The year is nearly half over, so here’s a quick recap back at 2016’s best songs, from Rihanna to Radiohead, Paul Simon to « Panda. »
Alicia Keys, « In Common »
I love the idea of the video. Portraying beautiful people who are not considered beautiful by the bigger shallow portion of society.
The 1975, « The Sound »
Neon-bright enthusiasm and a tenderly catchy refrain. The steely guitar solo and synth-y build hark back to Eighties New Wave without getting too lost in nostalgia.
Chainz feat. Lil Wayne, « Bounce ».
A complete rarity in the age of emailed guest appearances. Two hip-hop icons take it back to the days of parking lot ciphers and bounce technical, hilarious, highly assonant rhymes off each other – part teamwork and part competition
Animal Collective, « FloriDada ».
Art-rock’s most colorful kooks emerge from their reverbed haze and dancefloor dreams. Instead they return with a giddy, goofy, hocketing calliope of a pop song that samples three of the best seconds of the Beach Boys’ « Wipeout. »
Anohni, « Drone Bomb Me ».
Anohni has made one of the year’s most challenging and exhilarating LPs with Hopelessness, using avant-club-pop to explore the dark side of American politics and foreign policy the way others singers might explore doomed romance. On this incredible ballad, she plays a young Afghani girl whose parents have been killed by a U.S. drone strike, praying for the same fate herself like a tragic supplicant.
Courtney Barnett, « Three Packs A Day ».
No songwriter around writes with such subtle grace about the pains and pleasures of bohemian life, and here she gives us a casually fleet garage-rock ode to the meager wonders of ramen that turns cheap eating into a class-based cri de coeur: « I’m sick of lentils. »
Beyoncé, « Formation ».
Political and self-aware, the singer had fun while getting serious about race and police brutality. The world stopped.
Car Seat Headrest, « Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales ».
The centerpiece underdog anthem from Will Toledo’s breakout indie-rock masterpiece Teens of Denial; he builds from glum smeared-sunset prettiness to a heroic chorus that fights through loathing and ambivalence to sweep up the world in a big-riff bear-hug.
Chainsmokers feat. Daya, « Don’t Let Me Down ».
EDM may not dominate the charts the way it used to but the Chainsmokers’ swirling, turnt-up love song proves the genre has a little fight left in it. Newcomer Daya goes to battle with the aggro, big room beats and ends up coming out on top.
Chairlift, « Crying In Public ».
Crying in front of strangers is the perfect metaphor for the intimacy it takes to open one’s self up to a new person. Indietronic duo Chairlift approach both subjects with sweetness and naivety.
Chance the Rapper feat. 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne, « No Problem ».
This streaming-only star sounds like he’s giving an ultimatum to the record industry: « If one more label try to stop me/It’s gon’ be some dreadhead niggas in your lobby. » But the gospel choir in the background makes it feel more like an ecstatic celebration of his blessings.
Desiigner, « Panda ».
The Future-esque rapping and menacing trap beat that underlies « Panda »‘s ridiculous repetition were already making Internet waves, but a prominent sample on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo made Desiigner a fixture everywhere from car stereos to Vogue shoots.
Drake, « One Dance ».
It finally happened: The tropical, infectious, sung « One Dance » not only extended Drake’s new-world pop sound but also gave the rapper his first Number One solo single.
Fifth Harmony, « Work From Home ».
Girl group Fifth Harmony came back equipped with Ty Dolla $ign and a toolbox full of innuendos. Complemented by a simple, DJ Mustard-y beat, the sexy song made everyone want to play hooky.
Flume feat. Kai, « Never Be Like You ».
The pop realization of the twisted techno mutations of cutting-edge acts like Flying Lotus, Rustie and Arca. « Never Be Like You » skulks like Timberlake’s « My Love » caught in a parade of sparking, stuttering robotics.
Ariana Grande, « Dangerous Woman ».
This sultry, clever, bluesy stalk is full of unlikely patterns and pitch jumps, not to mention a guitar solo that explodes into Nintendo pixels and a vocodered outro. But for all its unique filigrees, there’s an unstoppable chorus for one of pop’s most pyrotechnic voices.
J-Zone, « I’m Sick of Rap ».
Curmudgeonly « damn near 40 » Queens rapper J-Zone takes no sides in the Vince Staples vs. N.O.R.E. debate about Nineties hip-hop. He thinks nostalgia sucks, but everything else sucks now too: trap, boom-bap, Twitter, collabs, crews, blogs and touring: « Take your 360 deal and keep truckin’/The only motherfucker not doing no shows/Put my shit on BandCamp for the fans and say fuck it. »
Maxwell, « Lake By the Ocean ».
After a seven-year hiatus, Maxwell returned with a song that turned smooth romance and sweet nothings into a Bob Ross painting, lyrically manifesting landscapes to reflect the cleansing of a relationship. In the end, he created the year’s most mature love song.
Mitski, « Your Best American Girl ».
In a year when racial differences have turned America into a riotzone, Asian-American indie-rock artist Mitski’s slow-burning, distortion-thick ode to her unreachable all-American boy gets at our historic tension and burden from the inside – tightrope walking the chasm between romantic ideals and cultural reality to make for breathtaking music.
Maren Morris, « My Church ».
Some keep the Sabbath going to church. Breakout Nashville star Maren Morris keeps it blazing down the freeway listening to classic country radio – with Hank Williams delivering the sermon and Johnny Cash leading the choir. Honoring tradition, this joyous popwise stomper keeps it moving forward.
Parquet Courts, « Berlin Got Blurry ».
The finest American guitar band of the last five years knocks out a woozy, loose-kneed « drunk in Europe » rocker that sounds like the Modern Lovers rocking a spaghetti Western canteen and makes loaded alienation feel warm and cozy.
Radiohead, « Burn the Witch ».
Radiohead’s latest masterpiece opens with the shock of the old: pulsating strings that grow louder, heavier and more darkly engrossing, splayed out over slight digital beatscaping, as Thom Yorke follows a « low flying panic attack » into a thicket of paranoia and fear.
Rihanna, « Work ».
What would even you call a minimalist banger? One of America’s most reliable singles artists created an arch, moody album instead of a handful of chart-ready pop confections, but we still couldn’t resist this barely-there tune with a beat like a dancehall wisp and lyrics like a freestyle.
Paul Simon, « Wristband ».
A standout from Simon’s great new Stranger to Stranger: Over an elastic boogaloo groove, Simon sings about an aging rocker accidentally locked out of his own show, embarrassingly battling it out with club security, then pulls back to contrast his small-potatoes gripes with real social and economic struggles. It’s like Larry David by way of Bernie Sanders, the personal-as-political as only Simon can do.
Sturgill Simpson, « In Bloom ».
One of country’s most innovative rule-benders takes the bruising Nirvana anthem and finds grim empathy for its gun-toting yahoo protagonist, slowing the original down to a gothy honky-tonk ballad and bringing out new shades of darkness Kurt Cobain would’ve savored.
Kanye West, « Ultralight Beam ».
Best case scenario for the next Kanye West song to change the way rap sounds on 2017: a beaming gospel choir, a melody like a blues cry, a Chance the Rapper guest spot and a beat like Minecraft blocks.
White Lung, « Kiss Me When I Bleed ».
White Lung’s Mish Way growls out gruesome images of babies born in molasses and rotting teeth above an unsettling, piercing riff that is as stubborn and tenacious as the pride discussed.
Whitney, « Golden Days ».
Refugees from the great Chicago garage-rock band Smith Westerns hop a train out to the country, for some elegiac early-Seventies AM-folk bliss – it’s like the America of « Ventura Highway » reborn as a lo-fi stoner guitar nerds, in a good way.
o Gotti feat. Nicki Minaj, « Down in the DM (Remix) »
On paper, a 34-year-old Southern rap lifer talking about his social media game should be embarrassing, but Yo Gotti has the right amount of bounce, humor and R-rated come-ons. Meanwhile, Nicki Minaj shows up to point out who’s really in charge.
Young Greatness, « Moolah ».
Released to YouTube in 2015 but charting in 2016, rapper Young Greatness croons a striver’s anthem that’s equal parts Atlanta trap and New Orleans melody.
Zayn, « Pillowtalk ».