The 100 Best Songs of 2016

A song from the 90s, a repurposed Yeah Yeah Yeahs classic, a drunk driving PSA, Kanye’s worship, Bowie’s goodbye, and of course, “Formation”, these and more make up the list for our favorite songs of the year.
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A song from the 90s, a repurposed Yeah Yeah Yeahs classic, a drunk driving PSA, Kanye’s worship, Bowie’s goodbye, and of course, “Formation”, these and more make up the list for our favorite songs of the year.
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As always, you can follow along with this handy Spotify playlist, assembled with love. If you prefer, here’s the playlist on YouTube or Apple Music.

100 “Ooouuu” by Young M.a.
99 “Love Me Like That” by The Knocks (feat. Carly Rae Jepsen)
98 “Spikes” by Death Grips
97 “A 1000 Times” by Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam
96 “That’s Not Me” by Skepta (feat. Jme)

95 “Yesterday” by Noname
94 “War Ready” by Vince Staples (feat. Andre 3000)
93 “Take It There” by Massive Attack (feat. Tricky and 3D)
92 “The Governor” by Nicolas Jaar
91 “New Romantic“ by Andy Stott

90 “On the Lips” by Frankie Cosmos
89 “Best Kept Secret” by Case/Lang/Veirs
88 “Honest” by Dawn Richard
87 “Girlfriend” by Nao
86 “Sunday Love” by Bat for Lashes

85 “Taken” by Anna Meredith 
84 “Vroom Vroom” by Charli XCX
83 “Hoover” by Yung Lean
82 “Twist My Fingaz” by YG
81 “Florida” by The Range

80 “Cheap Thrills” by Sia
79 “Garden” by Hinds
78 “Ablaze” by School of Seven Bells
77 “Cold Little Heart” by Michael Kiwanuka
76 “CIRKLON3 [ Колхозная mix ]” by Aphex Twin

75 “Unconditional Love” by Esperanza Spalding
74 “Golden Gal” by Animal Collective
73 “Operator (He Doesn't Call Me)” by Låpsley
72 “Subways” by The Avalanches
71 “Adore” by Savages

70 “Jam” by Kevin Gates (feat. Trey Songz, Ty Dolla Sign, and Jaime Foxx)
69 “Ult” by Denzel Curry
68 “Come Down” by Anderson .Paak
67 “Good to Love” by FKA Twigs
66 “Sex With Me” by Rihanna

65 “You Don't Think You Like People Like Me” by Alex Lahey 
64 “Vegas” by Abra
63 “Go!” by M83 (feat. Mai Lan)
62 “Same” by Julianna Barwick
61 “You Want It Darker“ by Leonard Cohen

60 “Can’t Stop Fighting” by Sheer Mag
59 “Six Degrees of Separation” by Miranda Lambert
58 “How Does It Feel” by Kamaiyah
57 “Female Vampire” by Jenny Hval
56 “Tilted” by Christine and the Queens

55 “Pillowtalk” by Zayn
54 “A Breath Away” by Clams Casino (feat. Kelela)
53 “Work From Home” by Fifth Harmony (feat. Ty Dolla Sign)
52 “Free Lunch” by Isaiah Rashad
51 “Call to Arms” by Sturgill Simpson

50 “Into You” by Ariana Grande
49 “Low Life” by Future (feat. The Weeknd)
48 “Dummy Track” by Elysia Crampton (feat. Why Be and Chino Amobi)
47 “Broccoli” by D.R.A.M. (feat. Lil Yachty)
46 “Landcruisin’” by A. K. Paul

45 “The Wheel” by PJ Harvey
44 “Vincent” by Car Seat Headrest
43 “Good House” by Deakin
42 “22 Over Soon” by Bon Iver
41 “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd (feat. Gucci Mane)

40 “It Means I Love You” by Jessy Lanza
39 “Hands of Time” by Margo Price
38 “I Exhale” by Underworld
37 “Boyfriend” by Tegan and Sara
36 “Shut Up Kiss Me” by Angel Olsen

35 “Higher” by Carly Rae Jepsen
34 “Stranger Things” by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
33 “Million Reasons" by Lady Gaga
32 “Borders” by M.I.A.

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31

“Blackstar” by David Bowie

“Blackstar” is David Bowie at his most unapologetically theatrical and his most thrillingly eccentric. It’s ten solid minutes of genre-bending wonder, with a constantly shifting sonic landscape and lyrics full of evocative imagery. After the polarizing response to 2013’s The Next Day, it was exactly the return to form that Bowie needed.

Of course, that’s not why the song is destined to be remembered long after most of 2016’s musical output fades into obscurity. David Bowie having a damn fine album as his final recorded work would have been one thing, but a damn fine album where he perfectly eulogizes himself in the opening track? That’s one for the history books. In the song’s second movement, Bowie assures us that “something happened on the day he died/spirit rose a meter, then stepped aside/somebody else took his place, and bravely cried/I’m a blackstar”. Though I appreciate his humility, I have to respectfully disagree. No one’s going to be taking his place anytime soon. — Luke Fowler

Listen: “Blackstar”

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30 

“Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane” by Schoolboy Q (feat. Jadakiss)

A violence, this one: ScHoolboy Q orders you to “Crack off nigga, I’m squeezing empty ’til my shell break” while Jadakiss remains unfazed by the police, “Really all I need is a pitchfork and a shovel / If I can’t proceed then I resort to the metal.” And yet, even if there were no words to these flows, the track would still suggest a violence: every rapper on this joint sounds straight-up demented in parts: ScHoolboy Q’s “Y’all don’t hear me, I want the money riiiiiiiight” ending the first verse; the sheer growl of Jadakiss’ voice; Dem Jointz’ yelling “And we on” in “Eddie Kane.” And, that’s because of the beats too: for the first half, TDE in-house producer Tae Beast juxtaposes the darkness with a hiccuping female vocal that’s the catchiest part of the track. Meanwhile, for the second half, Dem Jointz erases what little light we had, letting us stumble with the wooziest bass-line and unrelenting drums. A few years ago, I might have argued that ScHoolboy Q’s bipartite tracks seemed too ambitious for his reach; this one seems perfectly natural. — Marshall Gu

Listen: “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane”

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29

“Daydreaming” by Radiohead

A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t like other Radiohead albums. It’s arguably their best since Kid A, but it defies easy canonization. There are hints of the quieter tracks from Kid A, structural similarities to In Rainbows, shades of certain non-album singles (particularly “These Are My Twisted Words”), but the atmosphere that permeates the album—an atmosphere unique in their discography—is one of peace. “Daydreaming” both establishes and codifies this feeling in the album’s context, its simplistic keyboard melodies staying constant over a swirl of strings and multi-tracked vocals. In a year full of all kinds of stress, this song puts me at ease in a way that nothing else really does. I suspect it will for many years to come. — Luke Fowler 

Listen: “Daydreaming”

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28

“All Night” by Beyoncé

No wonder Beyoncé — a star who’s lived her life in the limelight but still finds ways to keep us guessing — would end Lemonade on a cliffhanger. Coming at the end of her fiery visual album, “All Night” serves as a clearing, a reaffirmation of Bey’s love for her unfaithful partner — at least on the surface. Something’s off. The guitars aren’t celebratory but arduous. Her affirmation of love doesn’t come because he’s said sorry but because she loves the guy too damn much. “So many people that I know, they're just tryna touch you,” she frets, perhaps never to take her eyes off her husband again. And there’s still the fact that, well, he’s been cheating. “All Night” conveys the creepy illusion of domestic bliss; Beyoncé’s love is true, but the unspoken divide between the couple creates a void right at the center of the song, where its heart should be. — Daniel Bromfield

Listen: “All Night”

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27

“I Need a Forest Fire” by James Blake (feat. Bon Iver)

2016 really needed this new James Blake record. More specifically, it needed a reason to feel pretty. Disarray lurked around every single turn this year. Ire was amplified. Frustration became a universal feeling for a million un-universal reasons. We’re now approaching the final moments of the year, but absolutely no one seems too sad to say goodbye to it. Perhaps that’s why The Colour in Anything—namely, “I Need a Forest Fire”—left such a lasting mark. It achieved a level of melodic purity that no other 2016 album could even dream of replicating.

That’s just the price you pay when a track like “Forest Fire” features two of the world’s most gifted (and most irreverent) vocalists. It doesn’t hurt that the song is a simply stated request to let the world burn and start anew. It’s actually kind of expedient like that. But only Blake and Vernon can convey such an austere message using such beautifully orchestrated strokes. The harmonies are sky-high and flawless, the samples are gorgeously structured, and Blake’s production has never sounded tighter or more organically connected to itself. In terms of accessibility, “Forest Fire” is degree-of-difficulty. But once you surrender to the melodic nuance and let those harmonies fly, you realize that “I Need a Forest Fire” might be the most appropriate track of the year. It’s certainly the prettiest. — Austin Reed

Listen: “I Need a Forest Fire”

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26

“No Woman” by Whitney 

In 2016, a year so rife with social and political turmoil, “No Woman” was an essential breath of fresh air. Whitney’s lead single and the opener on their debut record, Light Upon the Lake, the track is a perfect tone-setter, a smooth summer song about the need to shift your scenery and your state of mind.

This is feel-good music, short and sweet. With lyrics about sleeping alone and late night drives and an unwillingness to change, there’s a melancholy at the heart of “No Woman”, but it’s wrapped in warm horns and guitars that evoke the optimism of June and July. These are classic themes couched in a classic sound, but that familiarity is key to Whitney’s irresistible charm. “No Woman” asks little of you. Just take a hit of nostalgia, suspend your worries, and hit the road. That’s an attractive invitation this year. — Colin Groundwater

Listen: “No Woman”

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25

“Lite Spots” by Kaytranada

In its opening moments, “Lite Spots” fools you into thinking there’s something wrong with your speakers. It’s a jarring few seconds, but the slivered vocals pull you in. It’s as if Kaytranada is making sure he has your attention, putting you on notice for the swirl of sounds and styles that will soon follow. A sample of Gal Costa's "Pontos De Luz" is accelerated and bandied around by dance beats and ambient tinkering, recognizable but reinforced and renewed. Perhaps no track on 99.9% better captures the scope of Kaytranada’s vision. “Lite Spots” is a strange brew, one where he throws everything into the pot. — Brendan Frank

Listen: “Lite Spots”

Blood Orange by Jason Nocito

24

“Best to You” by Blood Orange

The Blood Orange aesthetic can be called a lot of things, and accurately: obtuse, ethereal, incongruent, avant-garde, exclusive. Adhering to the conventional framework of Pop Music simply has never been super-high on Dev Hynes’ list of priorities, and for the most part, Freetown Sound does little to feel more accessible. His constant comparisons to more high-profile musical transgressors—Prince, Jackson, Bowie, etc.—exist simply because Hynes himself is transgressive. His musical application is something altogether different, eluding real comparison.

That’s why tracks like “Best to You” are so valuable to the Blood Orange character arc. “Best to You”, aside from being Freetown Sound’s best track, is also its most digestible. Hynes smartly recruits Empress Of’s sneaky-sensual vocalist Lorely Rodriguez to do most of the track’s lyrical heavy-lifting. But “Best to You” also incorporates a guiltlessly catchy 4/4 breakdown and useful street-drum layering. Tight production, crisp musicianship and soaring vocal performances imbue the track with a natural urgency—a characteristic usually reserved for his high profile cowrites. It might not be his primary objective, but when you’re as talented a performer and producer as Hynes, catchiness is bound to happen sometimes. — Austin Reed

Listen: “Best to You”

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23 

“Famous” by Kanye West (feat. Rihanna and Swizz Beatz)

A catchy Rihanna chorus supporting typical Kanye West braggadocio. A Taylor Swift line that may or may not be accurate, depending on whose side you’re on. Even a few tweaked lyrics that could potentially be tinkered with in the future. All of that happens in the first half of Kanye West’s “Famous”. Throw in a music video that features, among others, our newly elected president, West’s wife’s ex, and a disgraced TV celebrity, and it’s easy to see why this song from The Life of Pablo has gotten so much attention.

But what elevates the song above all the controversy is Kanye, the producer, doing his thing. West cedes the spotlight in the song’s last 90 seconds, letting booming ad-libs from Swizz Beats, a rhythmically-chopped Sister Nancy and, of course, Nina Simone take over. At his best, Mr. West knows exactly when to step aside and let the music he’s created overwhelm you. — Mac Gushanas

Listen: “Famous”

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22 

“Because I’m Me” by The Avalanches (feat. Camp Lo)

Sixteen years is a long, long, long time. If the Avalanches break between records was a kid, it could have its drivers license. But desire also springs from absence. What took so long? Illness, a South Korean feature length failed cartoon, drone music for a guy in a band called The Blow Monkeys and a label split with Modular over their beef with Tame Impala.

Specifically on "Because I'M Me" fans are welcomed through a door into a kaleidoscope of sounds and textures. The track celebrates, with cute detours, like a 1980's hand-drawn Disney cartoon for your ears. More than any song in 2016, this one refused to stop stuffing sunshine into your pockets, and your mouth. By the way, everyone will talk about time in their reviews of this song or this record, this one included. Which is a shame because Wildflower is already timeless. — Landon MacDonald

Listen: “Because I’m Me”

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21

“When It Rain” by Danny Brown

This one’s nutty in the best of ways: not a crowd-pleasing banger like “Really Doe”, but emblematic of the feverish paranoia that Brown exploits and might even subsume him if he’s not careful. For now, though, this is the sound of a talented hedonistic madman looking over his shoulder more and more often while he tries to convince himself that everything’s all still in good fun. It starts like an abstract upper with that weird cheap bleeping keyboard riff tying it together, but then it adds a flexatone (the rattlesnake sound) and brings up the bass in the mix like an army of foggy soldiers emerging over the horizon, and before you know, it’s turned into a banger after all, right before your ears. Brown’s delivery stays at the same quick-blurting whiny level, meaning that the other sounds threaten to swallow him up. The unfinished-ness is amplified, because he doesn’t know what’s going to come after he stops moving — like a shark. A frightening song. — Nathan Wisnicki

Listen: “When It Rain”

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20 

“Berlin Got Blurry” by Parquet Courts

Since their 2012 breakthrough, Parquet Courts have been focussing on songwriting — letting their hooks breathe and letting their lyrics settle — without sacrificing the groove that distinguished them from their indie rock peers in the first place; “Berlin Got Blurry,” the best song from their newest record has a bass-line that’s even groovier than what we’ve heard before from them (borrowed from James Carr’s “That’s What I Want To Know” or Elvis Presley’s “Only the Strong Survive”). Crucially, “Berlin Got Blurry” offers something else we haven’t heard before from these guys — emotionally informed lyrics, delivered in some of their finest melodies yet. Everything seems to be a hook, even when it’s a sad observation (“Nothing lasts but nearly everything lingers in life”) or a put-down to a complicated romantic partner (“Cellphone service is not that expensive / But that takes commitment and you just don’t have it”); when Andrew Savage sings the choruses — each one varied in lyric — the band caps it off with a keyboard hook that suggests it might not be all that bad; “YEAH!” — Marshall Gu

Listen: “Berlin Got Blurry”

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19

“Pink and White” by Frank Ocean

I think i've got it. Maybe. Was the staircase in Endless is his desire and pent up frustration to create Blonde? Or maybe our desire for “Boys Don't Cry”? The record itself was a reflection of the true version, of which he had two. The endless staircase to nothing, the two versions of himself working on a project that was almost indistinguishable from himself as a person. Think four years is a long time? Not if you are recording what feels like your actual self. “Pink and White” was the highlight, at least for me. It was one of the few moments that felt like a real follow up to Channel Orange and not a side step into another dimension. The whole song sounds coated in ivory. The piano bounces, the drums chill like Questlove in slow motion. The orchestra sounds uncharacteristically loose. The vocal take (of which I'm sure there are hundreds) was perfectly imperfect. The choir was unexpected. Writing about individual Frank songs is tough, they are always so much more than the sum of their parts. Its like our generation's equivalent of writing about Buddy Holly. What do you say? The guitars are tight and the drums are great and the songs are perfect. Frank is that for us. He is us. Confused, hopeful, and looking above for the glory. — Landon MacDonald

Listen: “Pink and White”

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18 

“No Problem” by Chance the Rapper (feat. Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz)

With heavy-hitters like 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne tagging along — could we have even imagined this, back when we fell in love with Acid Rap in 2013? — this is a duality: a conscious (and successful) push for radio-play and a casual masterpiece. One of many feel-good anthems available from the feel-good album of the year, it allows for 2 Chainz’ “Run shit like diarrhea” and some concerning lines about Lil Wayne’s health (“I just popped five Percocets and only caught a buzz”) because BrassTracks’ massive-sounding beat just steam-rolls over both and keeps going. And that’s to say nothing about the choruses, which will have you singing along before the first one finishes; Chance the Rapper puffing out his chest and huffing “HUH HUH” is one of the catchiest moments of the year. — Marshall Gu

Listen: “No Problem”

Anohni Drone Bomb Me

17

“Drone Bomb Me” by Anohni

“Will there be peace?” Anohni once asked in “Another World”, back when she was still with Antony and the Johnsons, sounding so hopeless. The question is still unanswered, but one thing for sure is that Anohni has found her courage and strength, and it’s clearly shown in “Drone Bomb Me” — one of the year’s most gut-wrenching and powerful moments — where she criticizes the Obama administration‘s drone strikes in a form of a love song written from the perspective of a young Afghani girl whose family is killed in an attack. She whispers, her voice quiet amid Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never’s booming sonic minefield, “So, drone bomb me/ blow me from the mountains and into the sea;” an unheard voice in a war zone. Anohni names her album HOPELESSNESS, but you can feel a sliver of hope still left, and with “Drone Bomb Me”, she reminds us that war brings nothing but sorrow and devastation, hoping that her question of peace will be answered one day. — Daniel Dian

Listen: “Drone Bomb Me”

Rihanna Kiss It Better Best Songs 2016

16 

“Kiss It Better” by Rihanna

Given all the left-field twists that “Anti” threw at its audience, it’s encouraging to hear that Rihanna can still deliver a pitch-perfect pop song. “Kiss It Better” is pure, classic Rihanna – attuned to the most contemporary sounds (trap beats, Weeknd-esque wooziness), sky-high production values (courtesy of Jeff Bhasker), a deliciously sultry vocal performance, and a titular innuendo so blunt that it’s not even innuendo anymore. The way her voice perfectly meshes with the retro guitar lick – you can almost see Rihanna suggestively draping herself all over the curves and contours of this track. This song should have been a much bigger hit, but perhaps its purposefully languorous mood wasn’t quite what the radio gods desired. Regardless of airplay, though, “Kiss It Better” is one highlight in a record full of them — a beguiling earworm that demonstrates why Rihanna has been such a persistent pop presence and pleasure for the last decade. — Zach Bernstein

Listen: “Kiss It Better”

Kendrick Lamar Untitled 08 Best Songs 2016

15

“Untitled 08 | 09.06.2014.” by Kendrick Lamar

Who better to reflect on the flip-side of fortune than the king who found his own? Kendrick Lamar finishes Untitled Unmastered with more questions than answers, grappling with being both successful and black in 21st century America. The smooth production on “Untitled 08” moves like a fast walk, as if Lamar takes a new avenue of thought with each street he turns down, only to come back to the same question. “Why so sad” he asks, unable to find someone, even himself, to fully blame for his melancholy. By the third verse, Lamar lambastes himself; “Your projects ain’t shit, I live in a hut, bitch”, wrestling with the privilege of his own problems in comparison to those living in third-world poverty. Yet Lamar recognizes the struggles he and many others like him faced in Compton still impacted their lives, regardless of how such struggles stack up against those suffered by others in the third-world. “Bitch I made my moves with shackled feet” is his closing statement, revealing that no matter what he feels he cannot change the factors he was born into. Who’s right and who’s wrong doesn’t really matter, because circumstance keeps us all walking in circles. — Mick Jacobs

Listen: “Untitled 08 | 09.06.2014.”

Anderson Paak Am I Wrong Best Songs 2016

14 

“Am I Wrong” by Anderson .Paak (feat. Schoolboy Q)

The best thing about “Am I Wrong” is that it’s so many things at once — pulsating euro lounge heater, old-school horn-addled disco throwback, blazing R&B and hip-hop joint — and it all combines into one hell of a party starter. It’s perfectly emblematic of Anderson .Paak’s polyglot approach to R&B music — a collection of palpable influences that coalesce into something wholly original and exuberant. Paak’s melodic gifts are on their fullest display on “Am I Wrong”, as his mellifluous speak-singing coasts over a warm bed of synths, flawlessly funky percussion, and a great sing-along collection of verses and choruses, plus a spit-fire breakdown courtesy of ScHoolboy Q. “I’m only coming out to play,” Anderson hedges, and it’s that ethos that makes the track so appealing. There’s been so much heaviness in 2016, and that heaviness tends to bleed into pop music. There’s nothing wrong with that, but as Paak and Q both know, our time is precious and sometimes you just wanna move your feet. If “Am I Wrong” doesn’t make that happen by its final delirious trumpet breakdown, nothing will. — Zach Bernstein

Listen: “Am I Wrong”

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13

“Wyclef Jean” by Young Thug (feat. Wyclef Jean)

Perhaps no rap album this year comes on stronger than Young Thug’s Jeffery, and opener “Wyclef Jean” is a major reason why. The first thing we hear when we press play is a reggae skank, suggesting Thug’s in tune with chart trends — Caribbean sounds are all over pop this year. We worry for a second Thugger might have sold his soul to the music machine. Then, his voice cannonballs into action, wailing about Franck Muller or Frankmusik or something, and we know exactly what we’re listening to: one of the most uncompromising stars of his generation moving seamlessly to pop with all idiosyncrasies intact. Though Thug’s beloved by millions of rap fans (and despised by millions more), he’s not quite the pop star he’s always threatened to become. “Wyclef” might not be clobbering the charts, but it’s made of pure star power. — Daniel Bromfield

Listen: “Wyclef Jean”

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12

“Angels” by Chance the Rapper

A few songs on Coloring Book could’ve taken this spot. “No Problem” with its surging gospel loop, say, or the wistful “Summer Friends”, or the gorgeous, patiently unfolding “Same Drugs” that says more about a faded relationship with its chorus than most artists do in a lifetime. But “Angels” is the concision of the album’s spirit; the one you can easily point to for anyone curious about Chance or his fantastic backup, with an uplift sorely lacking in a thoroughly depressing year. It’s one of those songs whose words took me forever to get a hold on, just because the arrangement is so intoxicating that it sweeps you up immediately. Gospel backing vocals — an album motif — are lovingly warbled in a way that disguises them as an organ, and the way the steel bells trigger the horn hook (only a trombone could deliver that satisfying a slide) is so cheerfully direct that it seems rare. No academic or social relevance here — just joy that sounds like joy. — Nathan Wisnicki

Listen: “Angels”

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11

“33 ‘GOD’” by Bon Iver

In the weeks leading to its release, Justin Vernon held a press conference to discuss 22, A Million, breaking down the process of recording, the sounds that inspired him, and the moment he almost scrapped the record. The album, in Vernon’s words, is defined by “explosiveness and shouting more.” “33 ‘God‘” in many ways, captures the crux of this new direction. There’s an air of cross-pollination to it, notably from James Blake and Kanye West. At the beginning of the year, chopped vocal samples, helium pitch-shifting and an industrial sputter would have been on the low-probability end of things you would have expected from a new Bon Iver song.

The emphasis on experimentation and unusual structure obscures what is, skeletally, a straightforward song about doubt and articles of faith. There’s no chorus to speak of, and instruments clash with unprecedented force. On the other hand, you can imagine a stripped down acoustic version with untouched vocals working on the strength of the melodies. Some of the lyrics are precise (“I find God and religion too/Staying at the Ace Hotel”), others inscrutable (“The foreman is down/We’re rising the stairs”), effectively negotiating the polarity between deeply personal turmoil and arty abstractions.

Despite some recurring ticks and (of course) Vernon’s voice, these new songs make it abundantly clear that this project has grown far beyond its folk roots, with no discernible trajectory. Bon Iver doesn't emerge often enough for us to be able to dissect trends or ongoing patterns anyways. We can plot where we are, but the lack of continuity essentially assures us that each record will be a snapshot. “33 ‘God” may serve as 22’s focal point, but it’s not a prognosticator. It’s just a gorgeous amalgam. — Brendan Frank

Listen: “33 ‘GOD’”

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10

“Nights” by Frank Ocean

Blonde will forever be one of those albums you’re theoretically happy to discuss, even if you’re realistically never prepared to. Frank Ocean’s triumphant third LP is an exercise in inference—the album covers an entire life’s worth of experience using deeply personal source material, inside references and heady allusions—which makes tracking an intangible emotional pathway through the album’s more tangible musical shifts (and then actually relating to that pathway) incredibly challenging at certain points.

That’s why tracks like “Nights” come in so handy.

If Blonde were a road trip, “Nights” would be the roadmap you forgot you packed until halfway through the drive. It gleefully clarifies the emotion built into every track that comes before it (falling in love on “Ivy”, clubbing on acid on “Solo”), and it woefully portends the real-life comedown imbued in every track that comes after it (romantic ire on “Close to You”, emotional despondence on “White Ferrari”). And given that the majority of Blonde deviates from a traditional sonic structure, “Nights” also serves as the album’s most grounded and most relatable moment. From start to finish, the track is marvelous, blending a cohesive skip-along beat, an unavoidably catchy hook, and layers upon layers of crisp melody. Lyrics like “New beginnings! Wake up, the sun’s going down / Time to start your day, bruh,” might seem dreadful on paper, but “Nights” does well to make contextual sorrow sound naturally conversational—appealing, even. I’ve never felt more connected to something I know nothing about.

But “Nights”’ greatest achievement isn’t its relatability or in its catchiness. It’s the track’s ability to plot Blonde’s movement as an album that makes it such a critical addition. The first half of “Nights” is upbeat, definitive and robust. The second half is languid and ethereal. The first half bounces. The second half crawls. This is a small-scale summary of Blonde from top to bottom: From its most manic to its most depressed, this is what heartbreak sounds like. Frank Ocean, per always, nails it flawlessly. — Austin Reed

Listen: “Nights”

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09 

“Hold Up” by Beyoncé

Leave it to Beyoncé to bring the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Soulja Boy together on the same song. When Lemonade’s full list of songwriting credits came out, “Hold Up” held the most surprises, which is saying something for a mainstream pop record that samples Led Zeppelin and prominently features James Blake. 

Born from an Ezra Koenig tweet and a Diplo demo, “Hold Up” grew from an ironic play on “Maps” into the brightest ray of sunshine on Lemonade. In the song’s segment of the HBO film, Beyoncé practically floats down the street in her yellow gown to a contagious calypso beat. Then, when she sings, “Know that I kept it sexy, you know I kept it fun,” she smashes a car window with a baseball bat. Here more than anywhere else, “Hold Up” turns pain into joy. Is it the sexiest song on Lemonade? Hard to say—there’s stiff competition in that category. But it’s certainly the most fun. “What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?” she wonders. Thank God she’d rather be crazy. — Colin Groundwater

Listen: “Hold Up”

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08

“True Love Waits” by Radiohead

First played in Brussels in 1995, then not again for five years, then released on a live record, then played sporadically on the following tours, then not once played for a full decade, save some Thom Yorke solo performances, then appearing at the end of the year’s most somber, most exquisite, most realized record, saying a studio recording of True Love Waits was heavily anticipated is an understatement. Most fans had given up on the idea after In Rainbows.

You get it though, right? The record is about the two things that are most effected by the moon — a person and a planet. In this case, Thom’s ex and the earth. The earth is one giant moon shaped pool. The tides control the water. As Thom watches the ice at the poles melt, he writes semi-veiled protest songs. As Thom watches a woman walk away, he writes some of the best sentiments of his career. And one of the songs that he wrote a long, long time ago finally makes sense.

True Love Waits then, is a tragic song. Not because of its descending melody, or because it sounds like the piano is being played by the rain, but because she left. Did Thom write this in 2016 and take a time machine back to 1995 to see if this song could be the difference in her staying or going? I guess it doesn’t matter, we aren’t living, we are just killing time. — Landon MacDonald

Listen: “True Love Waits”

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07

“Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1”  by Kanye West (feat. Kid Cudi and Kelly Price)

There are lots of reasons to approach The Life of Pablo with zero certainty. Its cadence is disjointed and confounding. The cover art looks victimized by a printer jam. The album changed names three different times. Pablo is sheer brilliance in infinite ways, but to call it a sure bet would be silly. Because this is Kanye West, man. Surprise detours abound.

Among those detours—probably the coolest one—occurs within the album’s first six minutes. “Ultralight Beam” might be the first track on Pablo, but its emotional heft is simply too laborious to be just an album opener. It’s more of a one-off preliminary vignette. Like those animated shorts that show up before a Pixar feature-length. Sort of.

But this is a convenient way to approach Pablo, because “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” already operates like a better-than-average album opener. It phases out of the gospel roots imbued in “Beam” with slick production finesse. It showcases how ingrained his collaborators are in the Pablo DNA. And most importantly, the hook is the catchiest thing I’ve heard all year. “Beautiful morning / You’re the sun in my morning, babe,” Scott Mescudi croons behind a shower curtain of crisp production via Young Metro. Kid Cudi has never shied away from earworm guest spots, but fuck. This might be his best ever.

Never mind the bleached asshole assessment. Straight-up. Just get past it. We’ve talked all year about how absurd these lyrics are, and yes: This might be the most repulsive of them all. But any student of Yeezus knows that the lyrics are incredibly part-and-parcel to the holistic vision. And the holistic vision on “Father Pt. 1,” is breathtakingly vast. — Austin Reed

Listen: “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1”

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06

“Cranes in the Sky” by Solange

Artist Simone Leigh recently told The New York Times that caring for the black body “feels like an emergency”. Her latest exhibition, The Waiting Room, explores the notion of holistic care, both physically and spiritually, as an act of “disobedience, desire, and self-determination.” This concept contributes to the idea that “self-preservation…is in itself an act of warfare,” radically opposed to the mentality that patience or pragmatism will provide the needed cure. “If you can’t be a human being in public,” Leigh says, “you take it to a private space.”

And other artists, like Solange Knowles, refuse to suffer in private anymore. With A Seat At The Table, she asserts her place in the discourse by revealing her experience and perspective to the world. As issues, institutionalized racism, cultural appropriation, and police brutality still weigh heavy upon American culture, Knowles emerged as one of many musicians who brought exposure to these issues by making their impact personal.

Nowhere is she more exposed than catharsis of “Cranes In The Sky”, where Knowles shines a light upon her silence to find out what it’s cost her. Against a slow drum and strings that herald an overcast sky, “Cranes” wades through a fog of Knowles’ anxiety and exhaustion from being a woman, being in love, and being black.

These all weigh upon her voice, which makes a passionate fight for lift-off in the chorus. Though the cranes literally referenced are made of steel instead of paper, Knowles’ wordplay constructs layers as intricately as origami to convey numerous ideas and emotions. And as she folds each one, her voice gains strength; expression becomes salvation. — Mick Jacobs

Listen: “Cranes in the Sky”

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05

“Your Best American Girl” by Mitski

There’s an odd culture of obfuscation in indie rock, where artists tend toward expressing things in abstract, metaphorical terms instead of coming right out and saying what they mean. It’s not an inherently bad thing, and there’s precedent for this trend (Neutral Milk Hotel probably did it the best back in the 90s), but it’s always impressive when an indie rock artist is willing to lay it all on the table. It’s nothing short of a miracle when an artist is able to sing about their specific personal experiences and somehow divulge universal truths in the process. 

With “Your Best American Girl”, Mitski joins the pantheon of these small miracles. On its surface a quick ballad about a hopeless cross-cultural romance (Mitski was raised in America by Japanese parents), the song’s honest and mournful lyrics end up resonating more powerfully than any amount of philosophizing could. Different parts of the song will mean different things to different people, but personally, I can’t get over the opening of the beautifully explosive chorus (“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/But I do, I think I do”), which simultaneously simplifies her own personal dilemma and speaks volumes about the general experience of transitioning to adulthood. Mitski is a lyrical force to be reckoned with, she can craft a great melody, and she sings better than almost all of her contemporaries—and she dares you to say otherwise. — Luke Fowler

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04

“Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest

Will Toledo performs something like a quadruple back handspring on “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”. Just as an expert gymnast would execute such a physical feat with the ease we, mere mortals, do when striding down the sidewalk, Toledo sticks his complex sonic landing as if he were offhandedly humming an indelible tune. The seamlessness, the deceptive simplicity, of his achievement is breathtaking.

On “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, Car Seat Headrest wraps and folds multiple sketches of songs into an inseparable, powerful whole. Musically, it goes from lilting lo-fi strumming to Pavement-like garage rock to outright early-Weezer catharsis. Lyrically, it’s even more impressive. Toledo begins with self-loathing, pivots into PSA mode, and ends with grace. The song’s title seems random at first. But when you consider he’s juxtaposing vehicular homicide with the treatment of amusement-park orcas (a nod to the documentary Blackfish), and that an automobile cruising at 40 mph can be as life-shattering as a giant aquatic mammal, that incongruity starts to vanish.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” he wails (whales?) late in the song. And therein lies the singular sense of hope that connects his words to the crashing guitar noise that washes over us. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is a six-minute journey, from insular darkness to a burst of blinding light. — Peter Tabakis

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03

“Ultralight Beam” by Kanye West (feat. The-Dream, Kelly Price, Chance the Rapper, and Kirk Franklin)

On a record that lives on the endless fence between faith and futility that is post-modern society, Kanye calls upon the journey of the Apostle Paul. Featuring Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin on a song that is a medieval cathedral stuffed into five minutes and twenty-one seconds. The record kept changing, but one thing stayed the same — “Ultralight Beam”. Does the Chance feature overshadow Kanye? It doesn’t matter. Or maybe better — that’s the point.

Whether or not The Life of Pablo is the record you hoped for, or the gospel record you were promised, we can all agree that “Ultralight Beam” is a laser-focused conglomeration of impossibly memorable moments. There isn’t one gosh darned part you can’t tweet. When Kanye performed this song on SNL this year, it got off to a rough start, the autotune was a bit off and he wasn’t nailing the melodies in his hooks, but by the time Chance was out there, Kanye pulled at one of his in ear monitors, trying to pull it out to capture the fresh live sound of the moment.

Whether Kanye edits again or not is insignificant. He subscribes to this quote from Leonardo Di Vinci — “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I think the thing that would make Kanye happiest about this blurb is that I quoted Leonardo in his section. Maybe I should add in some Walt Disney and David Stern quotes. That would help too probably. There is an edit of Ultralight Beam actually, it dropped on some blogs in March, its called “Ultralight Prayer” and contains an extended version of Kirk Franklin’s prayer. He says the only place he feels safe is in the Father’s arms. Its beautiful and it would have made a perfect end to the record. Well, I guess there is still time for Kanye to change it and make it that way. — Landon MacDonald

Listen: “Ultralight Beam”

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02

“Lazarus” by David Bowie

“Lazarus” is not only the finest track on David Bowie’s farewell album Blackstar. It’s also a summation of a remarkable career and, when it was recorded, a future salve for mourning fans. Even if Bowie hadn’t died shortly after the release of Blackstar, “Lazarus” would have remained the album’s melodic, pulsating heart. It’s now taken a life of its own after his death.

Bowie peppered the song with clues. He looks at his beginnings, takes stock at his career, remarks at his triumph. But the specter of death hangs above him throughout. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,” he sighs. But release, and eternal peace, is within his grasp, moments away. “Oh, I’ll be free,” he sings victoriously, “just like that bluebird.”

And so David Bowie bridges “Lazarus” to the quintessential queer anthem of escape, “Over the Rainbow”. Ain’t that just like him to look skyward, toward eternal freedom? And also backward, nodding at the great ballad of being whisked away to Oz, a heaven of sorts? Dorothy woke from her adventure. Bowie shut his eyes, ended his mortal adventure, began a new one, and left behind a great gift. — Peter Tabakis

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01

“Formation” by Beyoncé

Taken out of context, “Formation” can seem like little more than a fierce, if well-deserved, brag from a superstar at the height of her powers. But when this banger arrives at the end of Lemonade, after all the domestic trauma and recovery, it takes on a different quality. The victim finally emerges the victor, taunting her lover with the prospect of a Red Lobster dinner if he can deliver the kind of sex she once described on “Partition”.

Of course, Beyoncé pulls back further and widens her scope on “Formation”. The song’s status as an anthem of black womanhood, so obvious on its remarkable music video, is right there in her lyrics. The physical (“I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”) and the cultural (“I got hot sauce in my bag”) are not only presented with pride, but as inseparable from her dominance.

It’s no coincidence that when Beyoncé sings, “OK, ladies, now let’s get in formation,” that last phrase sounds identical to “let’s get information.” “Formation” is a call to action, one that unites body (“in formation”) and mind (“information”). Yes, it’s a celebration of selfhood, a song of personal identity writ large. But it’s also a reminder that Beyoncé, a world-conquering artist, still sings in unison with her sisters in arms. — Peter Tabakis