1. MØ, “Final Song”
On the heels of her guest vocal performance on Major Lazer and DJ Snake’s 2015 global smash “Lean On”, Danish singer-songwriter Karen Marie Aagaard Ørsted Andersen, otherwise known as MØ, released the exuberant single “Final Song”. Unlike “Lean On”, “Final Song” is the sound of a young artist finding her own voice, creating (along with fellow songwriting phenom Noonie Bao) a fireworks burst of tropical house and dance. All the while MØ charismatically carries the track with her playful delivery, not to mention her insistent, empowering lyrics. Actually the big eureka moment was when I saw her perform a surprisingly raucous and energetic set in the blazing early afternoon heat at the Osheaga festival. She’s an unconventional pop artist, one with a unique personality and style that sets her apart from all the other soundalikes and lookalikes. This single was a burst of ebullience and lust for life that this downcast cultural year badly needed, and her new album can’t arrive soon enough.
And here’s the final overall Best Singles list in playlist form, along with a whole bunch of other songs I loved in 2016. Enjoy!
2. Tove Lo, “True Disaster”
Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo made a name for herself two years ago with her unflinching approach to pop music tropes: euphoric highs, devastating lows, all with explicit, honest depictions of love and lust. “True Disaster” keeps an even keel musically, its hypnotic, ominous electropop arrangement mirroring the sound of CHVRCHES, but lyrically she doesn’t hold back. “Give zero fucks about it, I know I’m gonna get hurt,” she sings, willingly embracing the moment while fully aware of the horrible repercussions that will inevitably follow. That sense of “carpe diem” underscored by impending doom creates a sense of tension that, frankly, is alluring.
3. Kaytranada featuring Craig David, “Got it Good”
It’s been a marvelous year for Craig David. In addition to scoring his first UK number one album in 16 years, he collaborated with Katy B on her single “Who Am I”, and best of all, he contributed vocals to the best song on Kaytranada’s astounding debut album 99.9%. He and Kevin Celestin prove a perfect match, with Celestin’s slow jam beats and minimalist arrangement creating a simple yet luxuriant backdrop for David’s profession of devotion: “Tell me do you remember when we started? / Remember me and you creepin’ round late at night / And yeah you held me down when I had nothing / And that’s the reason I must spoil you now that I can”.
4. Metallica, “Atlas, Rise!”
The best song on Metallica’s best album in 28 years finds the band going back to the music they grew up with, capturing that energy, and coming up with a track that shows they are big, nerdy fans just like the rest of us. They’re in full early-‘80s mode on “Atlas, Rise!”, the riffs sharp and melodic, the drums groovy, the bass deep in the pocket, the vocals assertive. As good as the first half is, things really take off during the solo break, which pays obvious homage to circa-1981 iron Maiden and early Mercyful Fate. The “back to basics” gimmick is such a cliché in music, but it can result in truly transformative moments, and in some cases kick off a creative rebirth. This song sounds just like that.
White Lung, “Below”
Vancouver band White Lung hit their stride in 2016, and in so doing put out the best rock single of the year. Much like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”, it’s an unusual moment of confession and emotional vulnerability from a very outspoken and confrontational singer atop some ingeniously atmospheric guitar work. To the band’s great credit, they don’t so much cynically copy that formula as use it to bring out their own distinct personalities. At the heart of it is singer Mish Barber-Way, who sings about feminism’s need to appreciate glamour, doing so with honesty and tenderness.
6. Jenny Hval, “Conceptual Romance”
Norwegian artist Jenny Hval has mesmerized me these last couple years with some of the most striking music I have heard this decade, but for all her confrontational performance art and experimental music, “Conceptual Romance” is a huge creative breakthrough, in which her poetry is underscored by the prettiest melodies she has ever created. Like Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson, Hval bridges high art with pop appeal, as well as her own enigmatic nature (“It could be making sense of impermanence, failure and overlooked artwork, but it could also be making sense of the eternal. A floor plan of eternity,” she has written about this song) and the end result is astonishing.
7. Ghost, “Square Hammer”
Coming on the heels of the superb 2015 album Meliora, which cemented Ghost’s status as one of the best heavy metal bands in the world right now,the Swedes continued that positive momentum with Popestar, a very fun five-track EP featuring four creative covers and an inspired original track called “Square Hammer”. Arguably the hookiest song they’ve put out to date, the way heavy guitars and keyboard melodies interweave echoes Blue Öyster Cult, and especially in the chorus, which gets in your head immediately and stays there. It’s so great to have a metal band who knows their way around a good melody like these guys do. It’s a dying skill in heavy music, but Ghost are masters.
8. Chelsea Lankes, “Bullet”
Some people might disagree with me, and that’s just fine, but personally one of the great musical joys in life is a good, concise pop song whose sole ambition is to be a perfect pop song, and nothing else. Not maximizing a brand, not serving as a showcase for obnoxious reality show singing, not pretending to be anything bigger than it is. Chelsea Lankes, who caught my attention in 2015 with a stunning electropop cover of Mötley Crüe’s “Too Young to Fall in Love”, returned this year with an EP highlighted by “Bullet”, three minutes of near-perfection along the lines of Carly Rae Jepson, in that it doesn’t try anything more than excel at what it does. It’s a simple “I’m better off without you” song that starts off melancholy but then explodes into an empowering chorus: “And so I took the nights and heights / And I just threw ’em in the trash / They didn’t matter at all / And I played my favorite song / Turned up the volume and I danced / I didn’t care anymore”. It’s simple, a formula as old as popular music itself, but it’s a dynamic that always pays off when done well, and this track does a sterling job.
9. Black Mountain, “Florian Saucer Attack”
Sometimes you need a great big, gigantic, dystopian rock ‘n’ roll song about flying saucers. Huge guitars, wicked singing by an unusually boisterous Amber Webber, a GREAT synthesizer solo lifted right out of Rush circa 1981, and crazily vivid lines like, “Cold bodies with the cement eyes / Over Berlin ‘neath the winter sun”. It’s so insanely catchy, and Stephen McBean’s robotic “zero one data one two one two” is one of the year’s coolest hooks. From an album that proved to have so much longevity over the course of the year, this was the most immediate track, the most fun. Heck, it even had Dave Grohl drooling.
10. Alessia Cara, “Wild Things”
It’s funny where and when a song will click. When it comes to Alessia Cara’s anthemic “Wild Things”, it captured my attention when I was taking a taxi to my hotel in Montreal. “No mistakin’, we make our breaks, if you don’t like our 808s”: what a line! It kept grabbing me, and even at 46, well 45 then, I couldn’t help but get sucked into the song’s youthful energy. I Shazammed the track, and that was it. With its blend of pop, dance, and Caribbean sounds, it’s a perfect summer song about young rebellion. Based on the shimmering brilliance of this track, this young artist is one to watch.