the-best-songs-of-2016

The Best Songs of 2016

From electronic to soul... from American to rock... from hip-hop to rockin' and poppin' indie... 2016 was a stellar year in popular music.

Artist: Yeasayer

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List number: 80

Display Width: 200Yeasayer
“I Am Chemistry”

At the time of their 2007 debut, Yeasayer could comfortably feign relevance — a quirky trio of Brooklynites folking and progging up the indiesphere. But a decade of musical change has stripped back the indie veneer to reveal the disenchanted, disparate youth of Generation X: crystal minds with no clear agenda. Well, if their debut was 1970, their new record is 1979, and it bleeds the postmodern ironic lifeblood of The Pictures Generation. Yeasayer makes no attempt to the conceal the widening gap between today’s electronic studio production and yesterday’s live rock performance that leaves our miasmic indie-ness in quite the bind. (After a recent performance of “I Am Chemistry,” bassist Ira Wolf Tuton conceded, “Well, that was the Donna Summer rendition of that song.”)

Fittingly, the aesthetic of Yeasayer’s newest project is pastiche with a capital P: suffocating automatons, Greco-Roman glitch-outs, and disembodied Trump heads [see 1:15]. Maybe “I Am Chemistry” feels ham-fisted — “It’s a gas, a sarin for high tea / A C4H10FO2P puts you on your knees” — but it burns like niter. The song undulates through three states of matter and concludes with a caustic, childlike mantra, granting us one of the year’s most existentially secure grooves, just when we need it the most. Though the general populace has all but dropped Yeasayer in light of their hipster-goes-disco transformation, their subtle arrangements and sonic sculpture should not be tested. — A. Noah Harrison

 

Artist: Against Me!

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Against Me!
“333”

The throwback power pop of “Crash Landing” made minor waves as the lead single from Shape Shift With Me, but for my money second single “333” provides the bigger bang. Laura Jane Grace takes what’s essentially a throwback Against Me! song and infuses it with the relationship drama that’s the hallmark of the full album. A simple, buzzing guitar riff connects all the singing sections of the song, and the lyrically overstuffed verses are a retro pleasure. Shoving too many words into each line is a Grace tradition that goes back to the earliest days of the band but it happens much less often these days. But it’s the pounding, intense chorus that brings it all together as Grace belts out “All the devils that you don’t know / Can all come along for the ride.” Intensity plus catchiness makes for a great Against Me! track, and “333” delivers strongly on both counts. — Chris Conaton

 

Artist: The Avett Brothers

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List number: 78

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The Avett Brothers
True Sadness

“True Sadness” has a lot of the Avetts’ hallmarks in it. There’s the catchy chorus, the singable melody, and a great upright bassline courtesy of Bob Crawford. It also has some of the modern elements that frustrate longtime fans; namely, an electric guitar where there used to be an acoustic, and an acoustic guitar where there used to be a banjo. Regardless of instrumentation, though, “True Sadness” combines upbeat music with sneakily uplifting lyrics in a wonderful way. “Take the time / Peel a few layers / And you will find true sadness” sounds depressing, but the song presents it in an inspirational ‘everyone has their own issues’ way. Lyrically the song covers 12-step recovery, Adam and Eve, treating porn stars like people, and carrying on despite depression, which is a lot. But the rock solid music makes the song strong enough to carry this load without descending into self-parody, and it turns out to be one of the year’s strongest singles. — Chris Conaton

 

Artist: Suuns

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List number: 77

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Suuns
“Translate”

Montreal band Suuns take the first half of their third album, Hold/Still, to wind up the tension, and the second half to release it. Right there in the center of it all is “Translate”, the point at which all that tension finally breaks. In fact, you can pinpoint the very moment it happens within the song itself: Liam O’Neill’s short, sharp drum break three-and-a-half minutes in. Notable mid-album tracks often get pegged as the “centerpiece” on which a record pivots whether or not the characterization really fits, but in this case it is wholly accurate. “Translate”, though, also functions as a microcosm of Hold/Still and its dynamic, while standing alone perhaps better than any of the other songs surrounding it. — Ian King

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Artist: Metronomy

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List number: 76

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Metronomy
“Old Skool”

As far as tongue-in-cheek British synthesizer odes to greed and debauchery, Metronomy’s “Old Skool” was the best thing going since Pet Shop Boys’ “Opportunities” 30 years prior. Joseph Mount didn’t just capture the zest of the best ‘80s synthpop, though. There was also that ultra-funky bassline, and even hip-hop credibility courtesy of Beastie Boys’ DJ Mix Master Mike on the turntables. Maybe the Mount’s stroke of genius, though, was the sinister synth swoop that suggested a doozy of a hangover, or worse, in the morning. In any case, “Old Skool” was worth it. — John Bergstrom

 

Artist: Garbage

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List number: 75

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Garbage
“Empty”

Garbage’s post Version 2.0 output has been good, but even the dedicated have to admit it’s been somewhat lacking. What that “lacking” constitutes has been hard to pin down, until you listen to “Empty”. Steve Marker’s aggressive introduction, and Butch Vig’s jackhammer-like drumming kick the song into high gear, and it never relents. Shirley Manson draws out each wounded declaration like she’s bloodletting every ounce of her misery and self-loathing. The soaring chorus sounds like it was nearly 20 years in the making. And we find out what’s been missing from their albums after all these years: an honest to god anthem. — Sean McCarthy

 

Artist: Clipping.

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Clipping.
“A Better Place”

Operating at a BPM roughly the escape velocity of this God-forsaken year, Clipping.’s final track on their Splendor & Misery album is a roughly assembled patch of retrofuturism, a Zen miniature, jittery “O Superman” about time and space being too vast to be conquered. Its luminescent synth flickers are like a sound alarm and a beacon concurrently, alerting and converting at once. They’re also alternating odd time signatures with a very simple structure, making the track both minimalist hip-hop and prog at the same time. The lyrics too are similarly contradictory. MC Daveed Diggs (who moonlights as a Hamilton actor) drops that dangling stanza like a bomb. “There must be a / Better place to / Be Somebody,” he starts off in longing, completing the thought with the brutal “Be somebody else” (the 2016 equivalent of Devo’s immortal final verse drop “It’s a beautiful world / For you / For You / It’s not for me”). The track sets its aims high, at all humankind, whose greatest failing and strength Davis sees as the desire to “keep… pushing through nothing” to escape the self, the weakness of the flesh, the limits of perception, the scope of one’s control. “He’s demanding the evidence for something / That maybe never was for anyone,” Davis harangues. “He’s missing the splendor and misery.” Let us not repeat these mistakes we’re so very likely to repeat. — Timothy Gabriele

 

Artist: Kano

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Kano
“3 Wheel-ups”

In the year that grime truly announced its return, not just in the UK but internationally, one of the scenes original stars returned and proved he is still capable of delivering genre defining tracks. Joining forces with founder Wiley and UK heavyweight MC, and long time sparring partner, Giggs, Kano delivered a highly charged, bass laden track rich in skittering drums and brass instrumentation. Lyrically it strikes the perfect balance between cultural relevance, social observation and bragavado which defines the best of the genre and whilst it sonically veers close to hip-hop, as Kano has frequently done throughout his career, its most natural home is in the grime nights, where, befitting of its title, it has been getting rewinds all year to the delight of rapturous crowds. — William Sutton

 

Artist: ANOHNI

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ANOHNI
“Drone Bomb Me”

HOPELESSNESS is one of the canniest and cleverest takes on the “protest album” we’ve heard in quite some time, and “Drone Bomb Me” is its crown jewel. One could easily look at the title and assume it’s all provocation, but the song proves surprisingly elusive to clear, legible interpretation. On one level, ANOHNI acknowledges her own guilt and complicity in the atrocities of modern warfare and urges us to do the same. What gives the track its haunting resonance, though, is how achingly, almost lovingly she sings to the drone bomb in question, beseeching it to “choose me tonight” like a cult member with a bad case of Stockholm syndrome. Buoyed as these complex sentiments are by icy sheets of immaculate synths, courtesy of Hudson Mohawke, the song is unforgettable for its lack of easy answers in the face of fierce, ruthless questions. — Andrew Paschal

 

Artist: MØ

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List number: 71

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“Final Song”

On the heels of her guest vocal performance on Major Lazer and DJ Snake’s 2015 global smash “Lean On”, Danish singer-songwriter Karen Marie Aagaard Ørsted Andersen, otherwise known as MØ, released the exuberant single “Final Song”. Unlike “Lean On”, “Final Song” is the sound of a young artist finding her own voice, creating (along with fellow songwriting phenom Noonie Bao) a fireworks burst of tropical house and dance. All the while MØ charismatically carries the track with her playful delivery, not to mention her insistent, empowering lyrics. Her new album can’t arrive soon enough. — Adrien Begrand

70 – 61

Artist: PJ Harvey

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List number: 70

Display Width: 200PJ Harvey
“The Wheel”

This isn’t one of the best songs of 2016 because of its political import, or because it brings anything new to the table. It’s one of the best songs of 2016 because it simply sounds great. PJ Harvey, who matured in the late ’00s, had mostly given up the electric guitar stuff that made her a tour de force in the ’90s, brings back a searing electric guitar for “The Wheel”, bolstered by the insistent handclaps and the folksier sound that she’s been enamored with recently for her most heart-pumping song yet. And the coda is an absolute marvel: PJ Harvey channels the voices of 28,000 dead — “And watch them fade out” — while the song refuses to let them cede away into a distant memory. The culmination, climax and catharsis of The Hope Six Demolition Project. — Marshall Gu

 

Artist: Lydia Loveless

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Lydia Loveless
“Longer”

In light of her previous records’ hardscrabble cowpunk, who would have thought Lydia Loveless would deliver such an unabashed pop number? Built on a surging guitar and steady drums, the tune is punctuated by flashes of sidewinding synths and a backdrop of keys. With a pathos-laden delivery, Loveless sings with a palpable yearning for a departed loved one. After teasing the listener with a pre-chorus, she delivers the emotional release in the instantly catchy refrain: “Give me just / A little bit longer to get over you.” A song about the plaintive desire to arrest the flow of time that’s increasingly separating one from another has hardly been as simultaneously moving and infectious. — Cole Waterman

 

Artist: Guy Garvey

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Guy Garvey
“Open the Door”

One of 2016’s best singles came out of nowhere, and was probably heard by far too few. In a curious “update” of his solo debut Courting the Squall just months after its fall 2015 release, Elbow frontman Guy Garvey dropped the ebullient “Open the Door”, expanding the album tracklist from 10 to 11 songs. Little fanfare surrounded the release of “Open the Door”, strange given just how suited to fanfare the tune is. Courting the Squall largely consists of introspective mid-tempo numbers, which makes the slinky bassline and celebratory horns of “Open the Door” a welcome addition to the LP, as well as one of Garvey’s best songs. He remains his loquaciously genial self, alternating between optimistic refrains (“Open the door / To love, when it takes your breath”) and literary scene-setting (“She crashes cars just walking down the street / The Lebanese boys on the corner lose the power of speech”). Kanye West garnered a lot of attention when he claimed to be working on an update of The Life of Pablo shortly after its release, but “Open the Door” is 2016’s real stunner when it comes to artists revising their own albums. Far from a thrown-off bonus track, this tune is a long-awaited friend being finally being welcomed to the party. — Brice Ezell

 

Artist: FKA Twigs

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FKA Twigs
“Good to Love”

Following the dark, esoteric experimentation of her 2015 EP M3LL155X, releasing a straightforward pop ballad like “Good to Love” was perhaps the riskiest move FKA Twigs could have taken. After all, her established fanbase would hardly have minded had she simply disappeared deeper down her rabbit hole of jittery electronics, but to dive headlong into pop requires real courage and a willingness to make oneself vulnerable. FKA Twigs proves herself more than up to the task, and “Good to Love” is among her finest releases to date. Layering her gorgeous soprano vocals over sparse piano, she manages to fluidly integrate spirituality and sensuality alike into her Romantic celebration of heartache. By the time the faintest synth notes bubble up to the surface in the song’s final minute, FKA Twigs has made the confessional ballad format all her own and proved that her sonic territory stretches further than anyone previously imagined. — Andrew Paschal

 

Artist: Andy Schauf

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Andy Schauf
“The Magician”

Taken from the Canadian singer-songwriter’s third album The Party, this elegant lead single and it’s hypnotically trippy video capture the sleight-of-hand wonder Schauf’s illusionist only wishes he could elicit from an audience. While the track seems like a lost, late ’60s baroque pop gem, the cynical lyrics are distinctly of the now. Each song on the album appears like a crisp snapshot from some awkward social gathering in a quirky indie film, yet there’s something about this hypnotic opener that eclipses everything else that follows. Maybe it’s Schauf’s clever arrangement, with its comically somber clarinets, lush strings, fuzzed-out guitar lines, and that twitchy descending piano passage in the intro, or maybe it is his wonderfully introverted delivery. Regardless, in creating a character whose aimless vulnerability is exposed before his awe-struck crowd, he finds a way to spotlight everyone’s self-conscious insecurities in such a way that we can only grin, as we find ourselves playing the track on an endless loop. — Ryan Lathan

 

Artist: Solange

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Solange
“Cranes in the Sky”

It took Solange eight long years to deliver “Cranes in the Sky”, a song about the not so simpleton burden of existing. Time, however, has made it immaculate: every crack, every sound is conceived and calculated and perfected. It also showcases a treacherous way to get yourself back to happiness. Solange drinks, shops and reads — pretends to be alright at last. The point that “Cranes in the Sky” is that there is always something lurking in the dark corners of the mind and in our lives — particularly, Solange’s mind, which is made universal. That said, what a beautiful darkness this one happens to be. — Danilo Bortoli

 

Artist: Tinariwen

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Tinariwen
“Ténéré Tàqqàl “

Tinariwen’s Tuareg blues have never needed lyrical interpretation for the language-limited; the feeling always bleeds through. Here, the Sahara’s own rock stars lament the current state of their home desert, of the constant power struggles that stain the region. The desert night echoes through “Ténéré Tàqqàl” with warm breezes and the twang of incomparable guitars; Tinariwen continues to tell an unending story of struggle with that vast beauty, with the combined power of sand and string. Like everything the group does, this single sways and pulls at the heartstrings, pure expression through both music and lyrics. As always, no melancholy is more sincere and no tale more elegantly told than Tinariwen’s. — Adriane Pontecorvo

 

Artist: The Avalanches

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The Avalanches
“Subways”

Wildflower is a plunderphonic, nu-disco, neo-psychedelia masterpiece, and one of its shining stars has a new video, “Subways”. It’s one of the best on the record, with its rich colorful palette and joyful movements. That is, even before the children’s choir kicks in. The song sounds like it is sound tracking a film we will never see. Which makes sense, when I found out that some of these songs originated in a cartoon film project. If you haven’t heard Wildflower in full, you really should, it’s hard to grasp the individual moments glories by themselves. Every review of the Avalanches anything brings up time, which is a shame, because this song and this record are already timeless. — Landon MacDonald

 

Artist: Jenny Hval

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Jenny Hval
“Female Vampire”

Jenny Hval can create a scene like no other, so much so that listening to “Female Vampire” can either feel like being on the run, on the chase, or most likely anywhere in between with its pulsating rhythm and taunting lyrics. The song isn’t all terror and gore though. Hval slips one profound concept after another into the tense atmosphere she’s created. Blink and you might miss her raising questions of desire, immortality, the value of life, and the immutability of reality, all through the power of her enthralling vampiric persona. That the song doesn’t feel overstuffed seems less a miracle than the fact that she’s single handedly forced vampirism out of the clutches of teen fiction. Instead, she’s unleashed the beings upon the critical world, and against all the odds, Jenny Hval has done the impossible; She’s made vampires cool again. — Chad Miller

 

Artist: Cymbals Eat Guitars

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Cymbals Eat Guitars
“4th of July 2015 (Sandy)”

Joe D’Agostino, lead singer and songwriter for Cymbals Eat Guitars, is one of the best lyricists in rock music today. His command of language and detail, a mixture concrete observation with kaleidoscopic juxtaposition, is reminiscent Ghostface Killah. “4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)” is one of D’Agostino’s more earthbound statements, detailing a horrific joyride on the titular holiday in which an acquaintance of his drive’s a van through a family’s fireworks display and is eventually beaten in the head with a baseball bat by the angry father. Watching these events, D’Agostino’s spins off into existential querying, wondering how many universes is he alive and dead in, all the while the band’s forceful playing and the in-the-red production provide wonderful counterpoint. It’s one of Cymbals Eat Guitars’s finest songs. Choice lyric from the bridge, “My depression suddenly lifted / All the adrenaline shocked my nervous system / Swore I’d be present and grateful for every second / Later the feeling faded / I couldn’t help it.” — Tanner Smith

60 – 51

Artist: Skepta

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List number: 60

Display Width: 200Skepta
“Man”

The American crowd has been sleeping on grime for decades, yet you might very well hear one of Skepta’s many bangers at your local frat party. Why is that? Probably because his aggression is most straightforward and most in vogue with modern rap radio trends. Perhaps the most fleshed-out banger of them all is “Man”, a track with a hook long enough to be a verse, yet it packs infection into every single word. The song itself is one the harshest “no new friends” anthems around (“First thing you said when you saw me was can I get a pic for the Gram / I was like ‘no, sorry man’ / I only socialize with the crew and the gang.”) but it’s mesmerizing in its aggression, a perfect showcase of Skepta’s signature cynicism. — Max Totsky

 

Artist: Massive Attack

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Massive Attack
“The Spoils” feat. Hope Sandoval

No band can break your heart quite like Massive Attack. On “The Spoils” they are joined by Hope Sandoval who adds mournful yet agonizingly fragile lyrics to an ethereal, minimalist backing. At times the feeling of resigned vulnerability is almost overwhelming, sounding like the whole thing could collapse under the weight of its own emotion. That is, until the band add stirring orchestration to give the song hope. Amazingly, the song manages to sound forlorn and optimistic at the same time. It sounds unmistakably like Massive Attack without sounding like anything they’ve done before. — Paul Carr

 

Artist: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
“Jesus Alone”

If opening tracks are supposed to set the mood of an album, then “Jesus Alone” promises the listener a very ominous journey lay ahead. Warren Ellis’ strings, droning keyboard, and an eerie, repeating whistle lays an aural, ghostly fog, and Nick Cave is your guide through the metaphoric ghost ship ahead. Doctors harvesting tear ducts, a woman surrounded by a charm of hummingbirds, an addict in a Tijuana hotel room. All share the same experience: “you’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator.” As good as Skeleton Tree is, none of its other songs quite top “Jesus Alone’s” opening wallop. On the other hand, few recent tracks can match “Jesus Alone”‘s overwhelming power. — Sean McCarthy

 

Artist: Japandroids

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Japandroids
“Near to the Wild Heart of Life”

“Near to the Wild Heart of Life” is a perfect inversion of “Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town”. Whereas the latter celebrates the good ol’ days with the good ol’ boys getting rocks off in their hometown, the former details the inner struggle to live in the moment and the difficulty in trying to “go far away”. In classic Japandroids fashion, the narrator believes that he’s “destined to die dreaming” until his best friend challenges him to follow them. From there, the narrator details a hometown that’s not adversarial towards him, but actually wholly supportive of his choices. This stands in direct contrast to most rock music, which is elementally rebellious and disruptive, always coming from an outsider’s perspective. Here, our hero feeds off the love and support from his hometown to go and take on the world. And when you listen to it, you feel like you can too. — Tanner Smith

 

Artist: Drive-By Trickers

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Drive-By Trickers
“Surrender Under Protest”

“Compelled, but not defeated.” Is there a better set of four words to collectively describe 2016 as a political and cultural landscape? I believe we’re all compelled at this point but it’s what we do with that internal energy moving forward that will count. And by all means if you’re going to go down, do it under fight and protest, go down kicking, screaming, biting, ball-kicking, whatever shot you can muster. That’s the message behind Mike Cooley’s ditty in the wake of the horrific and cowardly (alleged) act of one, Dylann Roof, white supremacist, and the nine black parishioners he decided to execute in their safe place of worship in Charleston, South Carolina during the summer of 2015. Not only a compelling act but dastardly evil, “Surrender Under Protest” champions the fight to take down the confederate flag from atop the statehouse with which protester and civil rights activists were indeed able to succeed in after relatively peaceful protest and positive activism. — Scott Zuppardo

 

Artist: Katy B x Four Tet x Floating Points

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Katy B x Four Tet x Floating Points
“Calm Down”

Producer and singer Katy B developed her musical talents in London dance clubs, the Brit School and at Goldsmiths College, one of those being collaboration. “Calm Down” which was co-produced by Four Tet and Floating Points is an excellent example of this ability, not to mention her singing and songwriting prowess. Katy B and crew layer her soulful vocals over bouncing strings, vibraphone and high pitched triangles. These are introduced and reintroduced, building on the sound before, creating a lush whole that then disappears, dropping back to the basic rhythm. Katy B’s well phrased emotional vocals display her deceptively simple lyrics that evoke the ecstasy of dancing to beautifully-crafted beats. “Calm Down” is an articulate expression of the love of sound and the feeling of dancing to house music that makes your body want to move. — NA Cordova

 

Artist: Charles Bradley

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Charles Bradley
“Changes”

Times change. It’s an unavoidable fact, though Charles Bradley’s dogged determination remains unchanged. His salty and virtuous grace is just as necessary in today’s turbulent racial and political climate as it was for the soul greats, whether it was Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye. Having been young enough to see it all unravel, Bradley understands that a song’s thematic reach can be vast when the message is both broad and universal. Inspired by the 1972 Black Sabbath original, the song takes an entire new form, with a stirring horn section and a patient guitar riff that fully takes flight when he’s ready to kiss the sky. “Changes” is meant to be a love song, but what it achieves is something much more meaningful: it provides solace and comfort during this time of great uncertainty. — Juan Edgardo Rodríguez

 

Artist: Tim Hecker

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Tim Hecker
“Castrati Stack”

So, the question becomes, “What is this?” Not literally as it’s a pastiche of buzzy synths and edited falsettos that straddles the line between discomfiting and adrenaline-inducing, but metaphysically, What is this? This is the peak of an artist whose vision seems to get more beautiful as it does stranger, transforming the human voice into something robotic and making that mechanistic sound seem all-too-human, a choir praising a higher power who only grants them attention when they expend all possible energy harmonizing. It’s ambient, sure, it’s drone, okay, it’s whatever you want it to be, but the answer remains: it’s the Platonic ideal of the intertwining of sentient and technologic. — Brian Duricy

 

Artist: Tove Lo

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Tove Lo
“True Disaster”

Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo made a name for herself two years ago with her unflinching approach to pop music tropes: euphoric highs, devastating lows, all with explicit, honest depictions of love and lust. “True Disaster” keeps an even keel musically, its hypnotic, ominous electropop arrangement mirroring the sound of CHVRCHES, but lyrically she doesn’t hold back. “Give zero fucks about it, I know I’m gonna get hurt,” she sings, willingly embracing the moment while fully aware of the horrible repercussions that will inevitably follow. That sense of “carpe diem” underscored by impending doom creates a sense of tension that, frankly, is intoxicating. — Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: NAO

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NAO
“Girlfriend”

It’s been shown time and time again that there’s a well-defined market for insecurity, whether it be through viral internet jokes meant to relieve the tensions associated with insecurity or through empowerment anthems such as Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”. London-based singer NAO however eschews all of the predefined norms of insecurity media by staring the uncomfortable right in the face. In her revelatory song “Girlfriend”, NAO documents the struggle of convincing someone else to love you when you can’t seem to love yourself. The concept alone is powerful, but the most affecting aspect might just be the level of desperation seeping through the tune. Staggeringly honest lines like “If I was your girlfriend / Could you love for two?” imply a certain dependence on relationships, not as a boost to self esteem, but as a substitute for it. It’s the rare romantic song that doesn’t seem to have a happy ending in sight, but it’s undoubtedly real and all the better for it. — Chad Miller

50 – 41

Artist: DJ Shadow feat. Run the Jewels

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Display Width: 200DJ Shadow feat. Run the Jewels
“Nobody Speak”

Heard in the context of race relations being at an all time low, this is a timely protest song about the incidences of authoritarian repression felt by many black Americans. Being Run the Jewels, they weave in tongue in cheek rhymes that gives the song a freshness that stops it from feeling contrived. DJ Shadow creates a masterful backing that allows El-P and Killer Mike to trade and spar cutting couplets like hip hop heavyweights at the top of their game. It’s one of those rare occasions where the artists involved feed off each other to create something genuinely breathtaking. — Paul Carr

 

Artist: Rukhsana Merrise

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Rukhsana Merrise
“Money”

You got that friend. That bitter friend. The one who bemoans every new pop release, is disgusted by every format of radio, that says the music scene has grown cold and repetitive. It’s hard to sometimes confront such acidity, but the cure-all is here, and it sounds like “Money”. Looped drum beats and a melting-pop of instrumentation fuels Rukhsana Merrise’s gorgeous, beautiful pop powerhouse of a song. The lyrics may not be the deepest (“Earning minimum wage / Everyeone’s a slave”), but her vocal cadence, mixed with that overpowering chorus, elevate her simple phrasings into something approaching profundity, making “Money” feel like a deep grove song about the millennial socioeconomic mindset of spending every coin you earn, but really, at the end of the day, it’s all about the “Money”. — Evan Sawdey

 

Artist: Travis Scott feat. The Weeknd

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Travis Scott feat. The Weeknd
“Wonderful”

Travis Scott is rap’s great Auto-Tune chameleon, adapting to whomever he’s on a song with while not overpowering the star of the show. And the Weeknd, coming off his best year ever, ushered in 2016 with his a statement of a verse that laid to rest any doubts that the hedonist-in-chief was going completely mainstream — “Ohhh, I love my city late at night, yeah / Ohhh, I love my bitches when they bite, yeah” — a Weeknd lyrics bot couldn’t get more spot-on. The beat, adapted from Tinashe’s “In the Meantime”, adds Scott’s trademark doom to whispering synths, and serves as an ideal landscape for two of R&B and rap’s darkest figures to wax poetic about their nightly bacchanals. — Brian Duricy

 

Artist: Weezer

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Weezer
“LA Girlz”

Once upon a time, Weezer wrote a great 6/8 rocker called “Suzanne” with cheesy but wistful lyrics and a beautiful melody. That song was relegated to a B-side from their debut album and mostly forgotten. 22 years later, a rejuvenated Weezer did not make the same mistake with “LA Girlz”, releasing it as one of the singles for their latest self-titled album. This is also a great 6/8 rocker with Rivers Cuomo’s trademark yearning vocals that border on whiny and a beautiful melody. It hits all of Weezer’s traditional pleasure centers: crunchy guitars, a huge sing along chorus, and a quiet section that builds back up into a simple but catchy guitar solo. Since this is 2016 Weezer, the song also comes packed with awkward pop-culture references and literary allusions, for those inclined to parse through Cuomo’s lyrics. It’s a testament to Weezer’s newfound focus that “LA Girlz” comes off as a successful companion to that earlier song without sounding like a straight-up retread. — Chris Conaton

 

Artist: DJ Paypal feat. DJ Earl + DJ Taye

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DJ Paypal feat. DJ Earl + DJ Taye
“Dose”

A heavily caffeinated, firing-on-all-cylinders footwork track, “Dose” finds DJ Paypal fiddling with one of his most detailed and meticulously crafted beats to date. At times, the blips and whirs and writhing knob-turns move so quickly that they seem to blur together and converge into a kind of pseudo-language, an electronic vernacular somewhere in the uncanny valley between a legitimate sign system and a clot of incomprehensible sonic hieroglyphics. It’s fast, captivatingly dynamic, and just as suited for a late-night hacking competition as it is for a frenetic dancefloor spazz-out. — Pryor Stroud

 

Artist: Minor Victories

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Minor Victories
“Scattered Ashes (Song for Richard)”

The self-titled debut from Minor Victories was a major win for fans of Mogwai, Slowdive, and Editors – built by a core unit of Stuart Braithwaite, Rachel Goswell, and Justin Lockey, from those bands respectively, plus Lockey’s brother James of Hand Held Cine Club. Maybe it is fitting that on a super-group album where the members are effectively guest stars among one another, Minor Victories find their most rousing moment when they make room for one more contributor. Stepping in to duet with Goswell on the buzzing, soulful stomp-along “Scattered Ashes (Song for Richard)” is James Graham of the Twilight Sad, whose voice carries such heartfelt resonance that he could probably bring a tear to your eye with a dramatic reading of a grocery list. — Ian King

 

Artist: Jameszoo

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Jameszoo
“Flake”

At first, it almost sounds like one of Frank Zappa’s insane Synclavier experiments, and if that’s all it was, I’d be totally cool with that. But then a funky keyboard riff sets in, and all of a sudden it’s like Stevie Wonder on a massive LSD trip. Endlessly experimental, the sonic shifts are constantly jarring; once you get used to one avenue, Jameszoo makes a hard turn and you’re on your way to another neighborhood. I have no idea what this song is best suited for, but if you just put on headphones and let it wash over you, a great time is guaranteed. — Chris Ingalls

 

Artist: DAWN

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DAWN
“Cali Sun”

The song begins as a lovelorn sunshine disco number perfect for late summer days. DAWN comes across like Metric’s Emily Haines at her most sunny and anthemic. The song continues to soar until it’s rudely interrupted by a stuttering, bassy breakdown. Before you know it, it’s turned into a club banger designed to tear the dancefloor to shreds. The effect is like walking into a nightclub still in your beach wear and getting sucked onto the dancefloor until the sun comes up. — Paul Carr

 

Artist: Parquet Courts

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Parquet Courts
“Berlin Got Blurry”

Traveling through any town as a normal tourist be a whirlwind experience. When you’re a member of a popular touring rock band and the city you’re passing through is as cosmopolitan and inviting as Berlin, then the concept of travel can take on an entirely different meaning. The gentlemen of Parquet Courts put this experience to tape in quite the frenetic fashion with “Berlin Got Blurry”, a standout track from their stellar 2016 release, Human Performance. As Andrew Savage sings it, the need to work and the need to be there for each and every person one encounters on tour can be quite maddening. Sometimes, all you wanna do is grab a good bite to eat (“French fries, ketchup, hot-dog are the main ingredients / Swears in flawless English it’s the best in town”) and see the sights, but the towns all start to look the same and you can miss the majesty of the places you visit. It’s an honest reminder that life on the road comes with daily mind-benders. — Jeff Strowe

 

Artist: Car Seat Headrest

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Car Seat Headrest
“Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”

The catchiest rock song of 2016 is one of the biggest anomalies of any catchy rock song: the chorus doesn’t even hit until three minutes in. But by that time, you’ve already been so personally, emotionally invested in each line and hook (“You built yourself up against other’s feelings and it left you feeling empty…”; “There’s no comfort in responsibility”) such that when the chorus does come, bringing with it a rare catharsis that it seems only Will Toledo is so capable of. When the volume hits, and he shouts “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS / KILLER WHALES”, it makes absolute sense, even if it is ambiguous as to what “it” is in reference to, or why he has suddenly evoked the marine mammal: Is he wailing about their captivity? Is he comparing our state to theirs? Is he leveraging a close phonetic coincidence between “Killer wheels” and “Killer whales?” Likely, all of the above. — Marshall Gu

40 – 31

Artist: Laura Mvula

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Display Width: 200Laura Mvula
“Show Me Love”

Taken from Mvula’s latest release The Dreaming Room, “Show Me Love” is an incantatory, gospel-tinged art pop hymnal that drifts from moments of deep personal introspection to fissions of out-of-body spiritual awareness. The climactic eruption of orchestration is startling in its intensity; over it, Mvula repeats the title phrase over and over and over again, trying to stretch it out, to discover its true contents and phonetic subtleties, and to discern if expressing her love in the exact right way — “You show me love / You show me love / You show me love” — can somehow approximate the true feeling it gives her. — Pryor Stroud

 

Artist: Rae Sremmurd

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Rae Sremmurd
“Black Beatles”

That its use in the Mannequin Challenge viral videos sent “Black Beatles” to #1 on the Billboard charts felt appropriate, as the duo and song represent our current social-media moment well. Youth sensations Rae Sremmurd and the producer behind them (Mike Will Made-It) are masters of social-style images and quips. “Black Beatles” contains the filmic party image “release the cash / watch it fall slowly”, among others, and Beatles references that seem like jokes but add up to a through-line that makes the song feel greater than its parts. And those parts are great — from the melancholy beats to the almost lackadaisical chorus, Gucci Mane’s appearance and Slim Jxmmi’s surprise burst of manic energy near the end. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Iggy Pop

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Iggy Pop
“Gardenia”

In “Gardenia”, Iggy Pop once again proves he alone has the gravitas to pull off a persona at once menacing, seductive, and oddly endearing. With a guitar part approximating the flapping of dragonfly wings and a pogoing bassline, Pop offers his best sinister croon. A lust-dripping ode to a woman he wants to dominate or be dominated by, Pop’s cavernous intonation is offset by Josh Homme’s eerie backing vocals. Add in ramshackle percussion and deft use of negative space and a noir vibe surfaces, one that seems to ooze from the thin walls of the cheapo motel Pop describes. Predatory yet rife with intrigue, “Gardenia” is vintage Pop. — Cole Waterman

 

Artist: James Blake

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James Blake
“Radio Silence”

I laughed, I gasped, I nearly passed out, the first time I heard “Radio Silence”. Initially, the track opens The Colour in Anything in the manner we’ve come to expect from James Blake, including his lyrical minimalism (the sweet spot of his most outstanding song “The Wilhelm Scream” is one cascading repeated word) and impeccable mixing/dynamics (Blake’s producers have included Brian Eno and Rick Rubin). Here Blake makes great use of lyrical inspiration from Bill Withers, his own mellifluous vocal loops, and one of the most memorable hi-hat assists since Zomby’s Dedication. But what cements “Radio Silence” as the absurdly early peak of an overlong album is the boldest production choice I heard in 2016. The sound arrives at two minutes 39 seconds and graces the entire rest of the track, save the vocal-only outro. It’s an inspired swerve of composing and mixing (like three minutes of Beachwood Sparks’ “Sing Your Thoughts” and two minutes and eight seconds of Portishead’s “The Rip”) that lifts a good song into an unforgettable one. — Thomas Britt

 

Artist: D.R.A.M. (feat. Lil Yachty)

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

“Broccoli”, a single that provides the definition for what a guaranteed party track sounds like in 2016: a feature from a melodic but “mumbling” rapper with competent-though-uncomplicated rhymes, a short and sing-alongable hook (“Ain’t…no…tellin’…what…I’m…finna…be oooonnn”), and a quirky, brilliant, seemingly-ridiculous appearance of a high-pitched melody from a strange sound or instrument (that beautiful damn flute). In 2015, D.R.A.M. blew up with his debut single, “Cha Cha”, from his debut EP. For a smash like “Broccoli” to only be his second single, we’re surely going to keep expectations high for this guy. We’d be ridiculously lucky if we kept receiving hits like this once a year. — John DeLeonardis

 

Artist: John Cale

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John Cale
“Hallelujah”

This is as spellbindingly beautiful as music gets. The deep tones of Cale may have been supplanted in the memory by Buckley’s higher pitched and sensational reading of Cohen’s classic but this is no less soul-stirring. It doesn’t matter that Cale’s cover came first. There is more than one way to cover a song and both Buckley’s and Cale’s are remarkable in their own way. Cale’s slightly more world-weary take adds even more emotional heft to the song. At times it’s almost too difficult to listen to, draped in the dark cowl of the imagery and the attachment that the listener already has for the song. — Paul Carr

 

Artist: Courtney Barnett

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Courtney Barnett
“Elevator Operator”

Without argument, Courtney Barnett is one of the most gifted storytellers working in the contemporary indie scene. “Elevator Operator” doesn’t just prove this assertion, it emblematizes it. Fussy, slyly anthemic, and saturated with Barnett’s flatly-delivered narrative witticisms, it’s a work of rambunctious folk-punk fiction about an office drone who’s mistaken for a suicidal depressive. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you / You’re still in your youth / I’d give anything to have skin like you,” Barnett sings in the chorus, embodying the older woman who commits this misperception, and as she lingers on “you”, falling slightly off key, the mindset of self-loathing and quotidian agony that she’s channeling comes vividly to the fore. — Pryor Stroud

 

Artist: Emeli Sandé

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Emeli Sandé
“Hurts”

Emeli Sandé is raw pain in “Hurts”, a song filled with sweeping, open feeling. She wears her heart on her sleeve, which is a simple thing to do with a song about heartbreak, but the sheer range and depth of her voice takes catharsis to new heights. For the heartbroken, it’s a perfect expression of bittersweet agony, and even for the content, Sandé‘s lyrics are so personal and her delivery so breathtaking and urgent that “Hurts” commands attention. It’s a memorable song, with a sincerity that bleeds through its straightforward sentiments, propelling it into the emotional stratosphere. Emeli Sandé‘s voice is always a sonic treasure to behold, and here, she proves that her soul goes even deeper when she lays herself bare. — Adriane Pontecorvo

 

Artist: Mary Lattimore

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Mary Lattimore
“Jimmy V”

Absolutely gorgeous and fulfilling postproduction harp music with a VHS eyephoria video as an ecstatic bonus. Harp is a naturally evocative instrument, its reliance on overtone and naturally occurring reverberation producing tingly vaporous trails that reinforce the transience of each note, but Lattimore has a mystical way with the effects she lays over her chosen accessory, stretching some passages to ring in persistent nearly cacophonous loops while plunging other notes deep below sea level to bob and weave as the mix persists in a psychedelic swirl of chromatic hues. — Timothy Gabriele

 

Artist: Dee-1

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Dee-1
“Against Us” Remix feat. Lupe Fiasco and Big KRIT

Dee-1’s original “Against Us” track released in 2014, and in that form the song was strong in an inspirational message but diminishing in delivery. Despite being armed with an energetic beat and an undeniable chorus, Dee-1’s vocal/lyrical approach weakened from verse one to two to three. He had the mission. He had the vision. But he needed some support. Enter the dream team trio of Lupe Fiasco, Big KRIT, and Dee-1’s 86-year-old grandfather as featured guests. With their contributions, 2016’s remix of “Against Us” is the most triumphant hip-hop track of the year. Building on his grandfather’s narration, Dee-1 emerges in his verse sounding hungrier and more dedicated than he did on the 2014 version. And then he makes the wisest choice a person can make when two of the best ever to do it have agreed to features. He steps aside and allows them to transform the song in ways that only they can. In any form, “Against Us” is a prayer that offers some hope and guidance through the troubles, the pitfalls, and the venality of modern life. But this remix, in particular, brings the song into powerful union with (paraphrasing Jeezy) your favorite rappers’ favorite rappers. And that seems like some miracle. — Thomas Britt

30 – 21

Artist: Brian Eno

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Display Width: 200Brian Eno
“The Ship”

Since Brian Eno’s place in the avant-rock canon is so intimately linked to the late ‘70s, proto-New Wave masterworks he created with David Bowie, it is difficult to listen to “The Ship” without hearing it in the context of Bowie’s valedictory LP Blackstar. It’s an ambient composition, perhaps, but the story it tells is closer to the cosmonaut-rock mythologizing of Bowie than it is to Eno’s previous electronic work. “The ship was from a willing land / The waves about it rose,” he states, and the haunting, prismatic synth-tones that grip his words seem to be gravitating toward the black star that Bowie feared, a matter-collapsing space phenomenon that allows no light in — or out — of its maw. The ship that Eno captains, in other words, is a ship fated for cataclysmic disaster. — Pryor Stroud

 

Artist: Ash Koosha

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Ash Koosha
“Biutiful”

The sonic equivalent of glass shattering and sprinkling upon pavement like droplets of blood from a head trauma victim, “Biutiful” is another avant-electro soundscape from Ash Koosha, and it beautifully bridges the divide between the discordant and the melodic. While it clearly appropriates many of the synth-pop aesthetics of ‘80s new wave, the track refutes easy definition. As it evolves, it seems to break apart, to surrender itself to a state of disrepair and obsolescence, as if the very machines that created it are struggling to work up the will to continue functioning. — Pryor Stroud

 

Artist: Danny Brown

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Danny Brown
“Really Doe”

Atrocity Exhibition is not an album with a whole lot of bright spots, but “Really Doe” comes the closest to cutting through the darkness of Danny Brown’s psyche. In effect, the song is a genre exercise, a posse cut by four of the best rappers in the game just showing off what they can do. Brown’s manic pace can throw off most rappers, but when placed alongside Kendrick Lamar’s smooth, mazey wordplay and the apathetic aggression of Earl Sweatshirt, it appears in a far different light. Brown seems less manic and more invigorated; it may be the case that the only respite from his demons is having fun and showing off with his friends. — Kevin Korber

 

Artist: Classixx

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Classixx
“Grecian Summer”

The centripetal synth-gushes and kicking-in-the-sand bass of opener “Grecian Summer” perfectly conjure the weightlessness of speeding down a coastline with one hand on the wheel and the other pressed into someone’s palm. But it’s the track’s vaporous vocal sample that best summarizes Classixx’s warm-blooded aesthetic: explosive, breathlessly exuberant, rocking back and forth at the mercy of some overpowering ecstasy, it sounds like a real-time Pollock composition that, instead of paint, splatters its easel with the wreckage of an anonymous, now-forgotten diva’s only hit single. Maybe these effusions, breaths, and lyrical snippets are from her breakout performance on record; maybe from her last. Regardless, they fill the song with an irresistible melodic force, one that seems to pull the sun’s golden hour yearnings beneath your skin so that your veins, muscles, and viscera all feel their heat up close. “Yeah, I love you”, this diva sings, offering the only intelligible words of the whole song, yet they’re the only ones we need; Classixx’s beat does the rest of the talking for her. — Pryor Stroud

 

Artist: Sampha

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Sampha
“Blood on Me”

The most exciting single so far from Sampha’s first full album, scheduled for a February 2017 release, “Blood on Me” presents a mysterious conflict, one from which Sampha is already running at the start of the song. His vocal delivery is perfect, conveying an urgency that intrigues and begs further explanation, and the song’s dynamics paint a more detailed picture than the lyrics, voice and rhythms going from careful whispers to desperate cries over the course of the track. It’s been a busy year for Sampha, even outside of his singles — he’s been featured on tracks by Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Solange — but the four minutes of “Blood on Me” stand out as the most dramatic and promising of all. — Adriane Pontecorvo

 

Artist: Miike Snow

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Miike Snow
“My Trigger”

Every year has that perfect pop song: easy, catchy, and worth the hundred consecutive plays you’ve logged for it on iTunes. “My Trigger” is that song for 2016, with high production values, a welcome earworm of a chorus, and origins in Sweden, a country that cranks out good pop music like an unsettlingly intuitive machine. It isn’t a deep song, nor does it pose much of a cerebral challenge. Instead, “My Trigger” speaks straight to the brainstem with light, steady beats and a bright keyboard melody that keeps your circulation flowing, and sometimes, that’s exactly the kind of buoyant bop that helps keep everyone afloat. — Adriane Pontecorvo

 

Artist: Gold Panda

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Gold Panda
“In My Car”

“In My Car”, Gold Panda’s follow up single to “Time Eater”, begins with glitchy, stop-start orchestral pulsation that sounds like it could be extracted from some golden-era Philly soul ballad, but then the percussion lights like an engine ignited: now, you’re bulleting down a fog-shrouded highway in Derwin Schlecker’s car, but the radio doesn’t play CDs or cassettes, nor can it pick up on any satellite signal or plug into your iPhone, instead, it just converts the passing surroundings — flashes of sky, distant water, birds darting by in strange patterns — into their equivalent sonic forms. Anthemic, pounding, and texturally variegated, it’s a track that generates memories rather than calls them forth — and the third-act koto ripple-breakdown is a moment of unequivocal beauty. — Pryor Stroud

 

Artist: Daniel Lanois

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Daniel Lanois
“Deconstruction”

An exquisite fantasy in zero gravity. Lanois always creates a more magical world, and both song and video envelop us once more in it, represented on screen exactly as it sounds: an iridescent sphere, filled with dancing lights. The long, legato notes fall onto each other so softly that the tune they weave sounds almost accidental, twilight ambiance that just happens to come together to create music greater than the sum of its synthesized parts. Melodic, ethereal, uplifting; if any song could literally take you to another planet, it would be this one. — Adriane Pontecorvo

 

Artist: Blood Orange

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Blood Orange
“Best to You”

Who would have guessed that an album as weighty as Freetown Sound, which unflinchingly examines issues like race and police brutality, would also have produced a veritable Song of the Summer? Yet there it is with “Best to You”, which has every marking of an instant classic from its first moments, bathing the listener in warm synths before launching into a relentless and irresistible marimba line. Dev Hynes, already proven among the finest pop masterminds of this generation, wisely takes the back seat vocally and lets Empress Of take center stage for her finest melodic turn yet. The song inhabits the unstable power dynamics of flirtation, where one moment you’re “faking it all just for fun”, and the next, “breaking apart when you come”. “Best to You” reverberates with an ache and desire that simultaneously wakes you to the present moment and pushes you to the very edge of timelessness. — Andrew Paschal

 

Artist: Kendrick Lamar

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Kendrick Lamar
“untitled 07 | levitate”

Every Kendrick project has a song that cuts through, a song that abandons verbosity and complex flows in favor of the abstract hook, drops the intricately layered jazz backdrop and gets heady with deep bass and turn-up funk. “untitled 07 | levitate” is the more ambient, apocalyptic cousin to last year’s hard-headed yet self-reflective “The Blacker the Berry”, but whereas that To Pimp a Butterfly cut had the kinetic fire of protest music, “untitled 07” sounds dark and alone, more isolated and sinister than the rapper has ever dared to go before. Lamar often alludes to the psychic desolation wrought by the streets, but on untitled unmastered, he actually attempts to materialize that concept into music. — Colin Fitzgerald

20 – 11

Artist: Kaytranada

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Display Width: 200Kaytranada
“Got It Good”

It’s been a marvelous year for Craig David. In addition to scoring his first UK number one album in 16 years, he collaborated with Katy B on her single “Who Am I”, and best of all, he contributed vocals to the best song on Kaytranada’s astounding debut album 99.9%. He and Kevin Celestin prove a perfect match, with Celestin’s slow jam beats and minimalist arrangement creating a simple yet luxuriant backdrop for David’s profession of devotion: “Tell me do you remember when we started? / Remember me and you creepin’ round late at night / And yeah you held me down when I had nothing / And that’s the reason I must spoil you now that I can.” — Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Underworld

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Underworld
“Low Burn”

In “Low Burn”, Underworld wants you to dictate your own fate. “Be bold / Be beautiful / Free / Totally unlimited,” singer Karl Hyde calls in a robotic tone as he lets the song’s driving rhythm absorb his laconic, though oddly moving, choice of words. Its message of empowerment carries more weight when amplified by one’s own imagination; it’s easy to see how it could splash some color to both the thrill and the drudgery of everyday life. Underworld have written this track before in many other ways during their thirty-plus year run, but it’s surely been a good while since they’ve emanated such reassuring solidity in their foolproof techno arrangements. Just close your eyes and let them take you to that magic place. — Juan Edgardo Rodríguez

 

Artist: The Weeknd

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The Weeknd
“Starboy”

The best pop singles are the ones that are great, but also unexpected. “Starboy” fit squarely into that category. Instead of chasing the throwback disco of their own “Get Lucky”, co-producers Daft Punk lay down a brooding, minor-key Krautrock rhythm. “Starboy” sounded so good on the radio, the words didn’t really matter. Still, they turned out to be an almost spiteful reaction to the material wealth that comes in the wake of fame. Compellingly listenable, forward-thinking, and danceable for sure, “Starboy” hit the sweet spot between the gothic paranoia of “The Hills” and the effervescent pop of “Can’t Feel My Face”. — John Bergstrom

 

Artist: Angel Olsen

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Angel Olsen
“Shut Up Kiss Me”

Singing with rockabilly abandon over fuzzed out guitars, Angel Olsen’s “Shut Up Kiss Me” is a breathless burner. Stewart Bronaugh’s, Seth Kauffman’s and Olsen’s chorus of overdriven guitars and Joshua Jaeger’s 3/4 drumming are held together by Emily Elhaj’s bassline, forming the wobbly floor for Olsen’s soulful creaking voice to belt out husky pleadings that are less questions than commands. Her demands for physical contact place hers and the listener’s bodies at the center of desire, the solution, if only temporary, to “all of those tears.” Producer Justin Raisen perfectly captured the rhythm of her vocals wrestling with the time of the beat, passion wrapped in distortion, resulting in a song of devotion in the face of insurmountable odds. — NA Cordova

 

Artist: A Tribe Called Quest

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A Tribe Called Quest
“We the People…”

In a genre plagued by trap beats and pop-ready lyrics these days, one could always trust A Tribe Called Quest to remind intent listeners on hip-hop standing as a socio-political movement as much as it is an artistic statement. Their debut single from off of the album shows right away that they haven’t missed a beat in the two decades that it had taken them to craft another number one chart-blazer. “We the People…” encapsulates everything that Quest has been about since their debut, vehemently against the gentrification perpetuated by politics and mainstream media in scintillating fashion. It’s best encapsulated by the dreary chorus carried on by Q-Tip: “All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways.” It seems like it’s been ages since a song with such widespread acclaim and attention has felt so appropriate as a reflection of the times we are in today. — Jonathan Frahm

 

Artist: Leonard Cohen

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Leonard Cohen
“You Want It Darker”

Many know the story of Leonard Cohen — a luminary poet-turned-performer following financial gloom as a published novelist who, from the release of “Suzanne” in 1967 onward, would become one of the world’s topmost musical storytellers. This comes just as countless others have come to develop their own relationships with the songwriter through his hypnotic, atmospheric means of touching widespread audiences in songs that had, perhaps surprisingly, entered the often banal void of pop music to offer something three-dimensional.

When Cohen said “music is the emotional life of most people”, he was speaking from a personal space perhaps best seen in his final single. Cohen had always thrived in relating to human emotion in his music because he understood its complexities on a personal level, and it’s seen in the provocative swell between anger and calm battling one another on “You Want It Darker”. The results of the US election following his death at 82, one day prior, perhaps solidify our world’s need for humbled, should-be laureates, evocative protest artists, and songwriters capable of capturing beauty in a way like Cohen was able to so handily. His is a legacy that will live on, especially when the world wants it darker. — Jonathan Frahm

 

Artist: Pantha du Prince

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Pantha du Prince
“The Winter Hymn (Feat. Queens)”

Master of the chimes, Pantha du Prince, released his latest LP, The Triad, this year and it was an impressive compositional feat that at times bettered even the stellar Black Noise album from 2010. This sublime album is front-loaded with a set of five tunes that showcase the very finest of Pantha du Prince, and of those songs, “The Winter Hymn” is the song I kept returning to all year whenever I sought a truly immersive and warm experience enveloped by the heavenly chimes, ethereal vocals, gentle beats, and celestial warmth. “The Winter Hymn” is what I imagine hearing while bathing in the heat of outdoor Icelandic spa waters. These are truly some of the most beautiful sounds this year and they are utterly transportive. — Sarah Zupko

 

Artist: Rihanna

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Rihanna
“Needed Me”

Beyond the soul-bearing hurt shown (and felt) on “Higher”, “Needed Me” is by far Rihanna’s strongest vocal showcase on her stellar Anti. Despite following the album’s least memorable track, it keeps that song’s ‘woo’zy atmosphere, and impresses more greatly than any other on the album. By combining the (non-album) “Bitch Better Have My Money” attitude (referred to as “savagery” these days) with “Kiss It Better” sultriness and “Work”-level catchy-and-compact melody, Rihanna creates a perfect storm of all aspects of her own talent to match her unbeatable gaze. Every single syllabic inflection of the track — and especially that whole chorus — captivates the listener’s attention, up to and including her cooing at the end of the track to match the vocal effects that have been in the background the whole time. “Needed Me” is an undeniable confection in 2016, a year that’s been full of that very thing. — John DeLeonardis

 

Artist: Beyoncé

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Beyoncé
“Sorry”

When the dust settles and we’ve forgotten about the specifics of who “Becky with the good hair” was, “Sorry” will remain an R&B classic. Beyonce has written her fair share of kiss-off songs (“Irreplaceable” for example), but “Sorry” adds another dimension in the form of the venom that permeates throughout most of Lemonade. While Beyonce doesn’t disguise her wounds, she isn’t asking for sympathy, either. Instead, she makes it perfectly clear what her opposite number can do with his two-timing ways and weak justifications. Beyonce does well to keep empowerment from becoming empty sloganeering, and it’s the pain behind the anger that makes “Sorry” into a classic. — Kevin Korber

 

Artist: Kanye West

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Kanye West
“Ultralight Beam”

From the prayer of precious little girl Natalie Green to the grown up prodigal son prayer of Kirk Franklin, “Ultralight Beam” was poised to be a pop music 2016 prayer. Kanye has never been a pitiable character in the post-modern minds, but this song gives a pinhole view into his mind. The repeated word — faith, more, safe, war — are a perfect quadripartite image of Kanye. The faith he possesses, the more he pushes for in production, the safety he lost when his Mom passed and looks for in Kim and the fact that he is endlessly at war with himself. Kanye may never release a self-titled record because all of his records are about himself, but The Life of Pablo is close and “Ultralight Beam” looks in the mirror and then to the sky at our Father above. — Landon MacDonald

10 – 1

Artist: Bon Iver

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Display Width: 200Bon Iver
“33 ‘God'”

Nobody, not even Justin Vernon, knows what to make of Justin Vernon’s new record, and that’s perfectly alright. Like the rest of us, our Midwestern minstrel is off his feet, keenly aware we’re hurtling into the Anthropocene. And like the rest of us, he knows he’s not magnificent. But that didn’t stop him from pouring his heart and soul of 1s and 0s into this project, achieving unprecedented universality through esotericism. Bon Iver proves itself a sponge of history, lost and rewritten, mining samples from folk shaman Lonnie Holley and twangy balladeer Jim Ed Brown, smelting the past into a slurry of the Now. The silences and pitch-shifted vocals of “33 ‘God'” may alienate some, but that’s exactly the point. Vernon puts forth the most extraterrestrial possible record to still inhabit terra firma.

As I write this blurb, Bon Iver’s cultish omnipotence forces itself down my throat: “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” plays over this café’s sound system, and just outside, a massive emblem of 22, A Million has been muralized against a Minneapolis skate shop. The music of Bon Iver paradoxically stands as the most sincere and most affected soundtrack to these times. The unabashed religiosity of this pop anthem exudes understated grandiosity. Its impenetrable numerology counts down the days to the Second Coming and subsequent Apocalypse. It’s bird shit, and it’s beautiful. — A. Noah Harrison

 

Artist: Anderson Paak

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Anderson Paak
“Come Down”

Malibu‘s big dance number is a seriously modern take on classic party funk, but it’s rendered far more carefully than most of today’s throwback radio hits. While “Get Lucky”, “Uptown Funk”, and “Blurred Lines” all rely on cheery, nostalgic mimicry, Paak’s James Brown yelps and P-Funk vibes serve a vision of the party through the fractures of contemporary society that’s half-celebration, half-social-division and hostility. Too much dance R&B these days is idealistic and toothless; it’ll quote from the ‘60s and ‘70s classics as long as it can sterilize them of all social commentary. “Come Down” shows them how to have their funk and eat it, too. — Colin Fitzgerald

 

Artist: Chance the Rapper

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Chance the Rapper
“No Problem”

Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book is uniquely suited for these tumultuous times. He’s got rich gospel for when you want to feel restored and replenished (“Blessings” and “How Great”) and pointed political tunes for when you want to get motivated (“Summer Friends”). But sometimes you don’t want either of those options, sometime you just want to flex, and no song this year makes you feel invincible like Chance’s “No Problem”. The instrumental channels the church choir shine that he’s whole-heartedly embraced but cloaks it in filters and bends it to fit trunk-rattling percussion. 2 Chainz’s luxury rap bombast is a perfect foil for Chance, and Lil Wayne’s verse feels positively cathartic for the troubled MC. “No Problem” is far from Chance’s most thematically weighty track, but it was still one of his most crucial, proving that amongst the calls to action and thoughtful prayers there is still room to stunt a little. — Grant Rindner

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Artist: Common

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Common
“Black America Again”

No-one, not even Common himself, could have foreseen how relevant this record would become as the year events unfolded, particularly as the album of the same name was released the week before the election which shocked the world. Set to a deep and emotive piano line, crunching drums join the mix and Common’s poetic delivery sounds as charged and reinvigorated as it has for years, as he considers the injustices that have long effected African Americans, including police brutality. As the tracks moves towards its close, Stevie Wonder drives the overarching message of positivity that underlies both the track and record as he implores people to rewrite the black American story. At times like these, this message can be drawn even more widely as America and the world head timidly towards times of great uncertainty. — William Sutton

 

Artist: Radiohead

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Radiohead
“Burn the Witch”

Thankfully, the not-so-little shop of horrors that is 2016 will soon end. The putrid 2016 US presidential election is over – not that the worst isn’t yet to come on that front. A seemingly interminable conflict rages in Syria. Ethno-nationalist movements are cropping up in numerous Western countries. Looking back on these and other ongoing crises, a track like Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch” makes a lot of sense. Tense, scraping strings, an undulating bassline, and Thom Yorke’s paranoid musings (“This is a low flying panic attack”) form a sonic snapshot of pure terror, notes clustering together like a thunderhead of hornets. On A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead’s best LP in a long time, “Burn the Witch” is an oddity; no other track, excepting perhaps the krautrock jam “Ful Stop”, comes close to keeping pace or intensity. Radiohead spends much of its time on the album swirling about in a bleary-eyed, gray soundscape, typified by songs like “Glass Eyes” and the long-awaited “True Love Waits”. But for a few minutes, the band summons a storm of cacophony, and Jonny Greenwood reveals once again his prowess for string arrangements. Unlike any contemporary rock band, Radiohead inspires all kinds of high-minded theorizing, but it doesn’t take much effort to connect “Burn the Witch” to the tumultuous times that surround it. — Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Frank Ocean

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Frank Ocean
“Nikes”

The single version of “Nikes” and its incredible video dropped us into the four years of aesthetic development that Ocean has underwent since his last album Channel Orange. “Nikes” features of Blonde’s dominant traits: treated vocals that tell different perspectives, down-tempo pacing, and beautiful vulnerability about identity and sexuality. “Nikes” sounds like a dream in forward motion — it’s heavy and weightless, becoming wholly human when we hear Ocean’s untreated voice at its stunning midpoint. The sound and visuals evince Ocean as a dedicated researcher and critic of pop culture, someone who is deeply in touch with the moment but radically outside of its norms. Like David Bowie, he’s an artist on an island all his own who visits when he feels up to it, bringing us some of the most rapturous music from a major pop figure in years. — Tanner Smith

 

Artist: The 1975

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The 1975
“The Sound”

Techies, help me out: there must be some computer program that will take your favorite musical moments from a single decade — say, “the ‘80s” — and fuse them together into a single that makes people dream themselves into elaborate romantic scenarios involving hot misfits covertly making out inside janitorial supply closets. UK bedroom producer Mylo achieved this very feat a decade ago with “In My Arms”, a tongue-wrestling mashup of “Bette Davis Eyes” with “Waiting for a Star to Fall”. Now his cute landsmen the 1975 have taken that “in my aaarms” cadence from Boy Meets Girl, made it sound like Duran Duran, changed the words, added more words including “epicurean”, and decorated the whole thing with synth-string hits and what could be a keytar solo if you play your cards right. It all adds up to something better, grander, more generous than whatever your computer program would spit out. After all, if these young gentlemen with their ridiculous hair cared enough to squish together all your favorite ’80s bits, you must be pretty special now, mustn’t you? — Josh Langhoff

 

Artist: Mitski

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Mitski
“Your Best American Girl”

Forcing yourself to conform is something a good amount of us can do on a daily basis without tears and pain, but when you really come close to reluctantly abandoning your identity, any melodrama is justified. That’s what Mitski grapples with “Your Best American Girl”, a song that tears the curtain down as it unveils the moans and sheets of distortion that emphatically deliver the song’s core struggle; attempting to tweak your upbring to impress an “all-American boy,” the penetrating uncertainty brought about by ignorant disapproval. For Mitski, it’s no easy task, but the catharsis that comes when the screeching refrain emerges from the hushed verses is as therapeutic as it is theatric. — Max Totsky

 

Artist: David Bowie

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David Bowie
“Blackstar”

In the age of massive streaming services and pocket-sized hard drives that can store tens of thousands of songs, it’s easy to become a cynical, and even lazy music listener. On certain days, you can find yourself clicking ‘next,’ and going through nearly 250 songs, and feeling like you’ve heard everything. But then, a track like Blackstar comes along, and resets your expectations. The sparse, industrial first half is tempered with Donny McCaslin’s jazzy saxophone. Then, it rolls into a not-quite pop song. A repeating refrain “at the center of it all” ties both movements together. And for many jaded listeners, a long-dormant phrase can be uttered again: “I’ve never heard anything like this before.” — Sean McCarthy

 

Artist: Beyoncé

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Beyoncé
“Formation”

Have you heeded the clarion call? Are you in formation? 2016 people demanding your rights, get ready for the backlash, but this time it’s not just some internet trash talk about illuminati. 2017 people are in dire need to slay, slay, slay those albino alligator alt.wrong pigfuckers. They want us to think some cheddar bay biscuits as a post-coital treat is the same as sexually assaulting a cadre of women? That standing on a cop car is the same as murdering unarmed children for Trumped-up offenses? All the year’s political entanglements seemed to find a nexus in “Formation”, a loose-stringed weird pop strand of Bayou birthright elocution inextricably linked to its surrounding visceral visuals- namely New Orleans drowning in a sea of neglect and Panthers invading the imperial Leni Riefenstahl spectacle center of pro-football. Men taking a knee and women raising a fist is the perfect of inversion of scum-American values, lest we not forget that the Black Panthers arose out of a lack of proper defense against tyranny in underserved communities. Bey mostly sings of how capitalistic success has made for the sweetest revenge (making managerial feminism ripe for the Hillary camp), and how white hierarchies and dog-whistles have not diced the proud black roots out of her, but the culture clash has caused “Formation” to become somewhat anthemic for the resistance. Lucky for us, the song Bey, MikeWillMadeIt, and Rae Stummund assembled is also a vanguard, a noise of difference for an alternative mainstream, a 2017 not cowering in defeat but standing in synchronized defiance. Militant pop to militantly pop some Nazi scum. — Timothy Gabriele

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