The 25 Best Songs of 2016 (So Far)

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The 25 Best Songs of 2016 (So Far)

Yesterday we shared The 25 Best Albums of 2016 (So Far), but a great single can hold as much power as a full LP, if not more, so today we’re focused on the best songs of 2016 so far. In this mid-year poll Paste staff, writers, and interns voted for the best tracks thus far, resulting in a range of more pop-oriented songs than we often highlight. Get these songs stuck in your head and check out the 25 Best Songs of 2016 (So Far) below.

25. Kristin Kontrol, “X-Communicate”
When Kristin Welchez, better known as Dee Dee of the Dum Dum Girls, visualized the idea for her new pop-centered project Kristin Kontrol, she began to make the music that she longed for during her garage pop days. Comparing herself to “Kate Bush covering Mariah,” Welchez’s debut solo effort is a shimmering, energetic collection of ‘80s progressive pop not unlike an amalgamation of David Bowie, Siouxsie Sioux, and Debbie Gibson. The album’s titular track “X-Communicate” is a prime example of this bizarre combination—dark but danceable, effervescent but sill emotive. Pulsating synths outline the track’s blatant pop influence, but the sharp guitars of the songs ending cadence help to retain the post-punk edge that permeates Welchez’s discography. Kristin takes total control her music, with “X-Communicate” finding Welchez in her highest spirits and confidence. —Kurt Suchman

24. Charles Bradley, “Change for the World”
This year’s been a rough one so far. Too many lives lost to guns. Too many discriminated against for whom they love. Too many political decisions based on fear. But in swoops Charles Bradley—the Screaming Eagle of Soul—to save us in “Change for the World” with achingly relevant lyrical admonitions amidst uplifting brass. Unlike his previous work, however, Bradley begins this song with spoken word before unleashing his soulful howls and seductive croons. Because if Bradley, a man who has known trouble and trauma, is insisting we do better in this world, then we best listen. —Hilary Saunders

23. Angel Olsen, “Intern”
Angel Olsen’s parables never let you down easy, and unsurprisingly, “Intern” deals with the crushing realities of life, too. We all have a way of feeling inadequate in whatever we do, whether that’s manning a Fortune 500 company or selling dreamcatchers on Etsy. In a sense, everyone is an intern—the novice trying to make sense of it all with nervous laughter and a rumble strip of sweat across their forehead. Sure, you know how to make a pie chart on Excel (sort of) and can brew a decent cup of coffee (sort of), but what of it? You start tilting at windmills in your cubicle and think about what it might be like to fall in love for the last time. Olsen swiftly shuts this down and lets us know it’s not the last time for anything, and probably won’t ever be for as long as we’re going through the motions of this “internship.” Sorry everyone, there’s no daydreaming in society proper. —Mady Thuyein

22. Frankie Cosmos, “On the Lips”
“On the Lips” is the anthem for Craigslist Missed Connections, perfectly capturing the yearning for a second chance with the lyrics “Sometimes I cry cause I know / I’ll never have all the answers / Separated by a subway transfer.” Through the dream pop song isn’t even two minutes long, each word carries a weight, not wasting a second of the song. Disguised by the song’s misleading upbeatness and singer Greta Kline’s soft and melodic voice, the song details a subway ride where lead singer Kline reflects on if she should have reached out to a stranger at on a subway until he leaves the train car: “I watch you disappear / As my train rolls away.” —Lily Lou

21. Twin Peaks, “Walk to the One You Love”
“I will let you walk to the one you love, but tell me, who is the one you love?” Tale as old as time, right? But just because this is an unrequited love story doesn’t mean it’s mopey. On the contrary, “Walk to the One You Love” off of this year’s Down in Heaven is just as catchy as we’d expect from Twin Peaks, full of T. Rex-inspired riffs, an insistence that “I won’t cry or beg for you to stay” and a general feeling that as long as the Chicago band keeps churning out tracks like this, everything’s gonna turn out just fine. —Bonnie Stiernberg

20. Savages, “Adore”
While Savages built their name on the unrelenting righteous fury of their in-studio and live performances, the most striking and intense moment of their sophomore album, Adore Life, actually occurs during a moment of silence. For the most part, the title track plays like a post-punk power ballad, with Ayse Hassan’s lumbering bass placing a firm choke on Jehnny Beth’s croons of carnal guilt. “In the distance there is truth which cuts like a knife/Maybe I will die maybe tomorrow so I need to say,” Beth manages to gasp before she and her band disappear completely. “I adore life,” she suddenly declares as the rest of Savages mount a caterwauling sonic assault to claw their way out of the ether. Even at their most life-affirming, Savages can’t help but smile with a mouth full of blood. —Reed Strength

19. Young Thug, “Digits”
“Horses don’t stop, they keep going,” and thus spoke Young Thug. That’s not exactly what his spacey drawl is trying to articulate, but we wouldn’t dare put it past him. With his vocals waterlogged and his lyrics absurdist with metaphor and metonymy, the Atlanta rapper is doing something that’s never been done before. More importantly, he’s doing whatever it is he wants. In Barter 6, he sent a shout-out to Big Duck and the host of “slimes” that he does all of this for. This year, in the last mixtape of the Slime Season trilogy, he features a syrupy Valentine’s Day track for Jerrika Karlae. Thug might be careening a float through rap’s bravado parade, but he’s also a family man and his wife-to-be calls him Jeff. That’s why “Digits” is so philosophically exciting. He ditches the picket fence to throw down a ton of cash and push the hustle, because why not? It all seems nihilistic, but in just under three minutes of song, Young Thug immortalizes himself through his music, his foreseeable lineage, and every posterior turn up along the way. —Mady Thuyein

18. Joey Purp, “Girls@”
“Girls@” is all chorus, a song whose cadence and couplet-ing makes for instant bliss on the backs of two emcees with a subcutaneous inkling of how integral flow and assonance are to an otherwise straightforward club track. The first emcee is Chance the Rapper, bound to be 2016’s hip-hop MVP, lending his childhood friend a cursory verse as casually brilliant as anything he’s leased other artists this year (see also Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam” and even an otherwise unlistenable track from that Macklemore album that everyone has already forgotten because it’s such a solipsistic mess). Chance admits he’s more on the lookout for a woman in the club “reading Ta-Nehisi Coates / humming SpottieOttieDope” than one who prescribes to typical party life politicking, meanwhile unashamed of just how bad he is at posturing for a girl’s approval: “I got a bed, no frame, just a mattress.” The second emcee is headliner Joey Purp, Chance’s cohort in Chicago’s SaveMoney collective, who may or may not have “interpolated” 702’s “Where My Girls At?” into this incessant bounce of a song. Granted, Joey’s looking for perhaps a different pedigree of partner from his pal, but he’s more than willing to celebrate all kinds of women, all kinds of folks, and it’s an absolutely refreshing take on a standard Summer jam: “When they hear this jam they turn the lights out.” After all, everyone looks the same in the dark. —Dom Sinacola

17. Kevin Gates, “2 Phones”
For those few who pine for the hip-hop days of yore when the genre’s artists were just as savvy to pop as they were rap, Kevin Gates is a welcome sign that all is well. For the rest of hip-hop’s listeners who understand that those aspects never went away, Gates is yet another musical prophet whose message is relevance and lyrical brilliance. Though released as a single in late 2015, “2 Phones” was included on Gates’ debut LP Islah, released in January. Comparisons to some of the genre’s most iconic tracks like 2Pac’s “California Love” and Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” aren’t without merit here. With both of those artists representing their respective decades (and more in the case of the latter), Gates’ unadorned brand of lyricism tied together with relatable subject matter is the Baton Rouge native’s most powerful asset. For “2 Phones,” Gates doesn’t offer a medley of figurative language and social commentary like many of his contemporaries, he simply lays out the verse before rolling into the chorus. Rinse and repeat. Regardless of how many modes of communication he has, with “2 Phones” Gates has the one that matters, and that’s the one you can’t stop hearing. —Jonathan Dick

16. Whitney, “No Woman”
When Max Kakacek and Julian Ehrlich pulled the plug on beloved Chicago indie rockers Smith Westerns and pulled up roots for Los Angeles, there was no reason to believe that they would land on their feet, let alone do so quite so quickly. “No Woman,” then, is a statement of liberation of sorts, albeit one that feels more accidental than defiant. “I left drinkin’ on the city train to spend some time on the road,” Ehrlich sings in his most wistful falsetto over a soft bed of acoustic guitar strums. “Then one morning I woke up in L.A.,” he continues, as if baffled by it all. The rhythms lope, the guitars twinkle and twirl, and some gauzy strings and trumpets crash around like in a Spaghetti western. As road songs go, this one is more of a slow train than a convertible with the top down. —Matt Fink

15. Sheer Mag, “Can’t Stop Fighting”
Philadelphia punk band Sheer Mag released “Can’t Stop Fighting” via Bandcamp in February. Though it’s not even on Spotify, “Can’t Stop Fighting” is an unstoppable pop power anthem driven by emotion that brings back the energy of the 90’s riot grrl feminist singers like No Doubt and Sleater-Kinney. “Can’t Stop Fighting”, led by Christina Halladay’s tireless voice, demands your attention with lines like “All my life I’ve felt the eye of the catcall / We’re striking back baby, and you can find me in the vanguard / You say you don’t understand / I can see the blood, it’s on your hands” and repetitions of the line “can’t stop fighting.” —Lily Lou

14. Anderson .Paak, “The Bird”
It’s fitting that Anderson .Paak kicks off his excellent Malibu with “The Bird;” it’s the kind of opening track that ensures—demands, even—that you stick around for the rest of the album, but it does so in such a smooth, effortless way that you don’t even realize it’s happening until you’re already hooked and reeled in. All it takes is a few bars, maybe to the end of that first chorus or the first time that trumpet eases in, before you feel as though you’ve always loved this song. That “sweetness of a honeycomb tree” .Paak sings of is palpable, delivered with a warm familiarity. When he weaves in snippets of his life (“my sister used to sing to Whitney, my momma caught the gambling bug”), he ultimately draws the conclusion that “We see the same things/we sing the same songs / we feel the same grief / bleed the same blood.” He’s talking about a childhood friend, but the way he sings it, it feels like he’s singing it to us, welcoming us in to his inner circle, inviting us to come in, kick off our shoes and stick around for the rest of the album. —Bonnie Stiernberg

13. White Lung, “Hungry”
In the video for “Hungry,” actor Amber Tamblyn plays a starlet caught in the teeth of a serious fame addiction—rubbing raw eggs and condensed milk on her face in a joyless attempt to cling to the beauty she sees in the mirror. Each time, her reflection morphs into the image of White Lung lead singer Mish Barber-Way, grotesque and contorted. After 10 years in the Canadian punk rock trenches, the Vancouver quartet understands that they’re bound to be accused of status climbing for making music as comparably cleaned up and catchy as “Hungry.” If the song is a preemptive strike of sorts, it hits the right combination of confliction and confession. “Baby, you’re weak / Baby, you’re starving” sings Barber-Way over a stampede of glistening and churning guitars, her tone falling somewhere between a taunt and a lament. Fame might not be imminent, but White Lung has never sounded hungrier. —Matt Fink

12. James Blake, “Radio Silence”
Released just last month, James Blake’s The Colour in Anything exposed another dynamic layer of what’s become a predictability unpredictable creativity from the musician. “Emotionally vulnerable” seems like an understatement for Blake’s songwriting methodology, yet “Radio Silence” might very well be his most earnestly bare example. Never mind that the song incorporates a fully realized form of those R&B characterizations that until now have served more as accent. “Radio Silence” is more than just another (great) sad bastard song from the U.K. (thanks, Adele). Serving as his backdrop, Blake’s sense of atmosphere and rhythmic groove is subdued to perfection throughout the song’s four minutes, underscoring his distinctive tenor range. Blake’s instinct for hiccupped electronics married to the kind of groove that would make Keith Sweat proud is nothing new. What’s most impressive with “Radio Silence” (and the entire album) is that Blake’s compositional idiosyncrasies remain not only intact but more effective. In that regard, “Radio Silence” is an apt opener for a record that further drives the point home that James Blake remains as reliably surprising and exceptional as ever. —Jonathan Dick

11. Tegan and Sara, “Boyfriend”
It’s thrilling to really consider what Tegan and Sara accomplished with a track like “Boyfriend.” It is, somehow, simultaneously a catchy pop/dance track that sounds like it wants to be all froth and frivolity. But, like so many other great tracks from Love You to Death, the lyrics tell another story. “I don’t wanna be your secret anymore,” is a powerful message to send to a lover, and an even stronger message to send to a pop culture atmosphere that loves a lipstick lesbian, or prefers those women who dabble in queerness—but not so much as to repel the male, heterosexual gaze. Tegan and Sara are brilliant because, like a handful of artists who are in constant dialogue with their activism (who don’t separate one kind of work from the other), they manage to both entertain and speak truth to power at the same damn time—and without losing the intimacy that makes their songs so relatable. “Boyfriend” does all of this beautifully and playfully; it insists on being both pop and political (all while telling a deeply personal story). You cannot help but dance to it, and you also cannot help but consider the greater themes of sexuality, relationships and the “othering” of queerness as the lyrics bop around the infectious beat. As kids today like to say, get you a pop song that can do both. —Shannon M. Houston

10. Radiohead, “Burn the Witch”
As is often the case with Radiohead, it’s hard to tell what’s actually more impressive—the band’s release tactics or the music itself. Yet, the English group once again prevails in both categories with “Burn the Witch,” the first single off A Moon Shaped Pool. After erasing its entire digital presence, Radiohead returned by uploading a stop-motion animation video on its YouTube page, a vision that begins cutely Claymation-like and concludes as downright Orwellian. The song holds it own, too, even with the sawing string section seemingly at odds with the vicious thumping electronics and bass. Thom York’s fluid, melodic (although usually unintelligible) voice weaves the two elements to create a return worthy of the extra-musical hype. —Hilary Saunders

9. Parquet Courts, “Human Performance”
An overflowing ashtray, empty beer bottles, a sink full of dirty dishes – that’s the scene of quiet, domestic despair painted by Parquet Courts’ Andrew Savage in “Human Performance.” With sweetly sighing melodies, a deliciously bobbing bass line, and a spiraling black hole of a chorus, the track is three minutes of bleary-eyed garage-pop perfection. But dig under the sing-song rhymes and aching chord progression, and you’ll find this isn’t a breakup song as much as it’s a confession. Haunted by memories and dogged by doubt, the protagonist is left only with unanswered questions and all-consuming guilt. “It never leaves me / Just visits less often,” he sings as the song winds to its uneasy conclusion. “It isn’t gone and I won’t feel its grip soften / Without a coffin.” Yikes, man. —Matt Fink

8. Sturgill Simpson, “In Bloom”
On Sturgill Simpson’s sophomore record Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, he dutifully reimagined When in Rome’s 1988 hit “The Promise,” softening its synth-sharp edges with a balladeers perspective on bumbling romantic miscues. It was a bright spot in an album full of them, so it should come as no shock that Simpson’s recast of a seminal teen-angst anthem in Nirvana’s “In Bloom” achieve such rigorous and satisfying transformation. Adding the line “to love someone” following the lilting Cobain refrain of “knows not what it means” is a stroke of resolve in the face of the apathetic “meh” of the original, turning a classic touchstone of ‘90s grunge into something altogether cheerier. A cavalcade of peppy horns and lap steel pad the song’s crescendo, accentuating the epiphany of compassion and patience and the importance of both while growing up in a weird, cold world. Cobain himself probably would have approved of such artistic liberty. —Ryan J. Prado

7. Rihanna, “Kiss It Better”
There is so much mystification surrounding Bad Gal RiRi—the kind that’s only heightened by the tabloid headlines that make her out as some untouchable caryatid. There’s a reason why the pop star wears worship better than a Tom Ford jumpsuit, and it has nothing to do with the amount of times she and Travis Scott have been spotted on a veranda or how many retroactive shoe brands she can turn around (sorry, Puma). In “Kiss it Better,” Rihanna’s usual mainstream credo and Don Juan-ism make room for the realist Fenty, yet. A broken relationship remains broken no matter how many times you figuratively sooth it, but has that ever stopped us from seeking the fruitless rite of “kissing it better?” Rihanna writes the universal text to an old flame that in reality, only persists in a typed-but-never-sent limbo. It’s emotionally seismic and it hurts like hell. But to be honest, we’re pretty relieved that the baddest bitch we know finds herself in doldrums over her ex, too. —Mady Thuyein

6. Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, but I do,” proclaims the primal punk poet Mitski Miyawaki, better known simply as Mitski, on “Your Best American Girl.” Throughout her album Puberty 2, Mitski reacquaints herself with the tumultuous uncertainty of adolescence, but with an unassuming wisdom attained only by time and experience. On “Your Best American Girl” in particular, Mitski ponders over unrequited love and cultural boundaries in an angst-ridden anthem about an identity crisis. Mitski finds herself, loses herself, and starts all over again as she sings, “You’re the one / you’re all I ever wanted / I think I’ll regret this.” Cutting the astute poetry is grating fuzz that runs throughout the album, juxtaposing aged intelligence with a vigorous rebellion. Puberty is never fun to go through, but Mitski boldly maneuvers through it all with unforeseen grace the second time around. —Kurt Suchman

5. Car Seat Headrest, “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales”
“Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales” is six minutes of self-awareness and an examination into the unnecessary importance placed on other’s expectations. The Chris McCandles-inspired message is relatable, addressing listeners in second-person: “You build yourself up against others feelings / And it left you feeling empty as a car coasting downhill.” Songwriter Will Toledo described it as a song about “post-party melancholia. Wishing to either be a better person or care less about the whole deal.” The song compares drunk drivers to rebellious killer whales in waterparks—how they’re both pressured to perform for others but get freedom from recklessness, even if it’s temporary. Though the song’s main message is depressing, it offers a sense of hope that “It doesn’t have to be like this,” a line which repeats throughout the song. The track doesn’t match Car Seat Headrest’s past low-fi discography, but it continues to find meaningful ways to reflect in the everyday through Toledo’s lyricism. —Lily Lou

4. David Bowie, “Blackstar”
The lead title-track on David Bowie’s Blackstar sets the tone for the artist’s farewell. It’s actually several songs in one. “Blackstar” opens with a skittering beat and electronic adornments, as Bowie’s finally emerges layered, weathered, subdued and soulful. “Blackstar” swells as horns creep and skronk, and then changes mood about four minutes in, like sun breaking through the clouds. It’s an otherworldly 10 minutes that recalls Bowie’s late-’70s forays into “plastic soul,” accentuated by his love of electronic music and krautrock. It’s an amazing piece of work that, 10, 20, or 50 years from now, will still be talked about alongside some of Bowie’s greatest material, while simultaneously still sounding thrilling and new. —Mark Lore

3. Chance the Rapper, “No Problem”
“You don’t want no problem with me,” Chance crows again and again on Coloring Book’s repeat button-wrecking, anti-record label anthem—even the indie-rap rebel’s threats are joyous. Chano’s elastic opening verse is plenty of fun, but where he really shines here is on the hook, his relentlessly melodic, autotuned boasting buoyed by a gospel choir. Seasoned veterans 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne each turn in characteristically adept, flex-heavy bars to keep the party rocking, and tick-tight instrumentation underpins the whole shebang. “No Problem” is a tidy microcosm of Chance the Rapper’s knack for balancing street corner swagger with roof-raising fervor fit for a pulpit, and it’s also an infectious celebration of all that independent music can be. —Scott Russell

2. Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam”
When Kanye West said he was making a gospel album, I don’t think any of us really thought The Life of Pablo would feature a track with Kirk Franklin, the great Kelly Price, The-Dream and Chance the Rapper (who, according to Black Twitter, has made the greatest gospel album in recent history, with Coloring Book). But we should have known that anything was possible. With all of those features, and in less capable hands (that’s Mike Dean and Swizz Beatz on the production), “Ultralight Beam” could and should have been an over-the-top mess; one of those tracks that tried too hard, shifted in tone too often, and couldn’t quite pull off the promise of greatness. But it succeeds, as a reflection of Kanye’s distinctive praise and worship style, his interpretation of the “God dream” that moves and haunts his work. The myriad voices that contribute to the story—from the child who opens the track, proclaiming, “We don’t need no devils in the house, Lord!” to Chance’s perfectly-delivered blend of pop culture, humor and Biblical verse—serve as a reminder that Kanye craves an audience as much as he craves communion. He wants to be watched while he bears witness to his God, but he also wants to watch, while those around him bear witness to theirs. “Ultralight Beam” fits in perfectly with Kanye’s oeuvre—mute the cuss words and you could almost play it at church; or better yet, it’s another attempt by Ye to push the doors of the church open a little wider, in hopes of making room for a slightly stranger religion. —Shannon M. Houston

1. Beyoncé, “All Night”
On an album all about resolution, “All Night” provides a resolution to end all resolutions. It literally is a magnanimous coming together—of Beyoncé’s pain regarding her husband’s infidelities with her loyalty to the man; of feelings of betrayal with an overpowering optimism; of a lifetime of musical influence with a celebratory suite; of carnal need with transcendent love; of the horn line from “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” with the brass section from Reel Big Fish. If Lemonade is all about bringing so many disparate pieces into one living whole, then on “All Night” Beyoncé demonstrates that she is currently pop music’s best curator, able to pull from the many touchstones in her artistic life to craft something both deeply intimate and boundlessly universal—something gracious, indulgent and endlessly listenable. That “Formation” follows, “All Night” only the album’s penultimate track, makes perfect sense: Now that we’ve assembled so much power, the musical magnate declares, let’s line up and take control. —Dom Sinacola

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