Look, it’s practically impossible to select the best songs in a year. First of all, the single is so rarely the best song an album that using that categorization as criteria does not generally yield accurate results. Second of all, music critics are probably the people on the planet who listen to the greatest number of albums and songs per year, and even most of us have our niches and specializations we tend to linger in–it simply isn’t feasible for a single person to listen to every song that has come out in a year.
So of course these lists must have more than one person and involved, and, they tend to be even more subjective than those pesky best albums of the year lists. Those suffer from a similar fate, which is why I prefer to break them out into genre factions to make sure people are getting a sense of the scope of each musical style—but, the internet loves a ranking! In an attempt to hear both sides I’ve enlisted some of my own personal favorite writers/tastemakers to deliver their two favorite songs from the year so far. Feast on the bounty below–bet you haven’t even heard a lot of these yet.

“Crush” — Yuna Ft. Usher

After years of ignoring all things soft, critics made a sudden about-face in the late ‘00s. Acclaim was showered on the xx, How To Dress Well, James Blake, Rhye–anyone who scanned as “indie” but borrowed lessons from the breathy, adult-oriented end of ‘80s and ‘90s R&B: Sade, Janet Jackson, Tamia. Never mind that the source material was–and in some cases, still is–ignored by a wide swathe of writers.
Yuna’s “Crush” is overwhelmingly soft. The guitar curls and hangs, shimmering just like the lazy afternoon that the singer invokes in the first line. Yuna’s voice wafts up and down the scale, blowing whichever way the wind takes it. In this airy space, any solid sentiments must be questioned. “I feel a little rush, I think I’ve got a little crush on you,” Yuna sings. She follows that quickly with, “I hope it’s not too much.”
Usher arrives for the second verse, slicing through the track with tensile strength that’s as urgent–“we shouldn’t waste time no more” – as Yuna is unhurried. Usher rarely encounters strange beats like this now; he’s too busy trying to fight his way back into pop contention by riding whatever production trend happens to be hot at the moment. But in recent years, unusual instrumentals have brought out his best: the jarring stop-start of “Good Kisser,” and before that, the too-simple “Climax.”
“Crush,” like much of Yuna’s Chapters album, came together with help from Mac Robinson and Brian Warfield, who produce as Fisticuffs. You may recognize some of their other credits: Miguel’s “Arch And Point,” one of his most effective excursions into arena rock; Jazmine Sullivan’s “One Night Stand,” a polished slice of retro-soul. “Crush” landed Yuna her first hit – the song reached No. 10 on this week’s Adult R&B chart. That’s the same place that singles from Janet Jackson and Tamia end up these days. It remains to be seen if others will listen.—Elias Leight
“A Whole Lot More To Me” — Craig Morgan

Morgan is the kind of country journeyman who rarely gets attention outside of the country sphere. A Whole Lot More To Me is his seventh album; since debuting in 2000, only three of his singles have even cracked the top 5 on the Country Airplay chart, much less garnered acclaim from a broader audience. Morgan seems ok with that: he’s hasn’t started rapping to catch the attention of wayward Sam Hunt fans, and he’s not trying to sneak onto an NPR listener’s radar under the guise of “Americana.”
Maybe he knows that staying in your lane brings its own rewards–“A Whole Lot More To Me” is quietly bewitching. This might’ve been made at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama around 1978: the keyboard tone and gently pulsing rhythm exist at the intersection of country and yacht rock, a fruitful space that yielded delightful singles from Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, the Eagles, and Kenny Rogers, among others.
Morgan starts the song by embracing the stereotypes that are often wielded to cut country down at the knees: “I know everything there is to know about a truck/ I drink my share of beer on an old tailgate/ I grew up on an old dirt road, so I know where they go.” He doesn’t need to establish this authority lyrically–it’s present in his voice, and throughout his discography–but it sets up the punchline, a quick rebuke to surface judgements: “There’s so much more to me, baby wait and see.”
The chorus is meticulously constructed. At first, Morgan exudes strain, and you can imagine veins popping as he lists the things that might defy preconceptions: “I like a good cabernet from a Napa Valley vine, late night sushi by candlelight/ I’ve got a Versace suit.” But his register changes on the last clause of the couplet – “and a half a dozen silk ties” – and suddenly he’s a care-free crooner. The tone shift drives home the message behind the words: you thought you knew what was coming; you didn’t. “A Whole Lot More To Me” is a pointed plea not to write off Morgan, but it’s also a veteran mounting a defense of his genre.—Elias Leight

“Innocent Love” — Oliver Coates

Here is something that, when I describe it, might turn you off: This song is composed almost entirely of sounds that came from a cello. It seems aesthetically useless–like a Spencer Gifts catalog or an a cappella group–but the truth is that Oliver Coates has much more style and grace than most conservatory-trained musicians trying to be clever. Coates is a member of the London Contemporary Orchestra, he has worked with Actress, Massive Attack and DOOM, is a frequent collaborator with Jonny Greenwood, and was featured all over Radiohead’s latest album A Moon Shaped Pool. His bona fides are well documented. It’s just a relief to hear and therefore believe modern compositions don’t have to lean on Philip Glass or Steve Reich as touch points. Jungle, bassline, ‘80s pirate radio, and Autechre can all be part of the melding of classical instruments and modern technology.
Coates takes the framework of a UK garage beat and ornaments it with his fretless cello mimicking a bass, a hi-hat borne of a compressed and heavily EQ’d thwack of his horsehair bow against steel strings, and an orchestral sting that sounds like sun suddenly shooting up to the apex of the sky. The historically versatile voice of the cello feels stripped form its home playing Bach suites at banquets, but in a way that utilizes the instrument more than ever. Above all its many moving parts exists the whole of this song, elegant and hypnotic, an effortlessly contemporary pop song made by a 400-year-old instrument.—Jeremy Larson
ANOHNI — “Hopelessness”

In 2014 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued this forecast: “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally” and according to the World Bank, the average temperature on earth will raise 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit with 90 years, and even if we immediately halted all emission of carbon dioxide right now (which is obviously impossible because it would initiate a global political collapse based on the emergence and dependence on carbon-based capitalism and its roots in every power grid across every first-world country, and even if austerity measures were introduced it’s easy to look at the recent paroxysms in Europe as evidence that a stymieing of economies would have massive economic ramifications, much less a contraction of economic growth, which is the only thing that would actually curb carbon emissions), 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of warming is already baked into our future. The collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet alone (which is happening and will continue to happen) will eventually raise sea levels as much as 20 feet. A nauseating doom now underscores what used to be common boilerplate conversations about the weather and tweets like [Rob Thomas voice] Man, it’s a hot one.
It does all feel a bit hopeless. In my worse days when I think I’m surrounded by gaggles of Chicken Littles, I still feel there’s no real tangible way to fix the future. A constant dread hovers inches above my head and a gnarly laugh-cry seems to be the only honest expression of my feelings (to get a sense of this, imagine the exact intonation of “We got London on da Track” only if it was recorded in the fetal position). ANOHNI’S album Hopelessness is among many things about that fear, that smallness, the feeling of being virulent on this earth, all refracted through her identity. When everything seems too constricting, I think about the phrase she sings on this song, “How did I become a virus,” as a mantra to think smaller, not let the large scale ecocide of the earth overwhelm me, and maybe just decide to rinse out the takeout container of Pad Thai and put it in the dang recycling. She told me she uses the phrase “rigorous honesty”, which is something more forgiving than self-interrogation, more elegiac than accountability. It’s doubtful that another song this year will move me like this one.—Jeremy Larson

The Hotelier — “Piano Player”

It’s a sad fact of life, and one of emo’s biggest cornerstones: every single person you love will either leave you or die. Far away from the jaded anthems of their peers in the amorphous “emo revival” (Modern Baseball, Defeater, Neck Deep), Massachusetts quartet the Hotelier revel in this #woke-ness, and developing as a source of joy, rather than misery. Through a combination of tightly-wound indie rock instrumentals and eloquent, romantic prose, the band shape “Piano Player”–a highlight off their fantastic new album Goodness–as a celebration of love’s ephemerality. The band’s jangled racket sets the scene for lead vocalist Christian Holden’s detailed, tableau, which may well have come from a Tolstoy novel: a pair of young lovers spark their relationship at a packed party while an older woman looks on, remembering the 88 lovers she’s had over the course of her life. She–and we–know that their love will certainly fade, and but the song’s chorus proclaims a message of love-drunk defiance, with Holden slowly unspooling the word “sustain” like it’s the only word they know. Emo-tinged as they might sound, the band’s joyous arrangements gesture to a broader, starry-eyed optimism which offers a refreshing break from the usual fatalistic chatter. Sonically and romantically, it lives in the moment–if only more of us could make a habit of doing the same.—Zoe Camp
Radiohead — “Daydreaming”

The second pre-release single off May’s stellar A Moon Shaped Pool doubles as the score to a short film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. If the somber piano arrangements and sweeping strings (courtesy of the onion Philharmonic Orchestra) aren’t sufficient enough proof to “Daydreaming”’s cinematic heft, consider the events surrounding its release: Following the music video’s online premiere, independent theaters around the world screened the ballad’s haunting visual on massive screens, showcasing the piece’s existential despair in high definition. In Anderson’s video, a blank-faced, weary Yorke clambers through a series of 23 doors–or more accurately, portals–that lead him away from society (laundromats, parking garages, concrete tunnels) and into the wild, his ascent accompanied by those devastating string swoops. As the mournful pianos drift in for the eerie, calming finale, the haggard singer collapses in an icy cave before speaking in tongues (or rather, reverse): “Half of my love / Half of my life.” (Coincidentally, Yorke is 47, recently separated from his partner of 23 years–roughly half of his life and love.) You don’t need to be looking at a screen to feel the brunt of his journey on “Daydreaming,” but the band’s promotional framing reveals the track’s genius: one of the most impactful, essential crossovers between music and film thus far.—Zoe Camp

“Z” — Carrie Rodriguez

Country music loves to give advice. From Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Simple Man,” to Drive-By Truckers’ “Outfit,” to this year’s “Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw and Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the latter of which plays as an album-long letter of advice addressed to Simpson’s young son, there’s a rich tradition of second-person “advice songs” in which elders pass on their hard-earned wisdoms to the next generation. For a genre that emphasizes storytelling as much as country, the advice song serves as a clever form, one that packs a set of moral values into an emotionally resonant narrative.
Enter “Z,” the pop tour-de-force on Carrie Rodriguez’s Lola, her gorgeous album of traditional ranchera tunes and original bilingual compositions. “I play for DJ’s, presidents, single moms, immigrants,” Rodriguez sings in the 2nd verse, unintentionally ticking off, in increasing order, a list of some of Donald Trump’s least favorite demographics.
After recounting her musical upbringing in the swamp-blues verse, the real crux of “Z” comes when Rodriguez switches to the second person during the chorus while her band, the Sacred Hearts, explodes into a honky-tonk power pop groove:
Not everybody’s gonna spell your name right, honey
Might get it wrong on the grand marquee
But you can just sing ‘em a song, hija mia
Tell country music where to put the ‘Z’
In “Z,” Rodriguez claims the “advice song” as her own, as if to say that white fathers and sons need not be the only ones who get to give and receive life-lessons. The Austin singer says she wrote “Z,” whose chorus is based on her real-life experience of having venues across the country continuously spell her (quite common) surname incorrectly, “as a song for young women,” a way to encourage new female Latina artists to join a genre of music that has historically had little place for them.
“In the small Americana genre that I’m in–I think there are a few Hispanic artists, not too many,” Rodriguez told Texas Monthly earlier this year. “I don’t really understand why there hasn’t been a Latina country star yet.” With a song as potent as “Z,” it’s easy to imagine Rodriguez’s advice soon being put to good use.—Jon Bernstein
“Absent Year” — Radiator Hospital

“Absent Year” is in many ways another classic Radiator Hospital song about young-adult heartbreak. On songs like “Fireworks,” “Cut Your Bangs,” and “Our Song,” lead singer Sam Cook-Parrott offers devastating depictions of fledgling relationships mired in deceit and distrust. More often than often, his characters know better: having already been through a bad breakup or two, they’re often painfully self-aware of their own shortcomings, but they still can’t find a way out of their endless cycle of romances that fall short and result, again and again, in pain and disappointment.
So yes, on “Absent Year,” Cook-Parrott is sad. He is pining. He is delivering gut-wrenching lines, sung in his perfectly off-kilter nasal whine, like: “you’ve been living in the songs I hear.”
But “Absent Year” is also something much more.
I’ll forget about your absent year
If you forget about the morning, dear
Though the rest of the lyrics may suggest otherwise, these opening lines of the song leaves with me an image of a relatively stable couple, a relationship that’s made it far past the type of commitment issues and insecure suspicions that Radiator Hospital is so good at portraying. Instead, this time around the problems feel more grown-up, more world-wary and accepting.
At its core, “Absent Year” feels like a manual for coming to terms with the shortcomings and faults of the ones you love the most, about letting yourself love another deeply enough to let them disappoint you when they need to, to let them fuck up and flail when they have to. It’s a song that says to me: Even those you love the most, and who love you the most, will still, from time to time, hurt you.
That’s a horrifying thing to hear, much scarier than any kind of unrequited heartbreak. But it’s taught me a whole lot.—Jon Bernstein

“The Werewolf” — Paul Simon

“The Werewolf,” taken from Paul Simon’s thirteenth album, Stranger to Stranger, opens with two Simon trademarks–a playful rhyme scheme, and a graceful set-piece narrative about an ordinary American marriage. Things quickly take a turn for the weird, however, when the Milwaukee couple in question find themselves in the afterlife (spoiler: rhymes with ‘sushi knife’) and we find ourselves in an economics lesson which explained more to me in three minutes than any article I read in the eight years of Googling ‘WHAT IS ECONOMY THX?’ “Life’s a lottery, a lot of people lose,” explains Professor Simon, over chopped up Peruvian percussion, hand claps, and a range of Harry Partch-inspired sound effects, “and the winners…with money-covered eyes, eat all the nuggets and they order extra fries.” As he sings, howls are heard in the background, evoking the mythical beast of the title. Whether ‘The Werewolf’ is the spirit of a revolution-in-waiting, or simply a device around which Simon can structure his philosophical stream-of-consciousness, is unclear, but I think of this song as the musical companion to Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: A Ghost Story. The album it’s taken from is proof of an icon on top form, still capable of making fresh, innovative pop some six decades into his career.—Emma-Lee Moss
“As Long As We’re Together” — The Lemon Twigs

Lemon Twigs are a new band to many, but their music sounds like an old friend. This song, which popped up on their Soundcloud a little over a week ago, could well have been unearthed from a vault of demos from an undiscovered Laurel Canyon-era folk act, maybe named the Brothers D’Addario, as real-life siblings Brian and Michael trade tape-warmed vocals and lush, sweet harmonies over phasing acoustic guitars. The song, which is produced by Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado, wears its lo-fi intentions on its sleeve, and at first it’s only the clarity of percussion overdubs and the honed-in bounciness of plucked stringed instruments that betray its roots in a modern studio. However, once the D’Addario’s have sung their first, anthemic round of “As long as we’re together/ I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” we’re treated to a wide range of post-modern, kaleidoscopic changes (imagine Conan Mockasin set loose in a toy store), including a middle-eight detour which I would comfortably describe as a “synth bath,” and what starts off small and intimate finishes in expansive psychedelia. Perfect for drunk singing in bars after midnight.—Emma-Lee Moss

“On My Heart” — School of Seven Bells

I’m not going to claim I knew Benjamin Curtis particularly well. I interviewed him on three occasions, each time just before the release of a new School of Seven Bells album. Thinking back upon those occasions, the main takeaway I have was his seemingly ever-renewing enthusiasm.
When I met him and his bandmates Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, it was just before the release of their first album as a band, and he was geeking out about the Miami club music the sisters had introduced him to, and his quest for the most banging 808 beat possible. I talked to him in the lobby of the Brooklyn Bowl right before the release of their second release Disconnect from Desire, and he proudly showed me the tattoo all three members had gotten: a sigil formed from the letters in the album title. This was how much the album and band meant to him. I did a quick phoner with him right before their third album Ghostory dropped, and he told me that while most bands slow down and lose their energy by the third album, he was so happy that the School of Seven Bells had just released their fastest single yet.
I’d been a fan of Curtis since his previous band the Secret Machines collapsed my sternum at a small club. I don’t remember whom they opened for, but I still remember how much my ears rang afterward. Though they got good reviews and did well on the road, I always felt like School of Seven Bells were under-appreciated, that it was not acknowledged widely enough that their approach to electronic-shoegaze pop was a thousand times more innovative and subtle than that of their supposed peers. It’s also worth pointing out that he was easily one of the best guitar players of the past ten years, never letting his classic rock chops getting in the way of the technicolor emotions he could summon seemingly at will.
I know terrible things happen every day and life isn’t remotely fair. I’m not naive. But I still have a hard time squaring the idea that a man so filled with music, joy and life, a man who couldn’t help but bust out some blissfully unselfconscious goth-raver moves (we’re talking teenager with a glowstick and fishnets-levels of abandon here) while ripping a solo onstage could die at the age of 35 after a year-long battle with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma.
SVIIB was Alejandra’s attempt to reconcile this cruel paradox. Written while Curtis was fighting for his life, often literally from his deathbed (he dictated some of the sessions by Skype) and finished by Alejandra after his death, the album was a tribute to their relationship –romantic at one point, then just musical–and Curtis’ unbreakable spirit. “On My Heart” is the highlight of the album and one of the best songs they ever released. A seamless blend of pulsating goth-house basslines, spirals of ghostly moans and a strict a-to-b-to vocal melody, “On My Heart” finds Alejandra examining a relationship that is unraveling due to a partner’s insecurity, while she does her best to reassure the sap that “with me you’re love safe,” one of those made up phrases that feels just right. She’s said in interviews that most of the songs on the album were about the end and rebirth relationship. But even if it’s not about them specifically, there’s something that feels right about Alejandra ruminating on doing what needs to be done to keep their bond together no matter what. It’s a fitting swan song for a band that specialized in healing spectral warmth, and a man determined to find love in every second of his too short life.—Michael Tedder
“The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” — Car Seat Headrest

Much of the pre-release chatter around Car Seat Headrest’s extraordinary new album Teens of Denial focused on how legal miscommunication and Ric Ocasek’s refusal to let the band interpolate “Just What I Needed” caused a last minute recall and the destruction of more than $50,000 worth of vinyl. It would be a damn shame if this unfortunate financial knife wound ended up overshadowing the album, which is packed with daring song structure and lyrics so incisive this thing could be retitled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Drunk. Moreover, that Cars bite was not even the most important sample on the album.
Midway through the multi-suite “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” songwriter Will Toledo starts cribbing a few lines from Dido’s adult contemporary CVS banger “White Flag.” I’ve listened to this song dozens of times, and I still get surprised every time it happens. And this isn’t a case of Toledo ironically reclaiming something defiantly uncool (Dido could write a hook, damn it) as that line is the emotional spine of the song, which in turn serves as the entire backbone for Teens of Denial.
It starts with Toledo waking up hungover and drained again, wondering why every morning is like that these days. The title is a reference to an Italian luxury cruise that sank in 2012, killing 32 people. A third of the way through, Toledo shakes off the hangover and takes on the perspective of the Captain (dubbed Captain Coward by the European press) who fled the ship before the passengers were able to escape, attacking them both for their mistakes while his band switches from a slow waltz to a blitzkrieg:
“How was I supposed to know how to hold a job?
How was I supposed to know how to not get drunk every
Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and–why not–Sunday?
How was I supposed to know how steer this ship?
How the hell was I supposed to steer this ship?”
(To answer these questions in the order they were received: 1) Your Parents Or Legal Guardians Should Have Told You This 2) Your Teachers Should Have Informed You About Alcohol Awareness 3) Uhm, Captain School?)
It’s painful, in light of current events, to hear Toledo beg for forgiveness by insisting it was “an expensive mistake.” Eventually, he’s left with no option than to fly the Dido Flag, and complete spiritual defeat has never sounded more thrilling than the way Toledo screams “I give up” over conquer-the-world guitar swells that indie rock has thankfully started to remember how to do again.
Once he’s gotten that off his chest, he digs into the mess and attacks that which drives him to drink, calling out a broken society (“Told what to believe by the beasts who took control”) and lamenting the prosperity and opportunities that seem destined to skip his debt-drowned generation (“It’s the new economy, we have nothing to offer and we sleep on trash”). Toledo can’t change this, but at least he can reassure you that you’re not crazy for feeling like the world is stacked against you. Every kid fresh out of college like will is in the same boat, he posits: dead before the ship even sank. But if we’re all hopelessly fucked, we may as well be hopelessly fucked together.—Michael Tedder

“Wicked” — Chester Watson

Fixating on a talented young artist’s age seems so obvious and lazy. Then there’s 19-year-old Chester Watson, the first signee to rap writer and media proprietor Jeff Weiss’s POW Recordings label. Watson’s impressive load of audio offerings showcase a mature mastery of flow, but “Wicked” doubles down on a velvety softness. Bedded in a loop of the Wizard of Oz‘s Wicked Witch of the West theme, the track slithers with a playful sneer. It’s worth noting how prolific this dude has already been in his short life, reinforced with the line: “Working 24/7/ So don’t ask where the passion is.” The cut sears with chilled-out confidence, zooming around like a stoned teen skateboarding around an abandoned parking lot, sans audience.
It’s this serene swagger and raw self-production that makes this track stand out. The rapper knows he’s going to nail this proverbial kick-flip and he doesn’t need the validation of gaggle of Bettys to make that real (though surely they’re lingering just out of sight — “Wicked” has a strange, nebulous sexiness emanating from it). He flexes a simple albeit solid diss, “My fucking shirt cost more than your whole outfit,” though it’s nearly negated by a self-aware chuckle. Watson knows it’s a game but plays it well regardless. —Beca Grimm
“Lost Dreamers” — Mutual Benefit

I’m not convinced Jordan Lee propels his mortal form on this earthly plane by something as pedestrian as legs. His music is so quietly and carefully constructed. Instead of walking, he must carry himself aboard a cosmic wind of sorts, drifting like a tide and collecting impossible small shards of glass along the way. The innards of “Lost Dreamers” is a network of complexities, made up of aging hummingbird bones. Each tiny piece is delicate and essential, coming together for a lush audio dream. It’s rare when a song has the power to pull a listener so swift from the now, softly dunking their head in a golden glow so they may re-emerge refreshed, if not a little more zen than before.
This track is tender yet unbreakable. It’s glimmering Teflon, non-pretentious in its secret resilience; cool in its candy cloud demeanor. “Lost Dreamers” has twisted tapestry ribs, gorgeous words penned stitched in gold. Though Lee has a penchant for writing apt prose in his songs, with this song, that comes secondary. Vocals are so creamy they act as an additional texture to the elegant structure, holding a rewarding discovery should any human be so bold as to gently prod.—Beca Grimm

“1985” — Kvelertak

In the music video for Kvelertak’s ball-check of a single “1985,” four dudes blow up a toilet. They also throw a fridge out a window, smear their own blood on their faces, terrorize (and potentially murder) a coupla’ old squares, and do some ritual thing involving fire and a satanic-looking staff. But most importantly, they blow up a toilet, and it in this moment that the Norwegian metal band provides the most apt metaphor for their music that I can think of.
Throughout their nearly ten-year career, Kveltertak’s guiding principle seems to be that the phrases “black metal” and “bro as fuck” not only can but should exist in conjunction with each other. They are Thin Lizzy in corpse paint; they are Andrew W.K. if he partied exclusively in hell. When I put Nattesferd, the title of Kvelertak’s newest album, into Google Translate, the quick-not-always-accurate service spat out the phrase “lit night journey.” Now, I assume Kvelertak meant this as a journey into a barren wilderness armed only with a torch to ward off and/or invite evil, but goddamn if it doesn’t also provide an incredible image of Nordic dudebros partying in the middle of a forest trying to chop down trees with their beards, or whatever manly men do after consuming paint-thinningly potent booze and they’ve said all the requisite ominous chants. “1985” in particular feels tailor-made for full-on, dropped-g cruisin’, wind in your hair and worldly troubles at your back.—Drew Millard
“50 Inch Zenith” — Westside Gunn ft. Skyzoo


In a year dominated by rappers who have staged open revolt against tradition, a certain strain of rap fan—the type once drawn Young Thug because he zigged where the world zagged—has embraced the old school like never before. Though guys like Roc Marci, Freddie Gibbs, and Ka have always held it down for hip-hop’s #bars-centric underground, we’re entering an era when hard-headed formalism can be viewed as bold an aesthetic choice as abandoning rapping altogether.
Enter Buffalo, NY’s Westside Gunn, who represents the best and boldest of this particular strain of underground rap. Though he and his brother Conway have been making noise for quite some time, in the past year Gunn’s distinguished himself as a force, with both his Roses Are Red… So Is Blood EP with the UK rap producer Purist, as well as the solo record Flygod, which is a clinic in delivering menacing, taut rhymes over even tighter loops. Brooklyn’s Skyzoo, a master of smooth tough talk, breaks from the internal rhyme party line and lets an intricate verse fly from the hip as he and Gunn take Statik Selectah’s airy instrumental and tear it to shreds. It’s proof that the cream rises to the top in rap, whether it’s delivered by someone pushing the new hot style, or two guys who do things the old-fashioned way, managing to breathe new life into it in the process.—Drew Millard

“No Dreaming” — Wye Oak

Wye Oak sort of snuck-released their fifth full-length album Tween like it was an audible called at the last second, and boy, am I ever a sucker for surprise plays. There’s few bands who can pull off the out-of-nowhere release, and even with a duo as talented as Wye Oak I am worried that this brief collection of in-betweener tracks will get lost in the shuffle. We cannot let that happen. Tween is a bright sunburst of woozy post-rock muffled pop, zig-zag harmonies squished into daydream shapes. The best dream on here is a track that decries its own lovely reverie, “No Dreaming” a slow-building, plucky melody that’s overtaken by Jenn Wasner’s smoky alto about a minute in, and turns into a technicolor lament after another thirty seconds or so.
The song operates a bit like a thunderstorm, with a light drizzle of rain that grows thicker and darker until the sky is black and thunder and lightning are crackling above, but you’re so caught up in watching it unfold that you don’t even mind or notice that you’re getting drenched. Tween may be about the band’s own trajectory, but it’s the kind of record that helps you spot the gaps in your own heart, what holes can be patched up, what edges need a quick stitch or two before you move forward. The first time I pressed play on it I didn’t even hear tracks four through eight until the next day, because I was stuck listening to “No Dreaming” on repeat for several hours. It’s a slippery quicksand of warped pop that won’t let you go, it’s a lit-up sky amid the storm; it is a whirlwind, that will floor you, envelop you, and jolt you back into the real world. It’s the kind of song that will gently shake you out of your mire, it will help you grow up, even if you didn’t know you still needed to do that. No more dreaming, we’re going to live them now.—Caitlin White
“I Wish You Were Here” — Charles Kelley ft. Miranda Lambert

There’s a much more famous song than any that Charles Kelley or Miranda Lambert have written that rings with the same primary line, and most songs would be undone by that Pink Floyd comparison. Not this one. Over honeyed, finger-picking Kelley laments life on the road without love in freeway poetry and traveling malaise that will ring true to anyone whose ever toured the country–and even those who haven’t. Just because The Driver is a short collection of songs about what it means to be a country musician in 2016 doesn’t mean these tracks don’t transcend their outlines, and “a million miles to touch your skin” will resonate with anyone separated from a lover for even a day, even a second. There’s nothing overtly sexual about the track–though it’s talking about the deepest intimacy–instead, it’s the act of sleeping next to someone that is held up as the pinnacle of desire–and after all, isn’t it? There is no greater pleasure than waking up to feel the body of the person you love the most in the world right next to you, peaceful and sweet in the embrace of sleep. “I wish you were here / Sleeping on my shoulder / Breathing my air” Lambert and Kelley sing in harmony, pinning the entire communion of romance on a single breathe, a single night’s sleep. It’s enough to make you muffle a sob thinking about how much you ache for the one you love, even if you don’t actually have anyone to miss.—Caitlin White
“Landslide” — Macy Rodman

The aggressively disaffected brattitude of “Lazy Girl” steals the show on Macy Rodman’s Help EP–I mean, literally what lyric can compete with “I gotta pop a fucking xannie just to make some eggs”? But don’t sleep on the other four tracks on the JX Cannon-coproduced EP, which contextualize “Lazy Girl” within a fuller upswing-downswing depression cycle populated with crush butterflies, anti-transmisogynist revenge fantasies, paralyzing self-doubt, and the occasional flash of wanton optimism. The five-track release closes with a harpsi-Casio cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” live from the bottom of Macy’s emotional bottoming out. It’s touching, vulnerable, and surprisingly earnest. I’d be crying right now if I hadn’t popped a fucking xannie just to write this blurb.—John Walker
“Daddy Lessons” — Beyoncé

I’ve heard many people dismiss “Daddy Lessons” as some kinda kitschy, country novelty–or worse, a shameless cash grab for white radio dollars–but the song is truly the glue that binds Beyoncé’s Lemonade together. The daddy anthem–this year’s best, after Anohni’s choke-me dystopian “Watch Me”–builds on the immediate, romantic pain sung in earlier tracks “Hold Up” and “Sorry,” extrapolating outwards to the familial in an attempt to locate that heartache’s true source. And, in a similar quest for context, Beyoncé’s use of proto-bluegrass/rhythm & blues production serves as a reminder of where essentially contemporary genre of popular music originated: black women. At the risk of plagiarizing John Waters, don’t fuck people who don’t like “Daddy Lessons.”—John Walker


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