A debate that raged into the first week of 2017, so it better be a solid list, right?
10 | Kanye West – ‘Famous’
Goddamn. It all got a bit out of hand, didn’t it? Whatever side of 2016’s biggest pop culture war you landed on, can we all just agree that ‘Famous’ is a terrific song? And it’s funny, too. Yeezy arguably doesn’t get enough credit for his humour, juvenile as it can indeed be on occasions such as this. Musing on the concept, cachet and cage of the fame that Kanye West seemingly craves, ‘Famous’ is a superb skewering of gilded icons, a sideways glance to the past and a knowingly defiant manifesto of an impossible to maintain future. Rihanna’s hook is perfectly jarring, Swizz Beatz proves wonderfully attention-grabbing, the Sister Nancy sample is inspired and Kanye’s flow, often a critiqued aspect of his game, is superb. Talk that talk, man. Dave Hanratty
9 | Angel Olsen – ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’
One song can really be a catalytic image changer. Angel Olsen was fed up of press shots presenting her as the airy fairy girl next door who enjoyed being sanitised by the verdant imagery of forestry that photographers seemed to surround her in. The heart-on-sleeve propulsion of ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’, along with the fun-loving metallic wig-donning heroine of its video, would quickly amend this. By far indie rock’s most gleefully joyous single last year, the track was parent album My Woman’s mission statement. Olsen’s final ear-shattering wail is bursting with emotion, yet somehow, she’s completely in control. She’s not asking you anything, rather demanding you “stop pretending I’m not there when it’s clear I’m not going anywhere”. Mark Conroy
8 | Ariana Grande – ‘Into You’
This scribe still wrestles with what may well emerge as an eternal pop-peppered struggle: “Which is better – ‘Into You’ or ‘Touch It’?”. The common consensus lies with the former – hell, it was the one song deemed worthy enough of topping the inaugural yet somehow uber-prestigious NO ENCORE Top 20 Songs of the Year rundown – and for damn good reason. Yep, it’s another gold star for Max Martin but for all the laser-focused genre precision on display here, it truly does belong to its leading light.
The ‘all grown up’ shedding of the chrysalis is an oft-seen staple, but you need both the tunes and the conviction to back it up. A voice like Ariana Grande’s helps put the whole thing over the top. There’s the nagging sense that ‘Into You’ wasn’t as appreciated and acclaimed as it should have been, and it’s downright bizarre that it didn’t connect like ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ and ‘Get Lucky’ before it. This is bulletproof work, even if that aforementioned deeper cut could well make its own unique dent. Dave Hanratty
7 | Leonard Cohen – ‘You Want It Darker’
Listening to this song now, it really does sound as if our prophet of despair is eulogising about himself from beyond the grave. Even in life, Leonard Cohen always seemed to be finely attuned to the grim realities of our mortality. Though it may seem an odd thought, this track works as interesting counterpoint to another of 2016’s finest songs; Kanye West’s ‘Ultralight Beam’, both being exquisitely sparse tracks dealing with faith through deft use of choral support. Whereas ‘Ultralight Beam’ is a soulful ode to God, Cohen’s words offer a bittersweet rumination on the will of who he calls ‘The Dealer’. It’s a typically clever, winking and barefaced observation upon the entropy of mortality. It’s Leonard Cohen, and it’s a fitting swansong. Mark Conroy
6 | The Weeknd – ‘Starboy’
Though Abel Tesfaye would fly too close to the sun on his latest bid for world domination, the first shot in anger remains a most glorious illustration of the strange contradiction he has become. Tempting as it is to read Starboy and Tesfaye’s closer-cropped mane as some kind of Samson-esque tragedy, the reality is that he still ‘has it’, he just needs to work on quality control and manage realistic expectations. ‘Starboy’ is curious because it successfully speaks to the moody, conceited and spiteful Weeknd of the past and the neon-drenched award-show-friendly pop monster of the present.
Beyond the character analysis, it’s simply a terrific song; one that never really comes out of first gear because it doesn’t need to. Some critics misread the track’s languid nature as apathy but this is Abel Tesfaye at his knowing best; smooth as silk and utterly in command. Dave Hanratty
5 | Hamilton Leithauser & Rostam – ‘A 1000 Times’
Upon first listening to ‘A 1000 Times’ (homework for guesting on the NO ENCORE podcast), I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I liked it, sure, but there was something not sitting quite right with me. The dynamics didn’t seem to behave how I thought they would, and I was mildly put off. However, my dissatisfaction with leaving it at that led me to review the album in full, and boy did I change my mind.
Hamilton Leithauser’s voice storms through a simple yet wholly addictive melody, contrasting beautifuly with delicate piano and organ runs. And it kicks in, I mean it really kicks the fuck in, and not at all in the way you expect it to. ‘A 1000 Times’ is a microcosm for one of the best albums made in 2016; each listen invites a new perspective, and just when you think you know where you’re going you end up way off. Andrea Cleary
4 | Frank Ocean – ‘Ivy’
While lost love, nostalgia and meditations on growing older are the constant threads running through Blonde, they’re never as plainly centred as on this slice of dreamy pop. Featuring a sterling vocal performance delicately perched upon a Rostam-supplied guitar line, and without a percussive beat in sight, Frank Ocean considers a lost love and happy times through a collection of hazy sketches burned into his brain. Assuring us that “the feeling still deep down is good“, the screaming crescendo at the end suggests there may be more to it than seen at first glance. That, though, is storytelling at its best. Colm O’Regan
3 | Kanye West – ‘Ultralight Beam’
In one of the many tweets fired out during the long, protracted roll out for The Life of Pablo, Kanye West boldly declared that his seventh studio album was set to be a gospel record. While the finished product proved to be an altogether messier and more eclectic affair, there are traces of West’s original vision in many of the songs and in none more so than the Kirk Franklin-featuring opener ‘Ultralight Beam’. Over soulful minimal instrumentation, West seems the most peaceful and serene he has been since Graduation before Chance The Rapper shows up to deliver one of the verses of the year. Robert Higgins
2 | Beyoncé – ‘Formation’
The release of ‘Formation’ at this pinnacle time in civil rights conversations in the United States of America was met with almost overwhelming support from black feminists and Black Lives Matter. It is indeed a political piece, in which both the music video and the song itself celebrate black femininity in a manner not seen from Beyoncé previously in her career.
Critical responses favoured her ‘unapologetically black’ performance which alludes to various black pride conversations on social media, such as #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackGirlMagic. Racists hated everything about it, which is usually a good sign too. From Beyoncé’s striking utterances in the opening bars, to triumphant cries of working hard, grinding ‘til you own it, this is a powerful song which has the ability to shock, catalyze, propel, and to galvanize. Andrea Cleary
1 | Frank Ocean – ‘Nikes’
If the sudden arrival of more new Frank Ocean material than we could have ever anticipated bore resemblance to a tired old proverb of London buses, then ‘Nikes’ served as confirmation that the Louisianian is made in the mold of Boris’ bendy efforts as vocals shift in pitch, tempos change, and the lyrical dexterity on show may best be described as unparalleled. There is no sense of urgency, though, and delights in its opacity; rather, it challenges the listener to delve beneath the dreamy exterior to find the real substance hidden within. Go there, and – as with the album as a whole – a wealth of rewards await. Colm O’Regan