As always, we’ve got a three-pronged attack going on: songs, albums, and this here list of hidden gems in 2016. What do we mean by hidden gems? Rising artists, people under-the-radar, and generally banging tracks that – had they been released by household names – could have done some serious business. This one was by far the hardest list to narrow down when we’ve pushed so much amazing new talent this year, but here you go (and, as usual, you can find a handy little playlist as a reward for getting to the end. We spoil you).
One of the year’s breakout stars surreptitiously slipped into our subconsciousness with a series of A+ jams, topped off with this Clams Casino production. Watson dominates Walls, wisping through like smoke slowly seeping through that eponymous structure and sticking with just as much strength.
49. CLAVVS – Bloom
“When you’re born to breathe fire, you bow down to no one else,” start the ATL duo on their great track Bloom. It’s as punchy as you’d expect from an opening that fierce, with them maintaining the knack for great, memorable choruses once again.
We’re here for a disco renaissance, even if it is by someone named, er, Gavin. But this lady feels like she was born into the genre, with this roller-disco jam sounding so vintage you’d be mistaken for at first thinking it might be a cover.
Ah, our Aussie favourite who constantly delivers. Noella Nix’s charm is never lost on us, and this Lucky Charm in particular kept us company for a lot of the summer. Drenched in superb synthy production, it was a slice of euphoria that we all needed in a dire few months.
We’re tipping Bishop Briggs for big things next year, as her brand of gospel-pop really feels like it could cross over to the masses. We’ve never felt that more than when we heard this track, an unbearably gutsy performance that ought to feels just one radio play away from putting her on the map.
Ah, lovely Danish Dagny, another one who seems like she’s poised for international success. Her EP was released this year to major acclaim, and for us the standout jam was by far this up-all-night bit of pop that breathes the first joyous fling of romance.
44. Elsa – Skintight
A late and underrated entry, and would you believe a debut as well. Skintight hits all the right spots when it comes to Scandi-pop, a confident and brassy opening salvo that makes us very excited for what’s to come. The best Elsa since Frozen tbh.
43. Feels – Roadkill
This trio are massively under-the-radar at the moment, and we’re doing our best to champion them as best we can. But they do a good job of it themselves on Roadkill, which starts as a fairly level bop before descending into a full-on glittery dancefloor chorus.
EZA knows her way around the game, and she made positive we knew that this year. Off The Record is again about that first flush of being enamoured, that feeling of wanting to disappear in a blaze of globetrotting glory. Let’s hope she doesn’t actually do that and sticks around for more like this.
41. IDER – Pulse
North London duo IDER may not be reinventing the game, but they certainly are taking a different approach to the bombastic electronic pop we get sent on the daily. Pulse was measured, mellowed, and a fine case for the deeper side of the genre.
While her former band Yumi Zouma thrived with their debut album, Madeira wasn’t exactly far behind. Taking that dream-pop ethos to her solo project, it was crystallised on EP track Come On Thru and marked her out as a success all on her own.
39. Lovespeake – DNA
Norway doesn’t really proffer as much as its neighbours, but in Lovespeake the country found some champions. DNA is such an air-punch level of pure joy we feel like you’d have to have the heart of Donald Trump not to like it. An indie-pop triumph.
Has there been a debuting popstar emerging as fully-formed as Luna Shadows this year? Every single track from the LA gal’s debut EP hit the mark in a way that not even established peers could touch; Waves was the lap of victory, and the perfect full stop to an unrivalled collection.
Another day, another Scandi export. Skott burst out into the scene with class and grace, combining the two to perfect effect on this broken-down relationship jam, Lack of Emotion. If her swooning vocal performance makes it, then those strings just add the right level of icing for a fine outing.
36. LISS – Sorry
Indie’s had a bit of bad rap in recent years, but the advent of LISS gives us hope. What they do with the genre isn’t path-breaking, but more inventive in an insidious way that blends various influences to get under your skin before you know it.
Another band blending genre to great effect are Off Bloom, funnily enough part of the same Copenhagen collective as LISS. This trio are more in-your-face than their pals, crystallising rather nicely on this karate-kicker of an EP track.
Annoyingly this one isn’t on Spotify, but it bloody well should be heard far and wide. Another debut that rocked our world, it’s quite simply a sumptuous stab of indie-pop that’s so effortlessly smooth you doubt that they haven’t done this before. Solid.
In which a collaboration actually seems worthwhile. Nite Jewel joins forces with Dam-Funk for this shimmering disco-pop hit, an injection of pure joy as synths dance around it for a bit of throwback wonder.
White male singer-songwriters often blend into one another, but Matt Woods has done a good job of marking himself out from the pack. That’s partly to do with songs like Nothing Less, where he employs electronica to back that raspy vocal and gives us something sounding altogether fresh.
The only artist to appear twice on this list, and songs like this explain why. Chelsea Lankes just ‘gets’ pop and all its vagaries, with Bullet being a radio-ready break-up jam that is both empowering and energising. Give her more attention, please.
It’s not every day you’ll be able to write about a song inspired by people trafficking in Pakistan, but that’s just the sort of band Meadowlark are. And by Christ, they do it justice, with this one haunting, delicately balanced, and quite unforgettable.
Overachieving teens, eh? At once reminding us of our pissing mortality but also filling us with hope for future music. Carys Selvey is one such person, delivering an intelligent debut that sums up the modern malaise of millennials with a maturity you’ll rarely find these days.
28. Talos – Reborn
One of the most memorable choruses this year came from singer-songwriter Talos. Reborn blew us away when we first heard it, a song that’s soaked in so much sincere emotion that it’s hard not to be reduced to rubble by this performance.
And over on the other side, floaty R&B gets a jolt of life thanks to Leo Kalyan. Our ethnic homeboy does things differently by employing the sounds and cadences of his Indian heritage (see also: the alaaps of Fucked Up) to deliver something truly original.
Aka the best song Gaga won’t release any time soon. All The Rage pumps up from the off with daggers of synth, before the charismatic lady herself takes over and becomes pop’s new champion for the outsider.
Oh no, by all means continue to stan for Mollie King. Meanwhile the only Saturday that still matters is absolutely dominating the R&B game, producing hit after hit of 90s-inflected jams that deserve to be heard. In a fair and just world, she’d be a huge solo artist already.
24. Actor – Girls Do
We’re always going to have some time for the West Yorkshire set, but Actor makes that easy for us on Girls Do. It’s a rousing, catchy treatise on modern self-esteem and feminism, delivered in a package that’ll have you swaying in no time.
We did get a bit of R&B fatigue this year (especially anything remotely trap-based), so shout out The Citrus Clouds and Old Tribe for taking it back to basics. This is one for the late nights, smooth as you like but filled with the right sense of yearning.
Speaking of R&B, there was no one more original in that realm (and beyond) than serpentwithfeet. Blending the classical with the contemporary and lacing with yards of drama, there’s no doubt that there’s going to be an epic future for this one.
Sometimes you just need something to move your feet. Sunni Colon delivers that and then some on Feel4U, the standout from his EP that basically switches on a sun-drenched mood whenever you play it. Irresistible, this one.
On first listen, this one might feel overwrought but give it time. The piano-house vibe is met with fervour by Ava James in a song that feels like the most accurate representation of dancefloor euphoria we’re likely to have for quite some time.
19. Kacy Hill – Lion
Another star just inches away from becoming a household name. Kacy Hill doesn’t need to prove her credentials any more, but this sweeping track certainly cemented them: Eastern-influenced instrumentation met cinematic scale for an empowering jam for the ages.
We’ve said it all year, but this is basically the better version of AlunaGeorge’s I’m In Control. It’s a shame they came out around the same time, as Lao Ra’s charisma does a number on the competition and that dancehall beat for a song you just can’t wait to writhe to.
17. The Japanese House – Face Like Thunder
There’s a good reason The Japanese House is on everyone’s Sound of 2017 lists. Her latest EP was an utter treat, and Face Like Thunder explains why: it’s leftfield pop that dabbles with electronic affectation, all sealed with a signature of authenticity.
The second appearance for Ms Lankes, where she dials it down for something opposite to Bullet. As tricky as heartbroken ballads can be in pop, Lankes nails it on a song that both imparts its pain without being cloying and manages to do so with immaculate beauty.
Soul has a new star, and it’s this marvellous lady. Whether it’s her appearances on otherr tracks or her own EP, the old-school sound fits Charlotte Day Wilson to the bone. It’s richly-textured stuff, and an album can’t come soon enough.
This one swerved into our hearts in the second half of the year, as London’s newest eccentric-soul merchant gave us all something to think about. It’s a slow-burning meditation on self-worth and comparison, and one that coos with pure delight.
“Breathe… and take five minutes.” Sigh, if only more people could be like Oli Hannaford. Lily is a veritable floatation tank of a song, a blissed out slice of indie-electronica that encourages pause, repose, and facing the world with a sense of much-needed calm.
Ok, we’re going to ignore the “you could beat me black and blue” part for this, but crikey what a song. Like those old-school pop jams that blended all sorts of influences, so too does Betsy meld pop, house, dance, and more for a rousing jam whose chorus will have you soaring.
Sara Hartman is already gaining quite the following, and it’s easy to see why. Those opening whistles are catchy enough as it is, providing the bed for a song that’s immensely uplifting, grand in scale, and the perfect advert for a star ready to conquer.
Speaking of stars, you don’t get breakouts bigger than Jorja Smith. Blue Lights is bravura performance that recalls the heyday of Lauryn Hill, as homegrown soul gets a lesson in how it’s done. Gun crime and violence are just two big topics referenced as Smith carves out an immediate, intelligent identity as the voice of a generation. Unmissable.
A late entry that plays entirely to our love of female-driven acoustic singer-songwriter fare. But Bryde – aka Sarah from Paper Aeroplanes – gives such an impassioned performance here that she razes you to the ground with just a simple cracking of the voice and a melody that’ll stick with you for days.
That feeling of wonder on a late-night excursion is one that many have tried to capture, but London eccentric-pop trio Wovoka Gentle nail it with this sweeping expanse of electronica. The cosmic electronica complements that hushed anthropology, a sound that takes in the world around it and sits back to marvel.
Ambre Perkins gives us that same excitement that Jhene Aiko used to, and not just because of their use of the acute accent. Yours Truly is short to the point that it could be an interlude, but what it packs in those few minutes is so brimful of shameless sass and personality that you might as well roll out the red carpet for her now.
The gals from The Night VI have certainly landed on their feet, and Silent Lover proves exactly why. We’re not even ashamed to admit we sobbed a little on first listen, as Sophie-Rose Harper’s incomparable vocals sell this rather incredible separation song with a mastery few others managed this year.
Shame on you all for not giving Transviolet the credit they deserve. Future, by all counts, should be topping lists as one of the finest pop songs of the year: it shuffles, it slinks, and it sings with the sound of a band whose chemistry is so tight that they simply cannot set a foot wrong. The campaign for a re-release starts right here.
It’s been a slow year for sadface pop, but London duo Cash+David’s Side I EP was bursting with them. The best of these? Adore, a dance-driven knockout that navigates lower registers to communicate its self-effacing grief, and one that’ll have you both reaching for your dancing shoes and your box of tissues at the same time.
Who’d have thought a song about South London would be so bloody brilliant? Ray BLK did, in an instant justifying the hype around her with a song about chicken shops and school dropouts. It isn’t a romantic portrait of London or indeed the area, but somehow in Ray’s hands it still seems a bit romantic, like the first trial to pass before being let into an inner circle of wonder.
If there’s an argument for music being high art, then Moses Sumney feels like he could hold its next exhibition. The layers of Lonely World are such a joy to behold that we’re envious of anyone who’s yet to hear it for the first time: from the acoustic beginnings, the soaring voice that nestles in a twilight sky, and the pulsing drum-race climax that tops it off in breathtaking fashion. Utterly, utterly awe-inspiring.
And then there’s Wildes, another young’un who tops this list for her, well, wildly unpredictable and emotionally devastating debut. Bare feels like the right name for a song that’s so naked with its emotion, one that sears itself into your soul with a combination of guitar and drums that don’t lack ambition. And then comes the chorus, a beat, a breath, before this young lady razes everything around her to nothing. A worthy winner in a tough year, and without doubt our most memorable hidden gem of 2016.