10 songs in the key of 2016

The blistering revenge of a superstar scorned, an anthem to the rise of gender fluidity... we asked Observer and Guardian writers to pick the songs that most reflect the state of music – and the world – right now

Rabit – Cruel Winter

In this, the age of worry, anxiety has gone from silent disease to Tumblr-blogged, socially acceptable phenomenon. And as any mindfulness app developer will tell you, it’s become an industry off the back of there being more reasons to be anxious than ever before. Alerts about plane crashes and terrorism pop up on our phones alongside aggressively aspirational Instagrams; psychological abuse on Twitter is only a click away.

It’s tempting to hide under a duvet with whalesong or Jason Derulo on repeat, but pay heed to the musicians that don’t flinch, like Houston producer Rabit. His staggeringly beautiful new track Cruel Winter encapsulates all of digital life’s violence and information overload. He took a dollop of our always-on culture, the brand new Kanye West song Champions, and reshaped it just hours after its release, time-stretching the rapper into a ragged spectre surrounded by clouds of noise. The spiritual void in Fomo-inducing lyrics about Gucci and supermodels reveals itself under Rabit’s ultraviolet light. He, and his peers like Chino Amobi, Amnesia Scanner, Elysia Crampton and the Janus collective, revel in the access-all-areas freedom of the internet, drawing on everything from grime to musique concrete for their productions. But they also acknowledge how suffocating it is being sat, as we all are, at the information coalface. Ben Beaumont-Thomas

Beyoncé – Sorry

‘She has adjusted the dial in pop artistry’: Beyoncé. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

As statements of female power in pop go, few have resonated so hard as Beyoncé’s this year. The raw rage of such a famous woman eviscerating her cheating husband would be compelling in most circumstances. To do it against the most ambitious production - in both sound and vision - of her career is the clincher. The album Lemonade demands detailed attention, not just for the voyeuristic snoop inside the Beyoncé and Jay Z marriage but because Beyoncé has adjusted the dial on pop artistry: how will the megastars in her orbit now compete?

The best example comes with Sorry, in which Beyoncé deals with the fury of a woman scorned by sticking her middle finger, quite literally, to it. There is no plaintive mourning, no gooey balladry for a broken heart. Her move is minimalist avant R&B, a snatch of Soulja Boy layered on rapid-fire drum claps, over which she snarls at us and her assembled girl gang that she ain’t sorry: don’t care, don’t think about him, have a good time, make him beg. It’s no coincidence that Serena Williams, the embodiment of black female strength, guests on the video. Female solidarity, the endurance and resilience of women, is where the song draws its core message; a defiant determination to stand tough together and goof around even when it hurts. And all to a beat that slick? Well, to paraphrase Nicki Minaj: “Taylor, Miley, what’s good?” Nosheen Iqbal

The Stone Roses – All for One

The Stone Roses’ Ian Brown
‘A deeply conservative retrenchment’: The Stone Roses’ Ian Brown. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Brian Rasic/Getty Images

In a year when pop’s biggest events have come from the worlds of hip-hop and R&B – The Life of Pablo, Lemonade, Views – rock seems to be going through its jazz phase. Like jazz, a music that once drove popular culture has been relegated to the margins. Most of it is now heritage rock, reviving the past, revisiting forgotten heroes. Take the Stone Roses’ comeback single. All for One was their first new piece of music in 21 years, and it was everything the Roses were not a quarter of a century ago: a deeply conservative retrenchment rather than a leap forward. Unlike the old Stone Roses, who took from the past but filtered it through the present, this sounded like one of the groups who came in their wake, serviceable but uninspired.

Yet nostalgia has its place. The most emotionally intense shows I’ve seen this year have been Bruce Springsteen’s epic sweeps through 43 years of his recordings, where the meaning of the words is changed by Springsteen’s ageing. And the 1975’s second album made the case that loving the past need not date a band: songs that sounded like an entire 1984 episode of Top of the Pops put through a blender with judicious contemporary seasoning and lyrics that placed them firmly in 2016, winning them a huge and young audience.

“The past was yours but the future’s mine,” Ian Brown sang, all those years back, to an audience that took the words on trust. He couldn’t live up to his own prophecy, and the question now is whether any other singer fronting a rock band could sing those words and be believed. Michael Hann

Chvrches – Warning Call

Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry.
‘A rousing anthem’: Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry. Photograph: James Gourley/Rex/Shutterstock

In the late 90s the Cardigans would cluster around a PlayStation on their tour bus to quicken those lingering hours spent on the road. Gran Turismo was the Swedish band’s favourite game, a Japanese motorsport simulator after which they titled their 1998 album and further immortalised with the hit tribute, My Favourite Game. Two years later the circle was completed when that song became the opening track on the sequel, Gran Turismo 2, and record companies saw afresh the medium’s potential to pipe songs into the ears of radio-dodging gamers. For many artists, placing a song on, say, a Fifa soundtrack has now become a career goal, one that serves dual commercial and artistic purposes: securing royalties and, potentially, fans.

In the mid-2000s video games became more than just another venue for artists to showcase their work. The rise of Guitar Hero and its squall of impersonators allowed players to role-play their favourite bands, playing along with the guitar, bass or drum parts on plastic instruments. The genre reached its peak with the release of The Beatles: Rock Band, a loving tribute to the band’s career and back catalogue, produced by George Martin’s son Giles at a cost to publisher MTV of many millions of dollars.

This week the relationship between video games and artists further deepens with the release of Warning Call, a rousing anthem song written by Scottish electronic shoe-gazers Chvrches specifically for the game Mirror’s Edge. Just as that errant ‘v’ is a product of the times (a guarantee the band’s name will snag in Google search results) so Warning Call’s Amiga-synths and pitter-patter drum patterns represents another evolution: a strengthening bond between credible artists and video games. Simon Parkin

Anonhi – 4 Degrees

Anohni and (Fennec) foxy friend.
Anohni and (Fennec) foxy friend. Photograph: ANOHNI/PR Company Handout

When I interviewed Anohni earlier this year she told me she was terrified; scared to make her new album, Hopelessness, and scared to talk about it, because it is so political, and because its politics are so punishingly bleak. Like Nina Simone when she wrote Mississippi Goddam, or Marvin Gaye when he made What’s Going On, the 45-year-old singer did it because the fear of saying what was on her mind was outweighed by the shame of not saying it. “If you’re afraid of a piece of work,” she told me, “it’s usually because it has a potency that’s worth exploring.”

It is possible to write a great protest song without having any skin in the game but the most powerful recent examples flow from emotional necessity. When Beyoncé sings Formation or Kendrick Lamar raps The Blacker the Berry, they’renot surveying racism from a distance. They’re insisting on the fundamental physical reality from which their political message flows. This kind of protest song, like Anohni’s, is an essential act.

Anohni, formerly known as Antony Hegarty, sang hauntingly intense songs about emotional extremes that found a surprising degree of mainstream acceptance. With Hopelessness, she projects her emotional anguish on to a global screen, experiencing drone warfare, economic exploitation and ecological cataclysm as personal wounds.

4 Degrees is a poisoned anthem, a homicidal breakup song and a disaster movie. Every time I hear it I shudder. As drums churn and a synthetic orchestra blares, Anohni twists complacency about climate change into apocalyptic relish: “I want to see them burn / It’s only 4 degrees.” These are the consequences of our daily actions, she’s saying. This is the world-fire we’re all feeding. You can think a lot about the implications of climate change and not feel them as viscerally as you can through Anohni’s vortex of fear and guilt and rage and glee. Brave, ingenious, disturbing and necessary, it reminds us what a protest song can do. Dorian Lynskey

Chance the Rapper – Mixtape

When hip-hop artists make sweeping statements about their peers with the aim of taking them down a peg or two, there’s usually a fair amount of hyperbole involved, if not outright untruth. How can you prove you’re the greatest rapper alive and that everyone else is a shameful sellout? By and large, you can’t. On Coloring Book, the excellent new mixtape from Chance the Rapper, one such generalisation stands out as being close to verifiable. “How can they call themselves bosses/ When they got so many bosses?” he demands on the track Mixtape, adding: “You gotta see what your boss say/ I get it straight out the faucet.”

The difference between Chance, an abundantly talented 23-year-old rapper from Chicago, and the majority of his big-name peers is that they are bound to record contracts and he – despite commanding a huge following in the US, making appearances on Saturday Night Live and trading guest spots with the likes of Kanye West – isn’t. Following his breakthrough full-length mixtape Acid Rap, which he released for free online in 2013, Chance was besieged by labels offering him lucrative deals. He turned them all down and spent the next three years dabbling with side projects before dropping his third mixtape last month. Coloring Book, which debuted on Apple Music, was streamed 57.3m times in its first week, sending it to number 8 in the Billboard album charts – the first time a streaming-only set had made the list.

Launching a successful DIY music career is not a new phenomenon, and the internet has certainly made it easier to market yourself without label support, but Chance has carved his path with such apparent ease, it’s as if the conventional route is a weird anomaly to him. The question is whether his example will become the norm. The chorus of Mixtape, which worries about the demise of free distribution, suggests otherwise, but the track rebuts its own concerns by showcasing another talented young rapper, Lil Yachty, who has yet to sign a contract and is, for the moment at least, getting it straight out the faucet with no bosses around to give him grief. Despite the faintly elegiac tone here, it’s hard to think of another track that expresses quite so clearly the startup mentality of the millennial generation. Killian Fox

Ghost Town DJs – My Boo (AKA The Running Man Challenge)

Remember Silentó’s Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)? You may not, unless you are either a school child or someone hip to the swag of the playground. With its tinny keyboard line and chanted chorus, the song spread like wildfire through 2015, narrowing the already slim distance between US dance battles and UK playgrounds, where this kind of pop is greedily consumed.

Teenage rapper Silentó’s stroke of genius lay in compiling a number of teachable street dances with longer histories into one catchy single, one that has amassed more than 900m YouTube views to date.

Dance craze memes are a byproduct of the internet age with its jerky gifs and bite-size Vines. But viral dances are no 21st century innovation. The advent of the foxtrot caused a moral panic in the 1930s; when Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock emerged in 1954, Decca Records actually labelled it a foxtrot.

Since then, the churn of moves has been dizzying; the internet has only served to grease the lightning. No one can be unaware of the Harlem Shake meme, popularised in 2013 via YouTube tribute uploads that – confusingly – was almost certainly not the same dance as the original Harlem Shake.

Last year was a great year for short, sharp hip-hop moves that lent themselves to distribution on Vine, where users upload short, looping videos. Rapper iLoveMemphis was responsible for two Silentó-like meme-ifications, Hit The Quan and Lean and Dabb.

The Dab gained a charmed life of its own. Probably originating in Atlanta, the move was disseminated out of hip-hop, through sports stars (basketball players like Lebron, even footballers) celebrating successes with this jerky sideways feint. Very soon, parents over here were admiring how their children were politely sneezing into their elbows. The Dab was declared over when enough white people on US network TV were doing it. Now, it seems, that point has been nearly reached with the Running Man Challenge, a great little constipated jig invented by two bored New Jersey finance students. It has, among other things, propelled its accompanying soundtrack – a relatively obscure 1996 song – back into the charts in Australia and on iTunes. Kitty Empire

Sophia Grace – Girl in the Mirror

Sophia Grace.
‘Don’t care what you say’: Sophia Grace. Photograph: Young Hollywood/Getty Images

One might, if brave or drunk, argue that Sophia Grace is the ultimate modern pop icon. Here’s an artist who shot to fame at age eight after a Nicki Minaj YouTube cover went viral. Her peers may have taken the Essex-born, Ellen DeGeneres-approved singer at face value, but by 2015 single Best Friends, Sophia had been adopted, via endless shared GIFs and memes, as an ironically embraced emblem of pop uselessness. Now her new single Girl in the Mirror is a selfie-esteem anthem for generation Snapchat. “You’re too short, too fat, too skinny,” she sings, mocking critics. “Well excuse me if I think that I’m pretty.”

Sound familiar? In some ways pop’s future sounds like its last 60 years. Here’s a 13-year-old singer making declarations about being herself in a song written by adults. And celebrating individuality with the line “don’t care what you say, cos I’m original” doesn’t work in this hyper-cynical rewrite, right down to the advice-from-mum line, of a hit from two summers ago — Meghan Trainor’s All About That Bass.In terms of expressing freedom within rigid parameters, it’s like adding one’s “personal” touch to a photo by deploying one of the predefined filters Instagram has chosen to make available.

It’s proof, too, that however much your Biebers and Beyoncés push pop’s envelope, the music industry will always find a way to create songs like this. Peter Robinson

Dave – JKYL + HYD

‘A passionate plea to his peers’: Dave Photograph: BBC 1Xtra

Let’s not mince words: Dave is probably the best name for a rapper there has ever been. Fortunately, there is more to his appeal than this. The multitalented south London 17-year-old (grade 7 piano, studying ethics and law at college) displays wisdom and lyrical dexterity beyond his years, as well as a litany of personal suffering – two brothers in jail, bailiffs at the door, “broke as hell” – that drives his anguished social commentary. Along with other young anti-establishment MCs like “street politician” Novelist, Dave proves it is UK rap and grime that are best documenting our social ills.

It’s Dave’s single from earlier this year, JKYL+HYD, an emotionally wrought disavowal of teenage poverty, drug-dealing and death, that cuts the deepest, a kind of first-person Too Much Too Young for generation vexed. Dave laments how, having lost family members and role models, he learned to “stand on my own like Sicily”. Having established his credentials, he then pleads with a generation of lost souls, listening to soulless rap. A similar message favouring “realness” over “fake” lyrics about cars and drug deals would sound preachy from an older MC, but from a 17-year-old it’s a passionate plea to his peers: “they wanna hear your story, this trap thing bores me”.

Dave’s frustration at the futility and claustrophobia of what the tabloids call “postcode wars” is profound, and spills into some bleak humour: “Man are still beefing over ends / [but] we don’t own this land – and we don’t like this weather.” Outside the ends, he wants to tell his peers, “there’s a life that’s real”. Thirteen years ago Dizzee Rascal lamented that his generation would “defend a couple of square metres of pavement in the end”; the problems of urban deprivation and petty crime haven’t gone away – nor has the ability of dazzlingly young musicians to document that plight with power. Dan Hancox

Christine and the Queens – iT

Héloïse Letissier of Christine and the Queens.
‘Curiously ambiguous’: Héloïse Letissier of Christine and the Queens. Photograph: HANDOUT

If gender fluidity was music’s hashtaggable hot topic last year, then Christine and the Queens’ subsequent rise proves it’s anything but a blog-happy fad. A pansexual artist in a sharp Dior Homme suit, she’s a pop outsider putting queer identity politics front and centre, propelled by sophisticated electronic beats and some enviable voguing dance moves. Christine is the drag queen-inspired alter ego of Héloïse Letissier, who is already a celebrity in her native France. But the acclaim that greeted the English-language version of her debut album in February suggests it is possible to break into the international pop market if you’re not from Sweden – and crucially, that society is starting to accept nonconformist sexuality beyond the buzzwords.

The album’s opening track, iT, sets out Letissier’s stall, smouldering in the molten grey area between male and female (its French incarnation originally surfaced in 2011). Ideas are subtly blurred, being as it is a seductively catchy pop song about penis envy. A smoky electro pulse, glassy drum claps and a viscous bassline create a sort of glacial simmer as Letissier imagines life as the opposite sex, before the chorus asserts: “I’m a man now.” Like the rest of her music it’s curiously ambiguous: lyrics appear either lost in translation or deliberately impressionistic; others suggest emotional bruising among the confrontation, as when she laments: “She draws her own crotch by herself/ But she’ll lose because it’s a fake.”

Gender and identity may inform a large part of Letissier’s work but, like the best pop music, her songs have a universal quality that transcend the discourse. In 2016, it’s possible to be subversive and showstopping, politicised and polished. Her place at pop’s top table awaits. Kate Hutchinson


Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Nosheen Iqbal, Michael Hann, Simon Parkin, Dorian Lynskey, Killian Fox, Kitty Empire, Peter Robinson, Dan Hancox and Kate Hutchinson

The GuardianTramp

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