As we stumbled—exhausted and pretty over it—to the bitter end of 2016, we took stock of the music that helped us muddle through the worst of it. This list is not meant to be an authoritative tally of anything; just a compilation of tracks from the year, in every genre, that goddamn did it for us (reminded us of our joys, made us dance our pants off, helped us shut out the world) throughout these inglorious 12 months. And so we present them to you (along with a Spotify playlist), in case with them you, too, can reclaim your bliss. Happy New Year, everybody, at long last. (Scroll all the way down for the playlist at the end!)
YG — “Why You Always Hatin’?” In a way, YG came out in Summer 2016 and put out a near perfect 90s West Coast Hip-Hop album, with Still Brazy. At the center of all of that was “Why You Always Hatin’,” which opened with a foot-tapper of a beat right off the bat, and didn’t let up until a hook from newcomer Kamaiyah, and a verse from some guy named Drake was rolled into the package.
Katie Gately — “Tuck” A pureed paste of abstract fragments poured into a pop-song mold. Useful to charm cobras, or destroy them.
Gucci Mane — “Waybach” Lord, let us each feel even a fraction of the comfort in our own skins that Gucci Mane feels, just freed from prison, slowly passing old friends, well-wishers, and aspirant disciples in the back seat of a bright white convertible with nowhere in particular to go.
Danny L Harle ft. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Super Natural” Dreams come true, bb! If you’ve been following weirdo London underground pop collective PC Music, it’s been like a fairy story to see them actually collaborate with actual pop stars like Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen, proving that their weirdo retro/futuristic electronic pop isn’t just an arch joke — it’s great pop music.
Vince Staples (f/ Kilo Kish) — “Loco” The champagne bubble rush of newfound fame, a raven perched on the doorframe of the penthouse suite.
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — “The Bride’s Dad” A story of redemption, or at least an attempt at it, by an absent father now on stage drunkenly singing an Irish folk song at his daughter’s wedding. Eventually, Leithauser’s croon becomes strained and Rostam’s piano melody turns into theatrical pounding–cuing the scene of people pointing and laughing at our fumbling, desperate protagonist as he’s carried off the stage to go gray, and a light to shine on the bond between father and daughter.
Angel Olsen —”Shut Up Kiss Me” Angel Olsen has enjoyed a meteoric rise since the release of Burn Your Fire for No Witness in 2014. And this year, her follow-up, MY WOMAN, exceeded expectations of her most super of fans (us). The best of Olsen’s feisty, exposed, and emotive appeal is given to us in “Shut Up Kiss Me” (hold me tight, damnit). In it, Olsen is angrier than usual, and seems kind of over it (“it” being, of course, the hopelessly blind person she’s in love with). But there is no denying she is still caught up in the storm. It’s her ability to feel, and then purge so beautifully, so many of those feelings, that makes us love her. And this time the result is more satisfying than ever.
Margaret Glaspy — “You and I” An ultra-cool, and just slightly cruel kiss off to a hook up who caught a case of feelings; a.k.a., pulling the wings off a fuck-buddy fly.
Joyce Manor — “Last You Heard of Me” When the organ whirs in and the irrational, bold-color emotion of a pop-punk meet-cute should take hold, Joyce Manor’s frontman sees the prospective relationship’s life span flash by: “Start to finish, sad defeat/Shivering, lying naked next to you/And that’s the last you heard of me.” A band of mostly 30-year-olds from Torrance, California pulls off the great pop-punk swindle of 2016: a two-minute buildup (epic by JM’s standards), only to have hopeless romanticism lose out to life experience. Growing up sucks sometimes.
Grouper — “Headache” In deep December, after all the year-end lists had settled down to their naps, Liz Harris pops her head up and quietly (how else?) releases her most immediately engaging song in nearly a decade, then sees her shadow and braces for another 6,000 years of winter.
Ciarra Black — “Contained” This is the opening track to Ciarra Black’s imaginative debut album “Pendulum.” Its thick pulse and metallic oscillations inhabit the space between noise and techno, which is a place few producers dare to go. (This song is not on Spotify, but you can find it here.)
The Goon Sax — “Telephone” Whether referring to the quaint object of yesteryear or modern day’s colossal disrupter, “‘Cause I hate those telephones/They hurt me every day” is an easily relatable sentiment in a nice little song that, when sung in a clumsy Aussie accent by a dejected teen with an ear for jangle-pop melody, becomes a gut punch. The unassuming power of nice little songs.
Big Thief — ”Masterpiece” It’s hard to imagine that rock ‘n’ roll can sound fresh, but Big Thief, a break-out Brooklyn band this year, signed to Saddle Creek (Land of Talk, Bright Eyes, The Faint) and favorite of Sharon Van Etten, has managed to do so. Lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Adrianne Lenker has a voice that is sincere and sweet, but also beautifully raw; in “Masterpiece” she’s backed by addictive and nostalgia-inducing guitar progressions. You’ll return to it again and again like you do a new love, but feel within it the comfort of an old one.
Radiohead — “Burn The Witch” How else would we have welcomed back Radiohead than with this 3:41 barrage of themes, surrounded with Jonny Greenwood’s guitar and a string section that could be straight out of a Carnegie Hall philharmonic? “Burn The Witch” is the perfect combination of an almost Kid A sound—they originally began recording it during the sessions for that iconic album—with some of today’s claustrophobic themes. What Thom Yorke and company are warning against is up in the air, whether it’s groupthink, or authoritarianism, but one thing is certain: we should keep listening.
Nicolas Jaar — “Three Sides of Nazareth” A 10-minute masterpiece of post-punk/pop momentum—established, sustained, withdrawn, and finally returned, but then abandoned.
Exploded View — “No More Parties in the Attic” An entirely improvised and uncannily balanced debut that finds cult-pop heroine, Anika, floating over the loosed lava flooding the workfloor of the haunted steel factory, about 10 miles outside Düsseldorf.
Iggy Pop — “Gardenia” Iggy Pop is Iggy Pop as we understand those words (an icon of American rock) for a reason: Because for a very long time he’s made goddamn delightful rock music. Off of this year’s Post Pop Depression, “Gardenia” is the best of what he is and does: it captures the distinctive essence of rock and roll from decades before our current one, and it is sustained throughout by Iggy Pop’s identifiable guttural vocals. It’s a gift from an old friend, and it does not disappoint.
DJ Shadow (f/ Run the Jewels) — “Nobody Speak” Picking the prize gifts from RTJ3’s X-mas day bonanza will be next year’s work. But it was a kick for once to hear the boys in climes warmer than the chilly boom-bap dystopia of El-P’s own production. A cool curtain call from DJ Shadow at …Endtroducing’s twentieth birthday party, too.
Young Thug — “Digits” In a year where he released three projects—all of which had their merits and standout tracks—we could’ve gone a lot of different directions with the top Thugger track of the year; would it be “Best Friend,” perhaps his first big solo hit? Anything from Jeffery, his finest project to date? We settled on “Digits,” a firebreather of an anthem from Slime Season 3—possibly his own favorite song of the year as well, as it’s the ‘pinned track’ on his Spotify page. Young Thug has shown many qualities of some of our oldest rock stars through the years, but here he seems to channel Joey Ramone in the truest—“Digits” is the fastest way for anyone to get all revved up and ready to go.
D.R.A.M. featuring Lil Yachty — ”Broccoli” Would you believe that “Broccoli” was released all the way back in April? This song is the definition of a slow-burning success; it’s still making waves near the top of streaming charts and became a Top 5 charter on the Billboard top 100. And with good cause: “Broccoli” is D.R.A.M. at his most irresistible, giving us a fun-loving anthem in a time that we need it most. And Lil Yachty is never better than he is on his verse early in the song, with his neo-bubble gum rap verse seemingly now burned into the public consciousness.
Princess Nokia — “Tomboy” Princess Nokia starts the song “With my little titties and my phat belly,” and she never lets you forget it. She continues to drill it in, with a nasty Bronx flow, over 20 times. The song is a blistering anthem for girls that don’t fall into the Nikki Minaj and Kim Kardashian tribe (which is A LOT of girls).
Brood Ma — “Sex Compressor” What did you expect from a song called “Sex Compressor”? Something upbeat and in a major key? No, you did not. If vampires had lust dreams, “Sex Compressor” would be their soundtrack. If sex contains darkness, it sounds like this. And like the best sex, you’ll want to keep returning to this one, off of Brood Ma’s Daze, many times over.
Rihanna — “Work” This song is a worldwide dancefloor-packing elemental pop masterpiece, and yet a surprisingly large number of people claim not to like “Work.” People: this song is a classic you be hearing forever, and Rihanna is perfect. Just accept it.
A Tribe Called Quest — “We the People” In a year of absolute political and social disasters, the release of a new Tribe album—complete with contributions from the sadly departed Phife Dawg—was an unexpected gift. This track, that album’s lead single (unbelievably getting real airplay on commercial radio) is great, even if Q-Tip’s processed vocals are a little annoying and it takes too long to get to Phife’s verse.
G.L.O.S.S — “Outcast Stomp” Maybe you thought you could just politely live your life and keep to yourself. That plan was going fine until 2016 punched everyone in the face repeatedly and killed all your favorite musicians. If there was ever a time we needed to let loose and thrash, IT IS NOW. This song drives hard until the very end with the triumphant yelling “The freaks are coming!”
PUP — “DVP” In every punk band’s life comes a song about the need to grow up. Here’s PUP’s (detected by the chorus “SHE SAYS I NEED TO GROW UP!” shouted manically in very capital letters). Its unruly pace, with frontman Stefan Babcock’s words toppling over each other, suggests it’s less than likely to happen soon for these particular 20-somethings. As if to prove they don’t give a fuck, the title references Don Valley Parkway, a traffic-jammed highway in their hometown of Toronto, notorious for getting passengers nowhere fast. For selfish reasons, it’s right where we want PUP to be forever.
asdfhg. — “Steypa” Oh, the otherworldy mumblings of cherubic Icelandic teens and the wonderful goddamn sadness they can bring.
ScHoolboy Q (Featuring Kanye West) — “THat Part” This lead single from Q’s Blank Face LP is sullen, dark, gloomy, and….. one of the defining turn-up songs from the summer. Possibly the best Kanye guest verse of 2016 ( I wonder how Kris Jenner felt about the “Wifey gonna kill me, she the female O.J.!” line) makes way for the rest of the track’s moody presence. ScHoolboy Q has settled in as a driving force on Top Dawg Ent.’s roster over the past several years, and “THat Part” shows us that he’s not going anywhere.
Ka — “Just” The calm and exact movements of a Samuri underlie this entire album. A graceful arpeggio cycles in the background as Ka confesses, preaches, and wrestles with vulnerability.
Puce Mary — “The Spiral” A soft high note rises out of the silence…once, twice, perhaps a few more times before it is utterly decimated by menacing vocals, gnarled synths, and other sounds you might expect to find in the 9th circle of hell. This song doesn’t exactly blend into your office playlist, but it is worth calling attention to one of the scariest songs ever made.
David Bowie — “Girl Loves Me” The revelation that David Bowie had been struggling with the cancer that would eventually take his life during the entire production of this year’s Blackstar, and that he’d very consciously looked at the record as his goodbye to the world, gave the album an almost unbearable emotional resonance. This song—which recalls Scary Monsters’ coldness as well as Bowie’s late-90s experiments with skittering electronics along with Trent Reznor, while at the same time being totally original—is one of the standouts.
Danny Brown (f/ Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, & Earl Sweatshirt) — “Really Doe” Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition was a far better sequel to Yeezus’s industrial nausea than Pablo, and this all-star jam, its shoulda-been smash. In which Kendrick’s most virtuoso verse of the year is slyly upstaged by Earl’s deadpan spite-darts. “You a mouse that the falcon picked up,” continues to hurt our feelings, personally.
Mai Lan — “Technique” Half guide to daily life, half proof of alien life, French pop singer Mai Lan’s WTF debut was somehow the most composed and the most deranged pop song of 2016. “Moisturize. Take breaks.”
Marie Davidson — “Naive to the Bone” This song is a confident and calculated take down. Imagine walking up the aisle to accept the Nobel Peace Prize at the exact moment you see your ex trip into a dumpster. It’s the moment where you realize you are reaching your potential and your ex was suppressing the best parts of your personality. Marie Davidson delivers lines over minimal synth beats with fierce confidence “You call me naïve? I tell you what, I’m naïve to the bone.”
Leikeli47 — “Money” Leikeli47, who is never seen without a ski mask, is virtually nameless, ageless, and always enigmatic. Basically she is the coolest and the smoothest. In money she has constructed a playful synth line and a chorus of slow snaps to make one of the most undeniable jams of the year.
Usher (featuring Young Thug) — “No Limit” Usher has become the underrated superstar. Try to think of someone else out there that’s as famous as the 38-year-old R&B crooner, and putting out singles as *fire* as this and his other 2016 banger, “Crash,” and gotten as little attention. An ode to Master P, “No Limit” has it all: memorable catchy vocals, an unforgettable hook, and even an always-welcomed guest verse from the venerable Young Thug.
Kweku Collins — “Stupid Rose” A tale as old as time: Boy shows up with a dozen roses for Girl. Boy leaves disappointed. Boy declares the whole situation stupid—“these stupid fucking roses!”—and inflates the wonky, elastic beat of D’Angelo’s “One Mo’gin” into a stoned anthem of self-hate and begrudged romantic woe.
Kim Gordon — “Murdered Out” Remember Kim Gordon? Of course you do. Yes, there is the Sonic Youth Kim Gordon, but there is also the Kim Gordon from her kind of unfortunate memoir, in which she shit talks a bunch of people (not least of which, her husband, and Courtney Love, and a whole bunch more… Kim! Not a good look!). The book might have transformed her, in your mind anyway, into a fallen hero of noise rock. But Kim Gordon was a brave female artist and bass guitarist at a time when it was not as easy to be either one. Thankfully, with this out-of-nowhere single, released under her own name, Gordon reminds us why we loved her in the first place: It’s dark, it’s transgressive, and even sounds a little more like Trent Reznor than Daydream Nation. There’s a lot inside of “Murdered Out”, including, thankfully, the crown that re-establishes Gordon as one of rock’s best.
Desiigner — “Panda” A darkly obsessive, silly, and highly listenable song from Brooklyn’s Desiigner, born from the deeply high insight that the white BMWs in GTA V look kinda like pandas, from a certain angle, maybe?
Dawn of Humans — “Horse Blind” How do you translate a mostly nude singer, slathering blue paint on himself and stalking around on stage, to recordings? Hard to explain, but Dawn of Humans have an unmistakable approach to punk songwriting; abrupt song changes and the deepest growling vocals.
Bambara — “An III Son” Brooklyn-based Bambara have constructed a deliberate and sinister march. The slow stride of Josey Wales, aka Clint Eastwood, striding into a bar, glaring at you, and then spitting out the lyrics. It evolves from a cold repetition, to a thick and satisfying squall.
Car Seat Headrest — “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales” Some of us are starting to hope (maybe crazily!) that there’s interesting rock music again. This six-minute song suite from Will Toledo that starts as a loose ‘90s alterna jam and ends with him screaming “KILLER WHALES” again and again over a wall of guitars is good evidence that we might be right.
Profligate — “Somewhere Else” Philadelphia based artist, Profligate, takes you through many different landscapes in this hypnotic track. Sometimes it’s austere and cold, sometimes his whispered vocals are comforting, but it is impossible to climb out of the world once you’ve been swallowed. (This song is not on Spotify, but you can find it here.)
Golden Suits — ”Don’t Let Love Go By” This winning anthem of love, from Brooklyn’s Golden Suits (which is singer songwriter Fred Nicolaus, previously one half of Department of Eagles along with Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen) will make you more optimistic about that feeling—love—than you have been in quite some time. Nicolaus’s enthusiastic vocals, backed by surging guitars and driving drums, will remind you—nay, convince you, even—that love is (still!) not a thing to let go by.
TEEN — “Tokyo” Brooklyn’s TEEN is four women (including three sisters) with something to say, and refreshingly little of it is about romantic love. This year’s Love Yes is an opus in praise of life and love of all kinds (including familial, platonic, and, sure, the occasional romance). Like the rest of the album, “Tokyo” marches to the beat of its own drum—quirky, upbeat, and edgy all at once, or, the opposite of a heartbroken downer.
A$AP Ferg (f/ Skrillex, Crystal Caines) — “Hungry Ham” There’s only the briefest bit of calm in this hype/hyper standout from Ferg’s slept-on second record, where the group-chanted hooks pause and Skrillex’s robot wasp chirps stall, to let some rando lady voice a counterpoint. “Are you serious? What the fuck is this??”
Chance the Rapper — “Same Drugs” The most sultry song on the most dynamic and colorful project of the year, “Same Drugs”, captures the apex of the universal theme of an old relationship growing older and apart, and reaches a piano-threading, musical theater style sound on this track. While it could be sad, he instead chooses to look on the past with a wistful eye: “Don’t forget the happy thoughts,” he croons, as we listen on, spirits raised, Chance patting our backs. (AND SINGLE-HANDEDLY BRINGING BACK OVERALLS)
serpentwithfeet — “four ethers” The church-steeple-sized height of Josiah Wise’s brief but deep debut EP is a hymn for radical self-acceptance in fluttered falsetto, which casts producer Bobby “Haxan Cloak” Krlic way against type, the hangman on some Philharmonic shit.
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — “In A Black Out” The first time I listened to this song, with its opening speed-plucking of guitar strings, one thought flashed through my head: “I’ve been transported into a Wes Anderson film.” And who wouldn’t want to do that? I kept listening, and this song just got better and better; Leithauser’s voice holds no limits, perfectly in step with the backing instrumentals and production throughout. A post-Walkmen Hamilton is the perfect pairing with the post-Vampire Weekend Rostam Batmanglij, and that has never been clearer than with “In a Black Out”.
Mary Lattimore — “The Quiet at Night” Philadelphia harpist Mary Lattimore made the year’s most pristinely beautiful piece of music, super physical yet impossibly graceful, a breathtaking 47-string ballet.