2016… an odd year, in general, but an alright one for pop. Kinda. I have some expanded thoughts I shall write about in the next few days, but now is not the time. Let’s just say, this is probably the easiest Top 20 singles for a year in review that I’ve ever done. I barely agonised. You can @ me if your faves are missing, or if you think I got the ranking wrong, or because you completely agree with me, or to share your own rankings (I haven’t read anyone else’s end of year lists yet), but like the point is, and I know I usually say the opposite but DO @ me, I don’t mind.
20. MEGHAN TRAINOR – ‘NO’
If you’ve followed me on twitter long enough you’ll know how I feel about Meghan Trainor and the “milkshakes + racism!” aesthetic and sound she ushered in on her first album. She’s like the singular human embodiment of all the white people in “Hairspray”. Still, a bop is a bop, and this bop not only sounds like a Britney-era Britney Spears song, but succinctly illustrates the female struggle to live life without fuckboy interference, like a ‘No Scrubs’ for the times. ’NO’ briefly shook pop twitter as we all wrestled with the moral concept of actively enjoying an M-Train single and perhaps even the album it was leading, but it turned out this track was just a fluke. A punchy, aggressive TRL-approved fluke.
HIGHLIGHT: those “hey! hey!” ad-libs in the middle-8
19. LITTLE MIX – ‘SHOUT OUT TO MY EX’
Chances are that ‘Shout Out To My Ex’ might have found itself in the upper echelons of this prestigious ranking had it been released during the summer months to which the anthemic chant of the chorus lends itself to. As it stands, it fell just a little too late to bed in with me, so there’s my reasoning before y’all @ me in disgust. Anyway, this song really does have it all – excellent source material which it has directly and shamelessly ripped off (G.R.L.’s 2014 hit ‘Ugly Heart’), a familiar and empathetic backstory for context (Zayn really did do Perrie dirty, huh?) and a hashtag-worthy hookline (we’ve all tweeted lyrics hoping our very own fuckboy will see them). Little Mix are the UK’s premiere girlband now, and this was a worthy lead single for a remarkable album campaign.
HIGHLIGHT: the “you’ll never bring me down” harmony before the final chorus which somehow sounds even better live?
18. SLEIGH BELLS – ‘RULE NUMBER ONE’
My fave noisy, crashy pop band came back this year with this typically frenetic, breakneck jolt of a single. ‘Rule Number One’ leans towards the softer, more melodic end of the Sleigh Bells discography: the verses could have come from something by The Veronicas, while the bridge and chorus are all thrash and bombast. Honestly, this track is most accurately summed up by it’s own lyrics: “pop rocks and coke make your head explode”. Indeed.
HIGHLIGHT: the lyric “mostly okay, but only on Tuesdays…” – very me
17. DRAGONETTE – ‘SWEET POISON’ ft. DADA
Taken on its own merits, ‘Sweet Poison’ a collaboration with Dada (aka London-based producer and songwriter Matt Schwartz) is yet another euphoric, yet bittersweet, electropop jam from a band that are experts in that niche. When you consider that the marriage of frontwoman Martina and producer Dan ended fairly recently, it takes on a whole new level of melancholic. A sparkling jewel from an absolute crown of an album… no wonder it’s called Royal Blues.
HIGHLIGHT: “I can FEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEL…”
16. ALLIE X – ‘THAT’S SO US’
In primitive terms, Allie X is for people who “miss the old Gaga” – she’s slightly more “avant-garde” than your average pop girl, she has an energetic and eccentric live act and she makes electro pop songs that you can’t shake from your head on first listen. ‘That’s So Us’ is such a sweetly adorable romantic declaration it should make my single ass sick, but instead I listen to it on repeat as a relationship supplement.
HIGHLIGHT: the lyric “you make me not wanna die” – honestly the most beautiful thing you can ever say about another person
15. ALICIA KEYS – ‘IN COMMON’
Generally I’m not here for Alicia Keys; I think she’ll put out a very good singles collection one day, but I’m not checking for her. I have ample time for ’In Common’ though, her ode to an emotionally-messed up relationship between two people is a fresh, crisp blast of R&B that manages to sound perfectly engineered for Spotify playlisting without feeling trend-chasing or tryhard. A truly great “2016” song.
HIGHLIGHT: that build up to the drop before the final chorus
14. LANY – ‘WHERE THE HELL ARE MY FRIENDS’
Easily one of my favourite new bands of the past 5 years, and certainly my favourite new act of this year, LANY’s ode to FOMO is basically like a song by The 1975 if Matty Healy was from California instead of Manchester. It’s missing the rich history of musical references that characterises The 1975 and isn’t quite as “clever” but it’s the simplicity that works. The eternal line of questioning of those in the social media age “do I have any friends?” rendered in song. If this song was a tumblr post it would be bluntly straight-forward and typed all in lower-case.
HIGHLIGHT: the sickening swoop in your stomach that intensifies with every listen reminding you that you have no friends
13. SNAKEHIPS – ‘CRUEL’ ft. ZAYN
Snakehips put out one of the best songs of last year – ‘All My Friends’ with vocals from Tinashe and Chance The Rapper – and while ‘Cruel’ doesn’t capture that same millennial angst quite as perfectly, it’s still in that vein of detached ennui where everything sucks and nothing matters. It’s fair to say that after the height of Pillowtalk, Zayn’s career took a noticeable dip – not even a duet with Taylor Swift could score him a top 10 on the UK charts – but of all the singles he released that underperformed, ‘Cruel’ is the most undeserving flop.
HIGHLIGHT: Zayn’s vocal on the “who do you love? who do you love?” parts, like… you know, I’m hot for it there’s no respectable way to say it
12. FLUME – ‘SAY IT’ ft. TOVE LO
The title is innocuous but make no mistake with this song: it’s about fucking. Generally, if there is a song and Tove Lo is involved, it’s about fucking. There’s a talent to Tove’s songwriting though, how she can make songs about fucking ache you on a cellular level, like even the most meaningless sexual encounters have weight, how I’ve never seen a video for this song but I know exactly what it should look like in my mind. There’s also Flume’s soft beats that play a big part in making this track weirdly beautiful. I haven’t been this bothered about a song that depicts hooking up with a bad-for-you ex since I decided ‘Inside Out’ by Britney Spears was about Justin Timberlake.
HIGHLIGHT: not usually a fan of the instrumental middle 8, but I have time for this one
11. ZARA LARSSON – ‘AIN’T MY FAULT’
The greatest female popstar to emerge in the past 5 years misses out on the top 10 on a technicality: the original lyrics to this track are greatly superior to those in the final mix. Zara’s side of the story is that when ‘Ain’t My Fault’ was first written the topic was: “me talking to a girl about her man, and I basically stole her man, and I’m like, it’s not my fault that I’m better you.” The track was never intended to be a single but when her label announced their intentions to release it, she decided the “man-stealing” message was not one she wished to endorse and rewrote it to neutralise the sting. Here’s the thing though: sometimes, don’t you like… need a song about how your pussy is on another level? I mean, yeah, feminism blah blah blah but guys brag about being “Mr Steal Yo Girl” all the time. Can’t the ladies also have their moment? Anyway, the demo (now known as the “Vindictive Queen Mix”) leaked not long after ‘Ain’t My Fault’ began scaling the charts and it’s pretty fucking savage. Still, in its final form this MNEK production is a banger regardless and Zara is poised for domination next year. I can’t wait.
HIGHLIGHT: the bridge that sounds a little bit like the “I woke up like this” part of ‘Flawless’ by Beyoncé
10. G.O.O.D. MUSIC – ‘CHAMPIONS’
Kanye West, Quavo, Big Sean, 2 Chainz, Travis Scott, Desiigner, Yo Gotti and a newly released from jail Gucci Mane smashed out this big man braggadocio banger at the beginning of summer and I’ve been hyped on it ever since. Hip hop twitter was divided about who served up the best verse (fwiw, I’m Team Big Sean) but for the most part the quality remains high and consistent across all these G.O.O.D. Music affiliates. When I needed a song to amp me the fuck up this year, it was ‘Champions’ that I turned to.
HIGHLIGHT: “pray for me / I’m about to hit the ‘Ye button” aka me, every time I’m about to throw hands
9. CHANCE THE RAPPER – ‘NO PROBLEM’ ft. LIL WAYNE & 2 CHAINZ
Chance The Rapper, to use some disgusting fangirl speak for a moment, is a precious cupcake bb who must be protected at all costs. It’s hard to remember he’s capable of feats of badassery when he’s bopping around in his overalls or his bear costume with his adorable lil’ face and sugar sweet smile like a human fucking sunbeam, but ‘No Problem’ and what it represents – his anti-label stance – is indeed a badass feat. Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz provide support in the form of the “dreadhead niggas” mentioned in the hook, and by the end of the track you can’t help but feel as empowered as Chance does in his freedom from music industry bullshit.
HIGHLIGHT: how everyone goes off at the “if one more label try to stop me…” bit when you’re In Da Club
8. TOVE LO – ‘COOL GIRL’
Tove Lo’s second appearance on this ranking is another song about fucking but like… the tricky in betweens of fucking where you waver between freedom and commitment and caring and not caring and the hundred other little balances “cool girls” have to keep teetering in order to maintain these sort of pseudo-relationships we find ourselves in. I’m not gonna write a treatise on how exhausting it is to be the kind of woman who is as unbothered with formal relationships as guys can be, and how much more effort being unbothered is for those women so my final note on this song is that sonically it just hits, y’know?
HIGHLIGHT: the way all the sound sucks out of the mix before the chorus thuds in
7. MIGUEL – ‘WAVES’ REMIX ft. KACEY MUSGRAVES
‘Waves’ was already a worthwhile listen, all warped and rocky, but this twist on the mix adding Kacey Musgraves and her sugary, sweet vocals over Miguel’s seductively smooth tones elevated it from Good Album Cut to being one of the best songs of the year. Later in the year, Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks would double down on proving that R&B and country can be deeply complimentary styles of music; taking out all the swagger of the original and replacing it with something more mellow created a hybrid genre here that respects the source material and makes it prettier. A gorgeous remix and a collaborative pairing I want more of.
HIGHLIGHT: that guitar lick after Miguel and Kacey “hit the peak” is such a cool break in the song
6. BRITNEY SPEARS – ‘SLUMBER PARTY’ ft. TINASHE
The inclusion of “ft. Tinashe” is just technical formality (that is how the single release is listed) as Ms. Kachingwe actually contributes nothing to the song – I’m not even sure they’ve deleted Britney’s vocals from the mix, just layered Tinashe’s on top. The video though… between Hench Zayn (aka Britney’s potential new boyfriend Sam Asghari) and Britney and Tinashe’s suggestive sapphic choreography… well, it’s a wild hormonal trip that’s for sure. ‘Slumber Party’ is one of the undoubtable highlights on an album composed mostly of highlights, considered a true return to form for the Pop Princess.
HIGHLIGHT: as with any Britney song, those weird vocalisations that only seem to work with her voice – “nononono-yyyeeee-iiiii” amazing
5. BEYONCÉ – ‘FORMATION’
I’ll talk more about how the visuals make the audio when I get round to the albums but suffice it to say, ‘Formation’ bangs, it’s true, but it bangs harder and with more potency when you listen in conjunction with the video. ‘Formation’ is like ‘Run The World (Girls)’ ratcheted up to breaking point – the vibe isn’t jubilant or celebratory like ‘…(Girls)’ but it’s the comparative calm that makes it so intense, a different kind of powerful. In turbulent times, this was the rallying cry that we needed.
HIGHLIGHT: “I got hot sauce in my bag (swag)” and then later finding out that Hot Sauce is a baseball bat
4. RIHANNA – ‘WORK’ ft. DRAKE
There are two dancefloor filling songs that have defined this year for me – ‘One Dance’ by Drake is the first and ‘Work’ by Rihanna is the second, and I guess the only reason ‘One Dance’ didn’t hit this ranking at all while ‘Work’ comes in so highly is because I don’t listen to ‘One Dance’ outside of the dancefloor whereas I can’t get enough of ‘Work’. I think what I like most about ‘Work’ is how many girls truly feel themselves to this track – like ‘One Dance’ is for everyone, but ‘Work’ is for women. Just a modern classic.
HIGHLIGHT: the desperate tone in Rihanna’s voice on the line “please recognise I’m trying…”
3. MØ – ‘FINAL SONG’
The first time I heard this song I didn’t like it up until about 1.20 seconds in… to this day I’m not quite sure what feels so skew-whiff about the first verse and chorus, but the melody and the beat don’t seem to quite fit. As soon as it all syncs up however, the song absolutely transforms. There’s so much going on: finger clicks, crashes, thuds, tinkles, ticks, tocks, whooshes, tropical house elements, dancehall bits and bobs… it’s just a monster. Maybe the most joyous song of the year, almost makes you forget about Brexit.
HIGHLIGHT: some of the background ad-libs (that I assume are courtesy of producer MNEK) just lift the song right when you’re not sure it can go higher
2. ARIANA GRANDE – ‘INTO YOU’
Only the success of the Nicki Minaj collaboration ‘Side To Side’ saved Ariana from being 2016’s Carly Rae Jepsen story, but it’s probably still fair to say that ‘Into You’ was this year’s ‘Run Away With Me’. A faultless Swede-pop concoction, the first time I listened to it I genuinely felt tears burn the back of my eyes. There’s nothing I can say about this song that wasn’t said more perfectly by Ellis, in this twitter thread. He’s right, it’s a technical masterpiece.
HIGHLIGHT: the purr of the opening line – how does it sound sexy and sad at the same time? HOW SWAY?
1. THE 1975 – ‘THE SOUND’
Listen, I know you all have preconceived notions about what The 1975 are as a band. You think the music isn’t pop because they’re Men With Guitars. You think they’re irrelevant because they don’t sell singles. You think Matty is a pretentious dickhead. Please believe me when I say you’re wrong about completely everything. The 1975 are the most exciting pop act to emerge in the last few years and ‘The Sound’ is such a perfect distillation of everything they represent – it’s pop, it’s rock, it’s R&B, there’s an ostentatious guitar solo for a middle 8 and a fucking gospel choir backing the chorus. It’s as blatant and showy and unrepentant and spectacular as pop music gets. Best song of the year, bar none.
HIGHLIGHT: all of it, every single second is incredible