The Best Albums of 2016

2016 was a weird year for albums. Unlike many years, there’s no clear-cut consensus number one best album along the lines of Modern Vampires of the City or To Pimp a Butterfly, so there’s a lot more flexibility for choices for the best of the year. There were genres that had huge years (hip-hop, R&B, emo) and genres that had slow years (alternative rock, pure pop) but in the end, it was the capital-a Album, and all the hubbub around it, that dominated music this year. The insane album rollouts and announcements around Frank Ocean, Kanye West, and Beyoncé will never be replicated. After all, it’s about the music, and it was the music that allowed these albums to be my favorite of the year.

With apologies to James Blake, YG, Radiohead, Blood Orange, Schoolboy Q, Chairlift, NxWorries, dvsn, and Beyoncé (all of whom just missed the cut), here are the top 20 albums of 2016:

southern-family-cover-art1-120) Various ArtistsSouthern Family

Country music is great, and this compilation of adorably endearing odes to family just so happens to be the best country music release of the year. There’s just so much simple beauty in the twelve tracks here, like Zac Brown’s love letter to his grandma (“Grandma’s Garden”) or a stunningly stripped-back love ballad that’s as heartbreaking as anything I’ve heard this year (“Simple Song”). Even if you’re not the biggest country music fan, don’t let this compilation slip by you; it’s such a rewarding listen.

Essential tracks: “Simple Song” | “God Is A Working Man” | “Grandma’s Garden”

 

a1895762218_1019) ANOHNI | Hopelessness

“Hopelessness” could be the defining word of 2016, couldn’t it? It seems we saw more terrorist attacks, more racial divides, and more of an overall sense of apathy in people’s world views than ever before. ANOHNI’s Hopelessness, her first release separate from her Antony & The Johnsons moniker, is a seething look at hypocrisy and social regression that we’re seeing on a daily basis.

In a way, Hopelessness is a reverse of another highly political 2016 album in Solange’s A Seat At The Table. Unlike Solange’s effort, which focused on empathy and understanding, Hopelessness has no room for bullshit, no time for affinity. This is 11 bitingly cynical examinations of those who are seemingly both with and against ANOHNI’s beliefs, from the Stockholm Syndrome-esque crooning of “Watch Me” (in reference to the NSA’s surveillance) to the bombastic post-apocalyptics of “4 Degrees” to the heartbreakingly real “Drone Bomb Me”. This is music for the end times, a warning about what will happen if people don’t look towards progress and the future.

Essential tracks: “Drone Bomb Me” | “4 Degrees” | “Watch Me”

 

ce85b03f18) Wet | Don’t You

The first thing I notice when listening to a new Wet song is the pure style of it all. There are rarely any grand artistic flourishes, no unsettlingly poignant lyrics. Wet just make pure, slow, lush, stylish pop music as well as anyone else out there. The list of killer singles on Don’t You, their debut, is incredible: “It’s All In Vain”, “Deadwater”, “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl”, “Weak”, and “All The Ways” are all some of the prettiest pure pop songs of the last couple years. There’s nothing rough here, but the light guitars, spacey synthetic production, and ethereal synths make it exhilarating nonetheless.

Essential tracks: “It’s All In Vain” | “Deadwater” | “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl”

solange_cover-1475240092-1000x100017) Solange | A Seat At The Table

Many people close to me were traumatized and shocked by Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency. For someone who spewed so much garbage, most of it being harmful, to be elected to the most powerful individual position in the developed world can evoke a wide palette of feelings, from anger and disgust to fear and apprehension. Healing was necessary.

The album that I returned to over and over when I needed some catharsis and some recovery was Solange’s A Seat At The Table. While the album doesn’t really deal with many of the main issues of the election, instead preferring to focus on black womanhood in America, it was Solange’s staunch empathy that helped convince me that things would be okay. This is not a stereotypical “angry Black woman” album (although her sister, Beyoncé, dropped one this year that happened to be one of the year’s best). No, on A Seat At The Table, Solange deals with her anxieties with beautiful music and an eye on perspective. An interlude partway through the album states that black pride doesn’t have to mean antagonizing any other race. “Why is that so hard to understand?” the voice asks. With A Seat At The Table, Solange promotes understanding as a key factor in healing and progress.

Essential tracks: “Cranes in the Sky” | “Mad” | “Don’t Touch My Hair”

 

1bcdfd6b-116) Kendrick Lamar | untitled unmastered.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was the consensus album of the year last year, and in my opinion, it’s the best hip-hop album of the 21st century. So everything he puts out is going to be graded on an impossibly high curve, and on an album of outtakes and b-sides from his Butterfly sessions, he’s managed to surpass those expectations.

This is woozy, jazzy, west coast classic hip-hop, from the intoxicating “untitled 02” to the slow build of “untitled 07” to the unbridled energy of “untitled 03“, everything here is just as musically sound as To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s a testament to the quality of that album that music this good was relegated to a throwaway list untitled b-sides. I think King Kendrick’s earned his title.

Essential tracks: “untitled 02” | “untitled 03” | “untitled 07”

 

download-515) Danny Brown | Atrocity Exhibition

I’m a big fan of positive music, but sometimes I need something a little bit more edgy. Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s last album, 2013’s Old, presented EDM-rap bangers with a sinister edge to them that exhilarated me and had me chomping at the bit to find out what he might do next. I didn’t expect Atrocity Exhibition, an album as terrifying as it is intoxicating.

The opening track to this album is titled “Downward Spiral”, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a song title so apt. Atrocity Exhibition is a tale of the Detroit ghetto, from dope-pushing (and using) to violence to partying to graphic tales of sex. Brown’s choices of beats are more experimental than any other major rap release this year, from the sour electronica of “When It Rain” to the blaring, booming horns of “Ain’t It Funny”. This album is as close to a roller coaster as I’ve seen. It’s like watching The Wire; it’s supremely entertaining, but I’m glad it’s not my reality.

Essential tracks: “Really Doe” | “Ain’t It Funny” | “When It Rain”

 

b369b59514) The Avalanches | Wildflower

For my money, the long-anticipated follow-up to The Avalanches’ great debut, Since I Left You, stands right up to it. It’s a wonderfully kaleidoscopic romp through hip-hop, disco, and the origins of rap in New York. There are MF Doom and Danny Brown-featuring bangers alongside psychedelic pop that samples beautiful seventies strings. The music is so lush, and I think that this music video speaks for itself:

Essential tracks: “Because I’m Me” | “Frankie Sinatra” | “The Noisy Eater”

 

bonitogenerationartwork-147641444713) Kero Kero Bonito | Bonito Generation

What happened, Parker? You’re putting a fucking J-pop album as one of the very best of the year? Over Radiohead, Beyoncé, Solange, Danny Brown, and Kendrick Lamar? You feeling okay???

Yes, Kero Kero Bonito’s J-pop debut, Bonito Generation, is incredible. There is not a single skippable song on this thing. If you love off-beat, cute pop with a wide range of musical styles, don’t skip this thing over. There are so many ideas here, from the UK garage of “Lipslap” to the EDM of “Trampoline” to the bubblegum bass of “Graduation” to the dreamy beach-pop of “Fishbowl”. And it’s all done with an artistic, deft producer’s touch that perfectly complements lead singer Sarah Bonito’s adorably braggadocious lyrics. Yes, she raps in Japanese a lot. I’m not weeaboo trash. I don’t give a shit. Listen to this thing. It’s better than your RiRi, your T-Swift, and your Chainsmokers.

Essential tracks: “Waking Up” | “Graduation” | “Lipslap”

 

how-to-dress-well-care-640x64012) How To Dress Well | Care

Tom Krell says the word “care” dozens of times on his album of the same name. The alternative PBR&B auteur transformed into a pure pop singer-songwriter for his fourth album as How To Dress Well, and the results are fantastic. The music is lush; most songs are backed with piano, strings, twinkly guitars, sweet synthesizers, or some combination thereof. And Krell is earnest and impassioned throughout, almost to a fault.

And the hooks! Songs like “What’s Up”, “I Was Terrible”, and “Anxious” pack as many hooks as possible into 3-5 minutes, meaning that nearly every moment on this album is lovely, exhilarating pop. And even though some of the lines are eye-rollingly corny (“Had a nightmare about my Twitter mentions,” the consent-pop of “Can’t You Tell”), the music is so consistently lush and blissful that they can be ignored. Care will give you hope in these tought times.

Essential tracks: “What’s Up” | “I Was Terrible” | “Anxious”

 

e95ebca311) Weezer | Weezer (White Album)

Eventually, when people start listening to more underground music and reading music websites, they realize that Weezer didn’t just make catchy pop-rock songs in the 90s; they made some of the most compelling indie rock in the genre’s history. Albums like Blue Album and Pinkerton are hailed as classics because of their pop sensibility and Rivers Cuomo’s unique talents as a frontman: nerdy, narcissistic, and earnest.

I love Weezer, but they haven’t done anything remotely as good as those albums in the 2000s. That is, until they dropped their White Album this spring. It instantly transported me back to their relevance; here, Weezer proved that they don’t have to compromise artistic integrity to make music with earworms and fun. This is their funniest album; seeing these adolescent lines about girls and growing up being sung by a 40 year-old is some grade-A comedy. There’s not a bad song of the bunch; White Album stands shoulder-to-shoulder with their best.

Essential tracks: “Thank God For Girls” | “King of the World” | “Endless Bummer”

 

we_got_it_from_here_thank_you_for_your_service10) A Tribe Called Quest | We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service

This is aural gold for hip-hop fans. If you consider yourself a hip-hop purist — one of those people who loves it when people just get down to business and straight-up spit fire — then We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service is for you. If you’re someone who likes live guitars and drums to back your hip-hop, instead of this synthesized crap, then this album is for you. If you think rap should mean something, then this is for you. A Tribe Called Quest, after 18 years and the death of one of its members, have unfathomably come out with the best album of their career.

You wouldn’t know that Phife Dawg passed away earlier this year due to complications from diabetes, based on how damn alive he sounds. Q-Tip brings some incredible samples and production to go along with his distinctive, energetic voice. Jarobi raps on a Tribe album for the first time, and it’s incredible that we lasted this long without him. Consequence and (in particular) Busta Rhymes, two rappers that people said were washed up, establish themselves as bona fide members of the Tribe with the best performances they’ve had in decades. Kanye West, Elton John, Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, Anderson .Paak, Jack White, and co. all show up to add necessary contributions but never make themselves the focus. This is a Tribe album through and through, a fantastic closing statement from the greatest hip-hop band in history.

Essential tracks: “The Space Program” | “We The People” | “Movin Backwards”

 

a0463988403_109) Pinegrove | Cardinal

Emo revival, right? I tend to think that term is a little bit overblown; cynicism may have gotten the better of us in the mid-2000s, but we’ve always had our My Chemical Romance and Simple Plan to give us some #sadboy thoughts.

No, I think the better explanation is that we’re seeing the return of pure earnestness. It’s really hard to be cynical and difficult all the time; it drive away friends and makes people jaded and unhappy. Pinegrove’s Cardinal — the best emo album of 2016 — is pure, concentrated earnest lyrics and relaxed instrumentals. “Old Friends” and “New Friends” are two of the best songs of the year, fantastic bookends about what home really means in an increasingly globe-trotting society. There’s not an ounce of cynicism on Cardinal, and lead singer Evan Stephens Hall’s voice is stretchy and dorky, but it works. One of the most wonderful, unassuming debut albums of 2016.

Essential tracks: “Old Friends” | “Then Again” | “New Friends”

 

985e010a8) Bon Iver | 22, A Million

It might be over soon.” That’s how Justin Vernon commences his third album as Bon Iver. It’s not exactly an encouraging start; Bon Iver is known for sprawling, grand, orchestral statements of folk and pop that spread across both headphone channels. It was also Bon Iver’s first album in five years, so will I be satisfied if the album is over soon?

Resulting opinions were mixed. 22, A Million isn’t just different than Bon Iver’s previous efforts, it’s different from anything I’ve ever heard. Vocal manipulations and electronic distortion and compression, intercut with obscure samples, make this sound like a landscape where the organic and synthetic are fused. Allusions to God and spirituality are frequent. Vernon, who has been open and honest about his struggle with mental illness, sounds like he’s having an existential crisis.

At least, that’s what the lyrics say. The music, on the other hand, is just as warm as his previous albums. Despite the aural robotics, Vernon’s stunningly emotive voice shines through like a heater in the winter. 22, A Million is a reminder that the electronic aspects of life can be just as rewarding as those that are living.

Essential tracks: “22 (Over Soon)” | “29 #Strafford APTS” | “8 (circle)”

 

the_life_of_pablo_alternate7) Kanye West | The Life Of Pablo

You’d be shocked how much of the populace hates Kanye West. A flamboyant, controversial black man in power who sometimes oversteps decorum and poise is met with vitriol even at his tiniest actions. He’s not a blameless figure; cheap controversy attempts like saying that he would’ve voted for Donald Trump and “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!” aren’t doing him any favors. But man, he’s just a guy with a beautiful wife and two adorable children who makes the most compelling pop music this side of Frank Ocean.

The Life Of Pablo is equal parts a plea for acceptance and a lashing-out against those who have criticized him. We have stunning, introspective, beautiful songs like “Ultralight Beam”, “Waves”, and “Real Friends” contrasted with statements of defiance like “Feedback” and “Freestyle 4”. Only Kanye could follow up “This is a God dream/ This is everything” with “If I fuck this model/ And she just bleached her asshole/ And I get bleach on my T-shirt/ Imma feel like an asshole.” The music is as heavenly and glorious as it is repulsive and distorted. And at the end, all we’re left with is Kanye’s ruminations on his family.

In mid-November, Kanye checked into a hospital with temporary psychosis due to stress. I think the majority of America felt the same way after this year.

Essential tracks: “Ultralight Beam” | “Real Friends” | “Saint Pablo”

 

chance_36) Chance The Rapper | Coloring Book

Positivity is radical. That’s an observation that legions of critics and fans made in response to Chance The Rapper’s newest mixtape, the kaleidoscopic Coloring Book. I’m not sure that’s the case, though; more than ever, people are embracing being comfortable and happy in your own skin, as well as being able to do and enjoy what you love without judgment. No, Coloring Book isn’t radical in that it’s happy; Coloring Book is radical in that there’s not an ounce of cynicism in the music.

Very few artists act with as much passion and respect for their craft as Chance The Rapper. He’s a self-made man, the most successful independent artist of our generation. He’s proven that one can stick to his or her guns and values while still reaching the pinnacle of his field, and he’s epitomized that with Coloring Book.

From the anti-establishment braggadocio of “No Problem” (complete with fantastic, relatable verses from 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne) to his various proclamations of love for his God (“Angels”, “How Great”, “Blessings”), Chance carves out a truly singular place for himself in modern hip-hop. Even taking away the fact that the music sounds great (how about the choirs on “How Great”, Jeremih’s coda on “Summer Friends”, or Eryn Allen Kane’s sitcom doo-doo-doos on “Finish Line”?), Coloring Book is so welcoming, so accepting, and so damn enthralling that it’s Chance’s best project yet. It’s a testament to his potential that I believe he can do so much more.

Essential tracks: “No Problem” | “Same Drugs” | “Angels”

 

lil_yachty_lil_boat_the_mixtape-front-large5) Lil Yachty | Lil Boat

I’m not usually one to quote myself, but here, I feel it’s necessary. On my Top 50 Singles of 2016, I had this to say about the young rapper: “Lil Yachty is a fucking godsend.” In a year of everybody taking everything far too seriously, young Miles McCollum had the gall to release a sugary sweet trap confection in his debut mixtape, Lil Boat. The music on this album is a dream, barely registering as hip-hop. Lovely melodies and adorable lyrics were complimented by colorful, occasionally psychedelic production. And the young Yachty’s age (still just a teenager!) adds a certain earnestness and excitement to the tape.

For the most part, Lil Boat‘s lyrics are standard trap boilerplate, and they’re cringey on occasion (“Diamonds so cold, you might need a fan“???), but once you get past the words and dive into the record’s sounds, it’s a fantastic experience. I’d be shocked if Lil Yachty made a project as good as this again, but in 2016, he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with hip-hop’s greats.

Essential tracks: “Minnesota (Remix)” | “Good Day” | “One Night”

 

leonard-cohen4) Leonard Cohen | You Want It Darker

With a decorated music and poetry career spanning more than a half-century, Leonard Cohen didn’t have anything to prove at 82. Yet he gave us You Want It Darker, a poignant and knowing look at death, spirituality and love. His voice, which used to be so tender and endearing, was now impossibly gravelly and low, was world-weary and resigned. He sounded like a wise owl, if that owl had endured heartbreak for decades.

The imagery on You Want It Darker is full of dualities. Cohen struggles over his beliefs on “Treaty” and chant’s “Hineni! Hineni!” on the title track, nodding to his Jewish origins. It’s a perfect final album, one that stands toe-to-toe with David Bowie’s Blackstar.

Essential tracks: “Treaty” | “On The Level” | “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”

 

ch132-goon-sax-rgb3) The Goon Sax | Up To Anything

It’s so satisfying to find a diamond in the rough. From picking up a little-known fantasy football player to seeing potential in a student, I love the satisfaction of identifying something fantastic on a bit of a hunch. The Goon Sax, a trio from Brisbane, Australia, are my unassuming artist from 2016 that blew me away and leaving me feeling like I had just struck gold. There’s so much solid, jangly indie pop going around that I could’ve easily let this band slide. Luckily, I picked up their record, and I’m so glad that I did.

Up To Anything is, simply put, the best indie pop debut in recent memory. Tons of bands try to emulate youthful feelings, but the members of the Goon Sax don’t have to try: they’re all teenagers. Their lead singer is the son of Louis Forster, who co-founded indie pop pioneers the Go-Betweens. This type of music is in the band’s blood, but they put enough genuineness in their lyrics to make them stand out from the pack. They’re equal parts funny and sad; melodrama with a hint of self-awareness.

The younger Forster is tall, handsome, and queer, and that’s expressed beautifully and lightheartedly on lead single “Boyfriend,” but it’s the songs where guitarist James Harrison takes over vocals that truly make the band shine. “Sometimes Accidentally” and “Telephone” prove that teen angst and sadness, even if it’s melodramatic, is still legitimate. The Goon Sax showed so much promise on this debut that they have me praying for more major-label recognition.

Essential tracks: “Sometimes Accidentally” | “Telephone” | “Boyfriend”

 

0e1836c92) Anderson .Paak | Malibu

In an interview with Hot 97, New York City’s premier hip hop station, Anderson .Paak was asked how to say the second part of his stage name. “Pack or Pock,” he said; “it doesn’t really matter. Just don’t forget the dot. I’ve been overlooked for so long, and now it’s time for people to remember me.”

Well, Christ, you didn’t need to say it out loud, .Paak. His 2016 speaks for itself, with an unmatched level of quantity and quality in the music he released. His stunning major-label debut, Malibu, wasn’t even the only album he released this year — he had a wonderful bedroom soul album with Knxwledge as NxWorries in Yes, Lawd!Malibu is the most promising debut from a soul artist since Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE, with its effortless melding of styles (such as hip-hop, pop, R&B, rock, and funk) that fuses together to form a neat neo-soul package.

On Malibu, .Paak was hilarious (“Silicon Valley,” “Come Down”), sexy (“Waterfall,” “Room In Here”), and heartbreakingly personal (“The Season / Carry Me,” “The Dreamer”). He was charismatically braggadocious and unflappingly humble. He got a co-sign from Dr. Dre — and had the foresight to leave his track with Dre off the album, as it didn’t fit the mood. Everything .Paak touches is gold, from his fantastic contributions to other people’s work (KAYTRANADA’s “Glowed Up,” Mac Miller’s “Dang!”) to his wonderful performances on late night television. .Paak dominated 2016, and Malibu was his pinnacle.

Essential tracks: “The Season / Carry Me” | “Silicon Valley” | “The Waters”

 

5f06f7f61) Frank Ocean | Blonde

Frank Ocean somehow took the most anticipated album of the last decade and had it escape expectations.  This album is nothing like channel ORANGE; it’s not weaving tales of southern drug life or shitty wealthy children or a conflicted relationship between a prostitute and her pimp. No, Blonde took one style of song — the ballad, of all things — and flipped it on its head. Never before has an album this popular been so stripped back, so revealing yet obtuse, and so unmistakably unique.

The lyrics on this thing, guys. “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me,” how Frank starts “Ivy”, leads the listener to believe it might be a wonderful love song. “The start of nothing,” proves the opposite: it’s one of the saddest, most believable breakup songs in recent memory. On “Good Guy”, Frank recalls a blind date; “You text nothing like you look … You talk so much more than I do.” He can’t get over a lover on “Self Control” when he pleads his for them to “Keep a place for me; I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing.”

The album’s bookends, “Nikes” and “Futura Free”, are such kaleidoscopic trips that they escape classification. The collaborator list here is extravagant: contributions from Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, André 3000, Pharrell, Tyler, The Creator, Rostam, Jamie xx, Rostam, James Blake, Jonny Greenwood and many more, plus samples from the Beatles and Elliot Smith. The music is never not beautiful.

It all comes together at the album’s climax, the soulful “Godspeed.” All the conflict, dissonance, and tension is swept away with one simple line: “I will always love you.” It’s how I feel about life and this turbulent year; no matter how bad things get, how bad I screw up, or how many different things go wrong, my life is still great. “You’ll have this place to call home, always,” is how Frank concludes his verse. Music will always be solace.

Essential tracks: “Ivy” | “Self Control” | “Solo”

***

Thanks for reading! Did I get anything wrong? What did you love this year? Let me know.

Parker

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The 50 Best Songs of 2016

2016 was the year that I moved away from singles and finally became an album listener. Not that songs aren’t great on their own, but a full album of material has started to move me more deeply than just a three-minute cut.

However, it has given me some perspective on why I love music so much: how it makes me feel. And a big reason for that is, well, the music! So when I see oppressive, difficult acts like Nick Cave and David Bowie dominating this year’s year-end lists, it’s a bit frustrating, and I ask myself: “Where are the songs?” Bowie’s Blackstar is a moving work of art, no doubt, but as an album of music? There’s nothing here I’d listen to on my own.

So here’s to the song, to people like Lil Yachty and Kero Kero Bonito and Skrillex who will never make year-end lists from sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum but just know how to make a damn good song. Despite my move towards albums, I’ve realized that three minutes might just change your life.

50) Francis & The Lights | “Friends” (feat. Bon Iver)

49) Kanye West | “Saint Pablo” (feat. Sampha)

On Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo, I always considered everything past the intermission to be bonus tracks. “Saint Pablo”, released months after Pablo‘s initial drop, corrected that thought. It ties up the themes of the albums so succinctly and so eloquently — had it been on the original release, I have no doubt that most publications would have highlighted “Saint Pablo” as a standout track.

People tryna say I’m going crazy on Twitter/ My friends’ best advice was just to stay low.” When Kanye went on his absurd Twitter rants in the lead-up to Pablo‘s release, many questioned his sanity and mental health. Here, he proves he’s self-aware; he just doesn’t give a damn. When Sampha cries “Father, father, father,” on the hook, there’s not an ounce of pretense. This isn’t Kanye at his most vulnerable. It’s Kanye at his most transparent.

48) dvsn | “Too Deep”

The opening vocals on dvsn’s “Too Deep” — a highlight from their debut, Sept. 5th — are almost too perfect to handle. The three-part harmonies are definitive 2000s R&B: smooth, sensual, and influenced by hip-hop. When lead singer Daniel Daley lets loose his response, it’s pure bliss. It doesn’t matter that the song’s lyrics have no subtlety (“We’re in too deep/ Don’t wanna pull out.“); the perfect match of vocals, theme, and production have made “Too Deep” a permanent addition to my bedroom playlist — for sleeping or otherwise.

47) Lil Peep | “Kiss”

Rap-rock has (deservedly) received a lot of criticism and disdain for how generally poor the quality of the genre is. It takes something truly exhilarating like Sum41’s “Fat Lip” or Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” for the genre to even garner reserved praise, and even platinum-selling artists like Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit are laughed at.

The problem is that rap-rock rarely takes the best parts of both genres and makes them into a solid fusion piece; instead, it’s usually just guys rap-singing over generic pop-rock instrumentals. That’s what makes Lil Peep’s “Kiss” such a breath of fresh air: it takes a subgenre of rock (emo) and fuses it with the most popular song in pop today: trap. Much of the credit should go to producer SmokeASac, who effortlessly melds soft emo guitars with trunk-rattling sub-bass and vocal manipulation. Lil Peep’s sad boy lyrics are nothing to write home about, but its their earnestness that makes “Kiss” the best rap rock song in recent memory.

46) Weezer | “Thank God For Girls”

I’m so glad that we finally — after 20 years — got another great Weezer album. For Weezer (White Album), the band was able to recapture that combination of pop accessibility and weirdo man-child personality that made them so unique. The best example of this return to form is lead single “Thank God For Girls,” an absolute maze of references, role reversals, and Rivers Cuomo’s signature awkwardness. Just look at this passage:

God took a rib from Adam, ground it up in a centrifuge machine
Mixed it with cardamom and cloves, microwaved it on the popcorn setting
While Adam was like, ‘that really hurts!'”

Bonkers. I’m happy that Weezer’s back.

45) Chance The Rapper | “No Problem” (feat. 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne)

Chancellor Bennett is the biggest independent rapper in the genre’s history. Objectively. He commands tens of thousands of dollars to be booked for a single show. He is the only unsigned artist to appear on SNL. He got Justin Bieber to sing on one of his songs — and essentially had the Biebs sing background vocals for fucking Towkio. It’s that creative control and and refusal to make music on anything but his own terms that makes Chance so fantastic — and so unique.

“No Problems” is Chance’s independence concentrated into a mission statement. Of course, there’s the refrain; “If one more label try to stop me, there’s gon’ be some dreadhead n****s in your lobby.” But there’s more to it than that — just look at the features, 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne, each of whom have had their own label issues. Their collaboration, Collegrove, was supposed to be a dual credit, but label red tape prevented that, making 2 Chainz the sole lead artist. Combining the three artists’ label angst into one cohesive track makes “No Problem” transcend the status of similar hip-hop bangers.

44) Beyoncé | “FORMATION”

Leave it to Beyoncé to make cops look like complete wimps. After “FORMATION” was released, its accompanying video showed Queen Bey dancing on a cop car, which hurt the little feelings of police officers all around the United States. Poor guys. Police in both Pittsburgh and Miami (unsuccessfully) threatened to not work Beyoncé’s concerts in the future. The mere idea that somebody in a high-profile position might question systematic racism in the American police force was apparently too much to handle for these men who are supposedly protecting us from danger.

“FORMATION” is less of a song and more of a mission statement. “I like my Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils,” Beyoncé snarls. “When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster.” In one song, she exhibits more pure, concentrated, white-hot energy and power than most of her contemporaries do in an entire career. And it’s that willingness to make art on her own terms that makes Beyoncé one of the most compelling artists in popular music history.

43) Baauer | “How Can You Tell When It’s Done?” (feat. CZ)

Not much to say about this song. It fucking bangs.

42) Jimi Tents | “All Of It”

New York rap newcomer Jimi Tents has the same kind of laid-back confidence that makes artists like T.I. and Freddie Gibbs so intriguing. His best song — the Atlanta trap-influenced “All Of It” — also happens to be the most prominent example of that confidence. “Wanna ride in the Range for a little bit? That’s cool, I don’t drive, but get in the whip,” is a great showcase of the give-no-fucks attitude that Tents exudes. “All of my n****s want all of it,” he demands. You better believe him.

41) ANOHNI | “Drone Bomb Me”

This election season, we had countless hours of TV footage, multiple scandals, three debates, and more, yet I can’t recall a single mention of drone strikes. The United States’ best way of dealing with terrorists also happens to kill hundreds of innocents, including women and children. Every drone strike from 2009 to 2013 had to be approved by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She rejected less than five percent of those proposals.

The music video for ANOHNI’s stunning “Drone Bomb Me” shows supermodel Naomi Campbell on the verge of tears. She implores the listener (“Drone bomb me,” “Blow my head off,” “Explode my crystal guts,” “I want to die”). It sounds bitingly sarcastic without context; when ANOHNI reveals that the song is from the perspective of a nine year-old girl who has lost her parents as a result of drone strikes, it’s gut-wrenching.

40) The Avalanches | “Because I’m Me”

I think that upon discovering the Avalanches’ 2000 debut, Since I Left You, just about everyone listens to the opening title track with a smile. It’s a string-backed soul classic about seeing everything in a new light after leaving an unsatisfying relationship. “Since I left you, I found the world so new,” the vocalist sings. It’s a moment of pure elation.

The opener to the Avalanches’ follow-up (more than a decade in the making), “Because I’m Me”, evokes the same feeling. I’m instantly transported to a mid-seventies Brooklyn disco club, just when hip-hop was beginning to take form as a genre. The singing, the rapping, and the strings make “Because I’m Me” transcendent. It’s self affirming on the hook. “If she don’t love me, what can I do? Just put on my best pair of shoes — because I’m me!

39) Charli XCX | “Vroom Vroom”

I’ve long maintained that SOPHIE is the best producer in contemporary pop, and he’s only solidified that thought with “Vroom Vroom”, the lead single off Charli XCX’s EP of the same name. It’s more of the signature bubblegum n’ bass  sound that we’ve come to expect from SOPHIE, but it’s a definite stylistic departure from Charli’s pop-punk origins. That doesn’t matter, because it’s a fucking banger, and Charli shows off more character here than she did on the entirety of Sucker. “Vroom Vroom” also signified the first established pop star working with PC Music in a transparent way; here’s hoping there’s more to come.

38) Zac Brown | “Grandma’s Garden”

This year’s Southern Family compilation album was an absolute treat. Dave Cobb managed to take modern country instrumentation and production’s accessibility and make it interesting for the more discerning listener. The best song on the compilation, “Grandma’s Garden”, comes from Zac Brown, who’s probably been the most consistent voice on country radio over the last decade.

The song is precious. “Grandma had a garden in her backyard; she always had a way with things that grow,” is the track’s opening line, and it only gets sweeter from there. Of course, Grandma’s true garden isn’t a physical area with plants and soil; it’s her family, and she’s molded it and nourished it from humble beginnings into legitimate matriarchal status. “Without her, I wouldn’t have a prayer,” Brown sings. The listener gets a genuine sense that he means it, and as someone who has been incredibly close with his grandmother, that means a lot.

37) Animal Collective | “FloriDada”

I’ve never been a huge fan of Animal Collective and their constant status as a critical darling in the underground. But they know how to make some incredible singles: pop songs that are experimental, seldom self-serious, and nearly always infectious. “FloriDada”, the lead single off 2016’s Painting With, is an unbelievable ball of whimsy and fun. On the verses, the vocal melodies overlap and fall over each other with grace, and on the chorus, the voices all come together for their catchiest pop hook — at least, since “My Girls”.

36) YG | “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” (feat. Nipsey Hussle)

Donald Trump is bad. Fuck Donald Trump.

35) How To Dress Well | “Anxious”

Even though I adored Tom Krell’s electro-R&B as How To Dress Well in previous years, his turn as a true pop auteur has gone over just as well. It’s successful because Krell understands the importance of hooks in pop; the lyrics could be gibberish, but if it has a great pop hook, then it’s a great pop song. The amount of hooks jam-packed into “Anxious”, Care‘s best song, is unbelievable. The lyrics are despondent, sometimes in an almost comical way (“Had a nightmare about my Twitter mentions“), but the music is pure bliss, with jangly guitars and rapidly bowed strings complementing the piano melody base. “Anxious” is a prime example of how indie pop can stand head-to-head with the Max Martins and Dr. Lukes of the world.

34) ZAYN | “iT’s YoU”

You can practically feel the Frank Ocean in this song. From the organ chords that open the track, evoking images of Ocean’s “Bad Religion”, to ZAYN’s soft, sensual vocals, which sound like “Pink Matter” or “Sierra Leone”, Ocean’s influences are barely concealed. Produced by Malay — who has been the mastermind behind Ocean’s best instrumentals — “iT’s YoU” is the one great track from ZAYN’s solo debut, Mind of Mine. The song’s video only adds to the sensuality. Starring possibly the two most attractive people alive, ZAYN and supermodel Nicola Peltz, the black-and-white vocals just ooze noir-inflected class. It’s a great matching image to a song that is all about a man trying to break himself open, but only getting as far as his heart will allow.

33) Jeremih | “oui”

For a long, long, time, Jeremih was simply the guy who sang “Birthday Sex” — the song that we (hilariously) post on our friends’ Facebook walls for their birthday. But when he finally released Late Nights, he was able to shed that label, emerging as one of the premier voices in contemporary R&B. For Jeremih, it’s all about his voice — when I say that his vocals are effortlessly beautiful, it comes across as an understatement.

“Oui” is Jeremih’s best song to date, and it’s viscerally lovely. Vamping piano flourishes construct the backbone of the track. It’s just all so sweet. He sings about everyday being her birthday and always being her Valentine. The sappy sweetness almost boils over on the hilariously clever hook: “There’s no ‘oui’ without ‘u’ and ‘i’.

32) M83 | “Go!”

After his breakthrough Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Anthony Gonzalez of M83 seemed to come to a realization: most casual listeners are song-oriented people. Rather than digest an entire album of music, most people will just take a song or two from an album and put that in their various playlists. For every 100 people who adore “Midnight City”, there are 20 who weep to “Wait”, 5 who groove to “Do It, Try It”, and 1 who chuckles at “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire”.

So he gave us Junk. And my one song that I still listen to from the record is “Go!”, a gargantuan 80s pop explosion makes me feel like I’m in a paint fight. Vocalist Mai Lan sounds so young while making a statement on the chorus: “I’m coming for you.” The track even ends with a roaring Steve Vai guitar solo! “Go!” is every bit an equal to “Midnight City”; I just don’t listen to the rest of Junk with as much wonder.

31) Bon Iver | “8 (Circle)”

Bon Iver is so cryptic in their music that the listener is forced to draw their own conclusions as to what the songs mean or stand for. Despite the warm beauty of 22, A Million standout “8 (Circle)”, there is really no clear telling of what auteur Justin Vernon is trying to say. I take it as this: a love song, but one step further.

When a love is truly great, it can become almost a psychedelic experience for both parties; people being so enthralled with each other that nothing else in the world matters. When Vernon mumbles “I’m underneath your tongue,” I took it as a reference to the psychedelic drug LSD. Then a divide grows between them (“We galvanized the squall of it all“) and Vernon realizes everything else he has in his life.

The climax of the song is “I’m an Astuary king,” which is interesting in the fact that “astuary” isn’t a word. But it sounds like “estuary”, which is a meeting point between salt- and freshwater. Vernon’s music is a rare melding of the organic and synthetic, and in this line, I believe he realizes that that is his true passion, unlike his failed love.

30) Owen | “An Island”

Mike Kinsella, aka Owen, has never really been one to mince words. As the leading man behind landmark emo acts like Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc and (one of my very favorite bands of all time) American Football, Kinsella’s unpretentious, genuine singing has captivated generations of #sadboys. His solo project, Owen, is a stripped-down version of these acts — frequently with just an acoustic guitar to back up his despondent thoughts.

“An Island”, a true highlight from Owen’s return to form The King of Whys, is a concentrated picture of what makes his’s music so great. The somber instrumental, featuring mezzo brass and sweet piano, sounds like fall in the midwest. But it’s Kinsella’s lyrics that make the song so affecting. “I’ve incisive intuition, always the first to know how everything ends,” he sighs, understanding that his efforts to resume a broken-off relationship are in vain. For me personally, one line stings harder than the rest: “Bullets in June.” June is not a month I look upon with fondness. It’s this deep connection of relatability that makes every Kinsella project stand out.

29) Frank Ocean | “Solo”

After being brought to prominence under the Odd Future banner, it’s quite remarkable that Frank Ocean has been able to portray himself as a solitary performer and artists. He is always the focus of his music, and his art always appears on his own terms. He doesn’t have a Max Martin or Ariel Rechtshaid that he relies on to produce for him, nor does he have a Birdman or Jay-Z to tutor him.

“Solo” is an exploration of that solitude. And if there’s one word I’d use to describe the sunny organs, it would be “content”. Ocean is perfectly content to do his own thing how he chooses. “I stay away from highways/ My eyes like them red lights.” I think he understands that even with all the fame and fortune that comes with being a pop star, he is still insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire/ Inhale, in hell there’s heaven,” should sound despondent, but it doesn’t; it sounds accepting.

28) Anderson .Paak | “Come Down” [Remix] (feat. T.I.)

Yes, LAWD. Anderson .Paak’s signature ad-lib is just about the perfect summation of my response hearing this track for the first time. It’s all southern-fried funk with a spicing of OutKast-style Atlanta hip hop. The guitar leads are nice and syncopated, the handclaps make it sound like there’s a party going on, and the tambourine projects the image of an audience member participating. And that bassline — I can’t help from feeling how HOT that groove is every time “Come Down” comes on.

The remix of the song does what a remix should — adding something tangible and valuable without altering what made the song great in the first place. T.I. who’s mastered sounding cool as hell, drops his best verse since “Big Beast”. He gets socially conscious; not in a way that’s subtle or thought-provoking, but through incendiary fetishization of violence. “I fantasize shooting Trump down, a shot for every black man who got gunned down.” I probably won’t be calling him out on it.

27) Blood Orange | “Best To You” (feat. Empress Of)

Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, specializes in storytelling through a feminine eye. So it was no surprise that he enlisted Lorely Rodriguez, aka Empress Of, for his latest album, Freetown Sound. Rodriguez’s debut showcased the kind of 80% power, 20% vulnerability pop music that has become so dominant in the underground, and that 20% is the focus of “Best To You”.

Her lead melody is beautiful in and of itself, but the real meat of the song lies in its lyrics. “I can be the only one, I can be the best to you,” is less of an affirmation than a sign of desperation. Hynes plays the role of the doubts in the back of her mind: “Do you really want to? Did he even notice?” Finally, the thoughts reveal themselves in the most tense part of the track: “I can’t be the girl you want, but I can be the thing you throw away.” Then all the tension falls away, and the refrain is repeated once more; the cycle continues.

26) Sampha | “Timmy’s Prayer”

I had never heard a solo Sampha song until “Timmy’s Prayer”. Man, what an introduction. Sampha’s silken vocals aside, the track is an examination of contrasts, from the elation of highs to the devastation of lows. We see the crimson red of his bleeding heart against the sky blue of the the love he once had. There’s the analogy of a relationship being just as heavenly as heaven itself: “If heaven’s a prison, then I am your prisoner … I wish that I listened when I was in prison, now I’m just a visitor.” It all comes together subtly. Heaven literally exists in the sky, and when the sun sinks, Sampha is alone — just a visitor.

25) D.R.A.M. | “Broccoli” (feat. Lil Yachty)

Chicago balladeer D.R.A.M. and Atlanta crooner Lil Yachty are among the most infectiously uplifting artists in contemporary hip hop. So it makes sense that seeing them appear on the same track — the fantastic “Broccoli” — enhances each other’s pop sensibilities to legitimate chart success. From the simple plink of the staccato piano chords, to the deep sub-bass, to their singsong delivery, everything about this track screams “banger” — but only in the most 2016 way possible.

But the best part of the track is probably the lyrics themselves, which get by on sheer quotability and absurdity. From the shockingly distasteful “N**** touch my gang, we gon’ turn this shit to Columbine,” to the hilarious hook of “In the middle of the party, bitch, get off of me,” to D.R.A.M’s absurd “I acquired taste for salmon on a bagel with the capers on a square plate,” there’s no filler here. This was a star-making song for all involved.

24) Mike Posner | “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” (Seeb Remix)

The opening lines of this song are “I took a pill in Ibiza / To show Avicii I was cool / And when I finally got sober / Felt 10 years older.” Mike Posner says that to this day he doesn’t know what that pill was. But just like lovers of EDM, he took the plunge to have fun — even at the expense of his own safety.  It’s a rare introspective look into the life of a celebrity. Vulnerability isn’t a common quality of pop stars, but that’s the appeal of “Ibiza”: it exudes openness. It’s almost meta; Posner laments how his music career failed and talks about a terrible experience with one of the most influential EDM artists alive, but does so on an EDM song.

But “Ibiza” is different. There are no extravagant drops, no lurching sub-bass, no thundering percussion. It’s an accurate depiction of how the genre has progressed from novelty tracks like LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” and Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” to classy house music like Justin Bieber’s “Where Are U Now” and DJ Snake’s “Lean On”. The song is aural sugar, smoother than cream with absolutely no rough edges. Despite his issues, Posner seems to accept his standing. In the second verse, he reveals his thoughts: “I’m just a singer / Who already blew his shot / I get along with old timers / Cause my name’s a reminder / Of a pop song people forgot.” After “Ibiza”, Posner won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

23) Kero Kero Bonito | “Lipslap”

PC Music just won’t go away. The bubblegum n’ bass pop music label had a much slower year in 2016, but they still managed to drop some tracks that left me drooling for a full-length. It was English trio Kero Kero Bonito’s turn in 2016; their niche inserts K-pop and J-pop influences into the established PC Music sound. “Lipslap” is an appropriately sassy dancefloor jam that has lead vocalist Sarah Perry legitimately rapping in the most endearing way possible, dropping disses that would hurt a lot more if the listener wasn’t having such a great time.

22) Kendrick Lamar | “untitled 02”

I see jigaboos/ I see Styrofoams.” The most common themes in populist hip hop today are codeine-soaked nights wilding out without a care in the world. I think there’s a place for that, but Kendrick Lamar isn’t having it — there is no gain to be had from proliferating black stereotypes. His hood, the current rap sphere, is “going brazy” (his words), and the fact that he didn’t think this track was powerful or poignant enough to put on To Pimp A Butterfly shows just how much of an opus that album was.

21) Kweku Collins | “Stupid Rose”

“If I’m a rapper, she’s a bad bitch.” What might pass as casual misogyny from your average rapper is flipped into a multi-meaning thesis on “Stupid Rose”, the best song of Chicago auteur Kweku Collins’ young career. He elaborates on the second verse: it’s not that she isn’t a bad bitch, it’s that she’s so much more on top of that. On different days, the track is heard as an ode to weed or a love letter. Sometimes, if it’s spun just right, it’s both and more.

20) The Chainsmokers | “Closer” (feat. Halsey)

What the hell, Chainsmokers? Halsey, you too? Where did you get the gall to make one of the best damn pop songs of 2016? How the hell did you, who made awful, terrible trash like “Kanye” and “New Americana,” team up to compel me with an earworm that just won’t quit? Where did you get the idea to make ruminations on capitalism (Range Rovers that we can’t afford, casual theft) that bite hard as income inequality expands exponentially? Where did you get the ingenious idea to mention Boulder, CO and Tucson, AZ — which just so happen to have two of the 10 largest college campuses in the United States? What the hell, Chainsmokers???

19) Kanye West | “Real Friends” (feat. Ty Dolla $ign)

The Life Of Pablo is Kanye’s family album. It’s his first release since his marriage to Kim Kardashian and the birth of his two children. But “Real Friends” is the one track on the record that refers to Kanye’s extended family, the aunts and uncles and cousins he might find at a family reunion. It’s a reflection on the people who have always been on the fringes of life, never really becoming close or making an effort to make themselves known. The most telling lyric tells a recurring theme of fame: the “How are you?” text immediately followed by asking a favor. Kanye’s best work has always been that which is self-reflection, and “Real Friends” is one of the most poignant examples.

18) Hundred Waters | “Show Me Love” [Skrillex Remix] (feat. Chance The Rapper, Moses Sumney, & Robin Hannibal)

The first time I heard this song was during Hundred Waters’ fantastic performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. It was probably my favorite late night performance of 2016, with the beautiful Nicole Miglis taking center stage, surrounded by Skrillex (on guitar!) and Chance The Rapper bringing their signature elation. It’s an actual community project, with everyone involved providing valuable contributions to a song that’s about spreading love as far and wide as possible.

What started out as a quiet, unassuming hymn was remixed by Skrillex, with Chance and singer-songwriter Moses Sumney adding vocals, but the best contribution comes from Robin Hannibal, whose string arrangements as a member of Rhye are simply stunning. They are just as fantastic here. “Don’t let me show evil, though it might be all I take. Show me love!” Miglis implores on the chorus. It’s hard not to after just one listen.

17) Joey Purp | “Girls @” (feat. Chance The Rapper)

Few artists have been able to replicate the spacious, percussive beats of peak Neptunes, whose credits include classics like Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot”, Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass”, and Clipse’s “Mr. Me Too.” But SAVEMONEY member Knox Fortune manages to bring back that style that’s perfectly suited to car jamming with “Girls @” by Joey Purp and Chance The Rapper. The lyrics are supremely quotable (“Wear her hair in a bun when she go back home,” … “Reading Ta-Nehesi Coates, humming SpottieOttieDope,” … “She say she never did it with the lights on, that’s gon’ change,”) and it’s just about the most fun hip hop song to come out of Chicago all year.

16) James Blake | “I Need A Forest Fire” (feat. Bon Iver)

“Whoo!” That’s how Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) starts “I Need A Forest Fire”, the true highlight from James Blake’s great The Colour In Anything. Over soothing, hymnal organ chords, the exclamation is jarring the first time you listen to it. But once Vernon’s vocal melody chimes in, you’ll understand his excitement on being able to sing on this track.

While many songs focus on the sadness and depression that often follow breakups, Vernon and Blake see it as starting anew. Blake’s vocals, sewn into the track’s production, can be compared to the crackle of a forest fire. Meanwhile, Vernon sings with more emotion than we’ve heard from him since Bon Iver. “I need a forest fire!

15) Danny Brown | “When It Rain”

2016 is the year Danny Brown cut loose his insanity. Despite its universal hailing as an underground rap masterpiece, 2013’s Old was pretty safe in its musical choices, taking trendy EDM sounds and soaking them in lean to make an album of party bangers. “When It Rain” is completely unlike anything Brown has done before, and as a result, it’s his best song.

The track is terrifying. The harsh dissonance in the synth beeps, the ominous bassline, and Brown’s unhinged vocals make this sound more like a horror movie soundtrack than a contemporary hip-hop song. “Gotta keep an eye on your friends/ N**** rob your grandma for something to eat/ Know it’s fucked up but that’s how it be.” “When It Rain” should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who thought Brown’s lifestyle sounded appealing.

14) Kaytranada | “Glowed Up” (feat. Anderson .Paak)

One of the best aspect’s of Anderson .Paak’s personality is his light-hearted self-assurance. The difference between his own tracks about stacking paper and conquering women and others in hip hop is that .Paak doesn’t sound like he’s bullshitting. He sounds legit, and that’s what makes “Glowed Up” so infectious. The song starts with eerie synths that fade out to nothing when .Paak starts, “And it still ain’t a goddamn thing they could tell me.” The track only builds from there.

Then, in a masterstroke from up-and-coming producer Kaytranada, the beat switches up. Suddenly, the previously braggadocious .Paak has reversed roles to somebody who is getting a reality check after flying to close to the sun. The inverse halves of “Glowed Up” turn the track from a great banger into something much more memorable.

13) The Goon Sax | “Sometimes Accidentally”

Vulnerability is a common theme in indie pop, but rarely is it transparent about personal insecurities like body image and social anxiety. But on “Sometimes Accidentally”, the best song from Australian teenagers The Goon Sax, that vulnerability is front-and-center. It’s not sung by the band’s handsome, tall lead singer — it’s sung by the band’s guitarist, who is shorter and much stockier. The lyrics aren’t cryptic; the second verse goes “I see a guy/ He’s pretty tall/ He’s got long hair/ And nice hands to hold/ I’ll never be like him.” That’s what makes “Sometimes Accidentally” such a breath of fresh air. Here, The Goon Sax prove that brutal honesty can be devastating.

12) Lil Yachty | “Good Day” (feat. Skippa Da Flippa)

Lil Yachty is a fucking godsend. Sure, his debut mixtape has the lyrical depth of a kiddie pool, and it’s about as thought-provoking as WWE, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the most feel-good music out there right now. “Good Day” is the concentration of Yachty’s infectious happiness. His sugary AutoTuned vocals combined with the lovely plinking piano line underneath makes this song aural candy. But what really makes the song are the lyrics: “I’m rich, rich, rich, rich, rich/ Walkin’ down the street and I just copped a big booty bitch/ Man, today’s a good day.

11) Anderson .Paak | “The Season / Carry Me”

On his breakthrough album Malibu, Anderson .Paak exhibits a chameleon-like dexterity and versatility between styles. He effortlessly switches from 70’s soul crooning to modern hip hop and everything in between, but what he excels in the most is his lyrical imagery. “The Season / Carry Me”, his most personal song to date, transports the listener to .Paak’s life on .Paak’s terms. Vivid wording on the first half of the song shows his days as a farmer; even as he tours with Dr. Dre and is one of the most well-received acts at SXSW, he still knows that strawberry season is coming up.

The second half, meanwhile, takes us to early adulthood for .Paak. He uses hip hop releases as timestamps (“Bout the year Drizzy and Cole dropped/ Before K. Dot had it locked“) to talk about working hard to keep his son and Korean wife in the states, before finally succumbing to when his mother would solve everything for him. It’s immensely personal, yet deftly executed. You feel him.

10) ANOHNI | “4 Degrees”

ANOHNI, the great singer-songwriter formerly known as Antony Hegarty, has helped developed the idea of future feminism. This new outlook on feminism exhibits a woman-focused outlook on Earth, with special emphasis for the environment and everything else that lives. “4 Degrees” is the distilled, boiling magma storm of emotion that ANOHNI feels about Earth and how we treat it. The grand production (with help from Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never) sets the mood; the shrill strings sound like wails of pain. The chorus is a cynical look at humans’ collective indifference: who cares if the world is heating up? It’s only four degrees.

9) Bon Iver | “29 #Strafford APTS”

Bob Dylan won a Nobel Peace Prize this year. The seminal singer-songwriter is just as much a literary titan as Mark Twain or Edgar Allen Poe, and like Poe, his writing is far more impressionistic than literal. Many of Dylan’s songs are incomprehensible even at their most straightforward, but Dylan’s use of mood and tone complements the music in a way that transports the listener to whatever Dylan is trying to say.

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver is probably Dylan’s closest modern allegory. His brand of folk is nearly always beautiful but never afraid to challenge the listener and experiment, just like ol’ Zimmy. “29 #Strafford APTS”, the most conventional song on Bon Iver’s stunning 22, A Million, is a testament to impressionism in music. When he wails “Canonize!” on the second chorus, it feels like an establishment of his narrative. When he tells himself to “Fold the map/ mend the gap” towards the end of the song, it feels like Vernon is forcing himself to stop dwelling on the how of doing things and instead focus on actually doing them. Finally, when his voice cracks and modulates on the final chorus, it’s an overwhelming rush of emotion; what, exactly, that emotion might mean is up to the listener’s interpretation.

8) Kanye West | “Ultralight Beam” (feat. Chance The Rapper)

The opening sound on Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo is a sample of an Instagram post. For the many rockists and elitists that exist in music journalism, that might be a sign of millennial viralism (used as pejoratively as possible), but in the context of “Ultralight Beam” and the entire record, it fits in beautifully. The sample is of a toddler-aged girl preaching along with the best pastors imaginable (“Hallelujah! Jesus Christ the Lord! We don’t want no devils in the house, we want the Lord!”), which sets the tone for the rest of the track. Introspective Kanye lyricism and stunning vocal performances from Kelly Price and The-Dream all make the track what it is, but the true highlight is Chance The Rapper, who drops by for the best verse of his young career.

Calling himself “Kanye’s best protege” is a gigantic statement in its own right, but Chance backs it up with references to both his and Kanye’s previous work. A line like “I made ‘Sunday Candy’/ I’m never going to hell,” (a reference to a line on Kanye’s “Otis”) would be blasphemous for just about any other artist, but if you’re familiar with that track (and you know I am — it was my favorite song of 2015), you might just believe him. It’s artists like Kanye and Chance that make me believe that we might actually be on some sort of dream, floating through space and time, achieving incredible beauty without any limits.

7) Frank Ocean | “Self Control”

If I had to pinpoint one reason behind Frank Ocean becoming the best pop artist since Brian Wilson, I would probably choose his clarity. Ocean rarely leaves his lyrics densely packed with metaphors or innuendo, and when he does (“Pyramids”, “Bad Religion”), the true meaning behind the metaphor isn’t buried in flourishes of language or references. There’s a place for that style (I’m a huge fan of Vampire Weekend), but that clarity is what makes Ocean’s music simultaneously accessible and avant-garde.

“Self Control” is Blonde‘s best example of that transparence. It’s about lovers separated for a summer, and the change that just a few months can bring. Here’s yet another hair reference (when did hair become the signature appearance factor du jour?): “You cut your hair/ But you used to live a blinded life.” The bangs are gone, and the subject can see again. It’s worth noting that “blinded” sounds particularly similar to “blonded”, another aspect of hair that can change.

The song’s outro is a pure out-of-body experience. Heavenly synths and layered vocals make Ocean more center-stage than he’s ever been. “I, I, I, know you gotta leave, leave, leave/ Take down some summertime/ Give up just tonight, night, night,” Ocean pleads. It’s worth noting the three words that Ocean thrice repeats: “I leave tonight”.

6) Leonard Cohen | “Treaty”

Leonard Cohen died this year after a five-decade career as a poet and a songwriter. “Treaty” is his most direct confrontation with death, spirituality, and love, and its open-to-interpretation lyrical style keeps me coming back for repeated listens. Cohen has always been fantastic at building music around his poetry, as opposed to vice versa, and “Treaty” is no different. The galaxy-spanning existential topics that Cohen tackles really could only be taken on by someone who is close to the end of his life.

Religion? “I’ve seen you turn water into wine/ I’ve seen it turn back into water, too.” Did Cohen recant his spirituality? Then why did he chant Hebrew on the previous song? The song’s chorus (“I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine,”) could be a reconciliation of his past as a non-believer; he’s bargaining for an understanding as he moves into the afterlife. Or, in his signature whimsy, he could be laughing at our interpretations; maybe it’s just a love song. In any case, it’s Cohen’s most compelling work since “Hallelujah.”

5) Pinegrove | “Old Friends”

Ending relationships sucks. It’s the worst feeling I’ve ever felt. Even if the two parties leave on good terms, that feeling of emptiness can linger for months, or even years. “Old Friends”, from the upstart emo-country outfit Pinegrove, is an unbelievably accurate look at not just a breakup from a person, but a whole town. It’s a feeling that I relate to, leaving a relationship just as I leave small-town Iowa for college in the capital.

Casually devastating lines like “I saw your boyfriend at the Port Authority/ it’s a sort of fucked up place,” and “I saw Leah on the bus a few weeks ago/ I saw some old friends at her funeral,” set the tone, but there’s a reserved acceptance there from lead singer Evan Hall. Maybe he should have gone out a bit more while he lived in his old town with his old friends, but there’s nothing he can do about it now. “Old Friends” is at once the best country song AND the best emo song of 2016, and in banner years for both genres, that’s something to be proud of.

4) Desiigner | “Panda”

Immediately after Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo dropped, “Panda” (which is sampled on the album’s “Father Stretch My Hands”) was the banger du jour for my dorm room. Nobody in Goodwin-Kirk 329 would say no to screaming “I got broads in Atlanta!” for three minutes, even if we weren’t really sure what Desiigner was saying for the rest of the song. “Panda” is, simply put, one of the greatest trap bangers in hip hop history, and that’s saying something — especially after Atlanta trap falls from the pinnacle of rap music. Even if his debut mixtape New English didn’t quite live up to the greatness of “Panda”, it’s a testament to the power of the track that it gave us such high expectations for what else Desiigner had in store.

3) Frank Ocean | “Ivy”

I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me.” What a stunning opening line to a song. The words are so earnest, so sweet, and so transparent that I still get goosebumps months after this song’s release. Then, with four more simple words, that earnest elation is completely removed: “The start of nothing.

Perhaps the worst part of a breakup is the subtle feeling that it was all for nothing — that you spent all that time, money, and energy on making another person happy with nothing to show for it. I think that’s a toxic outlook, but it’s an unavoidable one. The toughest breakup of my life happened just as I graduated high school; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Frank Ocean makes voice sound boyish and soft. He has that knack for tapping into the most conflicted and complicated feelings that people experience and expressing them as elegantly and beautifully as is humanly possible. More so than anything Ocean has ever put out, “Ivy” is a prime exhibition of that talent.

2) Chance The Rapper | “Same Drugs”

The simplest song on Chance The Rapper’s great Coloring Book mixtape, “Same Drugs” is nonetheless one of the prettiest, saddest ballads in recent popular music. It manages to keep up a ridiculously cute Wendy/Peter Pan metaphor, and the chorus of “We don’t do the same drugs no more,” clearly isn’t literal, but there’s one line on the song that stands out as particularly evocative: “What did you do to your hair?

Hair is such an integral part of many people’s identities. From the boldly half-shaven to man buns to coloring it pink and everything in between, hair is one of the first things we think of when we visualize people. Chance’s stunned inquiry, wondering what could his former lover have possibly been thinking changing her hair, is heart-wrenchingly poignant. It’s not that he think it looks bad, it’s that the change is so drastic. How could someone he was so close to change so much?

The imagery here is so evocative and elegant, it betrays Chance’s age (only 23!). Lines like “You were always perfect, and I was only practice,” and “It’s supernatural; tastes like Juicy Fruit,” give the listener a sense that Chance legitimately felt these feelings. And in music, especially music that is meant to bring out emotions, genuineness is perhaps the most important quality.

1) Rostam | “EOS”

It’s interesting that the song that touched me the most in all of 2016 was a little one-off release from the producer of my favorite modern band. Rostam, formerly of Vampire Weekend, quietly released “EOS” in mid-January to little fanfare. But he produced some of my favorite music of the last decade, so I gave the track a shot.

It floored me. Never have I heard a track sound at once devastatingly intimate and galaxy-spanning. Rostam’s voice, along with a backing children’s choir, echoes and reverberates like it would in a candlelit church. He sounds as if he’s on the verge of tears when he cries “Lo and behold, you were here, and now you’re gone.”

Then, the song flips itself on its head. The only backing sounds are a somber organ, as if Wednesday Mass just concluded, with Rostam lingering behind to pray. Lines like “I held you close, my cheek pressed up against yours” bring evocative intimacy. He sounds like he’s close to the edge.

Finally, the song glides towards yet another aesthetic, as the lines from the opening verse are reused — in a completely different way. Rostam sounds accepting, as if he realizes that whatever happened to him is over, and others often have similar experiences. I think this idea is especially poignant in an era of curated online personas and meticulously organized portrayals of how people’s lives are going. We rarely see hardship on social media, but as Rostam knows, “Everyone Of Us has felt the lights go down; everyone of us has felt our heartbeat pound.” We all struggle, and we move on.

* * *

Thanks for reading! 2016 was a freaking incredible year for music, so what did you listen to this year? What did I get wrong, and what did I get right? Let me know.

Soulja Boy’s “Crank That”: An Analysis

The viral hit is nothing new to mainstream pop. In recent years we’ve seen songs like “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)”, “Nasty Freestyle”, and “Hot N****” dominate charts and memes alike, as their infectious choruses and associated dances explode. Going back further, we see one-hit wonders like “Macarena” and “Sandstorm” strike gold once and coast with their success for the rest of the artists’ careers. But for those my age, who were just beginning their teenage years in the mid-to-late 2000s, there is one song in this vain that trumps all: Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em’s “Crank That”.

Yes, “Crank That”, which spent an incredible seven (non-consecutive) weeks at no. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100, is the most memorable of these viral hits. The dance, which was incredibly simple, was easy to learn and even easier to break out at any moment. The song’s video could almost serve as an accompanying instructional pamphlet, and while watching it’s easy to discern why this song was so popular: Soulja Boy just seems like he’s having so much damn fun. Keep in mind, he was only 16(!) when “Crank That” was recorded — that youthful exuberance is palpable in the video and in Soulja Boy’s voice.

“Crank That” was a critical and commercial success. Aside from the song’s prosperity in the charts, it also sold remarkably well as a single, being the first song to sell over three million total MP3 downloads in music history. Critics generally loved it, too; Rolling Stone listed it as the #21 best song of 2007, and it was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rap Song. But the best example of its ubiquity was in classrooms and playgrounds — there wasn’t a kid at my school who didn’t know the dance.

I think that a lot of the song’s success with children is a result of the fact that most of us (at least in my small Iowan town) weren’t exposed to much hip-hop at all. The classic repetitive melodic loop (is it a marimba?) that the song is based upon is straight-up dirty south production, while there isn’t a single vocal melody to be found on the entire song — something that was unheard of for a kid like me who grew up on country music and Grammy nominee CDs. It seems silly to think about this now, but “Crank That” and other relatively tame rap hits (most notably Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”) were almost signs of rebellion; I thought that there was no way that Mom would let me listen to them.

You might be surprised to know that Soulja Boy has carved out a fairly prolific rap career for himself, dropping more than a dozen mixtapes over the last decade. Most of it is really bad. But Soulja Boy always maintained that pop sensibility that was so evident on “Crank That”; songs like “Gucci Bandana”, “Kiss Me Thru The Phone”, and “Mean Mug” are prime examples of that. Soulja Boy’s best song is “Zan With That Lean”, a fully melodic trip of Atlanta AutoTune crooning. You can practically taste the codeine. But the pinnacle of Soulja Boy’s career will always be “Crank That” — directing people to either Superman or Super-soak “that ho” will never grow old.

shoutout to Mitch 😩

Review Express: DJ Khaled, Desiigner, Lil Yachty

The last couple weeks have seen the release of some major projects from some of hip-hop’s biggest stars. Here are my thoughts on DJ Khaled, Desiigner, and Lil Yachty’s new records.

DJ Khaled | Major Key

1469758123_2e3b6182c2f8cc6633eb22f07d828238“Another one.” The most famous of all the DJ Khaled-isms. He shouts it out at the beginning of nearly all his songs, and it’s a proclamation of self-confidence: oh, this track is a huge hit? Just another one from DJ Khaled. He’s responsible for some of mainstream rap’s biggest posse cuts in the last decade, including “Out Here Grindin'”, which featured everyone from Rick Ross to Boosie Badazz, “I’m On One”, which included a star-making feature from a young Drake, and “All I Do Is Win”, which is absolutely inescapable at sporting events and has entered the upper echelon of hype-hop along Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard In Da Paint”. Khaled is a master networker, someone who manages to bring together the biggest names in hip hop and R&B onto a record that is ultimately a compilation.

Aside from networking and ad-libbing, it’s unclear exactly what it is that DJ Khaled does. He doesn’t really produce music anymore. Because of this, his releases feel dissonant and disjointed — he rarely tries to make a statement with his music. But after his establishment as an internet meme through his Snapchat escapades, Major Key is the biggest release Khaled has ever curated. The features list is absolutely bonkers: Kendrick Lamar, Gucci Mane, YG, Future, Jay-Z(!), Nas(!!!), and many, many more. But unfortunately, the songs themselves rarely deviate from the pop rap sound that we’ve been hearing for the length of Khaled’s career.

As expected, Major Key‘s songs are extremely hit-or-miss. There are clear highlights. The solo Drake cut “For Free” (shoutout K. Dot) is way better than pretty much everything on Views. Drake just seems way more self-assured than he has in a while, and ends up taking himself much less seriously than he did on his own record. That quality, like it always has, complements him well. “Do You Mind”, which is the most populated track on the record with features from Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, August Alsina, Jeremih, Future, & Rick Ross makes me nostalgic for the mid-2000s, when the boundary between hip hop and R&B was smaller than ever. Brown and Jeremih, in particular, lend their fantastic focal talents well to the track. Finally, the best pure hip-hop song is “Don’t Ever Play Yourself”, which rejuvenates some of the best pop rappers from the mid-2000s (Fabolous, Jadakiss, Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe) alongside a young man who is likely to fill that spot in upcoming years in Kent Jones.

There are bad tracks on this project as well, and a lot of them. Lead single “I Got The Keys”, featuring Jay-Z and Future, is obnoxious, and includes one of the worst hooks of Future’s career. “Jermaine’s Interlude”, a solo cut from J. Cole, makes him sound like he wants to be Anderson .Paak — and fails miserably. Finally, the single worst song on Major Key is the (ironically) unforgivable “Forgive Me Father”, which features Wiz Khalifa (ugh), Wale (ughhh), and Meghan Trainor (UGHHHHH). It’s just terrible — saturated gospel that might be interesting or inspiring to a midwestern 5th grader at best.

It’s clear that Major Key isn’t meant to be taken as a cohesive artistic statement, but that doesn’t forgive many of the really, really unnecessary filler on the album. DJ Khaled may have the networking skills of a label head, but his taste leaves a lot to be desired.

Desiigner | New English

DesiignerNewEnglishI got broads in Atlanta.” Those five words have catapulted Desiigner into pop superstardom. His song “Panda” — the best pure hip-hop banger of 2016, and possibly further — reached number one on Billboard’s charts, and he’s been the most high-profile member of XXL’s 2016 Freshman Class with his Timmy Turner freestyle. When Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo dropped, if people weren’t talking about album’s more incendiary lyrics, they were wondering this: who in the world is Desiigner? They all wanted to know who hip-hop’s next superstar was. In my review, I predicted his superstardom. But with New English, he’s disappointed me — and just about everyone else.

I never understood the “Future clone” accusations when “Panda” was at the peak of its popularity. I didn’t think that a black person with a low voice was automatically a copycat of another black man with a low voice. But on New English, the comparisons are inescapable. Tracks like “Roll Wit Me” and “Caliber” are indistinguishable from many of Future’s recent stretch of AutoTuned crooning. And as someone who’s never been a huge Future fan, that’s really disappointing, especially with Future’s over-saturation in the last couple years. Plus, many of the tracks here are short and underdeveloped, consisting of just a hook and a verse — just like “Panda” was.

And that’s too bad, because there are good ideas here. The beat on “Monstas & Villains”? Absolutely bonkers. It’s pure grand, orchestral trap. But the track is 37 seconds long. Like, what’s the point? The only real highlights on this thing are “Da Day”, which is super foreboding and intense, and “Overnight”, which would’ve fit right at home on Travis Scott’s Rodeo — only it would’ve been like the eighth-best song on that record. Desiigner has a number one hit, and that’s more than most rappers can say. But until he starts showing more consistency, the reality of being a one-hit wonder is inching closer and closer.

Lil Yachty | Summer Songs 2

3141acdb7cfa4c9721748626d98062ce.1000x1000x1You either love him or you hate him. There hasn’t been anyone as polarizing as Lil Yachty within hip-hop in a few years. He’s only 18 years old. He sings more than he raps. His music has way more pop influence than he’d want you to believe. And he doesn’t take himself seriously — at all.

I’m one of the believers. Lil Boat, Yachty’s debut mixtape, is one of my very favorite releases of 2016. It’s infectious and filled with highlights from top to bottom. “Intro”, “Good Day”, “Minnesota (Remix)”, “One Night”, and “Out Late” are all delightful. Plus, Yachty has appeared on one of my favorite singles of the year, Big Baby D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli”. A reviewer that I really respect has described Lil Yachty’s music as “dreamy rap ballads that make me feel good”, and I think that’s about as apt of a statement regarding his music as I can imagine.

So just a few months after Lil Boat, we get Summer Songs 2, Yachty’s second mixtape. And to be honest, I really don’t have a lot to say about the record. It’s just not as fun as Lil Boat. There are flashes, like on “First Day Of Summer”, “King of Teens”, and “Life Goes On”, but none of it comes close to Lil Boat‘s greatness. Songs like “IDK” and “Shoot Out The Roof” are just so forgettable, which is a major disappointment from someone whose music is generally anything but. This is a good collection of songs for summer ’16, but forgive me if I put it on the back burner once September rolls around.

Albums I Discovered in 2016

Every year, an increasingly gargantuan catalog of music is released spanning the entire spectrum of popular music. While I try to listen to everything, it’s honestly pretty impossible. Still, it’s hard to critically evaluate music without the context of albums from the past. So here are five albums that I discovered in 2016, from bona fide classics to completely unknown releases.

Blu | Below The Heavens

below20the20heavens20in20hell20happy20with20your20new20imag20below20the20heavensAhhhhh! This album!! It’s pretty much perfect, from front to back. Blu, a Los Angeles-based underground rapper, found his match in established producer Exile, who helped him create his personal life’s opus. Blu oozes charisma and brutal honesty, telling us stories about trying to make it as a rapper, convincing his family that he belongs in the game, and, surprisingly, his love life. Exile brings his signature stunning soul in production, with plenty of beautiful strings and muted percussion, making this album a great listen even when you take away Blu’s fantastic stories. Blu has never been able to match this effort (released back in 2007), but the fact that it exists puts him in underground rap’s upper echelon for the aughts.

Favorite song: “Blu Colla Workers”

Listen if you like: Logic, early Kanye West

Lewis | L’amour

lita117_highres_coverYou’re gonna need to sit down for Lewis’s full story, profiled in an excellent Maxim feature last year. In short, someone discovered this vinyl record at a flea shop in Alberta, leading the collector who purchased it to try to find the artist behind these tunes. If the music wasn’t any good, people wouldn’t try as hard, but on L’amour, Lewis gives us a collection of soft, heart-wrenchingly beautiful synth-folk tunes. The lyrics are mostly unintelligible, but Lewis tells more with his inflections, emotions, and song titles than he would with his lyrics anyway. Originally recorded and released in 1986, it has since been re-released on vinyl.

Favorite song: “Like To See You Again”

Listen if you like: Bob Dylan at his folkiest, Bon Iver

MF Doom | Mm.. Food

mmfood-4fe9a15a52659MF Doom is a deity in underground hip-hop. He competes with others on his label, Stone’s Throw Records, including impeccable producers Madlib and the late J. Dilla. But Doom is the most revered, and for good reason: he’s responsible for three of the best underground hip hop records of the aughts. His debut, Operation: Doomsday, and his collaboration with Madlib as Madvillain on Madvillainy are Doom’s best-known records, but my favorite is definitely Mm.. Food, an entire album dedicated to and viewed through the lens of — you guessed it — food. Doom handled most of the production on this record, along with the rapping, and takes his Dr. Doom-like character to horrifying heights in gluttony and greed. His sometimes hilarious, sometimes frightening, but always compelling rapping makes Mm.. Food (from 2004) my favorite Doom record.

Favorite song: “Potholderz”

Listen if you like: Earl Sweatshirt, comic books

The Avalanches | Since I Left You

1324535As a fan of creative sampling in hip-hop, I’ve always been a fan of the genre of plunderphonics, which stitches together samples from across genre lines to make a cohesive song — on paper. While the Dust Brothers (producers for the Beastie Boys, Beck) helped innovate this sound, many times it doesn’t really translate to a cohesive product. The Avalanches’ first and (for 16 years) only release is the pinnacle of plunderphonics as a genre. From the stunning title track that kicks the album off, to danceable singles “Frontier Psychiatrist” and “Electricity”, Since I Left You is a required listen for anyone who loves sampling.

Favorite song: “Since I Left You”

Listen if you like: J. Dilla, DJ Shadow, early Beck

Fashawn | Boy Meets World

cs1477943-02a-bigIn a lot of ways, Fashawn’s Boy Meets World is a sequel to Blu’s Below The Heavens. It’s produced by Exile — who managed to get even more soulful and pop-oriented in his production. It’s a very self-obsessed record. But it’s decidedly Fashawn’s show on Boy Meets World; it’s an ode to his childhood. According to “Samsonite Man”, Fashawn had no less than five father figures in his life, a rotating cast of characters that ranged from very supportive to deadbeats. The most distinct feature of this record is how casual all of it sounds. Fashawn managed to make a classic of a record and get signed to Nas’s label — all at the age of 21.

Favorite song: “Samsonite Man”

Listen if you like: Blu, Nas, old-school soul

REVIEW: Logic | Bobby Tarantino

In the first 24 hours after the release of his fifth mixtape, Bobby Tarantino, the project’s announcement garnered over 55,000 retweets and 75,000 likes. Similar to pop artists like Twenty-One Pilots and Imagine Dragons, Logic gets very little coverage in releasing his music, but after looking at his social media stats (nearly one million Twitter followers), it’s clear: Logic is one of the biggest rappers alive.

White kids love Logic. He’s mixed-race, but doesn’t say the N-word, so conservative moms are generally okay with their impressionable adolescent sons listening to him. He’s rarely violent, doesn’t use visceral imagery, and lives in his feelings and experiences as opposed to hedonistic fantasies of drugs and sex. In the right hands, this might be a breath of fresh air; the Exile-produced debuts of Blu (Below The Heavens) and Fashawn (Boy Meets World) are taken from similar perspectives. But those records were so soulful, so charismatic, and so musical that it’s difficult to live up to their greatness. Logic doesn’t need to be those guys, but that’s the only avenue through which I can see him live up to his reputation.

I didn’t really like The Incredible True Story, Logic’s studio debut, but I saw potential in singles like “Young Jesus” which saw him trade bars and generally fuck around over NYC-style production and a bed of self-confidence. On most tracks, Logic is a technically competent rapper, but he didn’t even need it here — his charisma led him to make a great single. Still, the album didn’t leave much of an impression on me, but it did make him far more popular. Now, Logic can’t be ignored.

So he drops Bobby Tarantino, just seven months removed from The Incredible True Story. It’s billed as being a muscular, tough return to form for Logic, which had me excited, as the previous album’s more braggadocious tracks were definitely the project’s highlights. Unfortunately, Logic manages to leave even less of an impression this time around, with unbelievably generic lyrics, production, and themes. At points when listening to the record, I actively had to make myself focus on the music; 6ix’s production is smooth, trap-influenced, and occasionally jazzy, but it never takes any risks.

In fact, being averse to risk-taking seems to be a recurring theme on Bobby Tarantino. Logic manages to check off a laundry list of stylistic cues from across hip-hop’s landscape. Do you appreciate Hopsin’s self-obsessed style, but want it to be less challenging? This record has it. Are the beats on Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late too experimental? This project turns it down a notch. Do you want a better lyricist and flow-creator than Big Sean — but not that much better? Bobby Tarantino is the mixtape for you. It doesn’t help that on top of being generic, the songs are redundant: on two separate occasions, Logic recycles hooks from a earlier in the album, and on another occasion, he just spits the same verse on the second as the first.

Bobby Tarantino has flashes of something that might be okay. Logic discusses his mixed-race background on “Slave”, bringing on a far more confrontational tone than we had heard earlier on the tape. I actually kind of like the full-on trap of “The Jam”, but that has more to do with my appreciation for Chicago bop and Atlanta Auto-Tune than Logic himself. Finally, the interlude “Studio Ambience At Night: Malibu” is actually pretty interesting, and sounds like it could be genuine. But these moments are few and far between, making the record’s brief 33-minute runtime seem twice as long.

I want to like Logic. I really do! He seems like a genuinely good guy, and appreciates his fans as much as any rapper in the game right now. He’s a classic success story, coming from the projects growing up and exploding in popularity seemingly overnight. But his music never breaks any new ground or innovates in any way. For someone to fail to innovate and still make great music means they have to be the very best, and Logic is far from the best in hip-hop. Maybe it’s the extreme non-specificity of Logic’s music that makes him so popular. Like a tumblr screencap, an Odyssey Online article, or the bands I mentioned earlier, he succeeds on being lowest common denominator. By straying away from specifics, Logic appeals to everyone.

Songs Of The Summer 2016

For an editorial Drake University’s Times-Delphic newspaper last summer, I was asked to give my best guess as to what would be (or was, at the time) 2015’s song of the summer. Last year was tough — there weren’t many songs that stood out as either 1) great or 2) ubiquitous, which are usually the defining characteristics of a song of the summer. In any case, it ended up being a horse race between OMI’s “Cheerleader” remix and Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen”, both of which were songs that I outlined as possibilities in last year’s song of the summer post.

In my analysis of past songs of the summer, I was able to determine a few qualities that give a song a leg up in being the song of the summer. It’s almost always danceable (“Call Me Maybe”, “Blurred Lines”) and there’s usually something about the song that separates it from traditional top 40 pop. For example, “Trap Queen” was one of the very first trap-influenced songs to make it near the top of the charts, and America’s infatuation with hip hop culture allowed it to contend for song of the summer. This year, I’ve identified a few songs that have those qualities, and I’m rating the likeliness for ubiquity this summer below. I’ve also added some of my personal favorites that’ll be blasting out of my car for all of summer 2016. Enjoy!

Contenders

Justin Timberlake | “Can’t Stop The Feeling”

I’ve said that this song is better than it needs to be without being good. It’s about as safe as you can get with a pop song in 2016 without being completely boring. Still, we have an immensely recognizable voice and personality in Timberlake, an upbeat, likable chorus, and a movie tie-in (Trolls) that will keep this song chugging along until the its release, which isn’t until November!

Likelihood: 8/10. On paper, this should be the song of the summer, but American top 40 radio has a way of getting surprising songs to #1 — especially in the summer months.

Drake | “One Dance” (feat. Kyla & Wizkid)

This song is already ubiquitous, so it’s got a bit of a head start on the competition. For some reason, the United States loves their Canadian dancehall music, so Drake’s got that in his favor as well. My only concern is that it’s not quite as transcendent or poppy as most of the music that gets the song of the summer, but Kyla’s quirky vocal line gives this song enough variety to last.

Likelihood: 7/10. Drake just missed this title last year with the late-blooming “Hotline Bling”, and “One Dance” might be his best chance yet.

Desiigner | “Panda”

Hell yeah. This is what I’m talking about. Just about all of America, from hip hop heads to radio listeners, agrees that “Panda” bangs harder than any other song from 2016. Its slow burn to the top means that it’s far from being done. It’s supremely danceable, hilariously quotable, and opportunities for dabbing are frequent. If I had it my way, “Panda” would be 2016’s song of the summer.

Likelihood: 4/10. It’s too vulgar. Your average white soccer mom with her tween children aren’t going to want to listen to the obscene ramblings of a teenage black kid.

Fifth Harmony | “Work From Home” (feat. Ty Dolla $ign)

“Work From Home” is already perhaps Fifth Harmony’s best song (rivaled only by “BO$$”). So it’s no wonder that with that soaring chorus and great feature from Ty Dolla $ign, it’d be a contender. It checks all the boxes: danceable, has a feature from a black dude, has production from a Dr. Luke disciple. This will be all over the radio this summer.

Likelihood: 6/10. It may have peaked too early, and doesn’t seem to have the lasting power to maintain its stranglehold on pop radio.

Calvin Harris | “This Is What You Came For” (feat. Rihanna)

Finally, Calvin Harris developed some class in his production. The EDM bombast of his previous work was a little bit too much for me, but “This Is What You Came For” fits snugly into the tropical house paradigm that the modern pop landscape finds itself in. It’s got a great driving house beat and some synthesized bells that could be mistaken for the summer sounds of a marimba.

Likelihood: 8/10. It’s a pretty good song, and we’ve already seen the Rihanna/Calvin Harris duo dominate the charts with “We Found Love”. It’s also peaking at the right time.

Parker’s Choices

Joey Purp | “Girls @” (feat. Chance The Rapper)

One of the most underrated summer songs of the 2000s is Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot”. It’s got an endlessly repeatable hook, but the real highlight is the Neptunes’ production. Spacious and punchy, it’s ideal for vibing out next to the pool or in the car.

“Girls @”, from Chicago rapper Joey Purp, evokes that feeling better than any song in recent memory. A simple question (Where all the girls at?) is turned into a killer track with a fantastic guest verse from Chance The Rapper, who manages to rhyme Ta-Nehisi Coates with “SpottieOttieDope” and make it all sound natural.

Hundred Waters | “Show Me Love” [Skrillex Remix] (feat. Chance The Rapper)

The feeling that “Show Me Love” evokes isn’t euphoric fun. It’s the rush of endorphins you feel when you realize just how great of a time you’re having with friends and family. The song promotes one simple idea: spread love, and in return, you will receive. It’s an absolute melting pot of collaborators (Hundred Waters, EDM-whiz Skrillex, gospel singer Moses Sumney, Robin Hannibal of bedroom-pop duo Rhye, and Chance The motherfucking Rapper) that all come together to sound like they’re enjoying live as much as is humanly possible.

Chance The Rapper | “No Problem” (feat. 2Chainz & Lil Wayne)

Yep, three Chance The Rapper songs. But that’s just how good he is at bringing out happiness from within. This song’s quotable chorus (“You don’t want no problems with me!”) is only matched by the great verses from best pals 2Chainz and Lil Wayne.

Pinegrove | “Old Friends”

As summer winds down, I imagine that I’ll be listening to this song more and more. It’s a great reflection on time with people; regretful hindsight mixed with satisfied memories. Maybe I’ll look back on the summer of 2016 and wish that I had asked friends out more, or done something a little bit different. If that happens, this is the song I’ll remember.

YG | “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” (feat. Nipsey Hussle)

It’s YG. And the hook is literally “Fuck Donald Trump.” That’s about all you need to know.