The 50 Best Songs of 2016

Music Lists best of 2016
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The 50 Best Songs of 2016

Sometimes it just takes a song to make a statement. Albums can be cumbersome, inconsistent; a song striking in three-and-a-half-minutes is much more concise. With social, economic, and political tensions riding high in 2016, musicians seemed to turn to their craft to comment, organize, and condemn. While not all of our top songs take political stances, we found that a higher percentage focused on current events than in previous years. From the mindless to the mindful, the poppiest to the deathly serious, here are Paste’s 50 best songs of 2016.

50. Eric Prydz, “Last Dragon”
Eric Prydz’s Opus was exactly that—a 19-song masterstroke in expansive electronic arrangements, complete with new material, unreleased work from the Swedish producer’s DJ sets and a smattering of singles dating back to 2012. The entire album is worth hearing, but its crown jewel is the booming “Last Dragon,” a nearly seven-minute-long big-tent anthem replete with urgent kick-drum thumps, twinkling keys and a deadly synth hook that could set the dance floor aflame faster than all three of Khaleesi’s magical reptiles. —Rachel Brodsky

49. Alicia Keys, “Blended Family (What You Do For Love)”
The inspiration behind Alicia Keys’ latest triumph was intensely personal, as the song is an apology to her stepson for all the drama that dusted up between the soul singer and her husband’s ex. But with the addition of a cheeky guest verse from A$AP Rocky, it becomes anthemic, a call to all the children of divorce to hang tough and try to not let the problems between the grownups become their problems. It’s a lovely sentiment that’s carried further by the boom-bap of the beat and a wistful Edie Brickell sample. —Robert Ham

48. Wilco, “Locator”
“Even when the wheels are whining, something in the sky can find me,” Jeff Tweedy belts on this gnarled noise-pop ditty—a 21st century man bowing to the GPS god in his jeans pocket. Is he outrunning the satellites that track his every move, or singing the praises of a damn good data plan? “Locator” was the first single from Wilco’s irreverently titled 10th LP, Schmilco, and also the least likely candidate for that role: two minutes of John Stirratt’s barking bass guitar, Glenn Kotche’s restrained drum gallop and vibraslap, and several of Tweedy’s signature twang-punk vocal hooks, unfurl in lazy sighs. “Hide, hide, hide,” the frontman half-sings, his voices layered into dissonance. The paranoia is palpable. —Ryan Reed

47. Sylvan Esso, “Radio”
Sylvan Esso  didn’t release a new album in 2016 (even if their self-titled debut graced the top 10 of our Best Albums of 2014 list), but the North Carolina duo of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn did offer this single back in November. Luckily, “Radio” doesn’t stray too far from the perfected formula of Meath’s a cappella-worthy vocals over Sanborns melodic, yet synthesized beats. Closer to the disco jams of “H.S.K.T” than the snide cat-calling condemnation of “Hey Mami,” Meath coos that she’s a “slave to the radio.” But if Sylvan Esso keeps this up for their next album, we’ll be slaves to their tunes, too. —Hilary Saunders

46. Cymbals Eat Guitars, “Have a Heart”
“Can’t believe the shit that we were promised really might exist,” marvels Cymbals Eat Guitars singer Joseph D’Agostino on what is perhaps one of the Staten Island indie wailers’ most traditional love ballads. Taken from 2016’s standout Pretty Years, the vulnerable “Have a Heart” reveals further moments of wonderment that there might really someone who makes D’Agostino want to be a little less “young and evil.” Over a jangling, distressed melody, he expounds on how the relationship is changing him: “Empathy, it never came so naturally ‘til I met you.” Of course he’s still anxious that his lover may discover his “history of instability,” but that’s just the risk we all take when we find someone with whom to be “out of sync.” —Rachel Brodsky

45. Kevin Gates, “Kno One”
Kevin Gates is the horniest rapper of 2016, claiming to go for hours, preferring the floor to the bed, and pledging a finger for every booty like Herbert Hoover promising a chicken in every pot. But he’s sweet too: if your legs are on his shoulders, well, “my attention giving all of it to you.” So call him a dog if you like, but get it right: he’s a lapdog, in every moistened sense of the term. Writes a hell of a hook while he’s down there too. —Dan Weiss

44. The Hotelier, “Piano Player”
There’s a certain, cathartic kind of rock ‘n’ roll—anthemic and honest above all else, inspiring fist-pumps and throat lumps in equal measure, impossible to sit still to—that gets me every single time. Massachusetts indie-punks The Hotelier (formerly The Hotel Year) achieve exactly that with their ambitious third album, Goodness, and stellar single “Piano Player” is a case in point. The dynamic track starts at high speed, evoking the thrill of hitting the open road and seeing the world—it’s no coincidence that’s exactly what takes place in its visuals. The song’s propulsive, driving guitars, humanized by lead singer Christian Holden’s impassioned howls, are electrifying, the kind of musical kick in the ass that makes one want to get up and go live. —Scott Russell

43. Lizzo, “Good As Hell”
If I got to choose the motivational angel/devil combo on my shoulders, I’d pick rapper/singer Lizzo without a doubt. She exudes confidence in her body and her skin (check out moving single “My Skin” from last year’s Big GRRRL Small World) and suffers no fools trying to diss either. With this track off this year’s Coconut Oil EP, Lizzo confidently walks listeners through a break-up depleted of respect. “If he don’t love you anymore / Just walk your fine ass out the door,” she commands in the melodic hook. As the beat drops, she lists off, “Head toes, check my nails / Baby how you doin’?” before the communal response fires back, “Doin’ good as hell!” It’s the self-empowerment anthem that we need and deserve. —Hilary Saunders

42. Ages and Ages, “As It Is”
Ages and AgesSomething to Ruin is an incisive, passionate but calculated album of sonically adventurous choral pop that, while not quite as joyous as their 2014 head-turner Divisionary, displays every bit of the band’s trademark positivity. At its heart is album closer “As It Is,” which feels quite a bit like a spiritual successor to the thunderous anthem of “Divisionary (Do the Right Thing),” the song that became the band’s breakout hit. In an album that seems to revolve around themes of leaving behind pain and baggage and forging forward in new beginnings, “As It Is” feels like a beacon begging its listeners to once again leave failure and infamy behind to begin again with a clean slate. When the full choir belts out that “you’re gonna find your peace in anonymity,” it’s a zen-like promise of peace rather than true anonymity; a starting point to forge a life worth living. —Jim Vorel

41. Porches, “Be Apart”
New York-based synthpop artist Aaron Maine, who performs as Porches, released its second LP Pool this year. “Be Apart” the second single after “Hour,” continues Maine’s synth-indebted sound and also features Frankie Cosmos (who also happens to be Maine’s partner) on backing vocals. Lyrically, the song deals with the duality of wanting to stay in, but grappling with unwavering FOMO. It’s a feeling that’s just little too real. —Alex Wexelman

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