‘Life goes on – try dancing’: our writers’ favourite music moments of 2016

From the loss of friends and family to the celebration of marriage and parenthood, our writers recall the times when music hit home this year

‘I felt really happy to be carried along by a song I don’t even like’

Fix You by Coldplay
Alexis Petridis
I couldn’t be more surprised to find myself writing about Coldplay playing Fix You at Glastonbury as my musical moment the year. I’m not one of those people who thinks Coldplay are the living embodiment of all that’s wrong about latterday rock music, but nor am I, by any stretch of the imagination, a big fan. Fix You is pretty much the apotheosis of what I don’t like about Coldplay: the vague, woolly sentiments, the feeling that it was written with the intention of getting vast crowds of people to pull out their lighters, a calculated exercise in button-pushing manipulation, rather than a genuine expression of emotion.

Furthermore, Glastonbury had a weird atmosphere this year. You couldn’t get away from current events that suggested the world was coming unglued: there was a lot of talk about Brexit and tributes to the victims of the Orlando massacre and Jo Cox, the MP who was murdered in June.

Coldplay on stage at Glastonbury 2016.
Coldplay on stage at Glastonbury 2016. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

I used to know Jo. I hadn’t seen her in years, but it was still deeply unsettling trying to square the girl I had once known with the woman whose image people were carrying around the festival like a religious icon, in whose honour Portishead had made a video. It kept jolting me, as it had when I had seen her face staring out of the front pages or read accounts of her murder: fucking hell, that’s Jo. I could remember dancing with her on Millennium Eve. I could remember us gabbing excitedly as we drove from JFK airport to Long Island at the start of a holiday. It didn’t seem plausible that she was the same person.

By Sunday evening, I had had enough. The weather made it feel more like November than June. My friends had all gone home, so I watched Coldplay on my own. I expected them to be objectively good, but not really for me: they had headlined Glastonbury three times before; they clearly know how to work a huge crowd. And then they played Fix You. The crowd started singing along softly and I didn’t feel cynical or objective at all. The words – those trite lyrics, with whatever vague meaning they might have had in the first place worn away by umpteen appearances on TV show soundtracks – seemed incredibly soothing. For a moment, I stopped feeling weird, gloomy and uneasy and felt calm. More than that, I felt really happy to be carried along by a song I don’t even like, really happy to be part of that communal experience, really happy to be where I was at that exact moment.

I can’t really explain it. The closest I’ve got is thinking: well, maybe I just needed something familiar, the way you sometimes go to an upscale restaurant, look at the menu and think: God, I could murder some cheese on toast. Maybe it’s a better song than I thought, although I’ve not been gripped by the urge to reassess it: in fact, I’ve not listened to Fix You since. Perhaps it was just a moment when circumstance made the wrong song seem like the right song, proof that live music can work its magic in inexplicable ways.

‘Adulthood had not only arrived, but was about to get seriously real’

Teenage Spaceship by Smog
Tim Jonze
Inevitably, my musical moment of 2016 revolves around becoming a father. You only need to read this list, or any of the previous years’ lists, to see that the moments we cherish most are not simply about great tunes, but rather the way in which music weaves itself into our lives in order to magnify our emotions and offer us greater insight into them. I could list hundreds of ways music did that as my wife and I came to terms with having a new lady in the house, from the way it triggered unexpected tears in us (was that really me sobbing when Macklemore’s Same Love came on the radio?) to the way it sparked unexpected smiles in her whenever I played the piano (general public, do not fear: I am fully aware that the only way to grow the rapt audience I’ve built for self-penned hits such as Wise Old Snufflepig and Big Girl Now is through further procreation).

A couple of weeks before Romy was born, I took a long walk around Hackney and decided, for some reason, to listen to Smog’s 1999 album Knock Knock. The song Teenage Spaceship spoke to me deeply back then – a lonely, misunderstood wanderer of a small town dreaming of ways to light up the sky, determined not to get swept up in conformity when adulthood arrived. It felt funny hearing it again at a time when adulthood had not only arrived, but was about to get seriously real. It was extremely moving, in a way I couldn’t quite articulate.

Listen to Teenage Spaceship by Smog

I didn’t join the dots until the day of Romy’s birth, when I sat cradling her in the maternity ward. I looked down and was struck by the realisation that she, too, was about to go through so many of those challenging moments of self-discovery on her journey towards adulthood. I knew I would have minimal control over the good times and the bad – as Joni Mitchell once accepted: “There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes … and sometimes there’ll be sorrow” – but I also knew Romy was blessed to have had this chance to experience life in all its tumultuous, see-sawing glory.

Music is unpredictable like this. It wasn’t a record about birth or even new beginnings that really hit home the enormity of what my little girl was about to go through, but one about being an oversensitive teenager. I played it again, cried uncontrollably and realised that I probably still was one.

‘In three and a half minutes, it articulated what I had spent 18 months trying to say’

Courtney Marie Andrews
‘It’s about the quiet pleasure of returning phone calls, holding friendships, going dancing at the local bar’ ... Courtney Marie Andrews. Photograph: Record Company Handout

Put the Fire Out by Courtney Marie Andrews
Laura Barton
I ducked out of London on a midweek morning two summers ago, packed up my belongings and quietly left the city that had been my home for 15 years. I still remember how exhilarated I felt as I glimpsed my new town and the sea beyond, as if I had pulled off the most spectacular feat of escapology. But running away has long been my speciality – I like to feel weightless, anonymous, moving through land. The hardest thing for me has always been staying in one place and not thinking of another. Moving to a small town, then, felt like a challenge to my restlessness. The past year and a half has been an experiment in staying put.

It has been hard to explain. Friends and acquaintances have reacted with bafflement to the fact I have left the city, that I am not in London or Los Angeles or Louisiana or any of the places anyone might expect to find me. How to describe the need sometimes to belong, the wish for a counterweight to life in limbo?

Listen to Put the Fire Out by Courtney Marie Andrews

Then, this autumn, I heard Courtney Marie Andrews’s song Put the Fire Out. In its three and a half minutes, she seemed to articulate what I had spent 18 months trying to say. It’s a road-worn country song about finally heading home, about wanting certainty, a life lived in the present and tackled with both feet. It’s about the quiet pleasure of returning phone calls, holding friendships, relationships, going dancing at the local bar. “I’ve been lost,” she sings, “and I’m ready to be found.”

Putting out a fire sounds like admitted defeat, but for me it has been about doing something braver. My move was not an extinguishing of desire, but the recognition that, just as it’s necessary to have somewhere from which to run, it’s important to have a place to where you want to return. “There’s a place for everything,” as Andrews puts it, “and I think I know mine now.”

‘Feeling so vulnerable heightened my responses to otherwise unremarkable things’

Squeeze on stage at Glastonbury 2016.
Squeeze on stage at Glastonbury 2016. Photograph: Smiejkowska/Rex/Shutterstock

Labelled With Love by Squeeze
Michael Hann
This was my first Glastonbury. Every year since my early 20s, as scores of my friends and then colleagues traipsed down to Somerset, I spurned it. Not out of contempt for the festival, but because – as I wrote earlier this year – the prospect of an event so big, so overwhelming, so far from home terrified me. I feared it would set me off on a spiral of anxiety, something I find very hard to escape from once I have entered it. This year, though, I had no choice. I had to go, with dread in my heart and that sensation in my stomach that you get when you’re terrified or very hungry.

As you will have guessed, I got from one end to the other – from Tuesday afternoon until Sunday – at which point I fled Somerset. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it; I managed it. I hated the mud; I hated the crowds; I hated the scale of the site; I hated that the mud and the crowds and the scale combined meant it took an eternity to get anywhere. I was working most of each day, so I didn’t see much music, nor did I explore the dance areas, the healing fields – any of the other stuff for which Glastonbury is famous.

But I think that feeling so vulnerable – I realise this makes me sound pathetic, but that’s how it was – heightened my responses to otherwise unremarkable things. A friend later told me he had never been greeted so effusively as when I encountered him having a quiet pint on the Thursday afternoon, so pleased was I have to have bumped into him by chance.

The combination of tiredness and fear, when it combined with my letting down my guard, produced at least one moment that startled and haunted me. On the Saturday lunchtime, Alexis Petridis and I took a short walk to the Pyramid stage to see Squeeze. It wasn’t that I was desperate to see Squeeze – they’re on the long list of bands I like when I hear them, but don’t think about in between – more that it was close, Alexis was going and it was something to do.

As with most bands with back catalogues filled with songs that have been part of the cultural atmosphere for decades, Squeeze pretty much guarantee a decent time. I was enjoying the set; Alexis was enjoying it even more (I had never seen him sing along to anything until they played Goodbye Girl). And then they played Labelled With Love.

Labelled With Love is my favourite Squeeze song: I adore the simple circularity of its melody, the perfection of the metaphor that gives it its title. But it’s a song about the sadness of a life derailed and about alcohol – it’s not one that really touches my life (and, in any case, it is generally melody, rather than lyrics, that I love in pop music). Nevertheless, in a rare moment of sunshine, with my friend beside me and already feeling exhausted after four days on site, the lyrics of Labelled With Love hit me with bludgeoning effect. “Home is a love that I miss very much,” Glenn Tilbrook sang, and my defences crumbled. Suddenly, I was wishing that I was anywhere else but a field in Somerset and acutely aware that this music would not be having such a profound effect were I anywhere else. You would think I had been away for four months, not four days.

‘If there’s one time you can feel comfortable clearing a dancefloor for a good cry with your best friend, it’s your wedding’

Coldplay’s Chris Martin at Glastonbury 2016
‘Yellow was an important song during my coming-of-age era, when I wore a lot of corduroy’ ... Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Photograph: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

Yellow by Coldplay
Harriet Gibsone
I got married in August. Our first dance was Tender by Blur, but, with all due respect to my legally bound life partner and to Damon Albarn, I remember nothing about it. My brain had shut down because walking on to the dancefloor had signified the end of my bridal duties for the day. All that was left to do was dance, minesweep my relatives and avoid setting my dress on fire. A few hours later, I had relaxed. I had requested that the DJ play Coldplay’s Yellow, because it was an important song during my coming-of-age era (in other words, the years in which I experimented with fringes and wore a lot of corduroy). While it’s not exactly a climactic end-of-wedding banger – Lord knows, the people wanted Oops Upside Your Head – for me and a handful of school friends it was a glorious moment when the days before I could even comprehend having the capabilities to hire portable loos came flooding into a field in Essex. And, if there’s one time in your life when you can feel comfortable clearing a dancefloor for the sake of a cuddle with your best friend and a good cry, it’s your wedding.

‘That beautiful song of devotion made me think about Barbara’s decades of marriage’

Nat King Cole performs When I Fall in Love

When I Fall in Love by Nat King Cole
Dave Simpson
We buried my Auntie Barbara last month. She wasn’t my real aunt – she was Mrs Lister, who lived next door when I was a child – but after my father died when I was six and my mother became ill, Auntie Barbara took me in. Never mind that she already had a husband and four boys inside a modest semi. She gave me a home when it was needed, and hers became a second family.

Her second-eldest, Stephen, turned me on to Motown when I watched him doing northern soul glides in the living room to a Supremes soundtrack. Barbara’s husband, Harry, and their second-youngest, Kevin, took me to my first Leeds United matches; when I wrote about the league-winning 1991-92 team in my book The Last Champions, I dedicated it to the Listers. Over the years, as we all moved around, contact had reduced to greetings cards, but recently I had begun visiting Barbara and Kevin again.

Things came out at the funeral that I never knew: Barbara herself had been taken in by another family as a child during the war and had lost her first born in tragic circumstances, events that defined her life. It turned out that she had taken in several other children, too, and that she was still providing some with sanctuary – even when they had become adults – right up until her death at the age of 87.

Nat King Cole’s When I Fall in Love was among the music played at Barbara’s funeral; it was also a favourite of my mum’s. That beautiful song of eternal devotion made me think about Barbara’s decades of marriage to Harry, and the unconditional love she had for so many children, and how we all owe it to her to make sure some of that survives.

‘Under the influence of Howard Donald’s appalling singing, I began to feel part of a community’

Take That perform Never Forget

Never Forget by Take That
Rachel Aroesti
In May, I was walking through a field in Lincolnshire when I got a call from one of my university housemates. He told me that another friend we had lived with, Aj, had died. Aj was training to be an RAF pilot and was on a routine practice flight when his plane crashed. He was 25.

After a summer spent letting this absurd, rattling loss sink in, I found myself back in my university halls. I deliberately hadn’t been back to Durham since I had graduated, sealing it off in my memory as dull and horribly claustrophobic, somewhere I had never really felt at home. But a small contingent had decided to return to our college for a ball. Originally, I had been unenthusiastic, but my attitude towards university nostalgia was changing – those memories I thought I could breezily discard were now the only connection I had to my friend.

Some colleges in Durham occupy 11th-century castles; others (such as mine) are 1960s eyesores that force their students to sleep in outbuildings directly above basketball courts. Here are a couple of the things I never got on board with while there: “college spirit”, the coddled routine of college life; and Durham’s ironic pride in its crap nightlife (it is home to a club called Klute, once voted the worst in Europe, to everyone’s constant amusement; the idea of submitting yourself to terrible music and equally terrible ambience was a hallmark of university life that bled into most occasions).

College balls could be added to that list, and this post-grad version ended as they all did, with everyone doing the same school-disco-style dance routine to Take That’s Never Forget, during which about 80 people run into the centre of a big circle. In the misanthropy of my actual student days, I had never been interested enough to find out who the song was by, let alone paid attention to what would have been, under normal circumstances, risibly cliched lyrics. Now, “We’re still so young and we hope for more / But remember this / We’re not invincible,” was oddly, horribly apt.

Yet the experience of being there was far from horrible. Suddenly, under the influence of Howard Donald’s objectively appalling singing, I began to feel part of a community I had not when I really did belong to it. In the thick of this collective euphoria, tinged for some of us with a gnawing grief, I made a vow: from now on I would treasure my university memories – or, as Barlow and co would have put it, never forget.

‘I danced until my limbs felt light again’

A Tribe Called Quest on The Tonight Show
‘I love hip-hop, but I’ve never been so deeply moved by it’ ... A Tribe Called Quest. Photograph: NBC/Getty Images

Savages and A Tribe Called Quest
Dorian Lynskey
I have problems choosing music to help me when I’m feeling low. Something uplifting often feels false, while a sad song can make me feel like I’m performing sadness. It only works if I let fate press the shuffle button and find the soundtrack I need. This happened twice this year, when I most needed to be lifted out of myself, and left me dizzy with gratitude.

Friday 24 June was the bleakest Glastonbury day I’ve ever experienced. The festival woke up to mud and Brexit and you couldn’t avoid either. For most of the day, I trudged from act to act without being able to get politics out of my head, partly because it came hard on the heels of Jo Cox’s murder. As night fell, I went to the Park stage to see Savages, who have always gripped me, but never like this. They hit me like ice-water from a firehose. They were so fierce, strong and life-affirming that I could think of nothing beyond Jehnny Beth’s shamanic moves or the shrapnel clang of Ayse Hassan’s bass. I came away feeling like something poisonous inside me had been purged.

On 9 November, the day after the US election, I was in New York interviewing A Tribe Called Quest. I woke in the middle of the night after three hours’ sleep, my brain whirring nauseatingly with jetlag, shock and everything I had drunk to mute the shock. After the interview, there was an album launch party in Queens. This was a New York hip-hop crowd – definitely not Trump people – so they had every reason to be gloomy, but they didn’t let the election infect the celebrations. After a Q&A, Prince Paul and Questlove DJed 90s hip-hop classics and I danced until my limbs felt light again. I love hip-hop, but I’ve never been so deeply moved by it. It felt defiant, resilient, transcendent.

Like the Savages show, the party reminded me what music can do that nothing else, certainly not tormenting yourself on the internet, can. It can say: Listen, no matter how bad you feel, there is still joy to be had and people to share it with. Life goes on. Try dancing.

‘Prince belonged to everybody, but it felt like he spoke just to me’

Goodbye … Prince. Photograph: Chris O'Meara/AP

Sometimes It Snows in April by Prince
Priya Elan
A few days after Prince died, in April, the weather turned bitterly cold and slate grey. I was in the office staring out of the 10ft-high windows that overlook King’s Cross station when it happened. “Look, it’s snowing!” said my deskmate and fellow Paisley Park devotee, pointing at the sky. We stood in awe and wonderment, looking at the crouton-shaped flakes as they fell from the sky in disordered waves.

I can’t remember if there were tears in our eyes, but it felt eerie and momentous: in accordance with the closing song on 1986’s Parade, it was snowing in April. The track, with its allusions to life, death and the afterlife (“All good things, they say, never last”) was almost impossible to listen to after he passed away. Even D’Angelo got so choked up when he performed the song on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon that he stumbled through one of the lines. At the time of its release, the track, with its elemental feel and Joni Mitchell-esque delicacy (courtesy of Lisa Coleman’s piano and Wendy Melvoin’s acoustic guitar), served as a bittersweet end note to Prince’s collaboration with his band the Revolution. By April 2016, the song had become a devastatingly sad goodbye from a man whose superstar status meant he belonged to everybody, but it still felt like he spoke just to me.

As we stood there looking at the snow out of the window, we felt, in our secondhand celebrity grief, like this was Prince’s goodbye message to us.


Michael Hann, Tim Jonze, Laura Barton, Alexis Petridis, Harriet Gibsone, Dave Simpson, Rachel Aroesti, Dorian Lynskey and Priya Elan

The GuardianTramp

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