Top 10 Songs of 2016

In a year filled with commanding, often political songs, what shined through as the very best?

I don’t want to repeat myself from my albums post and get into all the negativity of the year, so let’s take a moment to celebrate the positive. This was one hell of a year for music, much more so than the previous four years I’ve been doing this. Although it started slow, the year hit a sudden pace in the spring of quality releases, and never took its foot off the gas. While we expected new albums from Drake, Rihanna, Kanye, James Blake, Chance, et al, the year soldiered on with so many good releases that we ended up including American Football, the Avalanches and A Tribe Called Quest, bands that had been dormant for nearly two decades. It seemed like everyone and their parents released great music this year. Narrowing a list down to the top 10 songs was hard – too hard, really. And before I kick off this list, I wanted to include ten more songs, the ones I deemed #s 20-11, in appreciation for the fact that even the 50th best song of the year would stand up against the best song of any other year.

Top 20 Songs of 2016:

#20. YG – “Who Shot Me?”

#19. Anderson .Paak – “Am I Wrong (feat. ScHoolboy Q)”

#18. Vince Staples – “Loco (feat. Kilo Kush)”

#17. Savages – “Adore”

#16. Solange – “Cranes in the Sky”

#15. Blood Orange – “Hands Up”

#14. Lady Gaga – “Perfect Illusion”

#13. Danny Brown – “When It Rain”

#12. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Jesus Alone”

#11. Chance the Rapper – “All Night (feat. Knox Fortune)”


#10. Rae Sremmurd – “Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane)”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Just a banger, right? The year’s best banger came from the brothers behind “No Flex Zone,” and it not only played on one meme but helped to start another. The song spawned the “mannequin challenge” videos that jumped across the web and caught the attention of Macca himself. Paul McCartney gave his blessing to this song, which sees the Brown brothers comparing themselves to the Beatles, making references to both Lennon and “Day Tripper” in the lyrics. It also saved their career – their sophomore album slumped in the charts, and their first single didn’t connect – but this song hit #1, marking the first #1 hit for both Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane. Embracing the dark, political songs is great, but sometimes you need a release from it, too, and “Black Beatles” was the year’s best romp.

#9. ANOHNI – “Drone Bomb Me”

(Photo Credit:

The most outwardly political album of the year came from ANOHNI, who was infamously snubbed from performing at the Oscars for her Best Original Song, despite Dave Grohl’s extended performance. The album “Hopelessness” is filled with songs that are almost uncomfortably direct and political, like single “Drone Bomb Me,” told from the point of view of a young girl who has just lost her family to Obama’s drones, asking for her own death. This song, like the other great ones on the album, approach liberalism from an outsider’s perspective. There’s a lot of bad in the world, and the US started some of it. While Obama may likely go down as a great American president, ANOHNI is here to still hold him accountable for his mistakes – of which he made a few. His most egregious gets outlined in this intense, technically-pop song.

#8. Radiohead – “Daydreaming”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

This might just be the most complex song in Radiohead’s discography, which is saying something. Thom Yorke’s vocals and lyrics have always managed to find an edge where, thematically, he’s singing as or about someone who is edging towards their breaking point. But the opening lines of this song are, “Dreamers / They never learn / Beyond the point of no return.” It is no secret that Yorke and his longtime partner split after 23 years – roughly the same length of time since the band’s debut. His grief permeates the album and invites the listeners in. The song is deeply hesitant, like stepping in on a band who isn’t ready to debut a song but will play it for you anyways. Elsewhere, the band creates their spaciest rhythm since “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” like watching a star explode from a million miles away. In every aspect, this is one of the most interesting songs from a band that has constantly reinvented themselves.

Also, as with my albums post, I just want to wish the best to the family of Dr. Rachel Owen. Thom Yorke’s longtime partner, and the mother of their two children, passed away earlier this week. She was an incredible artist and teacher.

#7. Rihanna – “Higher”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Usually the shortest song on my Best Of list is a personal pick, a punk song. But this Rihanna track, an album track, clocks in at exactly 2:00. After Rihanna spends an album going through her different personae, she spends the penultimate song trying and slightly failing to be a completely independent woman. On “Higher,” she busts out a raspy and forlorn voice, singing to someone that she laments wanting to share a joint with. Lyrically, it’s pure Rihanna and vocally, it’s a reminder of how Rihanna got to this place in the first hand. It’s forlorn, a message to someone who may never receive it. But more than anything, it’s one of pop’s great singers absolutely belting in a way she usually avoids doing.

#6. Leonard Cohen – “You Want It Darker”

(Photo Credit: Metacritic)

I’m not sure if we did want it darker, and I’m not sure if we thought Leonard Cohen could really get much darker. But the title track to what proved his final album is a narrative that stares death in the face, and pleads for taking. “If you want it darker, we kill the flame,” Cohen sings. “I’m ready, my lord.” Even if it wasn’t his swansong, it would be a terrifying tune. But knowing that Cohen passed away only three weeks after the album’s release makes the song all the more brutal. Cohen spends much of the album coming to terms with his own mortality, but on this song, he sounds as if he feels that he’s lasted too long already. His voice has been low and grumbly for some time (attributed to “years of cigarettes and barrels of whiskey”), but it doesn’t hit a lower register than on this song. He has to cover bass for the gospel singers who cover part of the chorus. If your spine is prone to tingling, maybe skip this one.

#5. Car Seat Headrest – “Vincent”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Car Seat Headrest, indie project of Will Toledo, got a ton of press this year for the excellent “Teens of Denial” album. The album’s second single “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” also got press, but I would like to argue for the first single, “Vincent.” Ignore the >4:30 single version and skip to the original, 7:45 version. It’s a slow-burning rock song in the truest of senses – the song doesn’t even really start until the 2:30 mark or so, preceded by a slowly-increasing guitar lick. But in this case, expansion is better, because the song’s heavy moments hit so much harder after the wait. Not to mention, Toledo has written some of the best lyrics of the year. He starts the journey with “Half the time I want to go home / and half the time I want to go home” and later gets to “In the back of the medicine cabinet / Your can find your life story / and your future, in the side effects,” which is a powerful line stuck amidst a song full of colorful and demanding lyrics. The lyrics are depressing and very literally about depression, bu they’re so specific that they’re engaging and enjoyable, too. Which is a tough wire to walk.

#4. A Tribe Called Quest – “We The People…”

If you had asked me at the year’s halfway point who I expected to make the year-end list, ATCQ wouldn’t exactly have slipped out of my mouth. Their first album in 18 (!) years came largely as a surprise, even with the passing of Phife Dawg eight months earlier. But their album – sixth and final – was a goldmine throughout, with single “We The People…” setting the stage for their brief but triumphant return. The song, alternates in voices – Q-Tip and Phife rap the verses as themselves, but Q-Tip sings the chorus as a higher-up in white America (probably Trump). It’s a simple enough song, with Q-Tip rapping about how the black folks, Mexicans and poor folks “must go,” adding, “Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways.” For a band that always added politics to their music, it was a necessary awakening; if ATCQ is going to be this outwardly political, we must listen. The song matches the direct-but-effective lyrics with a steady, sturdy beat reminiscent of hip-hop when they were having their heyday. ATCQ are back, and what they have to say might just be more important than what anyone else has.

#3. David Bowie – “Lazarus”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Bowie left us a bunch of pieces to a puzzle, and didn’t give us time to put them together. The song obviously parallels Lazarus, raised from the dead. The video features a sickly Bowie, in a hospital bed, but also coming out of a cabinet (and going back in) dressed in a suit he would’ve worn in 1969. Unlike Cohen, this was Bowie’s final message, even if he did have eleventh hour plans for more music. And apparently, after everything, Bowie was worried about his own legacy. The song reflects that, with Bowie gleefully singing “everybody knows me now!” He even invokes Ziggy Stardust at points, singing about moving to New York and referencing the odd ass-related grammar error in “Ziggy Stardust.” “Lazarus” acts as a last-minute review of Bowie, from Bowie. It’s unpleasant, with ripping guitar chords and high-ranging saxophone, and multiple switches in tone. But at the same time, it sounds just like how Bowie wants to be remembered. I didn’t think it was possible to capture pure Bowie essence in one song, but of course – he did it.

#2. Beyoncé – “Formation”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The year’s best album chronicles the emotional reactions to being cheated on – from regret, to anger, to acceptance. But the logical conclusion of that is the album’s final track, in which Bey proudly calls on her fellow black women to be strong and proud. That’s not a new topic for her to sing about, but it’s still a very necessary one, and she’s never done it better than she does here. The song was released right as Bey crashed the Super Bowl, devouring Bruno Mars and Coldplay (who were, for whatever reason, the band actually invited to play). The video that soon followed showed a sharp contrast to Beyoncé’s previous music – she was riding passenger with long braids, she was flipping off the camera, she was standing on a police car submerged in water in New Orleans. Beyoncé is fired up, and her newfound political angles are necessary in today’s America. She has risen to be one of America’s most trusted singers and celebrities, and through “Formation,” she has accepted her role. Not to mention, it’s just a great song – the tremolo-ing strings that serve as a main instrument bolster the song’s MO as being a song that is catchy enough for pop radio, but also isn’t all that catchy – which caused people to look deeper into it. “Formation” stands amidst the year’s most direct and powerful political songs, and only deepens Beyoncé’s well of excellent material.

#1. Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam (featuring Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price, The-Dream)”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

There’s two Kanyes – there’s the Kanye who blasts off entire albums by himself – like Yeezus – and there’s the Kanye that devotes himself to giving time to up-and-coming rappers. When in full force, they’re both great. But the opening track to Kanye’s seventh album is purely the latter. His album opens with a straight gospel song, and one he’s barely present on. He does his verse and then steps aside, giving the mic to a choir, other singers and, most importantly, Chance the Rapper. This is honestly more of a Chance song than it is a Kanye one – he’s more present and has the best lines, and it more closely resembles his own church-infused music. But is still a product of multiple people, all of whom come together in a song that’s mostly a capella. It’s minimalistic to the core – something like 30% of this song is silence, peppered in between bits. This is by no means the most important, influential or immediate song of the year; but it’s one I’ve come back to dozens of times after an original mixed reaction. Something about the fluidity of this song draws you in for many, many listens. This song is the equivalent of finding yourself stumbling into a church of a faith you don’t believe in, but feeling welcomed, with all the parishioners caring for you. It’s inviting and warm, an approval of life. The album later includes some ridiculously sexist lyrics sprinkled throughout, but for the opening track, it’s all about peace, love, religion and family. This song truly acts as a destabilizer for 2016, a song to listen to when we get too worked up. Also, Chance’s line “My daughter like Sia, you can’t see ‘a” is just great. Go Chance.

Thanks for reading! Congratulations! You made it through 2016! 2017 is looking like it could end up being another banner year, so make sure to check back for more reviews. Also check out my personal blog at by the year’s end for my much more personal takes on my favorite albums and songs, because I just couldn’t justify making this 10 Jeff Rosenstock songs.

One Response to Top 10 Songs of 2016

  1. […] Problem,” or as a guest on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam.” The latter was our #1 song of the year, for [redacted]’s sake. Still, Drake’s song not only dominated the airwaves for an […]

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