Recent developments in the Kenyan music scene has made the task of compiling “Best Of” lists such as the one below very difficult indeed. It is becoming harder and harder to ignore new and upcoming talent. Barely a month passes by these days before stumbling upon awesome new stuff from someone you’ve never heard of. 2016 also featured an interesting overlap between gospel and secular music, seeing artists associated with either side blurring the boundaries a bit. Consequently, our attempt at selecting the best music of 2016 has a significant helping of alternative genres and spiritual themes. We begin with Part 1 of our picks of the best 50 songs of the year. Part 2 will follow shortly.
50. Pascal Tokodi – Sitaki ft. AceyGracey
The actor and all-round creative’s foray into music (which began sometime in 2015 with a debut single and a strong showing at a Nigerian talent show called Tecno Own The Stage) seems to be finally paying off. Pascal Tokodi’s second single titled Sitaki struck a chord with the masses and, in true talent show fashion, was followed by a plethora of covers from folks hoping to win themselves a loose 50k. AceyGracey, the eventual winner, went on to make a heavenly acoustic version of Sitaki with Pascal. Whichever version suits you, the message remains the same. The heart wants what the heart wants. Listen below:
The acoustic version:
49. Gilad & Dela – Nakuahidi
Gilad Millo’s brisk rise to become one of the popular musical acts around here is an interesting anomaly. Apart from the stark novelty of his being a former Israeli diplomat now writing and performing songs in Swahili, there is something slightly dated about Gilad’s sound. His vocal signature brings to mind lead singers of new wave bands from the 80s and 90s. He kind of sounds like Phil Collins singing a slow version of Sting’s Englishman in New York. Very few Kenyan vocalists have that “new old” sound. His success, on the face of it, might seem to be based on these two factors. However, the fact that he places a lot of emphasis on the kind of songwriting that gives birth to songs crafted in a very uncomplicated way but brimming with emotion is probably what has endeared Gilad to both the mature and the young, hip crowds. Nakuahidi, performed with Dela, is all about commitment as a cornerstone of love.
48. Atwal – Like This ft. Steph Kapela
Atwal, the seasoned trap-leaning producer who brought us bangers such as All Day, released an album in September aptly named Trap Heaven on which he works with longtime collaborators such as Cr3w Te3flon, Ivory Namara and Chief Mufasa; as well as new talents such as Dave Ndegwa and Nuru. Like This featuring Steph Kapela captures the essence of the project well. Atwal repurposes the chord progression from Weldon Irvine’s Morning Sunshine for a thrilling beat that fits perfectly with Kapela’s sing-rapping.
47. Lon Jon – Drinking & Driving
For Lon Jon, a once blissful relationship has turned sour is becoming as dangerous as drunk driving. His journey back to safety on Drinking & Driving is documented on top of a sumptuously chilled out beat that sounds almost as exhausted as Lon Jon.
46. Visita – Elewa Lewa
The unrelenting pace at which a flood of tracks were released from the Pacho Entertainment and Grandpa Records converyor belts this year makes one wonder how their musical sausage is made. What comes first, the infectious beats or the catch-phrase that defines the choruses? Visita’s Elewa Lewa clearly emerges as the best of that lot, though. The former producer-in-chief of Grandpa Records responds to those who don’t understand how such songs dominate radio, clubs, and roadshows with a rhetorical question: “Si walisema tutakufa na shida/ati ngoma zetu ni za ujinga?” Either you get it or you are not drunk enough to get it. The song takes a subtle jab at the peculiar Kenyan trait of either ignoring critical issues that don’t affect them directly, or looking for solutions in the wrong places. Listen below:
45. Miss A – Welela
Amileena Mwenesi, currently rebranded as Miss A, hasn’t released a lot of material this year but the trickle that has come through still possess the level of quality we have come to expect from the Tusker Project Fame finalist. Possibly inspired by Mariam Makeba, Miss A’s Welela is about transcending difficult times and keeping the faith. Great stuff. Listen below:
44. Mankind – Your Move
After blessing us with North, King of Hearts and Dark Skin, the ability of Mankind to craft love songs that capture emotional highs with amazing detail is no longer debatable. The duo of MANE and The Cloak now take on the less pleasant bits of love in their latest track. Your Move describes the aspects of an unstable relationship that often get tucked away and unaddressed – the insecurities, selfishness, the guilt etc. – and how exposing these things to your lover could destroy the relationship or salvage it: “What if I took your hand/led you into the light?” Heavy stuff indeed. Coincidentally, this song has been carrying its own unresolved baggage ever since producer Shaq Deff came out to accuse Mankind of copyright infringement. Listen below:
43. Anthony Wasonga – Names With The President (Remix) ft. Alfa Mars
As the political tensions in Kenya continue to rise leading up to the 2017 general elections, it was only a matter of time before an artist weighed in on this issue. Anthony Wasonga’s Names With The President is a parody of the tribalism-based political rhetoric that is crippling many a mind. Alfa Mars features in the third verse representing the voice of the youth.
42. Simply Tomas – Colossal Failure
Every time Simply Tomas sings “Somehow, I’m a colossal failure” feels like that all too familiar temptation to scratch and pick at a scab. Doing it may feel ‘good’ but may leave you scarred in the end. The bittersweet conflict that accompanies the mellowness of the soft rock throughout this song is so beautiful. Simply Tomas is interested in the all the fallacies that help define general conceptions of success and failure; as well as the tug of war between our personal satisfaction and others’ expectations of us. A song that makes a strong case for the replay button.
41. Kahvinya – Up In There
Among the central points of departure in metaphysics are two basic questions: A. What is there? and B. What is it (whatever it is that there is) like? Kahvinya’s journey to the metaphysical in Up In There is not weighed down by the potential complexities of these questions. It is a simple discovery of something profound hidden in plain sight. Describing the bliss experienced during the soul’s awakening through meditation, Kahvinya’s there is a warm, unencumbered space that draws you in more and more. Supported by the ever reliable production chops of M³, Kahvinya has continued to surpass expectations ever since magically descending upon the music scene not so long go.
40. Dai – Honey Toes
Dai aka Daisy Ndede rides effortlessy atop a delicious Freddie Joachim chill-hop beat on Honey Toes, her debut musical release. Her great vocals rounds up what is a very satisfying final product that is dripping with sweet sensuality. We are hoping that there is much more from where that came from.
39. Odinareh Bingwa – Pressure
Odinareh Bingwa is among a crop of rappers from the Coast that have been on an upward trajectory of late. On Pressure, producer Motif whips up an immaculate trap beat as Odinareh talks about the things that keep him up at night. It’s all about the grind. Listen below:
38. Kwame – Aki Wewe
Kwame Rigii’s songwriting dexterity, vocal delivery, and fondness for Swahili and Gikuyu lyrics is the kind of combination that gives birth to silky smooth love songs that tug at the heartstrings. Aki Wewe, his late 2015 release that rolled over to 2016, is exactly that kind of song. As if those verses are not enough to make you weak in the knees, the chorus smothers you with a ton of kisses. Damn!
37. Andromeda Music – End the Scorge ft. Sam Warui of RASH
For the tight-knight community of Kenyan rock artists releasing music and performing on the fringes of the mainstream, unity is a matter of survival. A tangible demonstration of that unity comes in the form of Underscore The Architect, a collaborative album released through the Andromeda Music label. The project brings together artists and bands such as Dove Slimme, ParkingLotGrass, RASH, Koinange Street Avengers, Last Year’s Tragedy, Rish, and The Claymore Project. The result is an album characterized by a diversity of voices and sub-genres. While this diversity means that identifying the standout tracks depends on the listener’s preferred sub-genre, End The Scorge featuring Sam Warui of RASH is the general crowd pleaser, complete with a pretty rad chant-along section.
36. Wyre & DJ Protege – Work And Play
Released just in time for the December holidays, Wyre and DJ Protege’s new dancehall banger quickly loosens you up and makes you briefly forget whatever hang-ups that you may have. There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself and spoiling yourself accordingly. However, keep in mind that Njaanuary is just around the corner. Listen below:
35. St. Evo the Myth – Kau ft. Kwame
Equatorial House pioneer St. Evo the Myth has finally released a proper full-length album titled Jeru. The album showcases the full spectrum of the sub-genre through a diverse line-up of guest features from all over the continent including Idd Aziz, Bantu Clan, Ruby Gold, Tetu Shani, Nuru, Hybrid The Actuary and Toshi. One of the album’s crown jewels titled Kau featuring Kwame Rigii serves as a nice midpoint in the pan-African musical marathon. This 8 minute banger makes it easy to understand the underlying motivation of Equatorial House: creating and maintaining good vibes.
34. Dela & H_art The Band – Adabu
Being a song about lovers longing for intimate contact, Adabu gets straight to the point with a strong verse from Dela full of some very suggestive metaphors. The subsequent verses by H_art The Band significantly lower the temperatures, but the band’s back and forth with Dela keeps the seductive mood alive throughout. Definitely one of the sexiest songs this year. Adabu will make you want to do some very naughty things. Listen below:
33. Noel Nderitu – You
Here’s a near-impossible challenge: Go forth and find a single bad song by Noel Nderitu. We’ll wait. So far, the contemporary gospel artist has consistently come through with well-written and well-composed music. Produced by Tim Rimbui, Noel’s latest release titled You is a rousing call to re-discover a lost sense of self-worth and satisfaction by strengthening our faith.
32. Kaa La Moto – Nisikilize Mwanangu ft. Mzee Ngala
Mombasa-based hip hop artist Kaa La Moto’s approach of developing his craft with a similar approach to that of pioneers like Ukoo Flani; and tapping into the rich musical culture that has existed at the Coast for hundreds of years put him on our radar this year. His single Nisikilize Mwanangu is an unexpected collaboration between Kaa La Moto and Mzee Ngala, a legend of bango music. This fresh and out-of-the box fusion demonstrates how much better Kenyan hip hop can be if artists dust off those old records and sample off Kenyan sounds of the past. Listen below:
31. Simplly Addy & Labdi – Bakshishi
Simplly Addy and Labdi make a formidable musical tag team. The synergy between Addy’s afrohouse/deep house production and Labdi’s vocals has bordered on perfection, as evidenced by Waiting and Timbe, the two massive tunes they dropped in 2015. Their latest release titled Bakshishi is just as good. This song about unrequited love is ironically enjoyable on so many levels.
30. Alfa Mars – Maringo
When the term “maringo” is used to refer to women, more likely than not, it is meant to portray a negative kind of pride. Alfa Mars goes against the grain and chooses to concentrate on the power and beauty of African women; and asserts that their self-confidence is actually a positive trait.
29. Wanja Wohoro – Poison
To accompany Wanja Wohoro’s lyrics about cycles of toxic interactions between people who care for each other; and how they are slowly free-falling towards eventual doom, producer Jinku comes up with a haunting, hollow beat that settles right at the pit of the stomach. The overall composition on Poison communicates a subtle and mysterious anxiety. Truly a thing of beauty.
28. Khaligraph Jones – Ting Badi Malo ft. Chris Kantai
Alluding to the Gidi Gidi Maji Maji classic of the same name, Ting Badi Malo maps out Khaligraph Jones’ mission statement: to continue making music that will keep your hands in the air and make a lot of money in the process. The guest verse from Chris Kantai may be less-than-inspiring, but it does little to diminish the head bobbing flair of this tune. Listen below:
26. R.I.Z.E – Life ft. Dai
A relaxing, saxophone-laden track together with sultry vocals by Dai paying tribute to that very famous Des’ree song provide a fitting backup for R.I.Z.E to examine his life from the retrospective and forward-looking angles. This song simply lifts you up and takes you away. Far, far away.
26. Maia von Lekow & The Big Sky – Lola
“My heart flitters stronger than the wings of a dragonfly/open and translucent.“ Backed by guitar strums that seem to cheekily mimic the heart beating at a slightly elevated rate, Maia von Lekow mulls over the range of possibilities that open up after taking a relationship to the next level. Along with the excitement also comes fears and anxieties about what awaits around the corner: “Red light to green/in another unfamiliar scene.” Yet another showcase of Maia von Lekow’s delightful songwriting.