifle perfectly showcases McKenna’s devastatingly effective writing style, a simple ballad from the gifted storyteller which somehow manages to convey an entire relationship over little more than three-minutes. It’s a track that will remain with us for a long time. DH

Runners up:

STURGILL SIMPSON – BRACE FOR IMPACT (LIVE A LITTLE)
One of many highlights from his ground-breaking album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, this fuzzed out jam finds Sturgill Simpson pushing country’s boundaries to their very edge. The songwriter encourages his audience to “go out and live a little” before breaking out into the song’s kaleidoscopic instrumental finale – it’s impossible not to be swept along for the ride. DH

WARD THOMAS – CARRY YOU HOME
Carry You Home encapsulates everything that makes Ward Thomas such an enticing proposition. Catherine and Lizzy’s voices melt together over a propulsive backing track which builds towards an anthemic chorus. It’s yet another statement of intent from the flag bearers of UK country and proof that the siblings are the real deal. DH

MARGO PRICE – HANDS OF TIME
One of the most successful breakout artists of 2016, Margo Price is a songwriter who can tell a tale that her audience will immediately identify with. Price pours so much emotion into Hands Of Time that it’s impossible not to see it as an account of her own journey so far. From the story itself to the swelling orchestration, this is a track that has everything. DH

MIRANDA LAMBERT – VICE
This track, written by Lambert, Josh Osborne and Shane McNally, introduced her sixth studio album and found the singer in defiant form as she recovers from a break-up. Once again, it’s about turning the personal into the universal, and this is a trick that Lambert is more than capable of performing as she crawls out of another bed at 7am. DH

BRENT COBB – BLACK CROWE
This sumptuous and soulful number features Jason Isbell on slide guitar, but its Cobb’s lyrics and voice which command attention. This song of redemption is the perfect illustration of Cobb’s poetic imagery and delightful drawl. Throw in some swampy blues and you’ve got yourself one hell of a tune. DH


Breakthrough artist

Christine and the QueensCHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS
Hands up who predicted this at the start of the year? You can put them down now, because no one saw this coming. In June 2014, French synth-pop artiste Héloïse Letissier (aka Christine And The Queens) released her debut album Chaleur Humaine. The record saw Letissier awarded Best Female Artist and Best Video Clip of 2014 at the Victoires de la musique. Fast forward two years, and the English translation of Chaleur Humaine made it to No 2 in the UK album chart, Tilted was the best synth-pop song of the year and Christine And The Queens has become the breakout star of 2016. DG

Runners-up:

FRANCES
At the fag-end of 2015, Oxford indie-folk songwriter Frances was shortlisted for the 2016 BRITs Critics’ Choice Award and nominated for the BBC Sound of 2016. This year she’s increased her fame through the release of three excellent singles, with Don’t Worry About Me breaking into the UK Top 100. DG

JACK GARRATT
Winner of Critics’ Choice category at the 2016 Brit Awards and BBC Sound Poll of 2016, Jack Garrett hasn’t done too badly after being tipped across the board for success in 2016. Not enough? His debut album, Phase, made it to No 3 in the UK album chart. Happy now? DG


IZZY BIZU
Like Jack Garrett, Izzy Bizu saw her potential honoured with an award this year, hers being the BBC Music Introducing Award. While her debut album A Moment of Madness didn’t quite reach the same heights as Garrett’s, it still made the UK Top 30 and helped her to secure a starring role at Glastonbury. DG

BLOSSOMS
They began the year being championed as “the next premier guitar band to break through from the UK”. So did they? Well, if seeing your debut album make it to No 1 in your homeland isn’t breaking through, then we really aren’t sure just what constitutes success any more. DG

SUNFLOWER BEAN
Not quite the success story of some of the names on this list, but just as deserving of their entry on this list. The Brooklyn psych/indie-pop sprites released one of the finest debut LPs of the year and had fans and critics dining on their lo-fi chic with substance. DG


Most overlooked artist

Alicia KeysALICIA KEYS
It may seem counter-intuitive to say that an artist who scored a No 2 album in the US has been overlooked this year, yet Here is a record of such quality, and with so much to say, we still think it deserved better. Something of a distant cousin to The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, songs such as Blended Family cast Keys in a different light. A writer with something important to say about modern life, Here should have garnered her at least the same respect and attention as Beyonce’s Lemonade or Solange’s A Seat At The Table. DH

Runners up:

HOOTON TENNIS CLUB
We can’t help but feel that had Hooton Tennis Club existed two decades earlier they’d be soaring towards mainstream success. Their second album Big Box Of Chocolates, complete with the irresistible treat Katy-Anne Bellis, is a collection of catchy indie tunes which should have been the making of this Wirral four-piece. DH

SHOVELS & ROPE
Shovels & Rope are another group deserving of a bigger audience. The husband and wife duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent make bluesy Americana with more than a hint of garage rock. If you’re a fan of The White Stripes or The Handsome Family and are yet to hear their latest record, Little Seeds, you can consider yourself scolded. DH

LITTLE BROTHER ELI
Ever since we saw the five-piece blues-rock outfit from Oxford perform at The Water Rats last year we’ve been keeping a watchful eye on them. Their album Cold Tales confirmed our suspicions that they know their way around a tune and a good time, and are more than capable of getting the Led out when the mood for riffdom takes over. DH

CLEAN CUT KID
We really thought that Clean Cut Kid were going to be huge in 2016. Songs like Make Believe and We Used To Be In Love come across like a super-charged Magic Numbers and should delight all fans of big-hearted pop. Our faith in this Liverpool four-piece is such that we’re now expecting 2017 to be their time to shine. DH

PINEGROVE
Driven by the giant talents of bandleader Evan Stephens Hall, Pinegrove’s debut album was one of the most unforgettable offerings of the year – at least to those who had the pleasure of hearing it. Occupying the middle ground between emo and alt-country, Cardinal was an instant delight which continues to reward repeat listens. DH


Moment of 2016

RIPTHE YEAR THE MUSIC DIED
Not so much a moment as a whole series of very sad moments. The world of music sees its share of celebrity deaths every year, but come on… Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Lemmy, George Michael, Greg Lake, Rod Temperton, Glenn Frey, George Martin, Merle Haggard, Rick Parfitt, Phife Dawg, Dave Swarbrick, Colonel Abrams, Sharon Jones, Bobby Vee, Pete Burns, Craig Gill, Alan Vega, Bernie Worrell, Scotty Moore, Tenor Fly, Prince Be, Blowfly and Colin ‘Black’ Vearcombe, all in the same year that started with rising young indie band Viola Beach being killed in a tragic car crash? 2016 can do one. And for those no longer rocking – we still salute you. RD

Runners-up:

ALL HAIL PRESIDENT TRUMP
Or not, as the case may be. Musicians turning down invitations to play the new US President’s inauguration ball on 20 January included Elton John, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Kiss, Garth Brooks and Celine Dion. The final line-up? 80s covers band The Reagan Years, singer-songwriter Beau Davidson and “the mid-Atlantic’s hottest party band!” The Mixx. What a stunning array of talent – all Obama could manage were the virtually unknown likes of Aretha Franklin and Jay-Z… RD

ADELE AT GLASTONBURY
This year’s Glastonbury probably won’t go down as a vintage year in most people’s books, but one undoubted highlight was Adele’s Saturday night headline slot on the Pyramid Stage. Her 90-minute set was as much “an audience with” as a live show, with plenty of potty-mouthed banter from the Tottenham superstar, and with one eight-year-old girl being invited onstage to take a selfie with her. RD

BOB DYLAN WINS A NOBEL PRIZE
Robert Allen Zimmerman added to his string of Grammies, Golden Globes, Oscars and Hall of Fame inductions this year, when the Nobel Committee awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature. The 75-year-old veteran was initially slow to acknowledge the honour, eventually explaining that the news had left him “speechless”. He was unable to attend the prize ceremony, however; Patti Smith accepted the prize on his behalf. RD

THE VINYL REVIVAL CONTINUES
One week in early December saw vinyl sales generating more revenue for the UK music industry than download sales, for the first time since legal downloads were “a thing”. But because records are priced much higher, financial figures alone tell only half the story: if you look at raw sales data, a total of 295,000 download albums were purchased that week, compared to just 120,000 on vinyl. RD

AS IF BY MAGIC, AN ALBUM APPEARED
Telling people you’re releasing a record soon is so last year, darling! Artists who dropped albums with little or no warning this year included Beyonce, Radiohead, Drake, Kanye West, Frank Ocean and The Avalanches. RD


Words: Damien Girling, Duncan Haskell, Aaron Slater, Russell Deeks

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