No year in recent memory has brought with it as much turmoil and general fuckery as 2016. From the celebrity lives lost, to the spiraling of world events, to the dumpster fire that was the US presidential election, it seemed like this was the year that would never end. And of course it had to be a leap year too, extending our misery for an additional 24 hours. 2017 can’t get here soon enough.
In these twilight days of this lemon year, there are a few things to look back on with a collective twinkle in our eyes. One of those things was the music. It’s fitting in a year that seemed intent on beating us to a bloody pulp, musical artists seemed to push back with equal force. Pop icons belted out political anthems, former stars came charging back from relative obscurity to conquer the world again, and beloved stars sang their swan songs before leaving us forever. For better and worse (much worse), it was a year of greatness.
To honor that, here’s a look at the best songs to come out of our year of torture.
30. Panic! at the Disco – “Victorious”
Something strange happened to Brendan Urie after four albums and a revolving door of Panic! at the Disco lineups. He got good. On their fifth studio release, Urie tightens up the production and reigns in his more flamboyant tendencies to create a concept album with just the right amount of rock fundamentals, Broadway theatrics, and Freddie Mercury swagger. It’s the Panic! he was meant to be all along.
The album opener and first pop crossover for Urie in eight years, “Victorious,” brings this vision to life in vivid color. He satirizes the rock star excess and mini bar raiding that’s defined the pop music mill since Iggy Azalea got “Fancy.” “Tonight we are victorious! Champagne flowing over us,” chants a legion of teenie boppers just before getting plowed over by the heaviest guitar riff to thunder through a Panic! song this side of “The Only Difference…”. It would be annoying if it wasn’t so much darned fun.
29. Bruno Mars – “24K Magic”
Bruno Mars needs to just up and make a Michael Jackson cover album already. Having reaffirmed his funk roots eleven-fold with last year’s “Uptown Funk,” Mars wasted no time this year getting back into his element. He stormed out of the gate with this danceable number that owes most of its bling and electro-funk swagger to Off the Wall-era Michael, but that doesn’t mean it’s just derivative. His voice and lyrical dynamism are decidedly modern and the production never lets you forget that it is indeed 2016. This is the kind of 2016 we can live with. It makes you wish that the rest of the year had been just as bulletproof as this jam. “#Blessed.”
28. Lady Gaga – “A-YO”
Mother Monster tried something new this year, and not everyone was on board. The reviews for her stripped-down Joanne were middle-of-the-road at best with critics like Spin’s Rich Juzwiak calling it “as uneven as it is meticulously crafted.” I won’t argue the merits of the album as a whole, but the standout tracks are gems not just for the release, but her discography as a whole. “Perfect Illusion” left me – as well as many other fans – wanting more, and Gaga did just that. She busted out this dirty funk number live on SNL, battling guitar licks with Mark Ronson. Needless to say, I was sold. It’s a track that sounds like a B-side from the Black Keys’ Thickfreakness in the best possible way. It’s a reminder that Gaga is still Stefani Joanne Germanotta, musical prodigy as well as pop superstar.
27. Kenny Chesney and P!nk – “Setting the World on Fire”
When listing people who have properly captured the magic of being young and in love in Los Angeles, Damien Chazelle would probably be named long before that guy who wrote “She Thinks my Tractor’s Sexy.” But what has 2016 been if not a year of surprises? The lead single from his seventeenth studio album (yeah, you read that right) finds Kenny Chesney further from his comfort zone than I ever expected to see in this lifetime. Recruiting the help of perennial pop bad-girl P!nk, he traces a brief but heartfelt rendezvous of young lovers on La Cienega Boulevard, losing themselves in liquor, reckless abandon, and each other. It’s a love letter to the city after dark, which country hasn’t really gotten around to yet as preoccupied as it is with trucks, dirt roads, and millionaires pandering to lower-class whites. Yes, Kenny Chesney is also one of those millionaires, but his music still has the capacity to tap into the kind of youthful ennui that seems to escape the Blake Sheltons and Luke Bryans of the industry. More like this, please.
26. Desiigner – “Panda”
Like it or not, 2016 was the year of the “Panda.” More importantly, it was the year that the hip-hop establishment finally met its match from a brazen trap-clad mumble-rap newcomer. “Panda” is the embodiment of everything hip-hop purists can’t stand about the new wave of popular rap. Its lyrics are near indecipherable. It’s repetitive. It’s built mostly of references to drugs, guns, and material wealth.
Is it a good song? Debatable. But it crashed through the cloud of veteran trap headed by Future and Young Thug to become the most popular song in the country. Now millions of fans spout slews of gibberish approximating the lyrics anytime it comes blasting from the speakers. Respect given where respect is deserved. Now let’s get back to arguing on the internet over whether it is or isn’t rap music.
25. Blood Orange – “Best to You”
On the release of his Freetown Sound record earlier this year, Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) tweeted out that these songs are “an incomplete study of who I am, who I was and where I’m from while looking outwards at my peers.” If that’s true then “Best to You” is his mission statement, an earnest battle between keeping love in a relationship and holding onto his autonomy. It radiates yearning even while buoyed by a tinkling synth beat lifted straight from the 80’s. The longing is so subtle and yet so palpable, that you don’t realize how hard it hit you until the song is already over.
24. Kygo – “Stay (feat. Maty Noyse)”
More than most genres, the formula for writing a successful EDM song is uniform to point of tedium. To understand what I’m talking about, just take a look at what happens when you layer several Martin Garrix songs over one another. But for every Calvin Harris, there’s a Kygo, the type of DJ who uses electronic music more as a conduit than a check book. On his first LP Cloud Nine, the twenty-five-year-old Norway native stitches together a quilt of musical influences and a hoard of talent to create something more than your average club banger. His collab with newcomer Maty Noyse is closest to what could be called a traditional chill house jam, but the drop takes a surprise backseat to lyricism. Noyse strains as she recounts the struggle of choosing to exit a dying relationship or to stay to save her partner’s feelings. It’s these moments of depth that elevate Kygo above his peers.
23. Green Day – “Bang Bang”
The self-important bloat of 2012’s album trilogy should rightfully have been the final nail in Green Day’s casket and the death rattle of the punk anti-establishment. But whether by a shot of member berry juice or the widespread socio-political unrest of 2016, something awakened these American idiots with a bang. Or rather, a “Bang Bang.” Billie Joe and company pulled no punches on the lead single to Revolution Radio, nearly blowing their amps with raging ferocity. Written from the perspective of a mass shooter and the twisted psychology thereof, it’s as politically charged as anything found on their 2004 opus and three times as angry. Living in the world 2016 made for us, why wouldn’t they be
22. Lucius – “Born Again Teen”
If you were to ask Lucius drummer Andrew Burri, he would probably tell you that a “heartbeat like we’re only sixteen” sounds like the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun. But that seems to be the type of charged, unbridled youth that Brooklyn indie poppers intend to capture in this rattling cage of a teenage anthem. True to mirror-image form, frontwomen Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig spit lines back and forth, quivering with an almost animalistic excitement. It’s a madness that feels barely concealed during the verses before lashing out with adolescent fury. “My knees shake and my hair is raising, burning from this heat we’re making.” My formative years certainly weren’t this electrifying, but it’s fun to pretend they were.
21. DNCE – “Cake by the Ocean”
Say what you want about DNCE, at least they insist of injecting some honest-to-goodness musicianship into their brand of pop music. In an era when Top 40 has been reduced to a formula and churned out by producers with seven figure calling cards and golden ears, it’s somewhat reassuring to see someone attempting to make music the old-fashioned way, even if that person is a Jonas. The first we saw of DNCE was also their best, morphing a botched turn of phrase into the sexual euphemism we didn’t know we needed. Set against a funk beat that practically worships at the altar of David Bowie’s “Fame,” it gave us the beachside soundtrack to lift us out of our 2016 funk.
20. Against Me! – “Rebecca”
Every band eventually has to undertake the task of topping that one album that put them on top. For Laura Jane Grace, that meant following up not just a punk rock masterpiece, but a personal statement that signaled her coming out as a trans woman and the rocky terrain she then had to navigate. Having just read her memoir, I know that journey is far from over, but the music is still coming. As expected Shape Shift with Me is no Transgender Dysphoria Blues, but it’s the difference between creating art from a place of personal strife, and picking up the pieces afterward. It’s a good album with a lot of standouts, but none more so than this fast, furious, and blistering pop-punk thrasher that captures the emotional limbo of casual sex in a mere two and a half minutes. It’s the thrill of discovery in another person, wanting to be with them but being afraid of getting too close. “I don’t want to stand there next to you and pretend there’s something I don’t want to do,” she reasons before letting her lust get the better of her. “I just want to grab you by the skull, Rebecca, kiss me!” Much has been made of Grace and her uncommon journey, but songs like “Rebecca” showcase her talent in capturing universal emotion.
19. The Preatures – “I Know a Girl”
A lot of pro-feminist anthems tend to settle for blanket girl-power statements, but the lack of nuance isn’t lost on the Preatures’ Isabella Manfredi. With “I Know a Girl,” she recognizes that different women have a spectrum of motivations and desires that don’t necessarily intersect with one another. She celebrates that diversity even when it directly affects her. “I know a girl… she’s been sleeping with my boyfriend.” She could do anything (“kick her face in”), but she goes high, settling instead for sweet artistic revenge.
18. Scavenger Hunt – “Never Enough”
The LA electropop outfit has floated through the Sunset Strip club scene for a few years now, building on the underground success of tracks like “Dreamers” and “Wildfire” along with respective remixes from namechecking DJs. They’re still a distance from bursting into the mainstream, but their talent justifies the slow simmer they’ve cooked up. “Never Enough” is their best case for worldwide renown to date, melding the chillwave longing of “Dreamers” with the club-ready new wave of “Wildfire.” Too much Scavenger Hunt is still never enough.
17. Drake – “One Dance”
It isn’t the best Drake song, nor is it the most fun Drake song, and frankly it seems a bit out of character for a Drake song. But in a year fraught with as much strife as 2016, “One Dance” was the Drake song we deserved. The tinkling piano chords and fanciful dancehall beats transported us to a place far, far away where we could forget the crumbling of the world around us. Fitting then, that Billboard named it the Song of the Summer. They should have named it Song of the Year for how long it dominated the airwaves, not that I’m complaining.
16. Frank Ocean – “Pink + White”
“Pink + White” boasts a juggernaut of credits. Produced by Pharrell Williams and featuring Beyoncé on backing vocals, it’s the best bang for your buck that R&B could ask for. Disregarding its gold-plated origins though, it is also one of the more intimate moments on an already voyeuristic album. Ocean retells the experience of a relationship, reveling in the highs and gazing deep into the lows, attempting to relive his time with a person who is gone forever. It’s the most heartfelt moment from his excellent surprise album.
15. The Avett Brothers – “Ain’t No Man”
This trio of North Carolina siblings have seemed content to live in their carved-out niche of Americana folk pop for a decade and a half now. Nine albums into a successful, but undistinguished career they took somewhat of a left turn and stumbled into something great. Removing the pomp and circumstance from their self-satisfied formula, they plowed forward with nothing more than a baseline, a stomp-along beat, more positivity than you can shake a jar of sugar at. Those elements mesh into the best folk number of 2016 and another notch in producer Rick Reuben’s hitmaking headboard.
14. Judah & the Lion – “Take It All Back”
The title of these Nashville booze rockers’ third album is Folk Hop & Roll. Somehow that is the only thing that comes close to describing the musical conundrum of their breakthrough song “Take It All Back.” Set against a produced-to-death crowd cheer, a stripped-down banjo tune, and a dub beat so thick it has all of Jamaica green with envy, frontman Judah Akers shout-raps an ode to the band’s own weirdness. “The people they dancing along to the mando’ as some sort of hip-hop beat.” Even he lacks the insight to peg the grab bag of sounds that coalesce in “Take It All Back.” Yet somehow all the duct tape and mismatched jigsaws stitch together into one hell of a catchy Frankenstein’s monster.
13. Serena Ryder – “Got Your Number”
The Canadian songstress cut her teeth on giving an edge to the female singer-songwriter niche populated by the Ingrid Michaelson’s and Regina Spektor’s of the industry. “Got Your Number” may be her fiercest “fuck you” yet. Playing like a fast forwarded “Ex’s and Oh’s,” she cranks out line after line of venomous, sharp lyricism on self-empowerment. If only breaking up were really this much fun.
12. Norah Jones – “Carry On”
Where the heck has Norah Jones been all these years? Between Ted cameos and folk collaborations with Billie Joe Armstrong, it seems she’s finally saw fit to get back to owning the vocal jazz game. “Carry On” doesn’t push the boundaries of the underrepresented genre, nor does it present an opportunity for Jones to try something bold. It’s simply what she’s best at, a crooning adult contemporary ballad that provide an emotional hook for anyone reaching below the surface. As far as those constraints go, this is her best song since 2002.
11. J. Cole – “Change”
In selling 4 Your Eyez Only to me, a friend referred to the North Carolina rapper as “Kendrick Lamar-lite.” While I can see the comparison (especially in regard to their interest in jazz and 70’s soul), conflating the two artists doesn’t really seem fair. To Pimp a Butterfly leaned heavily on the push and pull between musical artistry and the constraints of the industry, while 4 Your Eyez Only is a candid autobiography.
Each track is a masterpiece in its own right, but as a flagship for the rest of the album, “Change” offers the most self-contained personal statement. In it Cole deals with the grand implications that a small internal change can have on the community at large. Through meditation and self-reflection, he poses, one can have a positive effect on the destructive cycle of widespread institutional racism that plagues the Black community today. In order to make a meaningful change, you must first look inward and broaden your own perspective. Who says socially conscious rap has left the mainstream?
10. The 1975 – “She’s American”
I Like It When You Sleep… found its way onto many “Best of the Year” lists, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. The 1975’s sophomore album contains many standout moments, but it nevertheless fails as a piece of cohesive art. It tries too hard to be profound, poppy, musically pioneering, and emotionally candid in separate but equal measure. The result is a bit of a scattershot mess with a slog of ballads that causes the middle section to droop.
Those gripes aside, the Manchester imports still managed to give us more than a few reasons to dance this year, and none stand out more than this love letter to their American fans. It’s not as upbeat as the sugarcoated cocaine line of “Girls,” but it trades that overearnestness for a dose of melancholic nostalgia. It’s a look and a smile into the past, suggesting a fleeting romance that will never be forgotten. Hopefully that is really how they feel about us when they return to England.
9. Bishop Briggs – “River”
Leave it to a Brit to be more in tune with Deep South bayou blues than the weary Southern rockers that continue to carry the standard. With her debut single, London songstress Bishop Briggs (changed from the perfunctory Bishop earlier this year following an injunction by a hard rock band of the same name) lays down the swampiest of etudes. Layering a raw, lonesome electric guitar over a soapbox stomp, her voice wails with a sorrow far deeper than her mere twenty-four years should allow. It’s a fiery showcase for her burgeoning talent that comes even further to life on stage (trust me).
8. blink-182 – “Sober”
If you would have told me at the start of the year that blink-182 would be leaving 2016 with a number one album and a Grammy nod for Rock Album of the Year, I would probably have laughed in your face and set fire to your car, yet here we are. California was a welcome return to form for the pop-punk forefathers, especially considering the loss of founding member Tom DeLonge. It’s a bloated work to be sure, but the hits are plentiful.
None stand out more than this songwriting collab with Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump. On first listen it sounds the most immediately tailored for pop radio, but contains some of the trios most touchingly candid moments to date. Recalling the more introspective spots of their career like “Adam’s Song” and “I Miss You,” “Sober” finds Mark Hoppus and the gang reflecting on the haze of reckless youth. Buoyed by a nostalgic shimmer of piano, they wax lyrical about a ruined relationship though they can’t place what went wrong. Only time can sober you up long enough to see the red flags.
7. Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam”
Every generation has its tortured genius. From Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath to Kurt Cobain, some of our greatest talent is also our most troubled. Likening Kanye to the greats may not do much to stymy his ballooning ego, but the man is nevertheless an unquestionable visionary.
2016 also seemed like the year that would break him. From the various public breakdowns (some in concert) to hospitalization, to his association with bad influences, he always seemed to be on the verge of losing it entirely. The Life of Pablo may have been the cause. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus set a dangerous precedent of ambition for Kanye that seemed to weigh on him like Atlas’ globe. Even J. Cole called out his growing obsession with surpassing his own successes over just going out and making art on his own terms. It’s such a crippling conundrum that Kanye couldn’t stop working on Pablo, even after its release.
Whether or not it lived up to his or anyone’s expectations in the end is neither here nor there, but at least the sprawling project yielded one of the year’s most calculated and haunting songs. Co-written by Chance the Rapper, who also steals the show with his verse, Kanye rhymes over lumbering synths and a weary trumpet line about his relentless need to do better. It’s almost a cry for help, an acknowledgment that the bar set for him by an ever-hungry public and his own warped ego is starting to break him down. It would be unfair not to include the end result on this list, but doing so is probably additional fuel to his self-destruction. It’s a paradox.
6. Solange – “Cranes in the Sky”
In terms of self-affirmation, perhaps no song in 2016 was as hauntingly beautiful as “Cranes in the Sky.” Whether viewed on the personal level of catharsis through accepting oneself or through the empowerment of black voices being heard, her stripped-down anthem works on all levels. A simple drum beat and flux of ambient strings set a cloudy scene that she disperses with her passionate vocals. She fights off the ache of loneliness, dispelling the myths of healing through meaningless sex, material over-indulgence, and workaholism, declaring that her voice is her own salvation. Though the cranes referenced in the song are made of steel, her wordplay and the flittering of backing vocals transform them like origami to convey a many-sided figure of ideas and emotion. With each fold, her voice grows stronger. It’s salvation through expression.
5. Chance the Rapper – “Blessings (Reprise)”
There are two songs on Chance’s game-changing mixtape called “Blessings,” but it’s the reprise that takes the cake. Backed by a choir stuffed to bursting with rising hip-hop talent, the Chicago wunderkind takes a moment to step down from his pedestal and level with his audience. He breaks down his intent like a beat poet, spitting rhymes over the crooning of his peers like a turtlenecked ingénue at open mic night. But instead of coming off like a boastful MC trying to outdo the rapper in the next studio, it’s a moment of genuine vulnerability. He doesn’t give it enough time to sink under its own weight either, brightening his musings with the occasional chuckle. Chance loves his art and that positivity comes through in every stanza.
Those who still watch late night television might have caught his showstopping performance on Fallon earlier this year. With the blockbusting assembly of Anthony Hamilton, Raury, Ty Dolla Sign, and D.R.A.M. (not to mention Donnie Trumpet doing what he does best), Chance could have easily fallen back on their laurels. But somehow he managed to use their formidable talents as a mere backdrop to his own showcase. It seems to be a recurring theme that he’s the best part anything he’s involved in (looking at you, “Ultralight Beam”). And the fact that he’s only twenty-three makes that fact even more staggering.
4. July Talk – “Push + Pull”
Ever wonder what a supergroup between Ellie Goulding and Tom Waits would sound like? These blues punks from Toronto have certainly taken a stab at it. Far from getting lost in the dissonance of two worlds clashing, lead singers Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fray use their differences to weave together something unique and undeniably sexy. They trade vocals with a lecherous electricity, Dreimanis with his gravelly sneer and Fray with a sugary chirrup. Listening to their chemistry boil over is enough to make you loosen your collar from the heat.
Fittingly enough, this give and take is best captured on the lead single of Touch. Taking their musical tango literally, “Push + Pull” delves into the nuances of a couple in constant flux between desire and devotion. Both want to maintain their autonomy while giving themselves to each other, and of course this tension—like their chemistry—boils over.
Even the music itself revels in this union of oil and water, shifting between a hip-swaying disco beat and the wail of grunge guitar. None of it should work, but it all does.
3. David Bowie – “Lazarus”
A lot of posturing has been done about whether or not Bowie meant Blackstar to be his swan song, but of all the masterful moments on the album, none make a stronger case than “Lazarus”. Watching the music video post-mortum was an exercise in masochism. While singing his own elegy, Ziggy unfolded a set of chilling imagery. He performed blindfolded in a hospital bed before retreating to a dark wardrobe and drawing the Tree of Life (for starters). All signs point to his foreknowledge of impending death.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Through this melancholic jazz-rock number, he helped us come to terms with his terrible loss. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” the song opens. It’s a haunting premonition, but also a reminder that everything will be alright in the end. Though we lost a great many talents this year, his own included, their contributions remain with us and powerfully so. “Lazarus” was a fitting farewell from a one-of-a-kind artist. The fact that he put forth the time and energy to say goodbye at all is a blessing in itself.
2. Kaleo – “Way Down We Go”
Judging from declining singles sales and its virtual absence from the charts this year, 2016 seemed to finally be the perfect moment to call the time of death for rock and roll. That is if you don’t count the zombie wail of this Icelandic four piece. These guys seemed to rise from the rubble of rock music unfazed and unscathed, ready to conquer the world. Their debut album A/B sounds like a work out of time, as if it shot through a wormhole in some basement club circa 1969 and landed on iTunes. However they ended up on pop radio’s radar, it’s a freakin’ blessing they did.
Their monster of a debut single is a slice of good old downhome blues rock punctuated by searing vocals that give classic Fogerty a run for his money. A swell of melancholic piano chords and an addicting, swampy mess of a guitar solo instantly beg you to shake the dust off that old record player and indulge in music the old-fashioned way. But it’s more than a wistful look into a dying way of life. Kaleo bring a youthful, vigorous energy to the table that is decidedly current (and already has some Top 40 jockies giving them a spin). They’re living proof that unfiltered artistry and musicianship can still be bankable. More importantly, they’re a reminder of what rock music used to and still can be. Fun, emotional, introspective, and a reason to knock back a few good bourbons.
1. Beyoncé – “Formation”
Can you think of another song this year that achieved instant classic status as readily as this first peek at Queen Bey’s magnum opus? Dropped the day before the Super Bowl and cemented into public consciousness at her ensuing blockbuster of her performance, it devoured the world like the colossus it is. “Formation” is pop music politicized, invigorated, expounded to the literal extent of what it can be. It’s a black lives manifesto, a pro-feminist call to action, and the most potent ode to self since Walt Whitman penned “Song to Myself.” No song is truly all things to all people, but in this horrid blunder of a year, “Formation” came pretty damn close.
Even then, it was only the tip of the iceberg. It was the opening statement of one of this generation’s most profound works of art. Even after such a distinguished career, Lemonade touched down like Air Force One. It yanked us away from the Spotify flavor of the week and scolded us for indulging in what we thought passed for music. Honestly, this is Beyoncé we’re talking about. She could have released another scoop of assembly line club bangers and we would have eaten that up, but what we got was nothing short of genius. Whether or not it was really a peephole into Jay-Z’s infidelity, its merger of universal truth and artistry was unrivaled. Bow down before the Queen.
Did we miss anything? Let us know your favorite songs of the year in the comments below.
Tags : 2016, Against Me!, best, Beyonce, Bishop Briggs, blink-182, Blood Orange, Bruno Mars, Chance the Rapper, David Bowie, Desiigner, DNCE, drake, Frank Ocean, Green Day, J. Cole, Judah & the Lion, July Talk, Kaleo, Kanye West, Kenny Chesney, Kygo, lady gaga, list, Lucius, Maty Noyse, music, New Year, Norah Jones, Panic! at the Disco, Pink, Scavenger Hunt, Serena Ryder, Solange, Songs, the 1975, The Avett Brothers, The Preatures