The 50 Best Songs of 2016

Music Lists Best Of 2016
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10. 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

9. Frank Ocean, “Ivy”
Frank Ocean  certainly made us wait for Blonde, but tracks like “Ivy”—which stands among his personal best—are proof it was worth it. Singing over the electric guitar contributions of Rostam Batmanglij (who, between this and his excellent album with Hamilton Leithauser, had quite a year), Ocean mourns a young love lost in the way that only he can, tenderly admitting that “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me” before erupting into a nostalgic cry of “I ain’t a kid no more/we’ll never be those kids again.”—Bonnie Stiernberg

8. 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

7. 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

6. 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

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. Lucy Dacus, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”
The beauty of “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” lies in both its how-did-nobody-think-of-that-song-title before charm, as well as its barebones rhythmic foundation. Dacus levels a velvet croon to relay her contempt for the ridiculousness of social roles over single-note strums, singing, “Lately I’ve been feeling like the odd man out,” lamenting the public constructs that might deem one odd in the first place. As the song blooms, Dacus similarly slowly unfurls the elegance of her powerful voice, transforming a relatively straightforward power-pop tune into a new kind of millennial anthem advocating for individualism without the bullshit stigma. —Ryan J. Prado

3. Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”
Many of the songs on Angel Olsen’s stunning My Woman are deeply emotional and gorgeously complex, but “Shut Up Kiss Me” provides the album a little levity with its tongue-in-cheek pleas from a jilted lover and infectious chorus featuring some percussive piano that Olsen recently revealed was inspired by David Bowie’s “Changes.” Love is complicated, but it doesn’t always have to be—sometimes it’s as simple as “shut up, kiss me, hold me tight”—and Olsen captures that with a straightforward gem that enters your head and refuses to leave.—Bonnie Stiernberg

2. 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

1. Beyoncé, “Formation”
Every once in a while, you come across a work of art that makes you wish you’d grown up in the South, or that you’d spent summers there—that you could, at least, claim to have some access to certain aspects of the culture. Texas in Friday Night Lights, Atlanta in Thug Motivation 101, Florida in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Oklahoma in Paradise, Mississippi in The Sound and the Fury; a great artist knows how to convey the specificities of the world they come from, making you feel both like an outsider, and a welcome voyeur, if you’re not from that world. And if you are from that world, then you feel validated, blessed in some way by the homage paid to your hometown. With “Formation,” Beyoncé (backed by writers Khalif Brown, Jordan Frost, Asheton Hogan and Mike WiLL Made It) achieves the task of reclaiming her own Southern roots (a task she’s always down for—see “Bow Down/I Been On”), all while translating a certain aspect of that Texas Bama/New Orleans culture to the rest of us. That “Formation” does all of this, while also playing like an infectious New Orleans bounce/marching band/hip-hop/R&B track is the reason it’s the best song of the year. In fact, there may not be a better reflection, in music today, of the term “melting pot,”—and as white supremacists and their associates take over the highest political offices in America—we need the themes of “Formation” more than ever.

In addition to being a celebration of Beyoncé’s America, “Formation” allows the artist to reintroduce herself. Those of us who, for many reasons, wanted her to be more outwardly political—but expected that she wouldn’t dare alienate her white audience—experienced a true and glorious shock and awe, watching her sink a New Orleans police car in her video. Anyone who ever thought to accuse her of being too pop, of playing it too safe in her lyrics (an accusation that mostly came from the casual listener) got quite a shock with the Red Lobster line that somehow became a feminist (or anti-feminist) rallying cry—a culturally specific celebration of the kind of female sexuality we still only catch glimpses of here and there. In many ways, everything we know about Beyoncé has been leading to “Formation”; but in many other ways, “Formation” feels like a song by a former pop star who no longer cares about her image, who’s made a record that is decidedly not for everyone. And, as if she knew that we wouldn’t quite believe such a bold message coming from her—America’s favorite, Pepsi-endorsing celebrity—she enlisted NOLA’s own Big Freedia and the late Messy Mya. “What happened at the New Wi’lins?” and “I did not come to play with you hoes, haha/I came to slay, bitch” carry as much weight as lyrics like, “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”

“Formation” had to be our first glimpse into the world of Lemonade, one of the best albums of the year, and arguably, the most important. It prepares us for the Beyoncé of middle fingers up, baseball bats, country music songs and Mothers of the Movement—those women whose children were slain (or lynched) by American police. “Formation” simultaneously looks to the past, and represents a future; and that future is unapologetically female and black. Like most great stories it contradicts itself, falling prey to American capitalistic ideals that inform rap, while also embracing queerness and a sexual empowerment that’s linked to financial independence. But those contradictions also speak to the very strange America that we inhabit today. And so now, when we try to respond to Arundhati Roy’s brilliantly posed question about “which America” we live in, we have another answer: the United States of cornbread, corn rows, baby hairs, collard greens and slayage. Oh yes, you besta believe it.—Shannon M. Houston

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