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”.
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.
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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.