We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
It’s been 365 days since One Direction last appeared all together at the 2015 The X Factor finale — an anniversary unofficially marked by Louis Tomlinson’s solo debut and the support of his former bandmates backstage at a recent show. (The latter happened for a heartbreaking reason: Harry Styles, Liam Payne, and Niall Horan were there to console Louis after the death of his mum, Johannah Deakin.)
What a difference a year makes! Personal life developments included, each of the boys has grown and changed in ways none of us (but especially me) predicted: Some became fathers, others are allegedly soon to become fathers, and the rest are Harry Styles on the cover of Another Man magazine.
With that in mind, here's the official 1D power ranking as we head into 2017. While some of us (hello) have been accused of stanning for Harry (you don’t know my life), please note that this list was completed with the utmost objectivity, despite the urge to include dozens of question marks and exclamation points next to Liam Payne’s name. These calculations are concrete and accurate. They are math. Let the countdown begin.
4. Liam Payne
In the immortal words of Jack Berger on Sex and the City, I’m sorry, I can’t — don’t hate me. While 2016 certainly saw an increase of public appearances by Liam, it also included a recent row with The X Factor judge Louis Walsh and a rumored pregnancy with girlfriend Cheryl Fernandez-Versini. Those headlines are great if you’ve got some work news to go along with them, but that wasn’t really the case.
Back in October, Liam teased fans by posting what appeared to be the makings of a solo debut on Instagram, but aside from tagging producers Danny Boy and Ben Billions (and songwriter Bibi Bourelly), all we had to go on were the sounds of an unfinished demo. See?
Add to this an artsy Twitter post of a studio with the caption “Hard at work,” and we’ve got about as much proof of progress as I have when I email an editor to say a piece is almost done. (It never is.) So if we were going by Liam’s capacity for keeping his name in the papers, he’s killing it. But work-wise? He’s all of us scrolling endlessly through Tumblr, telling ourselves we’re being creatively inspired.
3. Louis Tomlinson
With the news of his mom’s passing last week, Louis’s low-key 2016 makes a lot more sense. (Dude had more than just his post-1D life on his mind, and that's totally understandable.) So what did we get? He became a dad. (Welcome to the world, Freddie Reign!) He’s continuing to date actress Danielle Campbell. And then, on Sunday, he premiered “Just Hold On,” his song with Steve Aoki. And it was ... fine. It was good! It was reflective of Louis’s former flair for going out (never forget 2015), but it was also a live version after what I’m sure was a hell of a week — so it’s not like we could get the “PILLOWTALK” treatment (by which I mean: hear a finished, perfected version we could crank as loud as we wanted from our computers).
Which means that Louis is basically at the starting track of his solo chapter, having proven that his premier offering is something we can all probably dance to without demonstrating whether he’s willing to go deep for the rest of the album — or if there will even be a full album. Maybe his destiny is to be an exclusive collaboration guy. Maybe he’s the next Calvin Harris. Or maybe he finished performing on The X Factor and thought, Honestly, I’m over all this.
2. Niall Horan
OK, between us, I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t see Niall sneakily releasing “This Town,” I didn’t see him performing it on a regular basis, and I certainly didn’t see him teaming up with Jacquire King, who’s been heralding Horan as “the real deal.” You may have, but I didn’t, and now here we are.
Where are we? We’re safe. Niall’s music is safe. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the man who embraced the acoustic guitar back in the 1D days, and exactly as sweet and sentimental as you’d likely imagine Niall to be. (I mean, right? He’s the nice one — he’s blond and smiling and the one-man version of Plain White T’s. No one’s mom would be upset if you brought Niall home. And I still firmly believe he may not actually know that he was ever in a band.) And where Harry has left fans in suspense — more on that in a second — Niall has brought them along every step of the way. He goes to football games, he Snapchats with vigor, he sends notes and updates and tweets about how happy he is to be there. He’s the friend who got famous but hasn’t changed. He’s exactly who you want him to be, which means he isn’t about to drop some sort of dubstep wubs on hearts that want rainbows and butterflies. And safe isn’t bad — in fact, safe landed him a Top 25 single. Which is more than a lot of people can say.
1. Harry Styles
Look, I know, but hear this: Christopher Nolan. (OK, now imagine me whispering it.) This year, instead of taking the road oft traveled, Harry shed his hair and boy-band baggage and began filming Dunkirk, a World War II drama with a trailer that should’ve been nominated for every Golden Globe this year.
Where so many boy-band alums jump straight into their solo acts and cling to their existing fame like their lives depended on it, Harry is looking at his career in a broader sense. He seems to know that his fame as a musician isn’t disappearing anytime soon, so it’s time to prove himself as an actor. And this means he’s ending the year with serious possibility. While we know he inked a solo recording deal (and he spoke freely about his musical influences and his feelings about music in his Another Man interview), we still haven’t been teased with any particular sound. We actually haven’t been teased with ... anything. He’s stayed under the radar, he hasn’t really tweeted or posted on Instagram, and aside from an occasional appearance at a certain Jenner’s birthday party, he’s keeping his personal life personal. He is an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an Yves Saint Laurent blazer. Which means that he gets to dictate the terms of his 2017 narrative, and he has chosen to take his time and approach his projects with thought instead of capitalizing on his existing momentum.
And that is powerful. It’s the professional equivalent of merely staring at somebody who’s waiting for you to speak. Right? You’re (well, he’s) the captain now.
Honorable mention: Zayn Malik
🎶Climb aboard! I know he’s not a member.🎶 (It helps if you sing it like “PILLOWTALK.”) But look: Considering that the band has dissolved anyway, Zayn is as much a member of 1D as anybody else, and as I stated earlier, I make the rules for this power ranking.
Especially because the truth is this: Zayn has thrived in 2016. You know this, I know this, and I’m sure Gigi Hadid knows this, particularly since he was invited to the Met Costume Gala this year and none of the other boys were. And while he admittedly got a jump-start on his career by leaving the foursome back in March 2015, dude put out a decent-ish solo debut this year, published his autobiography, and began collaborating with Donatella Versace, thus furthering his cultural clout. So technically, yes, Zayn is ahead. He won. He’s the winner. But since those extra months give him an advantage over his previous crew, he’s not being officially included in this ranking, because I respect technicalities.
But we all know the truth. Even if you’re super mad about it.
Check out more from the year in music, culture, politics, and style in Signal & Noise 2016.