2016 is my moment of maximum disconnect with current music – aside from Lemonade I doubt I could even name an LP from that year. It was a tough time personally, too – the market research firm I worked for decided to beta-test an experimental opinion polling division and put me in charge of it, so I immersed myself in first Brexit and then the US election, with the entirely predictable result that well before November 2016 I was back on anti-depressants and on the verge of quitting my job.

But I was also sowing the seeds that got me back into music. For the first time in a decade I went to the EMP Pop Music Conference in Seattle, doing a paper on gaming the charts and connecting and reconnecting with my pop critic people. It was one of the best weekends of my decade and reminded me what I was missing, even if I didn’t act on that for a while.

BEYONCE – “Formation”: The discourse bomb when this dropped blew even my bunker open – Beyonce’s stuff had been pushing hard and forward all decade and the way this drew on so many styles of underground Black and Southern music and turned it into something which pointed a way forward for pop overall – it was astonishing. There are two Beyonce singles I probably enjoy more on my list, though, but if “importance” factors in (and who knows, it might) this has to be part of the conversation. YES.

MAJED EL-ESA – “Hwages”: My first and only entry for the ill-fated Pop World Cup 2018 (an early indicator that I didn’t have the patience to try and get traction for blog based fun on that kind of scale). I was managing Saudi Arabia, as tricky a call in pop as in football, though fortunately in the world of pop games I wasn’t getting any blood money for it. Imagine my delight when I found that filmmaker Majed El-Esa had made this, which sounds like an Arabic take on the Go! Team with a pro-reform video. Still an absolute jam, if not quite top 50 material. NO.

PEANESS – “Seafoam Islands”: One of the happiest reconnections of the year was with music journalism legend Maura Johnston, a friend from the very early days of pop blogging who I’d never lost touch with but hadn’t seen since the 00s – we met up again at Scritti Politti’s awesome Roundhouse gig and then again in Seattle (and most years since!). Maura has an amazing ear for pop and the kind of indie which isn’t made by terrible jerks, and tracks from her yearly playlists stud the remaining years here. Like this! Liverpudlian indiepop by Peaness (stop laughing at the back there) which jangles, swoops, yearns and – the killer advantage – is named after a location in Pokemon. Not sure it’s actually a single tho so NO.

LIZZO – “Good As Hell”: The positivity-hustle aspect of Lizzo grates after a while (particularly if, as alleged, it hides a pretty vicious dark side) but this is the indelible one for me – all her tricks in perfect alignment. She’s such an emblematic late 10s/early 20s star that something had to be on this list. NO.

MAXWELL – “Lake By The Ocean”: Just after I got back from Seattle, Prince died. I first heard BlackSUMMER’SNight on the plane to the 2017 conference the year after, and this song jumped out as the highlight and because it reminded me somewhat of Prince’s ballads, but more earthbound, a melancholy longing for the sublime he achieved so readily. YES.

SACRED PAWS – “Everyday“: My shift back to LP listening (see below) brought a lot of new favourites, none of whom released the singles I’d have wanted them to off their albums. Post-punk/indiepoppers Sacred Paws, for examples, whose Strike A Match is truly charming as a whole but this cut from it wilts a bit in isolation. NO.

On to 2017, and again my listening took a big shift. I decided to listen to a new-to-me LP every day that year, with emphasis on actually new records and as wide a range as possible. It worked fantastically well: dozens of new artists who became firm favourites, a pivot to global and not-in-English pop which revitalised my listening, and a way to ground myself in a crazy year. I also actually learned how to use Spotify, which Spotify doesn’t make easy. The only downside – I was listening to LPs, not singles, and it turns out not many of my eventual favourites came out in that format. Plus it was the patchwork, more than the individual patches, that I loved most. I didn’t quite keep up the LP-a-day pace in 2018-2019 but it was still the dominant way I found new music, so the picks from these years are both skimpy and not really representative of the joys I found.

PARAMORE – “Hard Times”: Music was a lifeline, but on a global and a personal level, 2017 was bad. This song – the first thing I’d ever liked by the band – captured the moment for me: the music a giddy New Pop blast, the lyrics a gritted-teeth affirmation of the will to go on in the face of catastrophe. YES.

BLANCHE – “City Lights”: Belgian’s entry in the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest, the only actual ESC entrant in my longlist, because it’s a lovely bit of moody Saint Etienne style motorik pop. It came 4th, beaten by a Portuguese entry which is one of my least favourite winners, confirming my generally low opinion of modern Eurovision. NO.

SPOON – “Hot Thoughts”: Spoon’s horniest, itchiest album came out just as anti-depressants dropped a neutron bomb on my libido, but their dry rhythmic contraptions carried enough vicarious heat to make Hot Thoughts my favourite rock LP in ages. NO.

TOVE LO – “disco tits”: TBH the juxtaposition of these makes it pretty obvious my numbed-brain was hunting for the memory of sensation! This is somehow even druggier and nastier than “Stay High”, a horrible chemsex vortex in the great Blackout tradition. NO.

SUNNY SWEENEY – “Pills”: There’s not a lot of country music on the longlist, because I don’t listen to it much, but especially in the 10s there were a bunch of country or Americana songs by women I listened to a lot. My favourite country song of 2017, Angaleena Presley’s world-weary “Wrangled”, wasn’t a single. This, my second-favourite, was – at least I *think* it was. A cover of a Brennen Leigh song, a withering address to a former drug buddy, given a snarkier delivery and a harder beat. NO.

THE MOUNTAIN GOATS – “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds”: Probably the jauntiest Mountain Goats song I’ve ever heard – naturally it’s on their Goths LP – and a beautifully arranged piece that’s also a warmly funny meditation on something I think about a lot: your changing, unbreakable, relationship to your hometown and the enthusiasms of your youth. YES.

I’m going to do 2018 too – same deal applies: grim times, great LPs, a few pop songs filtered through.

THE 1975 – “Love It If We Made It”: I respect the ambition of this – Pitchfork’s track of the year (which feels remarkable in a lot of different ways) – an attempt to make a huge eighties-core liberal anguish song amidst the apparent meltdown of the political order people like Matty Healy and me had known. He’s channeling, of all things, Kevin Keegan’s 1995 football rant and turning it into a simple expression of hope against all odds. Impossibly cringe and yet weirdly affecting. NO but partly cos he’s so annoying.

PUSHA T – “If You Know You Know”: My knowledge of the economics of dealing coke is pretty limited but if there’s one thing I can relate to it’s an expert in a particular job having to deal with know-it-all idiots. Very strong “LinkedIn reply” energy from King Push as he lays down the (mostly inscrutable) lore. YES.

CARDI B – “Be Careful”: I quite liked “Bodak Yellow” but this was the track which made me realise Cardi B’s talent – all her force on the verses and then cold-as-ice danger on the chorus. Better to come, though. NO.

SONS OF KEMET – “My Queen Is Harriet Tubman”: Much like the Mercury my longlist has a token jazz record! This is kind of a marker for all the jazz, old and new, I was listening to across these years – as befitted my age, harrumph. Even though this was a single I don’t really think of the scene in ‘singles’ terms, try and keep still to this one though. NO.

KACEY MUSGRAVES – “Slow Burn”: Moving from country into the kind of orchestrated folk-Americana REM dug into on Automatic For The People, and honestly better than anything on that record. Starts off really grounded lyrically, then kind of vagues out as the melody and arrangement goes widescreen, but the music’s so spine tingling it earns that. YES.

JANELLE MONAE – “Make Me Feel”: This is as much a tactical question as a taste one – of everything in today’s post this is the most likely to place high in the #FearOfMu21c. I do like it – I think there’s enough of Monae in the bridge to move it beyond just being a Prince tribute – and it’s obviously The Beloved Pop Song Of 2018 as well as getting deserved props as a bi anthem. But do I like it enough? A YES for now.

ARIANA GRANDE – “No Tears Left To Cry”: Whereas I’ve fallen off hard on Ariana Grande, who’s slipped for me from a great pop star to “best of a bad bunch”. This is still my favourite Grande track, shows off her voice well and the way the big trancey chords push the song forward is interesting to me, but…NO.

Next: I’m gonna take my horse down to 2019, and there’s not much there. But THEN – we’re into the poll era and things get spicy again.