Top Twenty: 20-11
20. Lizzo, “Good as Hell”: If you looked only to the radio in 2016 for empowering anthems, you missed out on one of the best. This banger (which featured on the soundtrack of the most recent Barbershop soundtrack) from the talented Minneapolis artist had one of the most ingeniously infectious choruses I can remember: “Do your hair toss / check my nails / baby how you feelin / feeling good as hell!”
19. The Weeknd, “I Feel It Coming (feat. Daft Punk)”: Decadent Weeknd has his charms (see: all of his last album, Beauty Behind the Madness), but I think I prefer in-love Weeknd. Daft Punk knows how to bring the best out of great singers, and Abel Tesfaye is at his lightest and happiest here.
18. Chance the Rapper, “Blessings”: There are great songs on Coloring Book before “Blessings”- all of them, really. But everything on this 5th track- from Jamila Woods’ irresistible hook to Chance yelping “Good God!”, from Nico’s proud trumpet solo to that final question asking if you’re ready for the blessing- fits perfectly into its title’s promise.
17. Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”: Alternative music took a backseat in the music media to pop and R&B last year, but there were still plenty of gems worth celebrating. Olsen’s insistent chorus burns itself into your mind, as powerful a statement of sexual desire as indie punk has to offer.
16. Young Thug, “Kanye West (feat. Wyclef Jean)”: I first heard this one when it was called “Elton John”, which seemed appropriate given the plaintive piano that features so prominently. Not sure why he renamed it to “Kanye West” other than that the chorus of “wet wet” sounds kind like “West West”, but it does feature Kanye-level inventiveness in every bar.
15. Beyoncé, “Daddy Lessons”: Over the last four years, Beyoncé has embraced her music being seen as culturally significant, rather than just pop music. “Formation” was the clear statement, but Beyoncé performing the defiant “Daddy Lessons” on the CMAs with noted rebels Dixie Chicks was her most successful act of protest on the year.
14. Chance the Rapper, “Same Drugs”: I was initially more taken with the upbeat songs on Coloring Book, but the melancholy “Same Drugs” grew on me over time. Chance has said it isn’t even about drugs, which feels right; it’s really about the loss that comes with time as you move out of youth.
13. Migos, “Bad and Boujee (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)”: I didn’t take “Bad and Boujee” seriously until Donald Glover dubbed it the “best song ever” at the Golden Globes. I still don’t take it seriously, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been able to stop listening to it.
12. Bon Iver, “22 (OVER S∞∞N) – Bob Moose Extended Cab Version”: I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a song combine anxiety with hope so beautifully. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has been public about his struggles with anxiety, and I like to think creating this song was a balm for him.
11. Chance the Rapper, “All We Got (feat. Kanye West & Chicago Children’s Choir)”: This celebration song isn’t just a joyous ode to the gift of music. It also has 2016’s best lyric: “I was baptized like real early / I might give Satan a swirlie.”
10. Japandroids, “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”: I wonder if I’m supposed to grow out of songs like this. I’ve been worried lately that I’m becoming a cynical person. But the way my heart soars during this song’s chorus gives me hope that my soul has not been calcified by the world just yet.
9. Lecrae, “Can’t Stop Me Now (Destination)”: It is easy to be skeptical of famous people claiming to be victims of their fame, but “Can’t Stop Me Now (Destination)” is something different. Lecrae, who is the most successful “Christian rapper” in the genre’s short history, raps about his depression following not only the police killings of black Americans but also the widespread evangelical dismissal of those killings. A lot of introspective rap feels forced and full of self-help platitudes, but Lecrae’s best song since “Church Clothes” in 2012 finds him at his most natural and humble.
8. Car Seat Headrest, “Fill in the Blank”: If “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” gives me life-affirming hope, “Fill in the Blank” affirms the hope in my cynicism. Frontman Will Toledo yelps about a world telling him he has to be okay, that because of his privilege, he has to be happy. But this is a song that exists in the real world, and it’s okay not to be okay.
7. Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”: The track’s co-producer, Raphael Saadiq, turns everything he touches into golden funk. But let’s give credit where credit is due here; this is a vocal performance that few could pull off. Even as Solange plunders her own psyche to try to understand why she feels left behind and pushed aside, her voice is unbearably light until it isn’t, until she hits the word “cranes” with just enough strength to make you wonder where it all comes from.
6. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”: Critics can be forgiven for overrating art after its creator has passed away. That is not what happened with Cohen’s “You Want It Darker”. Cohen’s voice is hardly singing on this song, but it is hypnotizing, and the accusations he lays before God here are chillingly real.
5. Chance the Rapper, “No Problem (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz)”: “No Problem” ultimately may be about the threat of record executives telling Chance what he can and can’t do. But it came to stand for something far more interesting than that. When Chance burst into a stuffy boardroom with 2 Chainz and Weezy on Ellen, their energy was so infectious that the video became a sensation, even by Chance’s standards. On his tour, fans dance and sing along to every song, but “No Problem” becomes a verifiable dance party. In a year where the country desperately needed joy, Chance’s music promised a club where joy was possible. “No Problem” was the bouncer.
4. Drive-By Truckers, “What It Means”: There’s some question surrounding works of art involving white people wrestling with problems involving race. I’m not here to tell any person of color what they should or should not feel about white people entering black spaces. All I can report is how I feel, and I feel that “What It Means” is one of the most affecting songs I heard last year. Patterson Hood has always been an incisive songwriter. “What It Means” finds him grappling with the terrible truth that he doesn’t have answers for why his (and my) race keeps treating other races like shit.
3. Rihanna, “Work (feat. Drake)”: Rihanna has always played along the edges of dancehall, and on “Work” she dives right in. There are lighter songs, bouncier ones with catchier hooks in her discography. But “Work” drills into your mind, finding its purpose in its repetition. Of all Rihanna’s singles, it’s maybe the most effortless, the truest to who Rihanna has been all along. There’s no forced techno beats, no pop hooks manufactured in a studio lab, no pretense of any sort- just the beat and Rihanna’s insistence that all that matters is her voice.
2. Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane)”: Probably most famous for its backing of the ubiquitous mannequin challenge meme that thankfully is no more, “Black Beatles” is bigger than a stupid video sports teams did to look hip. On Rae Sremmurd’s 2015 debut, SremmLife, they tapped into the trap aesthetic for a potent slice of party music. SremmLife 2, and “Black Beatles” in particular, had different aims. There were still party songs, but overall, Rae Sremmurd were out to deconstruct the scene, rather than celebrate it. “Black Beatles” drips with malaise, even as it wallows in rock star hyperbole; the tension between the two is what separates the song from anything else with the “Mike WiLL Made-It” signature.
1. Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam”: This song still sounds incomplete to me. I don’t mean that as a negative. I mean that Kanye and his multiple collaborators appear to have tapped into a musical reservoir, and this song’s 5 minutes do not feel like they’ve plumbed its depths in the slightest. Kanye is always ahead of the curve. Whatever style he invokes on his albums, that seems to be the direction hip-hop writ large takes for the foreseeable future. “Ultralight Beam” ushered in rap’s newfound appreciation for gospel music. That’s not to say that gospel had no place in hip-hop’s history before this; that would be asinine. But “Ultralight Beam” is pure gospel with a little bit of rap. Kanye is barely even on this record; “Ultralight Beam” only technically qualifies as a rap song because Chance the Rapper drops a fire verse midway through. No, “Ultralight Beam” isn’t a rap song; it’s a prayer.
The 1975, “If I Believe You”
Aaron Lewis, “That Ain’t Country”
Alicia Keys, “Blended Family (What You Do for Love) (feat. A$AP Rocky)”
ANOHNI, “Drone Bomb Me”
BJ Barham, “Unfortunate Kind”
Bon Iver, “00000 Million”
Brandy Clark, “Big Day in a Small Town”
Bruno Mars, “24K Magic”
Chairlift, “Crying in Public”
Chance the Rapper, “How Great Thou Art (feat. Jay Electronica & my cousin Nicole)”
Charles Bradley, “Changes”
Childish Gambino, “Redbone”
Christon Gray, “Follow You”
Courtney Marie Andrews, “Irene”
David Bowie, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
Drake, “Fake Love”
DRAM, “Broccoli (feat. Lil Yachty)”
John Legend, “Penthouse Floor (feat. Chance the Rapper)”
Justin Timberlake, “CAN’T STOP THE FEELING!”
Maren Morris, “My Church”
Margo Price, “Hands of Time”
Michael Kiwanuka, “Black Man in a White World”
Miranda Lambert, “Vice”
Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
NEEDTOBREATHE, “HARD LOVE”
Parquet Courts, “Berlin Got Blurry”
Rihanna, “Love on the Brain”
Sho Baraka, “30 & Up, 1986 (feat. Courtney Orlando)”
Tegan and Sara, “Boyfriend”
Whitney, “Golden Days”
Past Top Tens
Leon Bridges, “River”
Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
Blood Orange, “Sandra’s Smile”
Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
Alessia Cara, “Here”
Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”
Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”
Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now (with Justin Bieber)”
Miguel, “Coffee (F***ing) (feat. Wale)”
FKA twigs, “Two Weeks”
Strand of Oaks, “Goshen ’97”
The War on Drugs, “Red Eyes”
John Mark McMillan, “Future / Past”
First Aid Kit, “Waitress Song”
Jackie Hill Perry, “I Just Wanna Get There”
Taylor Swift, “Out of the Woods”
Parquet Courts, “Instant Disassembly”
Sharon Van Etten, “Your Love Is Killing Me”
Patty Griffin, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”
Disclosure, “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Jason Isbell, “Elephant”
Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”
David Ramirez, “The Bad Days”
Drake, “Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)”
Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Amy Speace, “The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)”
Jimmy Needham, “Clear the Stage”
Trip Lee, “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)”
David Ramirez, “Fire of Time”
Lecrae, “Church Clothes”
Andrew Peterson, “Day by Day”
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, “When We Were Young”
Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion”
Christopher Paul Stelling, “Mourning Train to Memphis”
Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”
Adele, “Someone Like You”
Cut Copy, “Need You Now”
Gungor, “You Are the Beauty”
Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”
Miranda Lambert, “Oklahoma Sky”
Jay-Z & Kanye West, “Otis”
Matt Papa, “This Changes Everything”
Over the Rhine, “Days Like This”
Gary Clark Jr., “Bright Lights”
Bon Iver, “Beth/Rest”