The Top 100 Songs of 2016

Top 100 Songs of 2016

Leonard Cohen You Want It Darker review30. Leonard Cohen – “You Want It Darker”
from You Want It Darker (Columbia)

As tragic as Cohen’s loss was in November, it is, as his son noted, somehow fitting that he passed with the knowledge that he had completed what “he felt was one of his greatest records.” In fact, the last three albums he made, all released over the course of the last five years, stand as the culmination of what the great man had been striving toward for his entire career. His voice had never sounded so sure and so at ease; his songs, while still curious and questioning, had found peace in the mayhem of life, the universe and everything. This lead and title track of his final album showcases his legendary dry, self-deprecating humor, as well as offering a poignant allegory for his diminishing powers (“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game”). Just as David Bowie did, Cohen managed to leave us with a beautiful final message that only truly revealed itself after his passing. – Max Pilley

cave-skeleton-tree29. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – “Jesus Alone”
from Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.)

This leadoff from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ gutting Skeleton Tree is emotionally heavier than most metal albums that came out this year. It carries a woeful drone that conveys thick mourning. The verses are kept in a reflective spoken word cadence while Cave croons in spaces where the chorus would fall if this was written with a typical song structure in mind. Instead The Bad Seeds layer sonic touches as this song progresses. It takes a few listens to hear how these subtleties creep in. Lyrically, Cave paints a bleak picture, made all the more intense as a result of some very real grieving. – Wil Lewellyn

Solange A Seat at the Table28. Solange – “Don’t Touch My Hair”
from A Seat at the Table (Saint)

The video for “Don’t Touch My Hair” is rife with classical imagery. Austere ionic columns back Solange and her graceful entourage, and folks in draped white clothing arrange themselves on marble steps like Raphael’s The School of Athens, a symbolic hub of intellectual tradition. Yet rather than bury their faces in parchment, they stare ahead, unwavering and shrouded in gold light. With this track Solange demands respect (“What you say to me?”). Her tone is sweet but self-assertive as she rejects a gesture which explicitly undermines black feminine individuality; she croons, “Don’t touch my pride / They say the glory’s all mine / Don’t test my mouth / They say the truth is my sound.”

Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” is a confrontational, steady, ethereal track, punctuated by gentle synths and swelling horns. Her vocals are smooth and carefully sculpted as the fingerwaves she wears. Musically, Solange has certainly earned the respect she demands. After all, who else but she could make the intermittent clang of a cowbell sound so sophisticated? – Paula Chew

9-16-preoccupations27. Preoccupations – “Anxiety”
from Preoccupations (Jagjaguwar)

I brought up the concept of musical ASMR/orgasm in a previous review for Hoover’s “Breather Resist.” But listening to that song and “Anxiety” side-by-side, I honestly wonder what I was thinking; the latter is clearly the better example. The song is a gradually enveloping piece of post-punk, but the recurring synth line, not quite coming out of nowhere but abrupt enough to give pause, is obviously its centerpiece. Imagine a passionate slow-dance in a rainstorm. Tears come to our eyes. My heart quivers. – Ben Braunstein

9-30-bon-iver26. Bon Iver – “22 (Over Soon)”
from 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar)

For even avid followers of Justin Vernon’s music, little could have prepared them for the music he would produce in 2016. Appearing to have taken as much influence from his time working with Kanye West as anything else, he has created a genuinely fresh fusion of folk and electronic music. This track sputters into life, before drawing on a sample of Mahalia Jackson singing at the March on Washington, and then we’re plunged into the impenetrable poetry that permeates the entire record. Vernon has said the song came out of a failed soul-searching trip to Greece, and that the number 22 has been significant at every turn in his life. What is for sure is that he is able to channel the same primal emotional power through this most processed of productions as he did on his stripped-bare debut album, and the studio mastery at work appears to have opened countless new paths for him to plunder. – Max Pilley

Blood Orange Freetown Sound25. Blood Orange – “Hands Up”
from Freetown Sound (Domino)

For all his vocal and instrumental proficiency, Dev Hynes’ strongest talent remains his ability to deliver complex emotional thoughts in seemingly simple forms. In “Hands Up,” he takes the deep, ongoing struggle of civil rights in the United States and makes it personal, speaking directly to potential victims of police violence and other cruelty black persons in America are subjected to. Hynes juxtaposes references to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (“Sure enough they’re going to take your body”) and the difficulty of survival for people of color in the U.S. (“Hands up/ Get out”) with seemingly simple instructions and requests that paint a window into the very rear and tangible fears of both Hynes and those he addresses here. Perhaps the most striking phrase of the song, to me at least, is “try not to be obsessed with your hating.” Even amidst all this senseless violence, Hynes is urging that those preyed upon don’t let their fear and hatred become or overcome them. (Note: In addition to all this, “Hands Up” is a perfectly produced and written ballad, a true stand out among Hynes’ already mesmerizing catalog.) – A.T. Bossenger

best albums of 2016 so far Pinegrove24. Pinegrove – “Old Friends”
from Cardinal (Run for Cover)

The Montclair, New Jersey-based quartet’s sophomore album Cardinal was a compilation of standouts, and its opener is a strong representation of the group’s perfect expression of desire. It reads like a mash-up between grunge and old-time bluegrass, with hints of country twang in its layered guitars. “Old Friends” takes angst and deconstructs it into a hopeful reprieve, steeped in edgy vocals and driving bass. Pinegrove finds their niche in inducing memories of aimless night drives during high school days, falling hard in love for the first time, and learning what are friends are really like. – Virginia Croft

Kendrick Lamar untitled unmastered23. Kendrick Lamar – “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013”

from untitled unmastered (Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath)

Kendrick Lamar closed out The Colbert Report‘s final season with this song in 2014, a then-untitled (and as it turns out, still untitled) jazz-funk groove that ended up on the cutting room floor during the sessions for last year’s To Pimp a Butterfly. It shouldn’t be so surprising that Lamar—who made 2015’s best album by our measure—still stands taller than most even by the standards of his leftovers. Still, it’s curious this one ever ended up left out the first time, its meditations on race and success simultaneously complicated and provocative, with Asians, Native Americans, African Americans and whites each linked to their respective stereotypes (religion, land, sex and greed, respectively) in a fabulist, futuristic funk-driven existential journey. At the heart of it is a central truth about the institutional racism that remains pervasive, and likely to get worse before it gets better: “I shall enjoy the fruits of my labor if I get freed today.” Success without compromise is rare, but sacrificing that which is most central to your identity feels like no success at all. Lamar doesn’t offer any answer to this conundrum on “untitled 03,” which may as well be subtitled “unfinished.” As an existential inner monologue, it isn’t resolved; as a standalone track it’s not missing a damn thing. – Jeff Terich

Frankie Cosmos Next Thing22. Frankie Cosmos – “On the Lips”
from Next Thing (Bayonet)

Originally a part of 2013’s im sorry im hi lets go, “On the Lips” is Greta Kline’s clever commentary on “what if?” and a testimony to the romanticism of public transportation. The song showcases Kline’s humble knack for succinct songwriting, wittily threading an allusion to David Blaine through the illusion of a near miss with a romantic interest. Former bandmate and Eskimeaux founder Gabby Smith contributes choral vocal harmonies keenly evoking the dream pop sensibilities of The Cranberries’ Top of the Pops hits. Frankie Cosmos’ short-n-sweet modus operandi is in full effect for “On the Lips,” hastily materializing as quickly as the next subway stop. – Patrick Pilch

Solange A Seat at the Table21. Solange – “Cranes in the Sky”
from A Seat at the Table (Saint)

Alienation and stress have come to plague so many of our lives. And in a post-election milieu, it feels ever more fraught and relationships to others feel that more tenuous. In “Cranes in the Sky,” Solange sings about trying to cope, trying to heal oneself through material things, through vices, through running away. While the song speaks to unease and to stumbling in the face of pain and stress, Solange remains cool. She is ethereal and powerful in her calm. Accompanied with a breathtaking video that finds pride and beauty with Black bodies in the land, “Cranes in the Sky” illustrates perseverance and strength. And when Solange repeats “away, away,” we too feel a lightness and an illumination of truth. – Jackie Im

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