Best Songs of 2016


When life is terrible, music is always there as a buoy to hold you up or a companion to understand you. It can provide encouragement, escape, respite, validation, catharsis. And man, we needed it in 2016.

The year’s music, as it always does, took all shapes and sizes. We welcomed back the beloved (Radiohead, Bon Iver), became acquainted with genre-bending stars-in-the-making (Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada), and entrusted indie rock in the hands of promising young storytellers (Car Seat Headrest, Pinegrove). The very top of the rap food chain graced us with new tracks (Kanye West, Drake, Kendrick Lamar), as well as up-and-coming rappers coming to take their throne (Chance the Rapper, Joey Purp, Kamaiyah, YG, Rae Sremmurd). Knowles sisters dazzled (Beyoncé, Solange), pop stars sizzled (Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Ariana Grande), and recluses reemerged (Frank Ocean, The Avalanches). Rock is not dead, whether you want your proof in classic form (Whitney, Steve Gunn, Angel Olsen), pop form (Chairlift, Japanese Breakfast), or rip-roaring riff form (Sheer Mag, Bent Shapes). And iconic, legendary artists bid their last, brilliant farewells (David Bowie, A Tribe Called Quest). Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, these songs from 2016 will probably remind me of pain, but I think those feelings of pain will be accompanied by the good memories that filled the cracks this year.

D-Brad’s Best Songs of 2016: Spotify Playlist
D-Brad’s Best Songs of 2016: YouTube Playlist

I hope the songs on this list either made a lasting impact on you this year, or that they will in the coming year as you check them out. I love celebrating good music and sharing in that celebration, so please comment freely about songs you love (or don’t love) and let’s talk about it.

One thing of note: I’ve been doing these ‘Best Songs’ lists for 10 years now. My first installment was in 2006, when the top song went to “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, a choice that I still stand by. So, happy 10th anniversary!

Also, for the second year in a row, my wife Taylor has provided some superb cover art. There are a lot of hidden gems relating to the year in music, so spend some time with it and check it out.

It’s always a constant struggle to keep these lists to 50, so here are 15 songs that barely missed the cut:

Honorable Mentions
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam: “A 1000 Times”
Chairlift: “Moth to the Flame”
Mothers: “It Hurts Until It Doesn’t”
Whitney: “No Matter Where We Go”
Conor Oberst: “Barbary Coast (Later)”
M83: “Go! (feat. Mai Lan)”
Kevin Morby: “I Have Been to the Mountain”
Majid Jordan: “Learn From Each Other”
Drake: “Controlla”
Sunflower Bean: “Come On”
Common: “Pyramids”
The Amazing: “Floating”
Alicia Keys feat. A$AP Rocky: “Blended Family (What You Do for Love)”
Nothing: “A.C.D. (Abcessive Compulsive Disorder)”
The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk: : “I Feel it Coming”

And now, here we go.


50. Angel Olsen: “Shut Up Kiss Me”

Angel Olsen was raised by foster parents who were considerably older than her, so she grew up interested in the music of the 1950s. Even though Olsen’s sound is clearly informed by ‘90s grunge (or ‘70s Neil Young + Crazy Horse, depending on who you ask), there is still a subtle ‘50s influence in her song structure. On “Shut Up Kiss Me,” a standout from Olsen’s excellent 2016 album My Woman, she lets the guitars rip, but you can still hear that old Elvis/Roy Orbison quality (her voice even sounds a bit like Roy Orbison’s). It’s pretty funny how Olsen addresses her partner in the song: “Shut up, kiss me, hold me tight.” She describes the track as “sort of tongue-in-cheek and kind of mean, kind of yell-y. But it’s also like ‘Hey, I care about you.’” She displays little patience for her partner wallowing in his insecurities, but wants to still show that she loves him, like when she sings “This heart still beats for you, why can’t you see?” and “Stop pretending I’m not there / When I’m not going anywhere.”


49. Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane: “Black Beatles”

“Black Beatles” was already a great song with a hypnotic beat, but it rose in popularity this year when it became the de facto soundtrack to everyone’s “Mannequin Challenge” videos. The song, in which Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee says he’s “rocking John Lennon lenses” and Slim Jxmmi (not a typo) says “me and Paul McCartney related,” reached its high point when Paul McCartney himself did a Mannequin Challenge to the song.


48. The Avalanches: “Colours”

In Stereogum’s review of the Avalanches long-awaited sophomore album, Wildflower, Chris DeVille points out the group’s knack for creating a “sensation of somehow simultaneously swimming and soaring.” After captivating the underground music community with their thrilling, unique debut Since I Left You in 2000, the Avalanches fell off the face of the earth for 16 years. They would occasionally tease a follow-up album, but nothing would ever come of it — until now. That swimming and soaring sensation is what makes the Avalanches so special, and the wait for Wildflower completely worth it. “Colours” is a vibrant smorgasbord of swirling sounds, floating in an out of focus, resulting in a song both stimulating and soothing. “Colours” demonstrates another quality unique to the Avalanches: their ability to make a song that can soundtrack a party as naturally as it can drift through your ears as you fall asleep. Unbelievably, counter to the Avalanches’ usual modus operandi, the track contains no samples, so the backmasked vocals and whirlwind of sound were all recorded by the group. The flutes, bells, strings, and airy vocals combine to form a kind of ice-cream truck psychedelia.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: June 2016)


47. James Blake feat. Bon Iver: “I Need a Forest Fire”

Sometimes songwriters excel at a particular aspect of a song’s creation. Some are masters of burrowing melodies, or complex rhythms, or compelling instrumentation. James Blake is a genius when it comes to establishing thick sonic atmospheres (and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver is not half bad himself). “I Need a Forest Fire” expertly exhibits this strength of his, enveloping the listener in a patchwork of sounds.


46. Andrew Bird: “Truth Lies Low”

Andrew Bird’s music suffers from “consistency syndrome,” which is a dumb term I just coined. He is completely incapable of releasing a bad (or even mediocre) album, but since he doesn’t necessarily defy expectations ever, we often take him for granted. Let it be known: Andrew Bird is a mastermind. His songwriting is always excellent, his voice is gorgeous, his skill with any number of random instruments is unparalleled. The song that caught my attention from his brilliant new album, Are You Serious, is called “Truth Lies Low.” It coasts on a syncopated, slightly distorted electric piano riff and settles into a cathartic groove. Along with Bird’s beautiful vocals, he punctuates the track with violin solos, a quiet but funky bass line, bright and plucky strings, and a sense of poise.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: April 2016)


45. Mayer Hawthorne: “Someone Like You”

Mayer Hawthorne, the retro soul devotee, has made a career of mining the depths of 1970s and ’80s funk. He already released a full-length album this year (Man About Town), but just followed it up last month with an EP called Party of One. Weirdly enough, the three-song EP is actually better than the full-length! On the opening track, “Someone Like You,” Hawthorne goes back to what he does best — his signature amalgamation of funk and soul, with a knowing look in his eye.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: November 2016 + October 2016)


44. Kaytranada feat. Craig David: “Got it Good”

Kaytranada, born Louis Kevin Celestin, is an electronic/soul/funk/hip-hop producer from Montreal by way of Haiti. He gained notoriety through a collection of Soundcloud uploads, leading up to his debut album, 99.9%. The line between R&B and house music is blurred on “Got it Good,” starring Craig David, a British R&B/electronic singer who enjoyed some fame in the early 2000’s. His silky smooth voice complements the sultry, psychedelic beat. Kaytranada is one of the most promising young producers out there, due to his ear for both nuance and catchiness in equal doses.

Preview below. For the full song on Spotify, click here.


43. Kendrick Lamar: “untitled 06 | 06.30.2014”

As if we needed any more confirmation that Kendrick Lamar was a genius. Less than a year after the release of To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick’s sprawling, challenging, bold masterpiece, LeBron James basically convinced Kendrick’s team to release the untitled tracks that he’s graced us with on various late night TV performances, from Colbert to Fallon. The result is an album aptly titled untitled unmastered, consisting of eight of Kendrick’s leftovers. The fact that these are considered “leftovers” is staggering. The musicianship, swagger, and bars are on point from top to bottom. There are plenty of high points, from the funky “untitled 8” to the bumping “Levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate” chorus on “untitled 7,” but my personal favorite is “untitled 6.” The production, done in part by Ali Shaheed Muhammed of A Tribe Called Quest, has a propulsive, jazzy beat, with a lot of snare rim hits, flutes, and bells. It wouldn’t sound out of place as the backbone to a late-60’s Van Morrison song. Cee-Lo features prominently on the track, providing crystalline melodies, singing the main hook (“I can explain / Let me explain!”) and other choice lines: “I’m bizarre, avant-garde / both sides of me are evenly odd.”

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: March 2016)

Preview below. For the full song on Spotify, click here.


42. Weezer: “California Kids”

We’ve gotten to a point where we judge Weezer too harshly. They were one of the most celebrated bands of the ’90s with their first two albums, the Blue Album and Pinkerton, but they slowly fell out of critics’ (and even some fans’) good graces as Rivers Cuomo opted instead for cheap hooks and obvious lyrics. While a lot of their decisions were unfortunate, they still cranked out fun, catchy songs. Their two most recent albums, 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End and this year’s White Album, both even echo the magic of their old stuff. The White Album may not be quite as inventive as the material from their earlier days, but the songs are plenty satisfying. “California Kids” has a melody that’s ready for summer, harmonies straight from the Beach Boys’ playbook, and most importantly, huge, fist-pumping, “Say It Ain’t So”-style guitar riffs. If you still haven’t forgiven Weezer for past transgressions, it’s time to open that cold heart of yours.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: April 2016)


41. A Tribe Called Quest: “Dis Generation”

Comeback albums are not supposed to be this satisfying. Or smooth, or cohesive, or playful (at times), or important (at other times). But somehow, A Tribe Called Quest pulled it off with panache. The Tribe got the whole gang back together for their newest album, We Got it From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammed, Jarobi, Consequence, and Busta Rhymes all make their mark on the album. It’s especially heartening to hear Phife Dawg throw down on his final album, before passing away after a long battle with diabetes this year.

“Dis Generation” immediately grabbed me with its catchy beat and the smooth verbal handoffs from each rapper. I always love a good sports reference, so I’m a fan of Phife following up Q-Tip boasting of their “handles” with the line, “Status Chris Paul and John Wall in the league.” The most buzzworth lyric comes when Q-Tip anoints the torch-carriers of the next generation of rappers, Joey Bada$$, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole: “Talk to Joey, Early, Kendrick, and Cole, gatekeepers of flow / They are extensions of instinctual soul / It’s the highest in commodity grade, and you could get it today.”

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: November 2016 + October 2016)

Preview below. For the full song on Spotify, click here.


40. Drake feat. Rihanna: “Too Good”

On “Too Good,” Drake teams up with Rihanna, reuniting the duo that brought us “What’s My Name”, “Take Care”, and this year’s inescapable “Work”. They have chemistry flowing out of their ears, bringing some much-needed vibrancy to Drake’s lackluster album VIEWS as they sing “I’m too good to you, I’m way too good to you / You take my love for granted, I just don’t understand it.” The lyrics by themselves makes it seem like they’re resigned to their fate of differing perceptions and expectations, but the way they sing it — tangoing together, fully engrossed by the beat — lets you know that they’re still hung up on each other. Whether Drake and Rihanna are playing a part, speaking the truth, or some of both, we’ll probably never know. The beat propelling them forward is a mix of Latin shuffle, understated modern R&B, and some touches of Beatles-esque backwards sound effects, if you can believe it. Everyone is working completely in tandem with one another, and it’s a beauty to behold.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: April 2016)

Preview below. For the full song on Spotify, click here.


39. Deakin: “Golden Chords”

Hot take alert: Animal Collective members on their own make better music than Animal Collective as a whole. The critically-acclaimed indie band is made up of four members who all record as solo projects, to varying degrees of notoriety — Noah Lennox (known as Panda Bear), David Portner (Avey Tare), Brian Weitz (Geologist), and Josh Dibb (Deakin). Dibb, the last one to go to solo, released the vastly underrated Sleep Cycle this year. “Golden Chords” is a pleasing distillation of Animal Collective’s brand of psychedelic folk. The centerpiece is a propulsive acoustic guitar line, accompanied by extremely muted but crucial drums.


38. Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein: “Kids”

Netflix’s original series Stranger Things, directed by the Duffer Brothers, has become the surprise TV hit of the summer. The series’ skyrocketing success can be attributed to many reasons, including but not limited to: the gripping plot, endearing kids, nuanced characters, Barb, 1980s/Spielberg callbacks, Steve Harrington’s hair, and — one of my favorite aspects, unsurprisingly — the music. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, members of the Austin electronic group S U R V I V E, channeled both ‘80s synth-infused pop and John Carpenter-style horror soundtracks to create the perfect score. The Stranger Things theme is obviously the most iconic song from the series, but my overwhelming favorite is “Kids,” which plays when we first meet the boys in Mike’s basement in Episode 1, as they leave after a lively Dungeons and Dragons campaign to ride their bikes home. “Kids” is brimming with possibility — a 2 minute and 38 second snippet that portends adventure to come.


37. Solange feat. Sampha: “Don’t Touch My Hair”

Beyoncé wasn’t the only Knowles family member to make her mark in 2016. Solange’s A Seat at the Table is a masterclass in nuance and subtle beauty, not to mention a thoughtful, illuminating examination of what it means to be a black woman in 2016. In a personal essay, Solange talks in the second person about the indignities faced by black women everyday: “You and your friends have been called the N word, been approached as prostitutes, and have had your hair touched in a predominantly white bar just around the corner… You know that people of colors’ ‘spaces’ are attacked every single day, but many will not be able to see it that way.” “Don’t Touch My Hair” is a statement of pride from Solange, as well as a line in the sand, affirming that her hair is an extension of herself and not there for others’ entertainment. Oh and also, the music is simply gorgeous.


36. Steve Gunn: “Full Moon Tide”

Steve Gunn makes music perfect for a road trip. Eyes on the Lines, Gunn’s latest release, is all about moving and going places. “Full Moon Tide” could have been a long lost track from 1970 — a blend of folk and classic rock played with confidence and ease.

Preview below. For the full song on Spotify, click here.


35. Francis and the Lights feat. Bon Iver & Kanye West: “Friends”

Sometimes when different spheres of friends collide, it’s awkward. And sometimes, you create life-affirming music. Francis Starlite, a Berkeley native and graduate of Berkeley High School, has been close to Justin Vernon of Bon Iver for a while, utilizing a lot of the same vocal processing techniques. Vernon and Kanye West have been buddies ever since Kanye invited him to his studio in Hawaii to collaborate with him on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The friends of friends become friends on “Friends.” Got it? The song slowly builds on its synth lines and multiple overlapping vocal lines to a satisfying climax. Though processed vocals often lead to emotional distance, the whole track is warm and inviting. The video is pretty transfixing as well — a one-shot long take complete with enthusiastic white-boy dancing and understated Kanye cameos.


34. Rihanna: “Needed Me”

“Needed Me” is considerably slower than your average Rihanna hit — it relies on a thick atmosphere of sounds drawing you in, rather than a catchy danceable beat. Music critic Chris DeVille of Stereogum noted that the song “doesn’t bang so much as heave.” The beat is a series of woozy sounds entering and exiting at seemingly haphazard times, blurring the beat in a fascinating way. Rihanna is at her most uncaringly caustic here, telling a man, “But baby, don’t get it twisted / You was just another —— on the hit list … Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?”


33. Frank Ocean: “Pink + White”

Frankie O finally made his return to center stage with Blonde, an album that burned slowly but purposefully. The whole album is very fulfilling, but it’s not as immediately appealing as channel ORANGE was. The vibe overall is quite different, but there was one song in particular that sounded like it could have emanated straight from the front half of channel ORANGE: “Pink + White.” The sprightly 6/8 beat and arpeggiated bass line would be a great soundtrack to prancing on a cloud (complete with literal chirping birds). Oh, the song also features an uncredited Beyoncé on background vocals. Sounds pretty heavenly to me.


32. Anderson .Paak: “Come Down”

The first I had ever heard of Oxnard-native Anderson .Paak was when he was featured on Dr. Dre’s comeback album last year. Paak’s output was prolific in 2016, releasing his solo breakthrough album Malibu in January, a hip-hop collaboration project with producer Knxwledge, and multiple noteworthy features on others’ work, including Kaytranada and A Tribe Called Quest. Paak, much like Kaytranada, is a genius at fusing genres together — in this case, a lot of funk, jazz, and hip-hop. “Come Down” is the funkiest track on Malibu, featuring an insanely catchy bass line, tightly wound drums, and enthusiastic vocals from Paak. Try to stay still while listening to “Come Down,” I dare you.


31. LIV: “Wings of Love”

LIV is a newly formed supergroup of sorts, comprised of Swedish indie pop heavyweights Lykke Li, members of Miike Snow, and members of Peter, Bjorn & John. Whenever so much disparate talent comes together for a new project, there’s a danger of the product sounding too overwrought — like there are too many cooks in the kitchen, to use a tired analogy. But LIV got it just right on their single, “Wings of Love.” The pop/folk rock track is so viscerally reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac, with a dash of ABBA thrown in. (Comparing them to ABBA could be seen as lazy on my part, since they share the same homeland as the members of LIV, but I heard ABBA in these vocals before I even knew LIV was Swedish!) Every fiber of “Wings of Love,” from the harmonies to the acoustic strums and electric guitar licks, feels like a ’70s radio hit. It’s transcendently lovely.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: September 2016)


30. YG feat. Drake & Kamaiyah: “Why You Always Hatin?”

YG takes pride in the fact that he’s come up through the L.A. rap scene without the ever-present SoCal stewardship of Dr. Dre. But ironically, no one has mastered and repurposed Dre’s pure, unadulterated g-funk better than YG. The beats are organic, simple, bass-heavy, and ooze Compton swagger. “Why You Always Hatin?” would fit right in on The Chronic. With help from both the ubiqitous Drake and the fresh up-and-coming Oakland rapper Kamaiyah, YG adds a new classic to the west coast gangsta rap canon.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: June 2016)


29. case/lang/veirs: “Atomic Number”

2016 was an excellent year for rap, R&B, and straight-up rock, but sometimes, a dose of good old-fashioned 2000’s-style indie folk hits the spot. case/lang/veirs is a collaboration between Neko Case (an acclaimed indie artist on her own as well as with the New Pornographers), k.d. lang (the extremely successful Canadian pop and country artist), and Laura Veirs (a folk musician based in Portland). Apparently the supergroup formed after lang sent an email that simply read “I think we should make a record together,” to which Case and Veirs affirmatively replied within 30 minutes. “Atomic Number” sounds like the work of a group that has been together for a long time. It’s a pensive folk tune with elegant harmonies and gorgeous interplay between strings and an acoustic guitar.


28. Japanese Breakfast: “Everybody Wants to Love You”

Michelle Zauner, the woman behind Japanese Breakfast, wrote and recorded most of the songs on her debut album Psychopomp in her bedroom, trying to break through a period of writer’s block. “Everybody Wants to Love You” is a doe-eyed, heart-on-sleeve plea for a lover — “Will you lend me your toothbrush, will you make me breakfast in bed?” The melody and instrumentation make for an impeccable pop showcase. And at a brisk 2 minutes and 12 seconds, the song is a beautiful rush of color and emotion.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: March 2016)


27. Kamaiyah: “How Does It Feel”

There’s a strain of rappers who seem to focus solely on how much money they have (I’m looking at you, JAY Z). It can get a bit tiring, especially when you can’t relate to the age-old adage, “mo’ money, mo’ problems.” Kamaiyah, an up-and-coming 24 year old rapper from East Oakland, grew up in poverty, coming up out of the foster care system. On “How Does it Feel,” she takes a beat full of pure West Coast swagger and meditates on the prospect of having enough money to enjoy life without financial concerns: “I’ve been broke all my life, now I wonder / How does it feel to be rich? / I done worked all my life, now I wonder / How does it feel to just live?”


26. Day Wave: “Deadbeat Girl”

Jackson Phillips, the Oakland native behind the moniker Day Wave, makes an exquisite type of blissed-out, wistful indie guitar pop that was all the rage about six years ago, but still hasn’t gone out of style in my mind. Phillips’s music has a way of transporting you to another place — it’s a fully immersive experience. The repeating guitar lines reel you in until that thrilling chorus hits. Phillips is an expert at bringing instruments in and out for maximum impact, and topping it with all with great melodies.


25. Beyoncé: “Formation”

Beyoncé keeps entering new stratospheres with each release. On Lemonade, she pushed and expanded her sound even farther and added yet another classic album to her repertoire. Lead single “Formation” was show-stopping immediately upon arrival — a banger with a marching band accompaniment and the fiercest bass line possible.


24. Bon Iver: “33 ‘GOD’”

In 2007, Justin Vernon first burst on the scene with his bare-bones, acoustic debut For Emma, Forever Ago, a record that I consider to be one of the best of the last decade. As has been told and re-told on many a music blog, he recorded the album in a secluded Wisconsin cabin during the dead of winter, and the exquisite, spare folk perfectly reflects the setting. It’s now been nine years, and Vernon has evolved significantly. His last album, 2011’s Bon Iver, employed much more instrumentation than For Ever, Forever Ago, while still conveying a similar feeling. But all signs point to a reinvention on his forthcoming third album, 22, A Million. The song that has impressed me most is “33 ‘GOD’”. It actually recalls the gorgeous, emotional songwriting on Vernon’s first two albums, but with his 2016 ear for experimental production flourishes. It’s odd, exciting, and devastatingly beautiful. It’s thick with every sound imaginable, often layered on top of each other like an impenitrable wall, but I swear I still hear a long-lost banjo from 2007 in there.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: August 2016 + July 2016)


23. Adam Olenius: “Wednesdays”

Adam Olenius has spent the last 15 years as the lead singer and guitarist for the severely underrated Swedish indie pop band, Shout Out Louds. On “Wednesdays,” one of the tracks on his first foray into solo work (an EP entitled Looking Forward to the New Me), Olenius gets into a contemplative groove. It makes you want to tap your toes, but probably not as much when you listen to the lyrics about leaving friends behind: “I’m ready now, take the weight off my shoulder / And call my friends, tell them what we had is over / Growing colder.”


22. Ariana Grande: “Into You”

The best pop music is exhilarating. Pop is at its absolute peak when it gets your heart and mind racing; when you can taste the excitement on the horizon. The best pop song of this decade so far, Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”, thoroughly captures this exhilaration. “Into You” goes after the same feeling, and succeeds tremendously. It’s not really a surprise, either. Max Martin, the pop-producing genius behind “Teenage Dream”, “Blank Space”, “Can’t Feel My Face”, and countless other hits, has also graced us with “Into You.” I don’t really endorse Ariana Grande’s donut-licking ways, but she sure knows how to surround herself with the best pop minds. “Into You,” with its sharp synth riffs, is what endless possibility sounds like. It’s invigorating.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: May 2016)


21. Pinegrove: “Size of the Moon”

Pinegrove’s music has a way of prompting you to consider life and appreciate the things around you. “Size of the Moon” appeals directly to your emotions, without taking any stops in between. I’m just completely blown away by the heights it reaches, with confessional, conversational lyrics that pierce you right during the musical climaxes. Throughout, we hear frontman and songwriter Evan Stephens Hall’s half of a conversation with a partner, trying to overcome a rough patch (“Would you like a drink while we wait for everything to get good again?”), nostalgic for a time when they danced together in the living room. Then the amplified chorus hits home: “I don’t know what I’m afraid of / But I’m afraid one day it will all fall away.” The second verse is even more affecting. Hall reminisces with his partner about another time in that same living room when they began to fight, but then started “laughing and crying in awe at the size of the moon.” “Size of the Moon” is a cathartic anthem from start to finish.


20. Maria Usbeck: “Moai Y Yo”

Maria Usbeck hails from Quito, Ecuador, but moved to the United States at the age of 17. After fronting a new wave band called the Selebrities and composing in English, Usbeck felt the urge to make music in her native Spanish. “Moai Y Yo” is light and breezy, built on a groove of countless percussion instruments: timbales, bongos, shakers, and Indian flat drums. The lyrics paint an impressionistic picture of finding a loved one: “Te encontré, te encontré / Por todos lados / Te busqué, te busqué / Entre mis brazos.”


19. Chance the Rapper feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz: “No Problem”

Chance the Rapper, the happiest man in hip-hop. Chance’s positive energy is infectious — I don’t normally choose to listen to gospel music, but the conviction and playfulness he brings to the gospel-rap on his album Coloring Book is difficult to dislike. The catchiest song of the bunch, and probably my song of the summer, is “No Problem.” Chance raps about evading the major labels on his way to success (he still doesn’t have any sort of record label contract) and makes it a full-on celebration. The bouncy beat buoys Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz’s verses as well, bringing a vibrance that permeates through the whole song. If you want to witness the vibrance in real time, check out their performance of “No Problem” on Ellen.


18. Sheer Mag: “Can’t Stop Fighting”

Rock critic Steven Hyden put it best when he said Sheer Mag “[elucidates] the myriad ways in which Thin Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’ can be integrated into the Go-Go’s ‘We Got The Beat’ in order to create new wondrous rock and roll songs.” “Can’t Stop Fighting” is a non-stop riff fest, combining equal parts garage, punk, arena rock, and pop. It’s tightly wound and perpetually ready to burst. And every instrument sounds so beautifully punchy. It’s the most satisfying rock n’ roll song of the year.


17. Joey Purp feat. Chance the Rapper: “Girls @”

This beat goooooes. Joey Purp dropped the most underrated project of the year, the mixtape iiiDrops, featuring “Girls @.” Purp is part of the same Chicago hip-hop collective (SaveMoney) as rising star Chance the Rapper, and has definitely made a name for himself with this latest release. “Girls @” is just as catchy as it gets. And Chance, who had a better 2016 than any of us, turns in yet another classic guest verse, asking where the girls at “reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, hummin’ SpottieOttieDope.”


16. A Tribe Called Quest: “We the People”

Since A Tribe Called Quest’s inception, the highlight has always been the verbal tango between the two frontmen, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. There’s absolutely nothing more pleasurable in the world of hip-hop than Tip and Phife’s chemistry together on the mic. On “We the People…”, Tip and Phife trade verses like the old days, but the subject matter is very current. The group directly addresses the intolerance that many groups of people face today, assuming the role of the oppressors with the chorus: “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways.”

While the subject remains consistent, the duo’s unique, dueling styles still come through. Q-Tip (the philosopher) brings up empty-headed reality shows, but instead of outright demeaning them, he points out their appeal: “VH1 has a show that you can waste your time with / Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality / And for a salary I’d probably do that s— sporadically.” And Phife (the everyman) is always good for some sports-related similes, going after the unprepared haters who are “like a AL pitcher on deck talking about he hittin’“, or how the Tribe at their best are “like Tony Romo when he hitting Witten.” I miss you, Phife.

(Paragraph adapted from )


15. Amber Coffman: “All to Myself”

One of the best elements of acclaimed indie band Dirty Projectors has been the angelic vocal contributions of Amber Coffman. She’s now going solo (with some production work from Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth), releasing the gorgeous “All to Myself.” Every instrument sounds crystal clear and Coffman’s harmonies are on point, as she sings about finding and thriving in her newfound state of independence.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: November 2016 + October 2016)


14. Radiohead: “Daydreaming”

On A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead return to form after 2011’s The King of Limbs, an album that had its moments, but overall was incredibly thin. “Daydreaming” glistens with a serene, but disquieting beauty — and really, is there anyone that does serene, disquieting beauty better than Radiohead? The piano, keyboard, and bass all march at slightly different time signatures, but cohere to form something gorgeous. Although it has plenty of pleasing sounds, make no mistake — this is a song about despair: “Dreamers, they never learn / Beyond the point of no return / Then it’s too late, the damage is done.” It all ends with singer Thom Yorke’s distorted voice saying something backwards: “Half of my life,” a reference to the dissolution of his 23-year relationship with his partner, which lasted half of his life.


13. Local Natives: “Dark Days”

In an indie rock genre saturated with cookie-cutter versions of the same band, Los Angeles band Local Natives have always stood out with their wide-eyed songs and incredible, unique gift for complex harmonies. “Dark Days” is a joyous, hopeful, exhilarating 3-minute slice of winsome pop. Vocals, both lead and background, have always been the band’s strong point, and “Dark Days” showcases their vocal talent with subtle beauty. Kelcey Ayer takes lead, sounding vulnerable as he sings about the dark days of summer, while the band harmonizes behind him. They bring on guest vocalist Nina Persson of The Cardigans (the band that brought you the smash ’90s hit “Lovefool”) to sing the second verse and duet with Ayer towards the end, complementing each other beautifully. “Dark Days” gets into a groove right from the beginning and never lets up — the hook is full of guitar flourishes and drum fills, all anchored by a simple, effective bass line. The whole song is just so catchy and well-executed.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: September 2016)


12. Bruno Mars: “24K Magic”

No pop star has pulled off a quicker and more complete 180-degree turn in my mind than Bruno Mars. I am not a fan at all of his first album, 2010’s Doo-Wops & Hooligans“Just the Way You Are” is a little too sweet, and “The Lazy Song” is flat-out terrible, sorry. But he dropped the sweetness and added a dash of swagger and soul on 2012’s Unorthodox Jukebox, headlined by the funk-pop of “Treasure” and the Police-pastiche of “Locked Out of Heaven”. My conversion was complete with the release of “Uptown Funk”, the most perfectly-constructed, toe-tapping, hip-swiveling, nostalgia-inducing pop song of the last 4 years.

When I first heard “24K Magic,” the lead single and title track of his new album, I was a little baffled, to be honest. It’s just an uncanny recreation of early ’80s funk, especially with that heavily synthesized bass. I thought it was maybe too uncanny. But every time the song came on (like when he performed it along with his hype men on Saturday Night Live), I enjoyed it more and more, and wanted to hear it again and again. It’s just way too fun and catchy to deny.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: November 2016 + October 2016)


11. Bent Shapes: “What We Do is Public”

Bent Shapes, a group from Boston, have taken a while to settle, changing their band name (formerly known as Girlfriends) and going through a few band member replacements. But apparently the turmoil hasn’t muddied the music in the slightest. “What We Do Is Public” gets me PUMPED. Sometimes, all you need is a burst of indie pop-punk energy to cut through the clutter. The track is brimming with hooks, sharp male-female harmonies, and amazing guitar-drum interplay. This was my favorite song to blast in the car over the summer.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: February 2016)


10. Car Seat Headrest: “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales”

The mastermind behind Car Seat Headrest, Will Toledo, has been making home-recorded music since 2010, but after almost 6 years, he’s finally getting some much-deserved attention. Last year’s Teens of Style was #17 on my Best Albums of 2015 list, but after listening to it a lot this year, I regret placing it so low. In retrospect, it was one of the 5 best albums of last year. Despite the record’s lo-fi, muddled production, Toledo’s songwriting ability and knack for melody still shone through. On this year’s Teens of Denial, Toledo was able to use a real recording studio, one of the perks of gaining some recognition.

Teens of Denial is a sprawling epic, jam-packed with songs within songs and ruminations on both the mundane and meaningful facets of life. The best song of the bunch is the hooky “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales,” a sobering song that compares drunk drivers to, you guessed it, killer whales, but it doesn’t do so in any kind of preachy way. Car Seat Headrest’s mastermind, Will Toledo, makes his own faults and rationalizations abundantly clear, but advocates listening to the voice in your head: “But you know he loves you, and he doesn’t mean to cause you pain. Please listen to him, it’s not too late. Turn off the engine, get out of the car, and start to walk.” The music itself is powerful — it’s pretty by-the-book indie rock, but so well-executed, paced perfectly, and with an excellent melody. Toledo’s voice is like a cross between Julian Casablancas of the Strokes and Ray Davies of the Kinks. With some people, you can instantly tell whether they have that certain songwriting “spark” — the spark that takes what could be “good” songs to “great, stay-in-your-head” type songs. Toledo has that spark.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: March 2016)


9. Kanye West feat. The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, & Chance the Rapper: “Ultralight Beam”

The Life of Pablo, Kanye West’s haphazardly amazing and simultaneously frustrating album opens with “Ultralight Beam,” a show-stopping piece of — and I’m not kidding — gospel music. It’s slow and steady with a lot of empty space, anchored by just a few crescendoing notes, periodically pierced by four emphatic bass and snare drum hits at the end of most of the 4-bar phrases. (By the way, I can’t stress enough how genius those groups of four drum hits are). After some random auto-tuned singing about praying for Paris and other things, Kanye mostly cedes the floor to his very talented featured guests. The-Dream croons the main hook, gospel singers Kirk Franklin and Kelly Price absolutely slay their verses (Price’s contribution is particularly impressive), and a gospel choir adds some earth-shattering embellishments.

But Chance the Rapper steals the show. The young, rapidly-rising rapper from Kanye’s hometown of Chicago tore through 2016 with abandon. Chance, who has looked up to Kanye since he was a kid, finally has the opportunity to feature on his idol’s newest album and he lives up to the challenge tremendously. His verse is packed with memorable lines: “My daughter look just like Sia, you can’t see her,” “I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail,” “Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard that there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet / This is my part, nobody else speak.” I also love when he throws in random bits of singing, like when he starts out with “When they come for you, I will shield your name / I will field their questions, I will feel your pain” and later, when he sings “This little light of mii-ine / Glory be to God, yeah.” But my absolute favorite part of the song is when Chance ramps it up, saying “Know what God said when he made the first rainbow / Just throw this at the end if I’m too late for the intro, UNNNNHHHHH!” The drums come back in after a bit of a break, the rhythm in Chance’s bars are infectious, and the “UNNNNHHHHH!” represents his utter joy of being there. He’s made it.

Kanye’s lyrical ability has faltered a lot since his earlier albums. He used to put a lot of thought into his verses, peppering them with humor and wit, but now it seems like he just says whatever random idea pops into his head first. That’s why Chance’s verse is so refreshing — it’s energetic, clever, funny, and full of life. But despite Kanye’s lyrical weakness, he is still unparalleled in his creative vision and the ability to execute that vision by bringing the most talented people together. “Ultralight Beam” is Exhibit A of that vision.

(Note: My favorite live performance video of 2016 was their rendition of “Ultralight Beam” on SNL. For the full list, click here.)

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: February 2016)


8. Pinegrove: “Old Friends”

Pinegrove has cast a spell over me. A lot of bands have that power over me, but this time it’s more surprising. The group, led by 27-year-old Evan Stephens Hall of Montclair, NJ, somehow combines indie rock, emo, and roots/country music into a singular, focused sound, and it works. It doesn’t work in a “novelty” sort of way either — their sound feels natural, warm, lived-in. Hall’s storytelling strikes a balance between situationally specific and general in a way that is instantly relatable. On “Old Friends,” Hall ponders his past friendships and reflects on his own role in letting them diminish. The death and funeral of one of his old friends helps him realize that he hasn’t made enough time for the people he used to feel connected to. But the song’s tone is not depressing, far from it. It’s self-evaluating, affirming, and ultimately hopeful. It gives me chills when he realizes the value of those that are close to him: “I should call my parents when I think of them / I should tell my friends when I love them.”


7. Miguel: “Waves (Tame Impala Remix)”

I don’t get outright obsessed with songs very often. That may seem hard to believe, but it’s true. Even when I truly love a song to my core, it’s rare that I feel the need to endlessly play it on repeat. The Tame Impala remix of Miguel’s “waves” is a glowing exception. Miguel and Tame Impala are not only two of my favorite current artists, but they both had big breakout years in 2015. They both pushed toward each other’s worlds with their latest albums, past the boundaries of their respective “genres.” Miguel is known as an R&B/pop singer but I wouldn’t argue if you called last year’s Wildheart a rock album, while Tame Impala, the “rock band,” experimented with pop and funk on Currents.

So, it turns out Tame Impala is actually a natural fit for a Miguel remix. The original version of “waves” is amazing in and of itself, easily one of my 5 favorite Miguel tracks. But Kevin Parker, the wizard behind Tame Impala, gives it a little more “oomph.” The opening harmonies, which sound like they were ripped from a sun-soaked Beach Boys cut, give way to Tame Impala’s signature brand of woozy, gauzy psych rock. This seamless Miguel/Tame Impala combination hits my sweet spot dead on — so much so that I used it to soundtrack a video of my family’s summer vacation, which you can enjoy below.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: February 2016)


6. Frank Ocean: “Self Control”

Two days after releasing a “visual album” called Endless (a project largely full of vignettes and a smattering of really good, but also really short ideas), Frank Ocean released Blonde, his proper follow-up to channel ORANGE. As a whole, Blonde floats along with less immediacy and fewer hooks than channel ORANGE, but it washes over you with ambient moments of unadulterated beauty, punctuated by bursts of brilliance. “Self Control” can be classified as one of those “bursts.”

On “Self Control,” Ocean opens with a jarring chipmunk effect on his voice before going into his gorgeous, raw croon over a rhythmic electric guitar groove. Ocean’s ability to create a thick, fully realized atmosphere in the studio is enough to put him in the upper echelon of songwriters, but then he has that extraordinary voice to top it off. He’s a talented dude. The song then gives way to an absolutely stunning chorus of Franks singing “I, I, I know you gotta leave, leave, leave.” It’s one of those musical moments that makes you stop in your tracks and pause to take in the beauty.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: August 2016 + July 2016)


5. Whitney: “No Woman”

The best feeling is having no expectations and then discovering a song that blows you away. “No Woman” by Whitney did that for me. Whitney are from Chicago in 2016, but they would be totally at home in Southern California in 1970. “No Woman” sounds like a more lilting, laid-back “Ventura Highway” by America, or a cousin of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze”. The throwback sound makes sense when you learn that it was produced by Jonathan Rado, a true 60’s enthusiast as a part of Foxygen. Everything sounds great, from the jumping bass to the acoustic chords and electric frills, from the strings to the horns, from the understated percussion to the thin (even with double-tracking) but beautifully yearning vocals. There are so many pieces and instruments, but at no point does it sound like too much. They add and subtract instruments at just the right time.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: January 2016 + Five Great Bowie Moments)


4. Beyoncé: “All Night”

Lemonade took the world by storm upon its release for a lot of reasons. It’s BEYONCÉ, for one. It’s also really freaking good. But there was also quite a reaction to the subject matter, which suggests unfaithfulness from her husband, Jay Z. Lemonade takes us through the stages of realizing and then dealing with a partner’s infidelity — those stages were best described by the title sequences before each song in the extended Lemonade music video: intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, accountability, reformation, forgiveness, resurrection, hope, and redemption. “All Night” comes at the end — it represents “redemption.” Beyoncé doesn’t white-wash her partner’s sins or the pain he caused: “Found the truth beneath your lies / And true love never has to hide.” She acknowledges it as part of her process of moving forward with him, together: “I’ll trade your broken wings for mine” and “Our love was stronger than your pride / Beyond your darkness, I’m your light.”

The track has certain musical moments that are particularly cathartic. The first is during the first chorus when the drums and amazing bass line come in. The second is in the second chorus, when we first hear those horns — a perfectly-used sample of Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” (by the way, this is our second reference to the incredible Outkast song on this list, see #17 for the other one). “All Night” is a heartening piece of slow-burning, sumptuous soul. It’s a flame burning in the cold.


3. Radiohead: “Burn the Witch”

“Burn the Witch” is eerie — full of an anxious energy that boils over by the time we reach the end. The lyrics match the sonic paranoia — “Stay in the shadows, cheer at the gallows,” “Avoid all eye contact, do not react, shoot the messengers,” and “This is a low-flying panic attack.” The music video’s animator, Virpi Kettu, said that Radiohead’s intent with “Burn the Witch” was to “raise awareness about the refugee crisis in Europe and the ‘blaming of different people… the blaming of Muslims and the negativity’ that could lead to sentiments such as ‘burn the witch.’”

The song highlights multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood’s proclivity for discordant string arrangements. Greenwood’s strings were almost like another full-bodied character in films such as There Will Be Blood and The Master. Greenwood uses the same pizzicato technique on “Burn the Witch,” and as a result, the song sounds huge, important, and cinematic in scope. It forges forward with Thom Yorke’s ethereal voice floating on top until about the three-minute mark, when it kicks up a notch and builds to a fever pitch. Jillian Mapes of Pitchfork said it best when she called it “simultaneously unsettling and gorgeous.” The last 45 seconds, when the strings crescendo to their sudden harrowing end, still gives me chills.

(Paragraph adapted from Five Quality Tracks: May 2016)


2. Chairlift: “Crying in Public”

One of the greatest musical achievements is when a song’s sound matches and thereby augments the song’s lyrical content. On “Crying in Public,” by the indie pop duo Chairlift, Caroline Polacheck sings, “Sorry I’m crying in public this way / I’m falling for you, I’m falling for you.” Polacheck describes what inspired the lyrics: “When I wrote these lyrics, I was just entering into a relationship with someone that I was trying to hold at arm’s length and not really acknowledge it as a serious relationship. The song is about one of the many moments of forgiveness and patience and understanding that he showed me when I completely had my head in the sand. And it was over the course of moments like this, that kind of patience and love, and I realized that I was in love with him.”

That exhilaration of falling in love is perfectly mirrored in the production, especially during the heart-pounding chorus. There’s a sense of thrilling wonder and wistfulness throughout, enhanced by producer Patrick Wimberly’s excellent use of contrast, like when the quiet verses build anticipation for the hard-hitting chorus. Not to mention, Polacheck’s voice is simply incredible. It’s honestly one of the most well-constructed, emotionally impactful pop songs I’ve heard in a while.


1. David Bowie: “Lazarus”

The concept of mortality has maintained a persistent presence in my mind this year, as friends cope with serious illness in their families; as tragedies, both momentary and sustained, rage on throughout the world; as ugliness reveals itself more than we thought possible; and as prominent, beloved cultural figures in our lives pass away. One of those figures we lost was David Bowie, and no one dealt with their own mortality quite like the Starman.

On January 8, 2016, David Bowie’s 69th birthday, he released what would be his last record, Blackstar. On January 10, 2016, Bowie passed away of liver cancer, an illness that no one but his closest confidants knew he even had. All of a sudden, Blackstar took on new meaning — or rather, we realized the meaning it had all along but had collectively failed to recognize. The album’s standout, “Lazarus,” became especially purposeful. Musically, “Lazarus” is entrancing with it’s round, full bass line and moaning saxophones. It sounds incredible, inspired, vital. Even at age 69, the man’s creative juices were fully intact. The lyrics are full of allusions to his illness and impending passing: “Look up here, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” No one exuded more life than Bowie, which is why such a debilitating illness must have eaten at him. Bowie is already looking forward to the freedom soon to come: “This way or no way, you know I’ll be free, just like that bluebird. Ain’t that just like me?”

David Bowie was a beacon of light in a world full of turmoil. Somehow, you could tell by the perpetual glint in his eye that he was aware of everything and always knew exactly what he was doing, artistically or otherwise, and the effect it would have. With “Lazarus,” he determined the narrative of his own death; he went out on his own terms. And really, we shouldn’t have expected anything less. Even in death, David Bowie was the coolest person on the planet.

2 thoughts on “Best Songs of 2016

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