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Top 50 Songs of 2016

on December 05, 2016, 12:00am
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The songs of 2016 have found their way into our lives through concerts, memes, and commercials. There have been videos of David Bowie on his deathbed and Beyoncé going full HBO for her presentation of Lemonade. There’s still room in our hearts for the indie rock of Car Seat Headrest and Mitski, even as we fall hard for ubiquitous fare from Drake, Rihanna, and Sia. Whether streaming on Tidal, Apple, or Spotify, the songs that mattered managed to find their way into our everyday lives.

(See: Top 50 Albums of 2016)

There are so many ways to experience music now, but that hasn’t detracted from the power of songs. They still manage to rise above the noise and impact our lives in ways both old and new. For these songs to find their audience, the journey hasn’t been easy. And we love them all the more because of it. These are some of the songs that we’ll take with us into 2017.

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Underworld50. Underworld – “I Exhale”

Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future

Karl Hyde describes “I Exhale” as “laying down the Eiffel Tower on its side and cutting it up into these shards of rhythmic steel.” The lead single from Underworld’s first studio album in six years, Barbara, Barbara we face a shining future, “I Exhale” recaptures the concussive strength of the seminal UK electronic duo. It begins with its most instant hook, Hyde and Rick Smith shifting between two thick, rubbery bass synth tones and insistent percussion, while Hyde’s voice wraps in a lacework of glitches, pops, and porous synths. All along, Hyde offers up pitch-perfect impressionistic imagery (“Gas crown/ In a blue sky/ Asbestos rooms”), then slouches backwards into some “blah blah blah.” Still, the space is astounding, squiggles of noise and layers of drum machine build and lurch as the song progresses, the smirk on Hyde’s face apparent with every line, evidence of an artist who has managed to stay inquisitive even as he’s cemented his signature. Hyde and Smith took some time apart between records, and they sound renewed on “I Exhale”, as though they breathed in the long-tone pieces of electronic and exhaled them through their trademark filter. It is habitually loud, often pretty, and “I Exhale” proves they’re able to reach their power-groove heights once again. –Lior Phillips

Buy: Amazon

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Xenia Rubinos49. Xenia Rubinos – “See Them”

Black Terry Cat

“Who are they to come to tell me where I’m from and what is wrong?” Xenia Rubinos sings on the hyperkinetic “See Them”, a highlight off Black Terry Cat. Throughout the record, the Brooklyn singer-songwriter rejects essentialization, defying any concept of easy boxes based on race, gender, genre, or the like. Instead, she celebrates each part of herself and her music, this song fusing intricate rhythms and polyrhythms, bright synths, jazz-indebted runs and scat, light harmonies, and playground chants and spoken word, among other pieces. Throughout the relatively open-air composition, Rubinos’ compelling voice drives the way, powerful and clear and yet refusing to be easily summed. “I wanted it to sound like a collage,” she said in our recent interview, and that maximalist drive comes through — there are so many disparate pieces to “See Them”, yet they all blend together into a masterful picture of a unique artist. –Adam Kivel

Buy: Amazon

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Lucy Dacus48. Lucy Dacus – “I Don’t Want To Be Funny Anymore”

No Burden

Aside from being one of Senator Tim Kaine’s favorite tunes of 2016, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” is a song about the exhaustion of playing into society’s expectations. And Lucy Dacus, for all the crackling energy of her guitar, sounds exhausted. Each syllable is a subtle smirk, each line a quiet and direct statement demonstrating that feminism — and individuality, for that matter — doesn’t have to be loud to make itself heard. Even the instrumental melody, which pairs a straightforward chord progression with steady, persistent downstrokes, seems like an exercise in minimalism drawn out to deliver maximum impact. Indie rock didn’t make many grand statements in 2016, but “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” demonstrates that “grand” isn’t a prerequisite or synonym for “important.” –Collin Brennan

Buy: Amazon

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rae s Top 50 Songs of 201647. Rae Stremmurd – “Black Beatles”

StremmLife 2

It’s easy to be distrustful of a meme. In hindsight, they are often reduced to a fad, a fleeting one-hit wonder a la “Harlem Shake”. Once in a supermoon, however, virality strikes a truly great song. For Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles”, which catapulted to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in early November due to the “mannequin challenge” videos, the triumph was wholly deserved. The shining highlight from their underappreciated sophomore album, Sremmlife 2, finds the brothers in top form, full of rock star bravado while trading sugary hooks over a sleek MikeWillMadeIt beat. For a duo whose bright, auto-tuned approach to rap has always courted controversy, between derision from hip-hop old heads and outrage from rockists for co-opting rock imagery in their videos, the song’s rise to success was beset by struggles on all sides. However, listening to the track’s exuberant self-confidence, it’s easy to see why so many, even an original Beatle, took to it. Plus, it gave Gucci Mane his first #1 single of his career, the cap to a tremendous comeback year. –David Sackllah

Buy: Amazon

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kvelertak-%22nattesferd%2246. Kvelertak – “Nattesferd”

Nattesferd

Like the soundtrack to a badass ‘90s Viking video game that never existed, Kvelertak’s “Nattesferd” charges headfirst into battle, sword raised, teeth gritted, one hand lifted in the sign of the horns. The title track to the Norwegian outfit’s excellent record displays their deft fusion of Norse folk and classic metal, the traditional bones underpinning the ratcheting guitar solo peeking through as it reaches full speed. In a year brimming with powerful, harsh, and heavy metal, this head-banging throwback carved its own path, and following along for the ride is an absolute thrill, even on repeat listens of the five-minute rager. Even if you don’t speak Norwegian, you’ll be tempted to sing along to Erlend Hjelvik’s vocals, and the guitar lines are the rip-roaring stuff of teenage dreams. Nattesferd the album may offer more plainly goofy heavy rock idolatry, but this one hits the precise intersection of goofy and badass that no one can do quite the way Kvelertak can. –Adam Kivel

Buy: Amazon

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jessy lanza oh no album new junior boys Top 50 Songs of 201645. Jessy Lanza – “It Means I Love You”

Oh No

“It Means I Love You”, perhaps more than any other song on this list, has texture. There’s the metronomic stiffness of its percussion, the fuzzy bop of its circular tabla beat, those wispy, ephemeral synths, and, of course, Jessy Lanza’s bright, velvety voice, an instrument of its own. Together, they create a mesmerizing bit of sonic architecture, the kind of sound you can almost feel, especially once it explodes into a series of snares and vocal samples. “Explodes” might not be the right word, because “It Means I Love You” never comes apart. It’s as self-assured as Lanza herself, whose pitch-shifted vocals display a sultry, otherworldly confidence. Her “boy” may walk away, but she’s confident in her love: “Look into my eyes boy, and it means I love you,” she sings against the silence, all the instruments having drifted away for a few seconds. You can feel that, too. You can feel that most. –Randall Colburn

Buy: Amazon

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sheer mag Top 50 Songs of 201644. Sheer Mag – “Can’t Stop Fighting”

III 7″

There’s plenty to champion about Sheer Mag. The Philadelphia punk group nail their guitar solos, frontwoman Christina Halladay couldn’t give less of a fuck what people think of her or her singing, and, above all else, they refuse to alter their DIY ethos for fame, despite numerous offers. On “Can’t Stop Fighting”, they raise the bar again, writing power pop about unsolved murders in Ciudad Juarez, mistreatment of the working class, and corrupt government blindness. And yet a song that should be a protest song is one for cheers and beers, the type of instrumental bliss present in “The Boys Are Back in Town” that encourages friends to never take one another for granted. For all the jabs people throw at acts like Thin Lizzy, they knew how to write songs for the bar, to get those who couldn’t care less to sing along, grins on their faces, while a guitar’s melody whisked them off somewhere pleasant. Sheer Mag do the same. Instead of a room full of liquid depressants, Sheer Mag’s song echos in a world of newsline depressants, and they stir up the same punk rock camaraderie that makes activism and bonhomie feasible to all. —Nina Corcoran

Listen: Bandcamp

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greys outer heaven Top 50 Songs of 201643. Greys – “No Star”

Outer Heaven

If there’s one thing to take away from 2016, it’s that people are capable of far worse than we assume. The Bataclan attacks in Paris ended the year prior, showcasing a fear of religion and race that led to burnt mosques and rampant discrimination. CoSigned act Greys responded to that with “No Star”, a song that sees singer and guitarist Shehzaad Jiwani questioning where he, and others of color, fit in, especially in predominantly white communities. “Don’t shoot, I’m not the enemy/ They want you to be scared of me,” the song begins, and then, following a dropping bass note, the Toronto punk act triple their speed, hurling ahead in a fervor replicant of their own trepidation. “No Star” is as much a refuge for the isolated as it is a precursor to the faults on both sides of the coin: political divides across counties that normalize acts of hate and the surge of allies talking over those they intend to speak on behalf of. There’s work to be done. Let’s start by finding a new star to walk towards in unity. —Nina Corcoran

Buy: Amazon

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asap ferg Top 50 Songs of 201642. A$AP Ferg – “New Level” (ft. Future)

Always Strive and Prosper

One of Future’s most valuable weapons has always been repetition, his ability to chant a slogan over and over until you wholeheartedly believe it. He’s convincing not because he’s a cheerleader, but because his codeine-weighted rasp has pain and vulnerability. It renders the boasts human and truthful rather than empty. And why not? After all, it’s easier to have faith in someone whose struggle still rings clear in their voice. That quality elevates A$AP Ferg’s “New Level” beyond being typical braggadocio rap. Future sounds dogged yet doubtful, and Ferg continuously lifts him up with his fuller-throated bark. This is tag-team music for the most dire of times, a reminder that even hip-hop giants need a little help from their friends. –Dan Caffrey

Buy: Amazon

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kendrick lamar untitled unmastered stream album listen Top 50 Songs of 201641. Kendrick Lamar – “Untitled 7”

untitled unmastered.

While the impact of the masterpiece that was To Pimp a Butterfly was still causing ripples, Kendrick Lamar let loose a bunch of demo material tied to that record, called untitled unmastered.. And these tracks were clearly not cast off for lacking in quality, but rather being puzzle pieces that didn’t fit the needs of the epic slab that preceded it. They still hold the same DNA, like close cousins, in various states of completion and cohesion. The eight-minute “Untitled 07 | 2014-2016” shows the massive scope of the set in its length and title alone, but then the three-part suite also shows the depth and diversity of Lamar’s genius. The first section analyzes the materialism and industry pimping of the rap world, the second lauds his skills and the good he’s done, and the third is a candid “in the studio” bit of conversational planning for a sensual jam. Those three styles and approaches only begin to scratch at the genius of Kendrick, though they’re each engaging in their own right, flowing well together as a reminder of his reign at the top. –Adam Kivel

Buy: Amazon

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sing street soundtrack Top 50 Songs of 201640. Sing Street – “Drive It Like You Stole It”

Sing Street: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Sing Street, John Carney’s exuberant, joyful ode to ’80s power pop, was one of 2016’s most refreshing cinematic surprises. A bold, heartwarming tale of a young Irish lad (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) weathering poverty and puberty in 1980s Dublin, Carney charts the boy’s growing pains in tandem with the shifting subcultures of British New Wave music. Sing Street’s soundtrack is full of charming original gems, as well as homages to Duran Duran (“The Riddle of the Model”) and The Cure (“A Beautiful Sea”), but its magnum opus is “Drive It Like You Stole It”, a synth-happy ode to Hall and Oates that’s as catchy as it is endlessly repeatable. It’s simple, sugar-coated rhythms perfectly capture the naivete of a young boy freshly learning the value of taking risks — there’s something innately appealing about capturing that sublime, first-pumping feeling of teenage freedom in musical form. –Clint Worthington

Buy: Amazon

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bishop-briggs-%22river%2239. Bishop Briggs – “River”

River

When we CoSigned the LA-based pop artist Bishop Briggs back in October, there was still a shred of truth to the notion that she was “undiscovered.” No more. The singer’s hit single “River” has spread across the nation’s commercial radio stations like wildfire, and its expressionistic music video is on pace to rack up more than three million YouTube views by year’s end. We shouldn’t be so surprised at the meteoric rise of an artist nobody had heard of this time last year, if only because her sound represents the platonic ideal of pop music’s latest iteration. With its huge trap beats and slippery indie guitar riff, “River” gets all the underpinnings of a smash hit right, but it would be nothing without Briggs herself, who carries the chorus with her huge voice. This is a case of songwriting and talent coming together to create a monster. –Collin Brennan

Buy: Amazon

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lemonade Top 50 Songs of 201638. Beyoncé – “All Night”

Lemonade

There is often a moment after an evening thunderstorm, just before nighttime, when the sun comes back out, as if to remind you it still exists. On Lemonade, an album that goes deep into personal and political heartbreak, “All Night” is this moment of light. Amidst the fury, the sadness, the radical empowerment and celebration of self, Beyoncé takes this song to forgive. It’s not a concession as much as reclamation, meant to show the resilience of her love through dark times. The strength, even in this moment of absolution, is conveyed through the songs’ poetry; “Trade your broken wings for mine/ I’ve seen your scars and kissed your crimes” ends the first verse. This subtle power is represented in the instrumentation as well: clean and resolute guitar chords, determined piano notes, and the triads of the trumpets, which sound like victory. In a year full of relentless clouds, Beyoncé provides a distinct beam of hope. –Mary Kate McGrath

Buy: Amazon

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christine Top 50 Songs of 201637. Christine and the Queens feat. Booba – “Here”

Christine and the Queens

When listening to music sung in a language you cannot understand, it’s edifying when a line sounds beautiful in its own language and then translates to something equally stunning. “J’évolue en vivante trace/ A peine un peu effacée,” Héloïse Letissier sings on “Here”, the standout track from the debut album from her synthpop project Christine and the Queens. If my nifty translation source is working properly, in English that would mean “I evolve in living trace/ Barely erased” — and considering the slow-burning track’s focus on attempting to nail down the moment while it threatens to slip away, that sounds about perfect. Letissier repeats the song’s title as if it’s a magical incantation, the glowing organ and distorted clap-stomp rhythm anchoring her. As the song builds and reaches further for connection, the lone strings that peppered the first couple of minutes rise into a stunning, swirling flock, spiralling out to the horizon. Here, there are many beautiful and bracing passages, a vocal with blood-curdling pain coursing through the songs veins. Though she may still be reaching for that connection within the music, few artists can summon a balance of patience, roar, power and meticulousness llike Letissier. –Lior Phillips

Buy: Amazon

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LUH-spiritual-songs-for-lovers-to-sing-album36. LUH – “$ORO”

Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing

“$oro” is a messy song. Hell, LUH is a messy project. Formed by Ellery James Roberts following the dissolution of his buzzy rock band WU LYF, in many ways Lost Under Heaven picks off where that group left off. The songs are tirades against the establishment, with Roberts’ sandpaper wailings anchoring the compositions in gut-wrenching familiarity. His voice is, simply, unforgettable. So much so that on “$ORO”, it’s Roberts’ voice that leads the song’s charge, even when there is so much else going on. The auto-tune effects that shape him and cohort Ebony Hoorn’s voices, not to mention the rave-ready production from The Haxan Cloak, give Roberts’ song stakes in both the future and the past. There are shades of esoteric electronica and top-40 hip-hop, all held together by Roberts’ rock and roll swagger. When music tastes are more unabashedly omnivorous than ever, “$oro” isn’t afraid to be everything at once. Sure, it’s kind of a mess, but it’s also one of the most brave and original pieces of music this year. –Philip Cosores

Buy: Amazon

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The 197535. The 1975 – “Somebody Else”

I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It

Some topics seem too dirty for pop songs, but The 1975 excel at combining the uncomfortably relatable with pristinely produced hooks that have no other home but mainstream radio. The standout single on an unwieldy album with an unwieldy title, “Somebody Else” explores the feelings of jealousy that arise when an ex-lover finds a new match. The wrinkle in the fabric is that the speaker is no longer even attracted to his former love; he wants her without really wanting her. Frontman Matthew Healy has never shied away from putting his dirty laundry on display, but there’s something enticingly awful about this premise. Pair it with a slick guitar track that recalls ‘80s excess in the worst and best ways, and you’ve got a bizarre single that somehow works beautifully. Chalk up one more contradiction for what may have been the world’s biggest band in 2016, even if some critics refused to acknowledge their reign of dominance. –Collin Brennan

Buy: Amazon

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Mothers34. Mothers – “Hold Your Own Hand”

When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired

A song that’s equal parts jarring and inviting, “Hold Your Own Hand” does not back away from tear-worthy melodies and haunting refrains; rather, it leans into them, confronting the pain. When the song opens with “Betraying every movement/ Cold fingers not forgotten,” it’s difficult to reach higher on the sadness scale. But then arrives the heartbreaking line, “I think I could learn to love,” followed by a lengthy instrumental break punctuated by lilting guitar lines and soft percussion. Lead singer Kristine Leschper’s voice breaks, wails, and yearns for comfort, symbolizing the experience of broken love. The nearly seven-minute-long ballad doesn’t fill every space with words, yet lets the glittering backdrop take front-and-center, mirroring the lyricism with perfect candor. With a debut album that illuminates our most sacred, private moments, this standout song is a sonic representation of what it means to grieve, long for someone, and give in to the pain rather than force it away. –Sarah Brooks

Buy: Amazon

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Kaytranada33. Kaytranada – “Glowed Up” (ft. Anderson. Paak)

99.9%

Both Kaytranada and Anderson .Paak produced a lot of excellent music in collaboration with others in 2016, so it’s only fitting that they would magnify their powers when combined. Cut from the former’s superb debut LP, Kaytra works together a two-part groove for Andy’s breathy flow, mercurial, woozy, and charming. Pops of sub-bass, neon ice synths, and .Paak’s sampled shouts drive the first half, verses rippling and flowing like a babbling brook of “Mello Yello lemon.” That sticky, bubbling vibe flows seamlessly into a stone-cold jazz rhythm, vibraphone tones and buried horn sounds framing more of .Paak’s breezy delivery. “In the hands of love/ Just like I wanna be,” he repeats in this funky wonderland, the wordless hook an earworm that’s been locked in for months now. .Paak and Kaytra fit so perfectly together that hoping for a full album between the two doesn’t seem like such a crazy request. Until then, “Glowed Up” is the super-smooth jam that can be played ad nauseam. –Adam Kivel

Buy: Amazon

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Danny Brown32. Danny Brown – “When It Rain”

Atrocity Exhibition

Anyone writing about Danny Brown will soon wear out the page of the thesaurus containing the word “unique.” His beats are uncommon, wild, and jittery. His rhymes are singular, poetically off-kilter. But rarest of all is his voice, piercing in the sense that a bullet is piercing. As it happens, bullets are the main subject of “When It Rain”, the impressionistic single off Brown’s excellent new album, Atrocity Exhibition. Details of Detroit life are sprayed across the track like a gatling gun, and eating crawfish at Fishbones is just a line away from the DJ going down at a club shooting (an event which is referred to as a “Rambisco.”) The main refrain, “When it rain, when it pour/ Get your ass on the floor,” could be taken to mean either “Party through the bad times” or “When the shooting starts, get down.” It’s social commentary that’s fun, funky, and deeply unsettling, just the way Brown likes it. –Wren Graves

Buy: Amazon

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Bon Iver31. Bon Iver – “22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]”

22, A Million

Justin Vernon makes it clear that he doesn’t see Bon Iver as a genre-wedded band. To him, it’s a capsule with a well-oiled hinge, the type of vessel that’s as excited to hold something within its walls as it is to open them, trading its contents for the new and locking it in place until it untangles the heart at its center. It’s fitting, then, for 22, A Million to open with “22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]”, a song that shows Vernon prying into GENRE with delicate claws. Vernon’s most common insult is that he’s complacent. “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” shows him at his most vulnerable, both musically and emotionally. “It might be over soon,” he states, a bit in disbelief, while a looping note clips. This is acquiescence in the face of what’s finite, of the deeper meaning of soul, and of unlimited electronic options. Bon Iver becomes a vessel not of pompous percussion and lyrical weight, but nervous wonder, captured with such articulation that each fractured note and stuttering pause causes your heart to skip in time, a shared feeling of genuine amazement at something too large to comprehend. —Nina Corcoran

Buy: Amazon

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Kevin Morby30. Kevin Morby – “Dorothy”

Singing Saw

As many guitar players would attest, the urge to grant your instrument a name is palpable. You spend hundreds, maybe even thousands of hours playing with the thing. You make memories together, share experiences, and open yourself up in ways that are very, very real. The guitar becomes more than a way to make noise; it becomes a companion and a confidant.

On the second single from his fantastic third album, Singing Saw, Kevin Morby decided to pay tribute to his own instrument, “Dorothy.” Just like B.B. King’s Lucille, Eric Clapton’s Blackie, or Willie Nelson’s Trigger, Dorothy holds a special place in Morby’s heart, and in the song that carries its name, he wistfully recalls “the places I’d been/ With you always at my side.” He wants to hit the town where “y’know we could go all night.” It’s romantic without being cloying. Tender, with the right amount of irreverence. –Corbin Reiff

Buy: Amazon

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Young Thug and Travis Scott29. Young Thug, Travis Scott – “Pick Up the Phone” (ft. Quavo)

Jeffrey/Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight

Why doesn’t Young Thug have more hits? For a while now, the twisted ATLien has been excelling on steel pan-driven future-cop production that sounds thick on the radio, but Thugger’s ongoing commercial growth hasn’t exactly been an uninterrupted ascending line. Then there’s Travis Scott, a pilferer-in-chief whose albums go gold. With Quavo in the back seat, the trio forged “Pick Up the Phone”, Thug’s highest charting single to date.

Making a plea to “your girl” to pick up that phone, the trio bask in Vinylz’ digitalized Caribbean flavor and each other’s company. This is party music — the lean poured on thick, weed smoke all over the beat. Travis swears, “Never will I cheat on you” while barely keeping a straight face. Quavo name drops Macauley Culkin and Brian McKnight. But there’s no denying who the star is. Thug rides the sunny beat with the elegant swagger of Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring, his trademark idiosyncrasies on display. The zigzagging sounds of a skewered pop deity is no revelation to anyone who copped the first Slime Season. –Dean Van Nguyen

Buy: Amazon

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DMAs28. DMA’s – “Delete”

Hills End

The knocks against CoSigned band DMA’s seem to be that they’re a Britpop outfit writing about the troubles of young men in a time when guitars are deader than doornails and listeners are clamoring for songs that speak to larger social issues. My response remains, “Yeah, but it’s really good Britpop, and don’t you recall when you first turned to music?” Yours was a world, like the one found in the songs on Hills End, that only knew sunrises and sunsets, rainy skies, and temperatures that spiked or spiraled depending on that last letter, phone call, or text. “Delete”, a song about unfriending an ex on social media, may sound like juvenile subject matter, but listeners never think that as the soft acoustic strummer slowly intensifies and finally bursts into a glowing haze of guitar and voices. And we get it. Because, of course, figuring out how to part ways and move on isn’t a problem we leave in our adolescence. In a time when many artists are commenting on where whole masses of people stand, a song like “Delete” reminds us that so often our lives boil down to where we stand in the eyes of one other person. –Matt Melis

Buy: Amazon

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Moses Sumney27. Moses Sumney – “Lonely World”

Lamentations EP

It is a goddamn lonely world sometimes, isn’t it? The dark void can scream louder than any other voices around you, and it’s hard to survive in this brutal dystopia of 24/7 digital connectivity. “Lonely World” is granite, yet gauzy; Los Angeles singer-songwriter Moses Sumney sings about loneliness, but his weighted words balance Thundercat’s bass, Ian Chang’s drums, and Tosin Abasi and Joshua Willing Halpern’s guitar beautifully. Sumney revels in his idiosyncrasies, his glorious falsetto soaring over lush guitars and choral percussive layers. Words that shouldn’t stretch do, and the space between them veers off in unexpected directions. “The sound of the void flows through your body, undestroyed,” he sings, his voice surreal, haunting, and yet wholly embodied, tying together the themes of the song. Sumney continues to tease out his amazing talent and grand ambition with each new track, and he does both expertly on the grand yet intimate “Lonely World”. –Lior Phillips

Buy: Amazon

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Drake26. Drake – “One Dance”

Views

Drake was inescapable in 2016. The turtleneck-loving Canadian hip-hop artist achieved a level of cultural ubiquity that few musicians have ever reached, and he did so without producing a particularly excellent album or dramatically transforming his sound or persona. This, in and of itself, is remarkable. But it would be a discredit to Drake (and to the music-listening public that demands his omnipresence) if we didn’t highlight “One Dance” for its standalone excellence.

Built around a simple piano melody that allows for throbbing tropical polyrhythms to surround and encompass it, the dancehall- and afrobeat-inspired club smash is a prime example of cross-cultural convergence in pop. It also — and this should never be overlooked — offers multiple hooks for the listener to latch on to, whether it’s Drake’s melodic chorus, Kyla’s “Baby, I like your style,” or Wizkid’s break. Add it all up, and there’s only one thing left to say: Damn. –Collin Brennan

Buy: Amazon

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tribe we got it from here thank you 4 your service Top 50 Songs of 201625. A Tribe Called Quest – “We the People…”

We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service

There is rarely a second act in the world of hip-hop. In 2016, A Tribe Called Quest has defied all expectations by returning after a nearly 20-year absence to produce We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, an album as vital as their groundbreaking releases of the early 1990s. With “We the People”, Q-Tip, Jarobi, Ali Shaeed Muhammad, and a posthumous Phife Dawg have crafted a theme song for life in Trump’s America, particularly for people of color. Opening with an ominous bass buzz and an emergency siren, the appropriately grimy track sets the stage for Q-Tip to fire darts at the state of the American nation, where the powers that be are “in the killing-off-good-young-nigga mood,” while “VH1 has a show you can waste your time with.” Phife Dawg’s verse sounds particularly prescient, asking: “Who can come back years later, still hit the shot?” A Tribe Called Quest, apparently. –Scott T. Sterling

Buy: Amazon

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chairlift moth album stream listen Top 50 Songs of 201624. Chairlift – “Ch-Ching”

Moth

It’s always a bit surprising to remember Chairlift are a duo. Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly juggle countless instruments in the studio and on the stage. At the start of the year, they released “Ch-Ching”, but for some reason their renaissance abilities hit like brand new, leaving us wondering how they pull off such a massive sound with only two bodies behind the helm. The intro ripples with horns and a whistle, a combination of coquettish nature. Then, like a slap to the wrist, the sound cuts clean, and a massive bubble of production takes over. Synth flickers in, hand claps jitter, and saxophones hiccup. The sounds toy with one another but never actually touch, giving the illusion of a desire that cannot be captured. Then there’s the best instrument of all: Polachek’s voice. “Nobody will help you ’til you go and help yourself,” she sings. “Take it and don’t wait for it to come from someone else.” She skates through falsettos and leans into her lyrics, pulsing in an entirely unique way, before enunciating the titular word, a verbal dangling of her own luck. Chairlift have always been good at dynamic synth pop, but on “Ch-Ching”, they create a world of sound bigger than ever before. —Nina Corcoran

Buy: Amazon

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Solange23. Solange – “Cranes in the Sky”

A Seat at the Table

“Away, away, away, away, away…” Solange sings as if words could will our futures, pummeling a crystal ball with syllabic repetition. “Cranes in the Sky”, the highlight of the younger Knowles sister’s A Seat at the Table, comes from a world in which R&B and soul have been cryogenically suspended for over a decade, thawed, altered, and revitalized with threads of electronic-tinged pop. But it’s Solange’s spirit that’s struck the match. Over snapping snare rim, limber bass courtesy of Raphael Saadiq, and insistent string hum — a veritable downtempo R&B take on Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Symphony” — she enumerates the ways in which she’s tried to live a happy life. But though she tries to drink, shop, run, and sleep it away, there are always construction cranes blocking her clear path to the sky. Freedom and happiness aren’t yet within her reach, just always a little too far away. It’s hard to tell whether her emotional honesty or the skyscraping harmonies are more breathtaking. –Lior Phillips

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jamila Top 50 Songs of 201622. Jamila Woods – “Blk Grl Soldier”

HEAVN

“We get loud about it/ Oh now we’re the bitches,” Jamila Woods sings on this stunning track from her full-length debut, but the loudest thing about “Blk Girl Soldier” is the truth. The Chicago-based Woods may be a killer chanteuse (as Coloring Book’s many appreciators can attest), but she’s also a poet and activist, and while her lovely voice certainly plays a part in the success of this gem, it’s the latter two roles that really bring it home. Like “Formation”, “Blk Girl Soldier” acts as a call to arms of sorts, but unlike Beyoncé’s monster track, Woods simply lays out the facts (“We go missing by the hundreds/ Ain’t nobody checkin for us”) and pays tribute to some of the black women who’ve fought for freedom and justice in years past (“Rosa was a freedom fighter/ And she taught us how to fight”). Last, and most importantly, she celebrates, in that rich voice, the black women and girls out there, right now, living big lives in a hostile world. Sure, it sounds beautiful; sure, the production (by Jus Cuz and SABA) is shimmering and lush, but when a song says as much as this does, any other pleasures it provides are just gravy. –Allison Shoemaker

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angels Top 50 Songs of 201621. Chance the Rapper – “Angels”

Coloring Book

At this point, “Angels” sort of feels like the ending to Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. Apologies if you haven’t seen the 21-year-old neo-noir crime thriller, but the whole thing essentially boils down to Chazz Palminteri’s startling revelation that the con-man he’s been after for the past 106 minutes was right before his eyes the entire time. So, what the hell does this have to do with Chance the Rapper?  Well, anyone who listened to his vivid Saba collaboration when it first dropped last October might have foreseen the MC’s meteoric rise in 2016. In a little over three minutes, Chano details his mission statement (“Clean up the streets, so my daughter can have somewhere to play/ I’m the blueprint to a real man”) while insisting he won’t change in the slightest (“I’m still at my old church, only ever sold merch/ Grandma say I’m Kosher, momma say I’m culture”). The real revelation, however, is how Chance is able to weave in more funereal themes without skipping a beat. When he and Saba sing, “I got angels all around me they keep me surrounded,” they’re paying respects to those they’ve lost and those they love. It’s a gorgeous juxtaposition, fueled by Lido’s production and the soulful melodies of The Social Experiment, and one that captures the unwavering optimism of Chicago’s true mayor. –Michael Roffman

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savages adore life album stream Top 50 Songs of 201620. Savages – “Adore”

Adore Life

Over the course of this year, Savages worked hard to redefine their intensity. What was once a feeling of noise and anger, of proving themselves to be a loud band, is now a feeling of life, of proving themselves to be a band that fights back against every curveball. “Adore” catches the London four-piece in an undertow everyone knows well. Is it better to love fearlessly or fear love? Gemma Thompson distorts her guitar like she’s peeling metal back, Fay Milton drums with the hint of menace around the corner, and Ayşe Hassan’s bass rolls like it’s about to belch. Swimming in its path are words of terse reflection. “Is it human to adore life?” singer Jehnny Beth asks. It’s a query loaded with guilt, alarm, and uncertainty — one that challenges the person saying it to embrace it in all that it means. But then, after restless questioning, she accepts it with a simple phrase: “I adore life.” She repeats it, over and over, as the music swells in tandem, a statement turned holler turned catharsis. It’s the biggest moment of the song, second only to what she says right after. Beth flips that sentiment outward, staring listeners straight in the eyes, and with a chilling tone asks, “Do you adore life?” —Nina Corcoran

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tegan sara love you to death album Top 50 Songs of 201619. Tegan and Sara – “Stop Desire”

Love You to Death

Because they are twin sisters, and because their music is presented under one banner, casual fans of Tegan and Sara might be unaware that songs written by Tegan and songs written by Sara are actually separate entities. And with their last two albums embracing the duo’s pop sensibilities and leaving their indie rockin’ days (and Tegan’s guitar) in the dust, both have managed to find their niche within their new chosen genre. Love You to Death’s flashiest moments, lead-single “Boyfriend” and the spare, vulnerable “100x”, are Sara songs, but like “Closer” on previous album Heartthrob, Tegan has penned the record’s biggest anthem. “Stop Desire” is all breezy ’80s fantasy, whisking through at a treadmill’s pace and feather-light in its aesthetic. But lyrically, there are stakes. In fact, the song is the embodiment of sexual tension, but for the band, it’s come to mean even more. “Tonight, you’re fuel for my fire” is a common caption on social media for their tour, tapping into the song’s call to action. Pop music is nothing if not immediate, and “Stop Desire” hits that nail on the head. –Philip Cosores

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floridada Top 50 Songs of 201618. Animal Collective – “FloriDada”

Painting With

When Animal Collective marked their return through the overhead speakers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, fans picked apart lead single “FloriDada” with excitement. Was overwrought pronunciation of the title during the chorus mocking the state? Was it an ode to artistic anarchy in the 20th century? Was that Yamaha demo mode sample a smirk at pop music’s affinity for ripping others off? Forget it. “FloriDada” is Animal Collective returning to their childlike imagination and curating hallucinatory epiphanies as an aftereffect. They revive the drumming of “The Purple Bottle”, the covert piano of “Water Curses”, the descending vocal harmonies of “Winters Love”. The genius of Animal Collective can’t be replicated. It’s a bunch of hands drawing in a pool of spilled paint, each action energized by its own heartbeat, somehow working together. It’s only when Avey Tare’s psychotic laugh rings out that they offer a moment to pause — that is, until you’re shoved back into the ecstasy barely a full second later. Anxiety bogged them down on past releases, but here, if just for one song, they slide into their weird world of pop once more, making listeners dance to the sound of insanity — and if you look close enough, the band is finally dancing along, too. —Nina Corcoran

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that part Top 50 Songs of 201617. Schoolboy Q – “THat Part”

Blank Face LP

If Schoolboy Q has spent most of his career playing the Robin to his TDE labelmate Kendrick Lamar’s Batman, 2016 was the year that the Boy Wonder emerged from out of the shadows and proclaimed himself a “Walking living legend.” Blank Face LP is easily one of the most intense and dark releases of the year, and at the center of it all stands this single, “THat Part”.

There are actually two versions of this song, and frankly, it’s difficult to pick which one is superior. On one hand, you have the Kanye West-featuring album cut that carries a lot more style than substance (“Beggars can’t be choosers/ Bitch this ain’t Chipotle”). On the other hand, you have the Black Hippy Remix version that comes with contributions from Kendrick and Jay Rock — denser, more elaborate, and technically resounding. It’s noteworthy, however, that on both tracks, when stacked up against two of the biggest stars in rap, you never lose sight of Q as the focal point. No question, the man is “back and poppin’.” –Corbin Reiff

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leonard cohen Top 50 Songs of 201616. Leonard Cohen – “You Want It Darker”

You Want It Darker

“Vilified, crucified, in the human frame/ A million candles burning for the help that never came.” Leonard Cohen, versifier laureate of passionate matters of the heart, greeted us to his 14th and devastatingly final studio album, You Want It Darker, by incorporating operatic choir and keys underneath his distinctive deep growl. The song’s religious explorations feel that much more prophetic considering his passing not long after the album’s release; oh, it’s darker all right, from the prophetic self-reflection of the inevitability of death, to the sardonic beckoning. “Hineni, Hineni/ I’m ready my lord,” Cohen slowly decrees — Hineni (הִנֵּֽנִי) being Hebrew for “Here I am/ I am present.” He sings of the “million candles burning for the help that never came,” potentially symbolizing the candles lit to honor those passed in the Jewish tradition — or even for the million murdered at Auschwitz. When Cohen accuses that “you want it darker,” he seems to be challenging God for allowing life to be extinguished. Or could he be challenging the listener, for not being the help that was needed? Or even just offering himself up, at the end of his life, ready to meet the almighty? As with the best of Cohen’s deep discography, there are no clear answers, though his voice rings out powerfully. As death neared, his tone was murkier and his pen was stronger than ever. –Lior Phillips

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rihanna anti new album release Top 50 Songs of 201615. Rihanna – “Work” (ft. Drake)

Anti

There’s no shortage of ways in which Rihanna has demonstrated her total lack of fucks to give, but this particular demonstration has got to be the most chill. “Work” isn’t the kind of track usually presented as an album’s lead single: It’s got a dancehall beat and a lackadaisical pace, lyrics laced through with Creole and Jamaican patois, a Drake verse that’s both essential and oddly anticlimactic, and a minimalist feel at odds with its relentless lyrics. Those aren’t the only contradictions present in “Work”, either, as Rihanna gives voice to a woman who’s both halfway out her lover’s door already (“You took my heart on my sleeve for decoration”) and prepared to plead for another chance (“If I get another chance to/ I will never, no never neglect you”). Sweating sex without ever truly aiming for sexy, dusted with a despair that never really feels all that pressing, “Work” simply … is. It arrives, it exists, it fades, and you play it again. –Allison Shoemaker

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wilco schmilco Top 50 Songs of 201614. Wilco – “If I Ever Was a Child”

Schmilco

Give Wilco three minutes and they’ll bring you to tears. They’ve done it for over two decades, and Schmilco is no exception. “If I Ever Was a Child” is the album’s cotton-covered arrow, one that feels warm and cozy as it strikes the heart. “I never was alone,” Jeff Tweedy pines over light acoustic guitar, adding: “Long enough to know/ If I ever was a child.” Like Nick Drake and Cat Stevens before him, the Midwestern bard pairs a few curious reflections (“Well, I jumped to jolt my clumsy blood”) with some dreamy imagery (“And I cry like a window pane”) that go down like a midnight cup of cocoa. It’s a team effort, though, and the track hits all the right places emotionally because of the little flourishes that each member brings to the campfire. Drummer Glenn Kotche, bassist John Stirratt, and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone keep things steady and friendly; Mikael Jorgensen warms his hands over balmy organ fills; and Nels Cline’s slide guitar peeks in like the early morning sun. When Tweedy contends, “I slump behind my brain/ A haunted stain never fades/ I hunt for the kind of pain I can take,” we’re right there with him, watching the molten embers pop and twirl against the blueish hue of his soft-spoken melodies. “Kumbaya” next? –Michael Roffman

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blonde frank ocean1 Top 50 Songs of 201613. Frank Ocean – “Ivy”

Blonde

When Frank Ocean sings “We didn’t give a fuck back then,” it’s hard to know how much he truly believes the sentiment. A literary lyricist who is able to weave narratives in his songs, Ocean’s “Ivy” is an ode to the past in all its fractured beauty. Built on a subdued pop rock guitar line and showcasing Ocean’s singular vocal precision, “Ivy” plays with memory, drifting through the stages of a past love that was spoiled by the confusion of youth.

“I could hate you now/ It’s quite alright to hate me now,” he says, profound words from the mind of someone who likely has always cared but was unable to express his feelings when confronted by a partner’s love. “Ivy” ends with Ocean shrieking the word “dreaming,” a Prince-esque flourish and a nod to a fellow artist unafraid to explore the pain of love in dreamy, gorgeous reflection. –Zack Ruskin

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sia cheap thrills12. Sia – “Cheap Thrills”

This Is Acting

Considering how masterfully she shape-shifts from sound to sound, subgenre to subgenre, it’s a wonder that Sia ever wrote for anyone else. This Is Acting is composed of songs written for other pop stars, and the title hints at the play-acting nature Sia felt when conceiving herself as their voice — though she has the ability to sell the emotion of all of these songs, an Oscar-worthy performance. Chief among those roles is “Cheap Thrills”, her Rihanna track, which rides a lush island rhythm and revels in the good times that crash through the hard times. “I don’t need no money/ As long as I can feel the beat,” she slides, stretching her lithe tones acrobatically across the shouted choral backing. As her more collagist aesthetic blends with the music world that she’s created, an incandescent mixture of the electronic, the acoustic, the organic, and the synthetic, Sia always feels familiar, capable, and welcome. “Cheap Thrills” is a classic pop track that would work in 1996, 2006, or today thanks to Sia’s genius, hooky songwriting, and powerful voice. –Ben Kaye

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 Top 50 Songs of 201611. Anderson .Paak – “Come Down”

Malibu

From the shimmy of the hi-hat to the staccato punch of his syllables, it’s clear that Anderson .Paak is a percussionist. He thinks about the beat, making sure that every second is perfectly designed to get you moving. The layers of funk groove on “Come Down” never stop, a party that Andy throws to celebrate his own arrival — at once he’s lifted so high up, and yet all he wants to do is get down like James Brown. “It took too long to get this high off the ground/ Don’t run, just stay awhile,” he jabs in that smoky delivery, over top of the slinkiest bass this side of Funkadelic. Hi-Tek’s production weaves in and out of samples of the Israeli anthem, together with .Paak turning it into a soul groove that fills the dance floor. Anderson .Paak rose in 2015 through his work with Dr. Dre, but he celebrated his arrival as his own star in 2016 — and nowhere as boisterous or fun as “Come Down”. –Adam Kivel

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Angel-Olsen-My-Woman10. Angel Olsen – “Shut Up Kiss Me”

MY WOMAN

If nothing else, 2016 marks the year Angel Olsen perfected her form — and all it takes to realize it is one listen to “Shut Up Kiss Me”. Olsen moves from a singer-songwriter to a rock musician. She steps out from behind her lyrics. She takes on a persona and brings it to life better than any actress could. “Shut Up Kiss Me” is a song of dualities. She spits words out like demands, a woman on fire as love trashes her heart. “You could feed me all of your fears/ We could end all this pain right here/ We could rewind all of those tears,” she sings, hysteria driving the mania. You practically see her fainting in her partner’s arms during the chorus: “Shut up, kiss me, hold me tight!”

But just as she articulates the power dynamics of a wrecked mental state thanks to lust, she articulates her new strengths in songwriting. Angel Olsen wields her guitar like it’s a pair of fists, throwing chords like swinging arms in a fight. She demands control, and, by the sound of it, she’s not losing it anytime soon. It’s Olsen’s voice, though, that goes to the farthest lengths. She experiments with delivery and tone, softening her pleas with a deep tenor, sliding a hum into a lonely wail, squeaking accents mid-yell. “Shut Up Kiss Me” marches confidently as her voice sets everything around it on fire. All that you can do is stand in place and stare, slack-jawed and in awe. —Nina Corcoran

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nick cave skeleton tree09. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – “I Need You”

Skeleton Tree

Nick Cave has long made a mark with gorgeous, undiluted compositions that manifest palpable emotional heft. But nowhere in his entire repertoire has he ever come as close to bald sorrow as he does on “I Need You”. Sadly, that’s because he’s never experienced such depths of grief as he did following the death of his son Arthur.

Recorded while the loss was chillingly fresh, Cave’s voice sounds as if he’s forcing back tears as he sings lines like “a long black car is waiting ’round/ I will miss you when you’re gone.” There are times when the lyricist can’t even finish his thoughts, falling back into a refrain of the song title. Like a mourner pacing a gray funeral home, he sways between meditations on the anarchic pull of fate, unresolved guilt, and hopeless love. Haunted doesn’t even begin to cover it, as Cave has given the world a beautiful rumination on bereavement the likes of which no other artist could — and pray will never have to attempt. –Ben Kaye

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mitski puberty new album Top 50 Songs of 201608. Mitski – “Your Best American Girl”

Puberty 2

“Your Best American Girl” is the lead single off Puberty 2 and Mitski’s most tremendous song. It’s about recognizing that you simply cannot fit into someone’s life the way you want to — as a small spoon to their big, as the moon to their sun — and about allowing yourself to be left behind. This small letting go comes after one has grappled with huge emotions, the enormous feelings that burst through the sweeps and swells of indie rock guitar. Meanwhile, Mitski stands comparatively small at the prow of this ship. Her voice is tender and resigned. Sometimes she sounds like she’s grieving, like when she dips into a groan on the word “girl” in the first chorus. But “Your Best American Girl” has a brave face. It’s a song that ultimately finds strength in self. Even if “your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me,” she does, she finally does. –Karen Gwee

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radiohead moon shaped pool album Top 50 Songs of 201607. Radiohead – “True Love Waits”

A Moon Shaped Pool

When Thom Yorke trotted out on stage armed with an acoustic guitar in Chicago’s Grant Park back in 2001 to serenade the sweating throngs with “True Love Waits”, the young man next to me nearly exploded with euphoria. The gorgeous song, a fan favorite since the mid-’90s, rarely found its way into Radiohead’s setlists and never made it onto a proper studio recording — despite the band’s best efforts to tame the yearning ballad. Its inclusion on the live concert album I Might Be Wrong only cemented the song’s subpar status, especially in the eyes of producer Nigel Godrich. “We tried to record it countless times, but it never worked. The irony is you have that shitty live version,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012.

This year’s A Moon Shaped Pool finds Yorke sorting through the dissolution of a 23-year partnership with the mother of his children and ends with a staggeringly fragile version of the song. The buoyant guitar of past incarnations is replaced by dueling pianos — one stoic, the other flitting off into space. Yorke’s voice cracks during the simple, devastating chorus: “Just don’t leave/ Don’t leave.” At age 48, Yorke’s plea is infused with tangible consequences. If the other party opts out, there’s more at stake than a fractured heart or bruised ego. This “True Love Waits” stares down the uncertain future of a life upended. While maybe not the crowd-pleaser of yore, this rendition is exactly the balm a traumatic 2016 needs. –Janine Schaults

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drake-hotline-bling06. Chance the Rapper – “No Problem”

Coloring Book

When Chance the Rapper dropped his excellent Coloring Book mixtape back in May, our staff argued over which of its singles might become the summer’s breakout hit. Some thought it was the roller rink-ready anthem “All Night”, while others assumed the exuberant “Angels” would rise above the rest. Not so much. As the summer progressed and Chance took his show on the road, “No Problems” began to assert itself as the mixtape’s biggest banger — and, honestly, it wasn’t even close.

In hindsight, this makes a lot of sense. Not only does “No Problems” feature solid guest verses from Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz (whose “Inside of the Maybach look like Ikea/ Run shit like diarrhea” wins Couplet of the Year, as far as I’m concerned), but it successfully transforms Chance’s anti-label stance into a buoyant call for independence. “You don’t want no problem/ Want no problem with me!” Chance raps, and one can imagine the label heads running away like scared kittens while the crowd roars its applause. Coloring Book may not be a proper album, but it finds its unifying statement in “No Problem”. –Collin Brennan

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david bowie blackstar05. David Bowie – “I Can’t Give Everything Away”

It’s impossible for us to separate  from the passing of David Bowie. In a sense, a birth and a death took place in only two days’ time – jubilation soon overshadowed by sorrow. And given that we now know what Bowie had known for quite some time, it’s understandable that we look to that newborn for answers, for messages. And no song do we more naturally flock to than the album’s final one. For us, these are not only parting words but a parting of worlds. When the ringing clouds finally dissipate at song’s end, we go on our way, but Bowie goes away. We can shift the needle and hear him return, but for only so long before he’s gone again. For the first time ever, no matter how open-minded we may be, where David Bowie goes next we cannot follow.

It’s natural to try and make sense out of these final sounds and words. Does the refrain “I can’t give everything away,” the “away” drifting off into space, lament that there was so much more to give or nothing left? I can’t answer that, nor do I think poring over a lyric sheet will crack the code either. As in everything Bowie ever did, including where he may or may not be right now, there’s an element of mystery. While our instincts and impulses crave answers and understanding, listening to Bowie’s swan song reminds us of how fortunate we are to play a part in a far greater mystery. –Matt Melis

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anohni hopelessness album new Top 50 Songs of 201604. Anohni – “4 Degrees”

Hopelessness

In a world in which the difference of just four degrees can mean the death of millions of creatures, apathy is incredibly dangerous. A recent study found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, leading to that theoretically small rise in global temperatures, up to one-sixth of the world’s populations could be threatened with extinction. There will always be those that deny climate change, no matter the evidence they’re presented; the ones that just don’t care, though? Those are the people that Anohni aims at with her thundering, provocative “4 Degrees”, in which she sings from the perspective of someone who doesn’t think their apathy makes that big of a difference in terms of global warming.

As Anohni cries out over burning strings, standard-bearer horns, and anthemic percussion, that apathy equates to actively choosing death, as if you’re saying, “I wanna hear the dogs crying for water/ I wanna see fish go belly-up in the sea.” Her voice is counterintuitive and mesmerizing, and that integrity provides the through line, which is often caught in spectral tangles of itself or gripping onto prismatic harmonies. Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never team up for the production, a post-apocalyptic landscape of dry, cracked earth and rampant flames. There are a lot of apathetic people out there who don’t seem to mind the world burning, but as long as Anohni is able to deliver impassioned treatises like this, that number should continue to shrink. –Lior Phillips

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car seat headrest teens denial album new Top 50 Songs of 201603. Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales”

Teens of Denial

Sometimes all you need is a great hook to make a great song. But man, when you wire that hook with raw emotion and a fighting spirit, that’s the perfect recipe for a timeless hit. Granted, Car Seat Headrest aren’t exactly in the market for hits, but that didn’t stop Will Toledo from flooding his latest effort, Teens of Denial, with a bunch of them. The brightest of the bunch is “Drunk Driver / Killer Whales”, the post-indie rock single the genre needed in order to survive a year that has seen its sound melted down into a syrupy glaze for rom coms and department store commercials. Thankfully, Toledo’s poetry doesn’t fit in those mediums, which is one reason why this malleable anthem feels so fresh, palpable, and important. Although he previously told his label it’s about “post-party melancholia,” the song can really be about anything that “comes and goes in plateaus,” and that’s what gives it such a powerful agency. One of the pitfalls of these year-end lists is that they always try too hard to capture The Now, the stuff that says something about this year. Well, “Drunk Driver / Killer Whales” says something about every year, every day, and every waking moment in our life, and that’s such a hard thing to do as a writer. For that, we can only keep singing it. –Michael Roffman

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life of pablo02. Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam”

The Life of Pablo

Three times is a pattern.

Take the quote of Justin Vernon from an interview with The Guardian promoting his latest album, where he notes “Kanye speaks of how you have to love yourself. And believe in yourself. I heard him say something recently: ‘I love myself so other people can love themselves.’ So they get up in the morning and put on a song and be like ‘FUCK YEAH.’ And that is what it’s for.”

Or take the grateful Instagram post from Kanye West’s friend and collaborator Pusha T, marking the anniversary of the landmark My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy just after West cancelled his Pablo tour and entered the hospital.

View this post on Instagram

6 yrs ago today I was apart of one of the greatest hip hop albums ever. You invited me to Hawaii and said "pick whatever tracks you love and write to all of them." I got greedy, I stopped going to play basketball with you every morning and proceeded to write to 8 songs on your album. U kept me on 2, "Runaway" which was your platinum single, and "So Appalled" which put me on a song with you, Hov, Cyhi, Swizz, and produced by Rza. Thinking back on it, it really was all a set up. You were setting me up to be the solo artist I never saw myself as. So on the 6th anniversary of MBDTF and as the President of your label G.O.O.D. music I wanna say thanx for the endless opportunities you have brought to me. P.S. I think it's time we all head back to Hawaii @kanyewest ::whenever you ready:: #GOOD

A post shared by Pusha T (@kingpush) on

Or take Chance the Rapper’s line in “Ultralight Beam”. In the middle of the best rap verse of the year, Chance makes reference to West, starting out the Pablo album with a truth that seemingly all of West’s collaborators know: “I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail.”

Kanye West’s 2016 journey started with one of the most unique album rollouts in history and has found the musician in the hospital for strains on both his physical and mental health. But the lead track from his 2016 album is all the calm that his life has lacked. “Pray for Paris,” West asks, reflecting on terrorist attacks and adding a bit that comes from his more recent role as a father: “Pray for the parents.”

But like many of his best songs, it’s not all about Kanye. The song showcases Chance in the way that he’s showcased Vernon and Pusha and Cudi and Nicki in the past. Hearing Chance the Rapper crush his bars on “Ultralight Beam” is the sort of inspiration that listeners seek in music. And Kanye is the facilitator, using his platform to watch another contemporary soar.

That was the scene at Madison Square Garden when the Pablo listening session was streamed for all to see. West was there surrounded by his peers and his family, playing “Ultralight Beam” to the masses, whose jaws had to collectively be lifted from the floor. No moment of this year showcased the same kind of triumph, pride beaming from both West’s face and those that knew him. We know now that his success was all of ours. That’s a god dream. –Philip Cosores

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Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly01. Beyoncé – “Freedom”

Lemonade

Blackness pushed its way to the forefront of American cultural consciousness in an outsized way in 2016, gaining an unrivaled visibility. It’s not just that some of the nation’s most vital entertainers were black; it’s that they were rapping and singing about their experiences of being black, forcing a sometimes uncomfortable dialogue on their fans and, really, anyone who owned a television set. It was, in many ways, essential and long overdue.

“You can’t separate peace from freedom,” Malcolm X said, “because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” Beyoncé’s 2016 collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, from her dynamo album Lemonade, is aptly titled “Freedom”, and it rejects the aforementioned peace and drips with urgency. The title refers to this country’s wicked history of slavery, yes, but it also rings with another resounding message: We’re still not free. With the specters of mass incarceration, police brutality, and old-fashioned racism still looming over black Americans, Kendrick and Beyoncé know as well as any of us that the fight is far from over. “I’ma keep running because a winner don’t quit on themselves,” Yoncé thunders, a rallying cry if ever there was one.

The album version of “Freedom” is powerful enough, but the duo’s 2016 BET Awards performance of the song was a chills-inducing spectacle, featuring a barefoot Beyoncé and a booted Kendrick kicking up splashes of water in an onstage pool against a fiery backdrop, their movements as defiant as they were mesmerizing. Re-watching the video today, all I can say is, thank god we have these two — we’re going to need them to be real with us more than ever during the next four years. –Katherine Flynn

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Listen to the Top 50 Songs of 2016 on Spotify.

01. Beyoncé – “Freedom”
02. Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam”
03. Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales”
04. ANOHNI – “4 Degrees”
05. David Bowie – “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
06. Chance the Rapper – “No Problem”
07. Radiohead – “True Love Waits”
08. Mitski – “Your Best American Girl”
09. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – “I Need You”
10. Angel Olsen – “Shut Up Kiss Me”
11. Anderson .Paak – “Come Down”
12. Sia – “Cheap Thrills”
13. Frank Ocean – “Ivy”
14. Wilco – “If I Ever Was a Child”
15. Rihanna – “Work”
16. Leonard Cohen – “You Want It Darker”
17. Schoolboy Q – “That Part”
18. Animal Collective – “Floridada”
19. Tegan and Sara – “Stop Desire”
20. Savages – “Adore”
21. Chance the Rapper – “Angels”
22. Jamila Woods – “Blk Girl Soldier”
23. Solange – “Cranes in the Sky”
24. Chairlift – “Ch-Ching”
25. A Tribe Called Quest – “We the People…”
26. Drake – “One Dance”
27. Moses Sumney – “Lonely World”
28. DMA’s – “Delete”
29. Young Thug, Travis Scott – “Pick Up the Phone” (ft. Quavo)
30. Kevin Morby – “Dorothy”
31. Bon Iver – “22 (Over Soon)”
32. Danny Brown – “When It Rain”
33. Kaytranada – “Glowed Up” (ft. Anderson .Paak)
34. Mothers – “Hold Your Own Hand”
35. The 1975 – “Somebody Else”
36. LUH – “$ORO”
37. Christine and the Queens feat. Booba – “Here”
38. Beyoncé – “All Night”
39. Bishop Briggs – “River”
40. Sing Street – “Drive It Like You Stole It”
41. Kendrick Lamar – “Untitled 7”
42. A$AP Ferg – “New Level”
43. Greys – “No Star”
44. Sheer Mag – “Can’t Stop Fighting”
45. Jessy Lanza – “It Means I Love You”
46. Kvelertak – “Nattesferd”
47. Rae Sremmurd – “Black Beatles”
48. Lucy Dacus – “I Don’t Want To Be Funny Anymore”
49. Xenia Rubinos – “See Them”
50. Underworld – “I Exhale”

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