I can’t begin to tell you how stacked the music year of 2016 looks on paper. Kanye. Beyonce. Radiohead. Frank. Bon Iver. Rihanna. Drake. Adele. Kendrick. Tribe. James Blake. How was it really doe? Well, pretty goddamn good. A lot better than the year as a whole, that’s for sure. Let’s dive in.
Favorite song this year that wasn’t released in 2016
“Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” Elton John
The Copout Slot
“Dat Stick,” Rich Chigga
You. Can’t. Touch. His. Swag.
The Songs of the Year
- “Two Blood Pacts,” Show Me the Body
The craziest, most violent mosh pit I’ve ever been in was at a Show Me the Body show, two years ago. The second craziest, most violent mosh pit I’ve ever been in was at a Show Me the Body show, two weeks ago. This song caused peak chaos: torsos hurled, arms swung, teeth gnashed, elbows jutted, sweat flew, B.O. wafted. My headphone cord got caught in someone’s shirt; soon, there were two or three bodies between us, all entangled in panic and rage. See you fuckers at the next show.
- “Worth the Tears,” Sheer Mag
- “Cadmium,” Pinegrove
Rock and roll—smart, earnest, yearning rock and roll—is alive and kicking in America.
- “Pass Dat,” Jeremih
- “Ballad,” Museyroom
“Ballad” is built out of familiar pop and folk frameworks, but twisted and given modern production. The swirling, cyclical chord progression makes every strum yearn for the next one, and the soaring harmonies of the last verse are decidedly “Abbey Road”-esque.
- “We the People,” A Tribe Called Quest
I never wanted Tribe to exist in 2016. It wasn’t right. They should have lived forever inside the Technicolor glow of the halcyon 90s, when you could watch Starks getting ejected at the Garden, then hit up your Bonita Applebaum on the Skypager. Before Phife started struggling with his energy levels and lost his mojo. Before Q-Tip got ornery and egomaniacal. Before Rudy Guiliani. Before Dilla died. Before hip hop moved south. Before 9/11. Before the 2004 fights on tour. Before Trump was elected, and before Phife Dawg passed away.
There was no golden era, though. There was just a bunch of homies dealing with the terrible shit in the world in 1993, and 1996, 2004 and 2016. There wasn’t a space program or time capsule to take them away. So, yeah, they came back. And yeah, their beats still make your neck snap. They still understand society better than you. They still use better metaphors. They still write audacious hooks. They still sing in laughably high-pitched voices. They still love sports. They still dance funny. They still mix in Jamaican patois. They still give a voice to the vulnerable. They still dream big. They still dream bigger than you.
- “Really Doe,” Danny Brown ft. Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt
The posse cut presents something of a paradox for hip hop artists. What does it mean to be one brooding alpha male of four or five in a row? Luckily this one consists of four utter weirdos who don’t play by those constructs, and instead engage a stranger game of trying to out-alienate each other. They wander chaotically through a sublime minimalist beat, with the sparse bassline throwing in a splash of soul every eight bars.
Typically, the last rapper is the default winner, working harder and rapping faster than his peers. (Think Eminem on “Forever,” Busta Rhymes on “Scenario.”) Earl Sweatshirt doesn’t give a fuck about precedent. His scattered, uneven rhyme scheme lurches back and forth, and his abrupt pauses make him even sound more dangerous and unhinged. He wins the song, anyway.
- “Romeo,” Chairlift
Early this year I decided to run my first half-marathon. The reason was more mental than physical. I was restless and needed to prove to myself that I could work to achieve something new.
And so I slipped on my blue Nike Flexes and headed out onto the Manhattan streets, through the pungent Harlem blocks, into the South Bronx, along the Hudson river, round and round the Central Park Reservoir, across the Brooklyn Bridge, under the Flushing-Meadows Unisphere. I listened to Charlift’s “Romeo” almost every time. It was at the perfect tempo, with Caroline Polachek sighing out mischievous dares and promises of fulfillment. Her bright, crackling voice on that monster hook made my soles ache just a little bit less.
I ran that half marathon, listening to “Romeo” along the way. When I reached the finish line, I stumbled sideways, vomited, and blacked out. I was carried off to the hospital, where I fought cold chills, waves of nausea, and searing muscle pain for twelve hours.
I should have recognized the song’s sinister undertones: the metallic rasp just under her falsetto; the growling guitar riff; the perverseness of the song’s narrative, in which the runner dies if he doesn’t outrun the singer. “I’m ready to go” is not a declaration of triumph; it’s a nervous, gasping prayer before the start of the journey.
And so now whenever I hear “Romeo” I feel a twinge of horror mixed with both relief and determination. It’s my fight song: a promise of unrelenting commitment to achieve something that just might fuck you up along the way.
12. “Call Me Home,” No Hype ft. Mariana
wowowow the beat is hot the singer can belt the rapper can spit amazing
- “Girls @,” Joey Purp ft. Chance the Rapper
Joey Purp does not have the natural voice of a rapper. It’s almost the opposite of, say, the calm and precise baritone of Nas: low but not menacing, lumbering, slurring, a microsecond behind at every turn, each pause interrupted by its owner loudly gulping back his breath.
But these shortcomings only endear the Chi-Town rapper on his fantastic mixtape “iiiDrops,” in which he proudly wears his ethos on his sleeve: playful, absurdist, hilarious, communal. “Girls” demonstrates his peak ability to showcase these traits, over a wonky beat that pairs a dinky synth with a thundering bass drum. Meanwhile, Chance steals the song by rhyming “Ta-Nehisi Coates” and “SpottieOttieDope,” which is actually the password to winning life and Chance won. He won life.
- “Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain,” Lucius
- “Gemini Feed,” Banks
At first, you might mistake these two songs for easygoing synth bangers. But beneath the surface they’re overcome with all sorts of anxieties and weird tics: ominous doubled voices, gospel swells, fragile strings, fragments of reverb. Lucius is plagued by guilt. Banks can’t even say “depressive” correctly. Melodies spill out of their contained bars and end on notes they shouldn’t. You wonder which parts are genuinely pop and which are just mocking its inanity. You want to listen to each one again, because you worry you missed something the last time.
- “666 ʇ ,” Bon Iver
Justin Vernon is the rare soul who’s mastered both the purest form of folk songwriting and the many modern production tools at his disposal. “666” is a masterclass in his keen arranging instincts, as a freely-flowing acoustic bass, record scratches and rigid marching drums intensify the song’s gorgeous, understated melody.
- “Pillowtalk,” Zayn
At some point, Usher’s “Climax” became an indie anthem. I can’t for the life of me figure out why the same hasn’t happened to “Pillowtalk.” By far the best Number One song this year, it wears its earnest cheesiness on its sleeve; the chorus sounds like injecting a fifth of adrenaline to straight to the thigh. Also, damned if Zayn and Gigi aren’t the two most beautiful humans on the planet.
- “You and I,” Margaret Glaspy
They say that hardship and heartbreak create the best art. But while “You and I” is a breakup song, Margaret Glaspy sure isn’t broken up about it. “Tonight I’m a little too turned on to talk about us / And tomorrow I’ll be too turned off and won’t give a fuck,” she snarls in the year’s best opening line. I like to imagine “You and I” as a direct response to Drake: as the sadboy catches feelings and mopes through his morose, unfocused verses, Glaspy shuts him down in a brutal, unflinching 2-minute rocker, propelled by a yelp and a jaunty, bleeding guitar line reminiscent of the best White Stripes records.
- “Your Best American Girl,” Mitski
“Your Best American Girl” is the music video of the year. (Please read this.) More importantly than that, it is Mitski’s Superhero Origin Story. It starts from a place of insecurity and smallness: of being an alien in a new home wary of you, like Superman was. Her powers slowly emerge as she learns to wield and master her weapon: a hot pink bass. Then she explodes in a crush of feedbacking guitar, her voice soaring majestically, in a desperate fight for love: for herself, from a lover, from her country, all one and the same. Coming soon to a theater near you.
- “Powerball,” Topaz Jones
While y’all were rewatching “Westworld” for the revealing microdetails, I was listening to “Powerball” over and over for the same reason. This is the 2016 perfectly written and produced hip hop record. The mix is pristine, with the backup harmonies wafting from the fringes; the drum sample condensed into the nasal center; the joyfully messy handclaps splayed amidst car crashes, cousin’s hollers, well-wishers and schemers from the block. Like Tribe, Topaz fully understands and embraces both the American dream and the everyday hustle. The verses may be enamored with big houses and riches, but the prechorus just wants to know: “what’s going on? Nothing but the rent.”
1992—2009: Andrew is agnostic
2009—Feb. 10, 2016: Andrew is militantly atheist
Feb.11, 2016: Andrew hears “Ultralight Beam” for the first time blasting out of the MSG speakers
Feb. 12, 2016—present: Andrew is open-minded about religion
- “You Want it Darker,” Leonard Cohen
If Kanye kicked off the year in aglow with optimism and faith, it’s only appropriate that Leonard Cohen would close its door and blow out the flame. “Ultralight Beam” was the expectation; “You Want It Darker” is the reality. Cohen whispers the title over and over, as a taunt and a command, and a scarily accurate 2016 slogan as the world opted for division, resentment, and chaos. The song is both a deeply personal contemplation and a global condemnation: He knew not only that he was on the verge of death, but that we would clamor to watch his final gasps; that watching the flame of life go out had become a sick, global spectator sport. His “hineni hineni” sounds already like a ghost—a final prayer from one of the wisest men to ever do it.
- “Caroline,” Amine
You can tell the real love songs from the fake ones. You know this one’s cheeks-blushingly real just in the way Amine sighs, “ohmy god! Thatsmy baby!” In those six words, he conveys fierce respect, exhilaration, sexual pleasure. That love fills the song to the brim with giddiness and kinetic energy, making even tiny “ahems” feel epic.
And in his appearance on Late Night, he didn’t stop there, adding a third verse that expanded his passion and laser insight to the country as a whole: “9/11: a day that we’re never forgetting / 11/9: a day that we’re all regretting.” The four-minute performance is the definition of a man who can do you both.
- “Father Stretch My Hands Pts 1 and 2,” Kanye West
It all starts with the soul sample.
You want the old Kanye? It’s right beneath the surface, in the needle scratch of Pastor T.L. Barrett, with that lush Wurly, the wavering croon, the sandpapery backup singers. That used to be all Kanye needed: to take one perfect sample, chop it up, turn it into four gritty, sublime beats, and loop.
He’s not that narrow-minded anymore. He’s an omnivore who wants to rule the world. And no song reflected the insane, conflicted, tormented, joyous 2016 version of Kanye West better than “Father Stretch My Hands,” an epic that races through eras, subgenres, proteges, influences and ideals. It’s his ultimate collage.
The song deals with Kanye’s quest for liberation, through every possible channel. Part one is gorgeously realized and built like a pyramid. The top of the pyramid is God (addressed by Barrett); the middle is family (addressed by Cudi); the bottom is sin (addressed by Kanye himself). It somehow coalesces beautifully, and the fluidity of how the layers interact seems to show that Kanye can live peacefully even while chasing all three.
But darkness looms the minute Pt. 2 starts—and it doesn’t come from Kanye, but rather the crying soul sample itself. A verse from Kanye, rushing and teetering ahead of the beat, details his tormented past and current recklessness that rings scarily true after his hospitalization: “If you ask, lost my soul / Driving fast, lost control.” His narcissistic, destructive tendencies have taken the wheel, throwing his journey and legacy in danger.
How can Kanye be liberated? Is it futile? The only way, it turns out, is through aesthetic perfection, in the form of a gloriously loopy and euphoric Desiigner verse. It’s liberation distilled into nonsense syllables—and proof that no matter how far Kanye strays into perilous territory, his music taste will remain untouchable.