49. Angel Olsen, “Sister”
Releasing a nearly eight-minute track as a single is a bit like publishing 8,000 words on the internet and expecting everyone to read it start to finish. But the magic of “Sister,” one of the standout tracks on Olsen’s My Woman, is that it’s impossible to do anything but listen to it all the way through. It’s a gradual ascent, like a day’s climb out of a hangover fog—a “Let the Beat Build” for guitars. The lyrics are an epiphany about a lost, unfulfilled love that you realize along with Olsen. “She came together like a dream that I didn’t know I had,” she sings, piecing it together in the opening verse; in the second it’s a plea: “Show me the future / Tell me you’ll be there.” By the end, she’s certain she knew this all along: “I want to live life, I want to die right next to you.” “Sister” climaxes in an exhilarating guitar solo that builds, then releases, then builds again. “All my life I thought I’d change,” Olsen laments, repeatedly. The final crescendo is as satisfying as a good shit. — EMMA CARMICHAEL
48. Usher, “Crash”
Usher gets gently disorienting on “Crash,” speaking in the present about what the past will look like in the future. “Would you mind if I still loved you? / Would you mind if things don’t last?” he wonders, to the pulsations of producer Fallen’s late-night house. The verses bleed in and out of the chorus, the bridge creeps up and dissipate, and it’s all so precious and ephemeral like the concept of time itself. (It’s also the best Majid Jordan song that Majid Jordan had no hand in.) This should have been a massive hit; we’ll look back on the fact that it wasn’t and mourn, promise. — RICH JUZWIAK
47. Alicia Keys, “In Common”
This post-Jamie xx deep house track about hating yourself is something like a spritely sequel to “Unthinkable,” Keys’ 2010 soft focus hit about romantic dysfunction. Produced by Illangelo, “In Common” wears EZ-listening tropical house/dancehall tics because it’s what’s cool right now, but it gets real. “If you could love somebody like me, you must be messed up too,” Keys whispers, rejecting the “meet cute” conceits of countless club songs for some definitely-doing-some-work-in-therapy evaluations of a relationship that perhaps should not even be. A mature, unmoored mid-tempo anthem about age and experience, and how it all makes you wiser but also colder. — BRANDON SODERBERG
46. Joyce Manor, “Last You Heard of Me”
True, with a run time of more than three minutes, this one’s a veritable epic by Joyce Manor’s standards. But far more impressive is what fills that lifespan: a scene in which frontman/tattooed dreamboat Barry Johnson heads to the local bar, locks eyes with a woman, and, in an instant, sees an entire relationship flash before him, “Start to finish / Sad defeat.” Rather than engage, he fades back into the crowd, heartbroken before he even says hi. Even when they run long, these pop-punk heavies are swift with the sucker punch. — KYLE MCGOVERN
45. Parquet Courts, “Human Performance”
In many of his band’s best-known songs, Parquet Courts’ Andrew Savage sounds harried and frantic, cramming as many syllables as possible into a given line, piling up a narrative with detail after telling detail. On “Human Performance,” he scales back the assault while chronicling the dissolution and aftermath of a once-happy relationship, unspooling slow dactyls and trochees, revealing an almost Elizabethan syntax: “Those pristine days I recall so fondly / so few are trials when a life isn’t lonely.” The mannered delivery suits the subject matter, which has the narrator going on living after a devastating loss, though he is beset by tremors and a sink full of dirty dishes. Aside from some light shouting and dubby delay on the chorus, the music, too, is unfailingly polite, accenting Parquet Courts’ wiry sound with an elegant Mellotron solo. Sometimes, when life is at its bleakest, the best you can do is put on a pleasant mask and perform like a human. At some point, if you’re lucky, you’ll start to feel like one again. — ANDY CUSH
44. Jessy Lanza, “It Means I Love You”
Like much of Jessy Lanza’s music, “It Means I Love You” is deceptively simple. It’s a five-minute complication of the most anodyne of lyrics: “When you look into my eyes, boy, that means I love you.” Lanza, with longtime co-producer Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys, crafts a track that turns footwork into the twitchy anxiety accompanying new love. Lanza’s voice is higher in the mix than usual, deployed for a purpose. She sings with the cadence of a dance topliner, but purposefully tentative, as if from another room; elsewhere her vocal’s pitch-shifted into another key or processed into crushed-out stammering. The restless track and vocal samples provide the propulsion Lanza’s vocal doesn’t. They’re like a cheer section, encouraging her out of her comfort zone: “When you go, walk away.” — KATHERINE ST. ASAPH
43. G.L.O.S.S., “Give Violence a Chance”
Let this real as fuck line play in your head on loop while staring back at the violent culture that dominates our fractured planet: “When peace is just another word for death / It’s our turn to give violence a chance.” It suggests an idea that shouldn’t be as radical as it sounds: that in a culture that disproportionately murders trans women and people of color, fighting violence with violence might be the only way to survive. “Give Violence a Chance,” which first appeared earlier this year on Illinois punk label Not Normal‘s Not Normal Presents… Hardcore compilation and later on the band’s Trans Day of Revenge cassette, is one of the year’s most vital songs. “Dead kids mean nothing to them / Left to rot in the street / Afforded rights when convenient / To protect the elite,” screams Sadie Switchblade. It’s an urgently necessary message: Make racists afraid again. — LIZ PELLY
42. Bruno Mars, “Versace on the Floor”
The second single from 24K Magic, an album that’s a patchwork of suave retro stylings, “Versace On the Floor” honors an era of extra lusty silk-pajama R&B. As a sincere crack at ’90s aphrodisiac, it works, and it’s remarkable how relentlessly sensual it tries to be. Despite the song’s boilerplate seduction methods—Let’s take our time tonight, girl, etc—Bruno is pleading earnestly here, as if he’s rewritten history to partner up with K-Ci. That he pulls it off is as impressive as how much time he says he spent getting it right. — CLOVER HOPE
41. KAYTRANADA, “Lite Spots”
“Lite Spots” echoes the wave of early 2000s house that was obsessed with Brazilian music via the likes of Ian Pooley, yet it manages to be singular in its intensity, almost to a surreal level. Based on a sample of Gal Costa’s 1973 song “Pontos de Luz,” “Lite Spots” increases its source’s tempo, and wisely maintains its funk. The effect is a sampladelic throwback to multiple eras that sounds as hallucinatory and colorful as the album cover for Kaytranada’s 99.9% looks. — RICH JUZWIAK
40. Young M.A., “OOOUUU”
“OOOUUU” isn’t so much a song as a series of gauntlets, thrown down bar by declarative bar in Young M.A’s disconnected flow. Yes, Young M.A likes women. Yes, she is tougher than you. Yes, she just said “Headphanie.” Yes, the song sounds a lot like “Hot Nigga,” by her fellow young Brooklynite Bobby Shmurda—and if you didn’t already notice by the end of the song, she’s got a line about “getting shmoney” to point it out for you. “OOOUUU” was a street-level hit in New York before it broke nationally, rumbling out of cars all over Brooklyn, and the neon afterglow of its beat and M.A’s drunken swagger vividly evoke the sticky nights of summer 2016 in the city. “Yo, bro, I think I had too much Hennessy … I’m not gonna lie, I’m a little smizz, I’m a little drizz,” she says on the intro, and she really wasn’t lying. “I wanted to be drunk while I recorded it,” she said in an interview with Genius. At the time, she was already making local waves with an icy freestyle over Nicki Minaj’s “Chiraq” beat, and wasn’t even sure what to do with “OOOUUU” when she finished it. “But something one day just told me that I needed to put this out—I thought this would take me to the next level,” she said. She was right. — ANDY CUSH
39. Maxwell, “1990x”
In voicing love, R&B artists often invoke heavenly bodies, be it Earth Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star” or Norman Connors’s “You Are My Starship.” But part of Gerald Maxwell Rivera’s genius lies in making that metaphor even more profound. “Inside the sky of me and you lives a star / Let’s ride the galaxy and find who we are,” he purrs on “1990x,” one of the Quiet Storm standouts from blackSUMMERS’night, his first album in seven years. Like Smokey in his ineffable prime, Maxwell rides a crisp beat and thundering tympanum as his cool falsetto nudges the song ever higher: “There’s no lyric to read from/ There’s just you and the moment.” In this way, Maxwell conceives of the ultimate slow jam: one that dissolves on the tongue yet lingers in the realm of the senses. — ANDY BETA
38. The Hotelier, “Goodness pt. 2”
If the nudity on the cover of Goodness didn’t freak out Hotelier fans, the smiles did. Surely, the band’s sunnier outlook on a “Taoist love record” would come at the expense of the raw anguish and incapacitating intensity responsible for Home Like Noplace Is There’s status as the zenith of 21th century emo. “Goodness Pt. 2” proves they haven’t lost any of their urgency, though it’s fueled by alternate energy sources—the confrontational dissonance of Liars, Animal Collective’s primeval percussion, Arcade Fire’s propulsive populism. These are all bands who flourished in the previous era of American conservatism, and are thus presented as proof that punk rock is gonna suck for the rest of the decade. But they were protest music of their own kind, proactive rather than reactive, visualizing a newer, kinder world that will sustain when hate subsides. While Home Like Noplace Is There tore down the foundation and fretted over the rebuilding job, “Goodness Pt. 2” is the blueprint for a better tomorrow. — IAN COHEN
37. Frank Ocean, “Nights”
Blonde is audacious for its lack of percussion and stirring sense of incompletion, but “Nights” is the closest to my platonic ideal of a Frank Ocean song: D’Angelo meets Phillip Glass meets, oh, Lindsey Buckingham’s songwriting. There’s no hard narrative or concept; instead, Ocean presents a series of vignettes that develop underneath a dramatically shifting song structure. He waxes nostalgic for the glory days of No Limit, details his move to Houston after Hurricane Katrina, offers a wistful “hope you doing well, bruh, everybody needs you” with even-eyed calm. “Nights” is the type of boundary-pushing, genre-crossing experiment that announced Frank as one of his generation’s most exciting songwriters, an artist who could fuse Stevie Wonder’s melodies with a working knowledge of neo-soul, hip-hop, and rock history. It’s a whirlwind five-minute tour through the avenues of Ocean’s brain—at night, while high, after sex, while missing your friends, while not having any money. It’s his humanistic travel guide. — MATTHEW RAMIREZ
36. David Bowie, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
It’s tempting to read the last track of David Bowie’s final album as a moment of clarity from an artist famous for encrypting his lyrics with esoteric references and subjugating his personality to a parade of personae. Grounded in a spare beat that allows harmonica and tenor sax and guitar to each float to the surface in turn, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” cuts through Blackstar’s jazzy chaos. “I know something is very wrong” is just the first of several declarative, first-person sentences in a song whose title is another. You don’t have to read tarot to understand what “skull designs upon my shoes” portend, but there’s ambiguity hidden beneath this suspiciously transparent surface. That harmonica line turns out to be a sample from “A New Career in a New Town,” a Low track that heralds rebirth. Even “I can’t give everything away” simultaneously suggests anxiety about death and unwillingness to shed his aura of mystery in the face of it. This is Bowie defending his inscrutability even as he lets the mask slip in a frank farewell to those who loved him for it. — JUDY BERMAN
35. Chance the Rapper, “Summer Friends”
Chance the Rapper spent most of his fearlessly spiritual album Coloring Book spreading joy through ministry, even as a sense of loss consistently threatened his state of happiness. “Summer Friends” is his lovely bittersweet memorial for Chicago summers that starts with funereal mmms and ends with Jeremih materializing like a chill Holy Ghost. A sterling preacher with a fried slur of a voice, Chance splices lucid childhood visions of lightning bugs, ice cream trucks and Blockbuster rentals with early recollections of shootings, invisible dads, lost kids and increased policing. It’s nostalgia that rings familiar and bleak, because summers of death still haunt a city where over 700 murders will have been committed by year’s end. On a radiant song about vanishing friends, he makes memories sound like ghosts. — CLOVER HOPE
34. Rihanna, “Needed Me”
Much as cohort Beyonce gets pigeonholed as an imperious queen, Rihanna gets reduced to the one-dimensional bad bitch—never mind how she’s making messy drunk-dials, feeling very intensely to Tame Impala, or leaving one-minute interludes for swooning. “Needed Me” is the closest to that more complicated image—possibly why it cut ahead of ANTI‘s more obvious sops to CHR formats to occupy the Top 10 nigh-indefinitely—but more human, and more complicated.
DJ Mustard’s production moves in bullet time, a blur that drives the blows deeper. It’s not a kiss-off so much as one long reverse neg, Rihanna throwing all the accusations women hear routinely—clingy, emotional, hopelessly romantic—back in ex-dude’s face. Dating life up for public critique, as a celebrity and as a woman among men? Rihanna flips that into something for the boys to jeer about in the locker room: “Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?” Years of criticism for her supposedly inadequate vocal prowess? Kuk Harrell twists Rih’s vocals into a shape so sinuous it’s impossible for anyone to reproduce live. (Countless have been seduced, then dismissed, by the prospect of “Needed Me” karaoke.) Ever-present psychoanalytic media drama? “Needed Me” is dramatic, but in the way a tank is: a set of treads to crush the hapless while the driver observes through closed-off glass, powerful for being indifferent. — KATHERINE ST. ASAPH
33. Radiohead, “True Love Waits”
Radiohead had been trying to record “True Love Waits” for a studio album for 20 years, before finally settling on a version for this year’s A Moon Shaped Pool. Prior to that, most fans knew the song only as the powerful acoustic closer to the band’s 2001 live album, I Might Be Wrong. Despite its desperation and heartbreak, the live version worked as an aspirational love song; as depressed as he sounded for the majority of the track, Thom Yorke’s soaring voice in the final moments ended the song on a hopeful note. For whatever reasons, literally hundreds of attempts to record it for three different albums—OK Computer, Kid A, and Amnesiac—all failed. The newest, likely final version differs from the beloved live recording in that all of the optimism has been drained from it; the song now feels haunted and resigned, like everyone Thom Yorke has ever loved is dead. Or perhaps—and this is more likely, considering his recent separation—it’s the sound of Yorke mourning the fact that the relationship that inspired the song has been realized, exhausted, and ultimately lost. — TAYLOR BERMAN
32. Kanye West, “Fade” ft. Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign
Kanye said the raw, brutal house hailing from his hometown of Chicago informed the creation of Yeezus, but on The Life of Pablo’s closing track, he finally made that influence as blatant as an 808 smacking you on the ass. “Fade” cribs its bass line from Larry Heard’s “Mystery of Love,” and throws in some other samples from back east including solo productions from each of NYC’s Masters at Work—there’s Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez manning Barbra Tucker’s “I Get Lifted,” and Louie Vega behind the boards for Harddrive’s “Deep Inside”. It retains the menacing quality of that early Chicago stuff, though, and though neither Kanye nor the track’s guests Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign are associated with house, everyone sounds perfectly comfortable. It would peak as a solid genre exercise if it weren’t for the video featuring Teyana Taylor sweating, Jennifer Beales-ing, devouring her husband Iman Shumpert, and then turning into a cat. House is a feeling, but that clip was really, really something. — RICH JUZWIAK
31. D.R.A.M., “Broccoli” ft. Lil Yachty
When hip-hop crooner D.R.A.M. emerged from obscurity in 2014, he banked off “Cha Cha,” a whimsical song that sampled the Star World song from Super Mario Bros. What might have been a one-off in an earlier era found a home as the internet cracked open a new aesthetic universe: left field SoundCloud singles found supportive niches like the playlists of Soulection radio, or alongside Chicago’s indie hip-hop scene. (D.R.A.M. opened for Chance the Rapper on the Family Matters tour.) But what form would crossover take? “Broccoli”‘s great strength is that it owns its eccentricity, broadcasting this idiosyncrasy without compromise. It is an odd record to be so huge, its production just spare piano and rumbling drums emulating the distortion of 808s rattling the trunk of an old car. Lil Yachty, whose sly ebullience made him the song’s imperfectly perfect match, has its most memorable lines, rapping about Hulk Hogan and dropping a winking threat about Columbine that helps keep preciousness at bay. But it’s D.R.A.M.’s chorus that provides the real hook, embodying his m.o. of liberating, unpredictable, anything-can-happen possibility: “Ain’t, no, telling, what, I’m, finna, be ooooonnn!” — DAVID DRAKE
30. YG, “FDT” ft. Nipsey Hussle
The most cutting-edge conversations that came out of Ferguson unrest, the Baltimore Uprising, and other bursts of protests revolved around declarations that old ways—like respectability politics and the myths of appeasement—had to go. It’s a comfort with being uncouth that’s made this second civil rights movement so vital, and the feeling found its anthem with “FDT.” YG’s strolling diss track for the Donald offers up a lewd pile-on to someone who deserves nothing better—so it’s just “Fuck Donald Trump” over and over again, along with some spat-out threats and Nipsey Hussle offering a brusque history of the past few decades (“Reagan sold coke, Obama sold hope/ Donald Trump spent his trust fund money on the vote”). “FDT” saw the Donald as a threat back when many were still thinking his rise in popularity was a momentary lapse of nationwide reason. What was supposed to be a song to get us through a few months is now one that’ll be shouted for the next four years, because this clown is now our president. Fuck Donald Trump. — BRANDON SODERBERG
29. Sheer Mag, “Can’t Stop Fighting”
One of the more charming tropes of rock’n’roll are songs that are ostensibly about fighting, but sound more like they’re about hanging out and listening to rock’n’roll. Thin Lizzy were obviously great at this, so were KISS and Warrant, but Sheer Mag wield this trope with newfound power. “Can’t Stop Fighting” turns the horrors of street assault and women stuck working in Mexican maquiladoras into a sweaty jukebox jam. The fear and retribution underpinning the song becomes far more sinister because the Philadelphia indie-for-lifers make music in a parallel universe where the riff holds more sway than the hook. Sheer Mag are borne of riffs, tempered in riffs, they got two guitars that seem to be made entirely of riffs. Their riffs rule, and “Can’t Stop Fighting” is full of them, with the soul-punk howl of Tina Halladay leading the show. If fists won’t fly, bet hips will shake. — JEREMY D. LARSON
28. Young Thug, “Webbie” ft. Duke
Before he untangled himself from too many contracts and began his tenure with street-rap hub 300 Entertainment, any new Thugger track was a major event. Now, they’re commonplace: Young Thug released three projects in 2016, without counting his collaborative tape with T.I. and show-stealing features, and picking favorites among Thug’s data dumps requires attention and patience. August’s JEFFREY was brief and more immediate, however—a page-turner. It doubled down on single-prospective hooks and diverse production, sounding like an album rather than session tapes. “Webbie” has the strongest ear worm on the record (“I told her roll me up a blunt and I’ma face it, eeeeyyy”) to match its extroverted, capering production. A perfect late-summer jam, it channels the immediate appeal of earlier Thugger breakthroughs like “Danny Glover” or “Givenchy.” You can rap along easily with these verses, which fluidly swap images romance and trapping in the mode of all of Thug’s best work. It’s more straightforward than the average Thugger fantasia, but just as ecstatic. — WINSTON COOK-WILSON
27. Ariana Grande, “Into You”
Ariana Grande went to great lengths to assert her maturity in 2016 as both a pop star and a confident feminist—a Dangerous Woman, if you will—capable of transcending the tender confines of her teenybopper days without relying on shock value. No song on her standout LP demonstrated this evolution more powerfully than dynamo single “Into You”, a surging paean to that sweet moment when love shifts from possibility to destiny, and the dance floor tremors in turn. Precise and glittering like the ornamental shell of a Fabrége egg, the song’s masterful arrangement offers a rich case study in four-on-the-floor dynamics and vocal layering, galvanizing Grande’s wispy soprano into an unstoppable vessel, frigid and yet familiar. — ZOE CAMP
26. Drake, “One Dance”
Drake clearly adores his role as tastemaker, plucking artists from various levels of obscurity and gifting them collaborations, remixes, slots on his internet radio show or, at the very least, Instagram shoutouts. “One Dance,” the biggest hit in a career engorged on them, was his most daring attempt at tastemaking yet, with a sample pulled from the London underground circa 2009, a guest vocalist from Nigeria, and the voice in his own throat from Jamaica. This was less curation than it was mad science—with the help of a few trusty sidekicks, he welded these parts into a vehicle for world domination. Like Tony Stark flying his Iron Man suit into the stratosphere, Drake converses with the disembodied voices he assembled to guide him, situating himself in the fluid middle between Kyla’s yearning and Wizkid’s bravado. “One Dance” could have gone very wrong, but it’s remarkable in its execution, and like any good engineer—of pop or otherwise—Drake doesn’t let you see the seams. — JORDAN SARGENT
25. Bon Iver, “33 ‘GOD'”
Justin Vernon stayed at the Ace Hotel. We know this, because halfway through Bon Iver’s “33 ‘GOD’,” just before pounding drums break the calm of the song’s introduction, Vernon evacuates the name of America’s most stylish chain of lodgings like a kidney stone: “Staying at the Ace Hotel!” On a purely musical level, 22, A Million represents a left turn toward abstraction for Bon Iver, after the hushed winter confessionals of For Emma, Forever Ago and the widescreen visions of the self-titled album. And while it’s true that the blips and sliced-up sounds might alienate early fans, and that a room at the Ace is pretty much the polar opposite of the cabin in the woods where the project got its start, “33 ‘GOD’” is as personal as anything in the Bon Iver catalog. Accompanied by a chirping Jim Ed Brown sample, Vernon is conversational and dreamlike, laying out a series of concrete but apparently unconnected scenarios, all with an urgency that seems unsuited to the mundane subject matter: “Sent your sister home in a cab,” “I’d better fold my clothes,” “I’d be happy as hell if you stayed for tea.” It’s like he wrote a diary or to-do list, and then, like William Burroughs, ripped it up and used the pieces to make something new. — ANDY CUSH
24. Nick Cave, “I Need You”
“Fuck, what happened to my face?” Nick Cave asks himself in One More Time With Feeling, the intimate companion documentary to the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree. He is peering into a mirror, baffled as to how he became the tired, wrinkled, nearly 60-year-old man he sees. “I Need You” revisits two of Cave’s perennial obsessions—love and death—but it’s a song that could only have come from the current incarnation of the once-fearsome musician, a grieving father keenly aware of his own mortality. The aging voice that matches his weathered face quivers above somber cymbals and softly droning synths. He conjures the apparition of a woman “standing there in the supermarket / With your red dress falling,” but instead of envisioning their romance, he jumps ahead to mourn her inevitable disappearance from his life. Death’s triumph over love isn’t immediate, though. Cave’s newfound vulnerability has opened the door to some fleeting form of hope—a tiny bright spot on a bleak album. When his intensifying pleas of “I need you” drown out his nagging certainty that “nothing really matters,” it’s a momentary vindication of desire over fatalism from a songwriter who’s spent decades in thrall to both impulses. — JUDY BERMAN
23. Radiohead, “Daydreaming”
Radiohead have spent the vast majority of their career in a state of constant, pained clairvoyance. Less a band then four unlucky doomsday prophets-turned-pied-paupers, the past twenty-five years’ worth of output have presented us with scene after scene of impending oblivion: seas of mute men sprawled out in the street from the gravity of some dark secret, stomping dinosaurs and interminable ice ages, suicide on CCTV. “Daydreaming”, however, represents a rare look to the past, a sentimental mood director Paul Thomas Anderson illustrated simply but effectively in his sweeping, cinematic visual for the song. Frontman Thom Yorke crosses 23 thresholds, later revealed (in reverse) as “half of my love/ half of my life”—the time he spent with his long-term partner before separating, as well as the band’s lifespan—before blearily inching into a mountainside cave. The orchestral storm clouds may hang heavy overhead, but even in this dispatch from the band’s dark future, we hear the flickering echoes of a more soothing past—an innocence not even time can erase. — ZOE CAMP
22. Miranda Lambert, “Vice”
Once more, the protagonist stumbles out of a stranger’s bed, shoes in hand. The smoky reverb-thick arrangement is a din; it sounds like a hangover, too many shots of Wild Turkey with Mr. Good Lookin’. Miranda Lambert has known women like this; she may have been a woman like this. But no sulking allowed, despite the title. Using 2007’s “Guilty in Here” as model, Lambert and her collaborators realize everything’s due for reexamination. No more gunpowder and lead, no more broken hearts. Although “Vice” begins with a sampled needle falling on vinyl, the single avoids the longing for a superannuated gentility captured on 2014’s “Automatic” like a dead moth in a screen. “I’ll be where my reputation don’t precede me,” sings pop music’s best singer and songwriter, bravado-free. — ALFRED SOTO
21. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”
This, technically, is the second major track in 2016 by an artist meditating on his own impending death. But while “Lazarus” provided shock—that of a skeletal Bowie retreating into eternal shadow—there is nothing shocking about You Want It Darker, album or track. Cohen’s music has lingered before death’s door for decades. Even his most despairing tracks—upon his passing many people revisited, for both of the obvious reasons, “The Future” and “Democracy”—are delivered not with a bang but a shrug. The setting here is funereal in a cursory way, muted organs and backing choral murmurs by the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir. It’s a Leonard Cohen song, so a lover is bound to appear, but they depart in one line, with none of Cohen’s typical erotics. There’s a firing squad, but by now Cohen can’t even pretend to muster a shade of outrage. There are demons, but the “middle-class and tame” sort from the eschatology of self-help. The title, once again, suggests lovers’ talk and delivers ennui. You want it darker? Very well: you got it darker. As in reality, all that’s there is the thin comfort of resignation. — KATHERINE ST. ASAPH
20. PJ Harvey, “The Wheel”
“The Wheel” is a harvest-time jam speckled with poly-harmonized refrains, the most infectious single The Hope Six Demolition Project has to offer; it begs you to sing along. “Now you see them, now you don’t / Faces, limbs, a bouncing skull” is a sickening turn of phrase, words a horror-flick franchise antagonist might sing to his latest victim, but in P.J. Harvey’s fulsome, impassive voice, this imagery is defanged and aestheticized. It mirrors how the devastation of genocide and war are stripped of significance as incessant social-media overload swamps attention spans, curtails empathy, and boils tragedies into data blips to be acknowledged and then dismissed. “Hey, little children, don’t disappear,” Harvey calls, before her fellow players respond in chorus as hand-claps pop around all them: “I heard it was 28,000.” Easy enough to listen to but difficult to hear, “The Wheel” is an ironic, self-implicating pleasure in this endless, trying year. — RAYMOND CUMMINGS
19. The 1975, “The Sound”
Brilliant gadflies typecast as boy-band pop-tarts or idiots who think they’re deep? “You say I’m such a cliche, I can’t see the difference in it either way,” Matt Healy quips on “The Sound,” a pill-poppin’, Ibiza-bound outlier on the 1975’s 75-minute arena-emo spectacle of a sophomore LP where Healy uses the words “sycophantic,” “prophetic,” “Socratic” and “Epicurean” to convince a clingy ex that he’s way too shallow for this relationship. Oh, and he’s literally in a box surrounded by music critics in the video, which would’ve easily have been the 1975’s moment of self-actualization had it not been followed up by an 8-½ minute clip that climaxes with a masturbation gag. Wherever people stood on the chasmic divide caused by the 1975 this year, both sides could agree on one thing: Matt Healy is kinda full of shit. But “The Sound” is the best comeback possible: “So what?” — IAN COHEN
18. KING, “The Greatest”
The rise of three-piece soul group KING is among the year’s happiest successes. They’re Prince proteges—openers on one of his tours—without any of the … complications of that original cohort. Nor are they solely that: Paris Strother’s original mentor was Patrice Rushen, and KING not only produces their own material but lends lush, un-obvious cowrites and samples to artists like Corinne Bailey Rae and Kendrick Lamar. They’re steeped in neo-soul tradition but not in neo-soul clichés. “The Greatest,” well on its way to cult-classic status—the Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!-inspired video probably helps—takes a one-time R. Kelly conceit about the late Muhammad Ali and imbues it with timeless Sadean cool, nocturnal Los Angeles drama and deep romanticism. “There’s just one way to go, and someone’s gotta fall,” they sing—confidence and surrender in one effortless line. — KATHERINE ST. ASAPH
17. Danny Brown, “Really Doe” ft. Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul
Even in this post-“Monster” age of the all-star posse cut, it’s hard to find a collaborative track without a weak link. “Really Doe” is one such rarity, a temporary reprieve from the intensity of Atrocity Exhibition that keeps the album from escalating too quickly to full-on derangement. Danny Brown opens things up with some vivid fellatio brags; Kendrick Lamar surrounds each soliloquy with a victory-lap hook born to be blasted: “They say I got the city on fire”; Earl Sweatshirt steals the song in its closing verse with a succession of deadpan one-liners. (Personal favorite: “I was a liar as a kid, so now I’m honest as fuck”). The competition is all in good fun, which is one thing we desperately needed to make it through this punishing year. When even pop music is pondering death and fighting fascism, it’s a relief to see four serious MCs take a break for some skillful frivolity. — JUDY BERMAN
16. David Bowie, “Lazarus”
It’s hard to believe now, but 2016 once augured great things. A new David Bowie album emerged that first week in January, but just as quickly as the reality formed in our minds that Bowie might be back, he left his earthly body. Blackstar was no longer a promised return, but an eerie prophecy fulfilled. The ascendant “Lazarus” found Bowie again straddling the line between rock and art-rock, utilizing imagery that sang of one foot in heaven, another still planted on earth, his cell phone dropped in the process.
Yes, “Lazarus” draws on the Biblical character—raised from the dead by Jesus—and Bowie’s musical of the same name. But in making his twenty-fifth album his swan song and adieu to his generations of fans, he also brought Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” to mind. Always one to embody the feminine in his own self, Bowie actualized this Lazarus’ own divination with his final act: “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” — ANDY BETA
15. Maxwell, “Lake By the Ocean”
Maxwell is the master of slow-roasted sophisticated soul, so it’s no surprise he took seven years to release blackSUMMERS’night, the sequel to 2009’s BLACKsummers’night and the second installment of an album trilogy he announced all the way back in 2005. It’s perhaps far too much time to not be forgotten, but Maxwell is a forbidden fruit that never goes stale, not a daily nutrient. “Lake By the Ocean” shines as another of his signature devotional songs, with an innate grace that reflects the ebb and flow of a long-term relationship. Maxwell is still there when he wants to be, challenging and probing with questions about the curvatures of love without ever being straightforward. The exploration—the bending and the elusiveness—is the lesson. The man wants eternal love, and adult contemporary R&B still needs its beacons. — CLOVER HOPE
14. Kevin Gates, “2 Phones”
Last year, neo-soul sage Erykah Badu released “Phone Down,” a modern love song about intimacy as a cure for internet addiction. Its central conceit was that affection could cut through the overwhelming stream of data, dislodging the pocket encyclopedias from our twittering fingers. Kevin Gates, however, is somewhere on the opposite end of the spectrum, where phones are often the primary signal carriers of his romances, and most of his other transactions. “Phone be interrupting me while I’m recording / Phone be making women feel unimportant,” he raps on “2 Phones,” a hustle anthem that champions being perpetually connected to everything—the plug, the load, the bitches, the dough, etc.—and, thus, not actually being meaningfully connected to anyone in particular. Wildly, he even suggests four phones might not be enough to handle the traffic. It’s a classic coke dealer calling card packaged with one of Gates’ signature hoarse hooks, scraping the very bottom of the beat and gliding all at once. — SHELDON PEARCE
13. A Tribe Called Quest, “We the People…”
Is the president-elect really gonna build a wall near the country’s southern border? Just think about how insane that sounds. On “We The People…,” A Tribe Called Quest chastise Donald Trump in the most sarcastic way possible, taking his racist rhetoric and throwing it in his face. “All you Mexicans, you must go,” Q-Tip raps. “Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways.” The hook conveys the fear felt by minorities in the wake of Trump’s presidential victory—that somehow, he’d find a way to rid the nation of its oppressed communities. Yet in a very real way, “We The People…” also serves as a rallying cry for the underserved, those who don’t know what’s next, but but who are willing to stand up for their peers. We’re not going anywhere. — MARCUS J. MOORE
12. Beyoncé, “Sorry”
“Sorry,” Lemonade’s most boastful and indignant track, confirmed the cheating narrative the tabloids had hinted at since well before 2014’s bizarre Knowles-Carter elevator faceoff. In that infamous elevator video, Beyoncé stands to the side, nearly still as an attendant. A few months later, a video of Beyoncé at a Nets game emerged: dead-eyed and flat, swaying back and forth while sitting courtside with her husband. Lemonade’s reveal—that the first marriage of pop culture had been, at least briefly, a sham—lent both moments a tragic context. Her sinister command to her husband to “call Becky with the good hair” also finally implicated Jay Z’s presumed “side chick” Rachel Roy, and accomplished everything Beyoncé needed to say about the “other woman” with eight withering final words.
And so “Sorry” is typically hailed as Lemonade’s triumphant mark, the part of the album where Beyoncé weaponizes the hurt her husband’s forced on her and spits it back his way (“Today I regret the night I put that ring on,” she drawls, mocking him). But weaponized pain is still pain, and it’s the implicit mournfulness of “Sorry” that’s earned its staying power. Beyoncé files the song under “Apathy” in the sequencing on her visual album, and it comes well before she turns to the pat metaphor in “Sandcastles” or the cloying forgiveness of “All Night.” “Sorry” might be a fight-back song, but it knows its own limits. If you really “ain’t thinkin’ ‘bout you,” after all, you don’t have to say so 10 separate times. This is the stuff of self-made armor—you stiffen your upper lip and roll your eyes to look tough, you repeat what people need to hear to make it seem like you’re stronger than this. “Middle fingers up,” she reminds us, herself, waving them in a now-iconic shot with Serena Williams, and then once more, for the back row: “I ain’t thinking ’bout you.” The next song on the album, “6 Inch,” is filed under “Emptiness.” When you hear it like this, those dead eyes don’t look tragic. They’re resilient. — EMMA CARMICHAEL
11. Chance the Rapper, “No Problem” ft. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne
Chance the Rapper probably never need to make a single for the radio, though nobody would have minded if he happened to stumble into one. “No Problem,” the lead single off his third solo mixtape, managed the neat trick of being engineered for pop success while still feeling like a happy accident. With 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne, Chance stepped a bit outside his little self-constructed galaxy, ceding the song to two of rap radio’s most familiar and reliable voices. Still, “No Problem” nonetheless sounds like it only could have come from Chance—he has struck true to the song’s anti-label sentiment, and the squeaky, almost imperceptible beat showed that Chance could stage the takeover he promised without compromising his idiosyncrasies. — JORDAN SARGENT
10. Blood Orange, “Best to You”
“Best to You” is about unlived potential, but its nihilistic undertones are what make it so damn moving. Is it about a one-sided relationship that’s unfulfilling on all but a base level? Is it a fantasy, wishing to be the best to someone who can’t or won’t love you back? Either way, it moves and aches like cyclical depressive thought patterns, the same telling you you’re not good enough for a perfect love, that your partner could be getting a more perfect love, that there is no perfect love. “Part of me is faking it all just for fun,” Empress Of (aka Lorely Rodriguez) sings, smiling on the outside, wailing on the inside.
“Best to You” broke the hardest through the surface of Freetown Sound, a mixtape of rippling ideas, sounds, and recurring melodies snaking their way through the songs. Hynes’ utopian vision of a disco-era Arthur Russell jam-meets-2016 record is realized here, through the smattering of cascading percussion over which Rodriguez emotes. When your inner voice is telling you something different from what your actions dictate, true catharsis comes from this music. Closure is delivered by the spirit, not the mind. — MATTHEW RAMIREZ
9. ANOHNI, “Drone Bomb Me”
Anohni said in an interview earlier this year that she engages in a practice called “rigorous honesty.” It’s an evolution of wokeness, an act of fighting the power while not discounting your own culpability. Set that in contrast with the U.S. government, who created a clandestine assassination program overseen by the Obama administration, who for years carried out hundreds of unmanned drone strikes in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Through leaked documents, it’s estimated that thousands of men, women, and children have been killed with full authorization from our president, some on top secret kill-lists, many others just civilian bystanders, all murdered extrajudicially in undeclared war zones. As of 2014, according to The Guardian, attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people.
Across her unsparing album Hopelessness, Anohni demands those in power practice some rigorous honesty, as well. As told from the perspective of a young girl whose parents have just been murdered in a drone strike, “Drone Bomb Me” not only gives a voice to the innocent, but paints a horrific and magical picture of war. “Explode my crystal guts,” she sings, as if the line between reality and make-believe is simply the red button that murders someone from a robot plane. But this inconsolable child’s life is not just broad pathos—it’s a fiery indictment from on high, made more powerful by Hudson Mohawke’s huge production that sounds like it was meant to fill a hundred empty armories. Using the slipshod morality of modern war, Anohni demands some truth from our exiting president who, now more than ever, we desperately want to believe in. — JEREMY D. LARSON
8. Frank Ocean, “Nikes”
If you were a Frank Ocean fan who spent years breathlessly waiting for the followup to channel ORANGE, it’s completely understandable that you’d have little patience for Endless: Forty-six minutes of what feel like loose improvisations, all arranged in a single track that you can only hear by playing a how-to video on assembling a staircase, and the staircase doesn’t even lead anywhere? Was this guy fucking serious?
Yes, but that wasn’t all he had to offer. Soon after Endless arrived on Apple Music, word came that Frank had another album on the way—and, the day after that news emerged, he gifted us with “Nikes.” A minute into the song and its accompanying video—the music’s zero-gravity atmosphere and the visual’s glitter-dusted VHS haze—it was immediately clear that Endless was only the beginning, a prelude to this, the Main Event. The opening track to Frank’s mercurial Blonde LP, “Nikes” plays like a microcosm of the album as a whole: the pitch-warped vocals, the drums that vanish midway and reappear later, the tender acoustic guitar drifting in. The lyrics flow like dream logic, moving forward with great empathy (salutes to the late A$AP Yams and Pimp C, a prayer for Trayvon Martin) and great economy, one stunning couplet after another (“Says she need a ring like Carmelo / Must be on that white like Othello”). Endless and Blonde are both mystifying in their ways, but this song is its own achievement, deserving of stand-alone awards submission, if Frank cared about such things. The wait was worth it. — KYLE MCGOVERN
7. Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam” ft. The-Dream, Kelly Price, Chance the Rapper
It wouldn’t be unfair to be slightly annoyed at Kanye West’s Madison Square Garden extravaganza—tying a fashion line with the premiere of a delayed album is a vain bit of synergy. But the lachrymose opening keys of The Life of Pablo opener “Ultralight Beam” immediately transformed the show into a communal hosannah. It was a gospel song to baptize willing atheists—hallowed ground for mourning (West’s prayer for Paris), personal exorcism (Kelly cloud-shattering performance), and surrender (The-Dream’s fragile croons). The vanity allegations also quieted as it played out, as there was no question this was Chance’s show. When the choir takes a resounding bow at the song’s end, you’re convinced salvation could be a secular act.
2016 was a beast that killed idols and begat villains. Even West was at his most fallible: Nobody could’ve guessed the Saint Pablo tour would end in scattered “fuck Kanye” chants. So as we enter the holidays ejected from the light and into the bleakness, never forget the chills felt when “Ultralight Beam” first blared through the Madison Square Garden speakers during that Yeezy Season 3 show, where West threw his victorious hands in the air as his crew shared in the joy. Don’t forget some of the stoic models, who quietly shed tears as they stood in a fully realized tomorrow. — BRIAN JOSEPHS
6. Rihanna, “Work” ft. Drake
Rihanna’s “Work” clocked in for January, and didn’t quit until well into the summer. Even amidst a wave of Top 40 dancehall-pop, it sounded like nothing else on radio. Sexy but not obvious is hard to pull off, but “Work” made it look easy: Heady, atmospheric, blippy, understated, the song bent through every conceivable interpretation of its title and still didn’t give anything away.
Drake’s guest verse isn’t as likable as much as it is a necessary plot point: He’s the smooth-talking antagonist in a relationship drama unfolding off-camera. Nothing’s resolved, in the song or between its singers. (The are they or aren’t they IRL drama fueled gossip rags all year long.) Rihanna’s auto-tuned hum plays us out, left waiting until the next time. “Work” was an unlikely song of the summer, though next time, let us be spared the indignity of cover versions by people who just learned about patois. — ANNA GACA
5. Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”
As the first advance single from My Woman, “Shut Up Kiss Me” was the first glimpse fans got of an Angel Olsen who’d donned a tinsel wig and doubled the size of her backing band, dressing them in matching powder blue suits with bolo ties. On her early releases, Olsen was often accompanied only by acoustic guitar, recorded in rooms that might as well have been chambers of the human heart. Her songs were intense, romantic in the sense of Byron and Schumann. And unlike the Lou Barlows and Elliott Smiths of the world, she did not whisper or mutter in monotone, but sulked and soared, matching the drama of her material line-by-line
“What’s so wrong with the light?” Olsen asked on 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, an album that cracked the windows on her sound, letting in some hooky lead guitar and a punk rock raveup or two. But even “Hi-Five,” that record’s big pop moment, sounds dour compared to its glammed-up analog on My Woman. On “Hi-Five,” Olsen was a solitary soul seeking solace in lonely people like her. On “Shut Up Kiss Me,” she has a loving partner who has gotten it into his head that she is preparing to leave him alone. Punctuating each line of the chorus with gatling gun eighth notes on her guitar, Olsen doesn’t attempt to ease his worries so much as she commands him to stop worrying. On an earlier album, a line like “Stop your crying, it’s all right,” might have been a consolation; on My Woman, it is a marching order.
Through all of these changes, one thing that has remained the same is Olsen’s burning voice: two parts Patsy Cline, one part Stevie Nicks, a dash of bitters, take two shots to summon the twin spirits of love and death, please drink responsibly. Hearing Olsen deploy such a magnificent instrument in the service of a song as straightforward and confident as “Shut Up Kiss Me” was one of the greatest rock’n’roll thrills 2016 had to offer. — ANDY CUSH
4. Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
Each family has its weird habits, its storied traditions. You don’t figure out what you don’t know until years later, when you’re sitting in an oyster bar and think, Jesus, I have no idea how to eat an oyster as the WASP next to you does something with a small fork. You’re the prisoner in the panopticon, unaware you’ve been surveilled and judged for what you are. The sudden self-awareness might paralyze you for good.
“Your Best American Girl” seems like a love song. Mitski Miyawaki sings about spooning, finger kissing, the sun and the moon. But the boy-meets-girl fairy tale remains a fantasy, because a yawning impasse exists between the two parties. It has nothing to do with love—the spooning might be good, the fingers yearn to be kissed. It’s as simple as different worlds failing to meet—the Capulets and Montagues divided, but more tragically quotidian. The girl works for a bank, while the boy is unemployed; the boy’s a seventh-generation Anglo-American, the girl a child of immigrants; someone’s white, someone’s Asian, and somehow, that’s just too much. Small tragedies of circumstance, and nothing else, but heartbreak isn’t lessened by logic. If this makes sense, then how could love ever work with anyone?
The track is simply structured—soft verse to hard chorus. There’s no bravura guitar theatrics, no head-rattling drum fills as Mitski slowly builds to colossally distorted catharsis. (Rivers Cuomo would appreciate it, even if he might be terrified.) Her voice, distanced and yet deeply wounded, navigates these fragile states until coming to a conclusion that makes my skin hum with its sureness. There’s no one to blame for how she was raised, even if someone else doesn’t approve. Does she? “I do, I think I do,” she sings, steady self-affirmation coming in just a few words. No moral judgment is cast; no battle is lost. Love doesn’t always work out, but in the trying, you can at least know who you are. — JEREMY GORDON
3. Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”
Delicate, lithe and potent, Solange’s songwriting has advanced infinitely with the added wisdom of adult womanhood. In October, she told Vogue she wanted the video for “Cranes in the Sky” to “showcase how we’re always moving in these spaces, and distracting ourselves with all of these worldly things.” “Cranes” served as one of the most healing moments on an album that unearthed, named, grappled with and released the multitudes behind black American pain, by utilizing black excellence. Here, she provided a protest song for what comes after the protest—a moment that reminded herself, and us, to pause and recognize that pain. In that sense, it also became a prayer, and while she only indirectly named what she was striving to evade, everyone understood the pressure of watching black life after black life be erased by trigger-fingered cops was too much, a spiritual exhaustion rarely recognized in pop music with such generosity and devotional beauty. Solange gave us “Cranes” because she, and we, needed it—escapism as necessity in a profoundly soothing tempo. Lord help us, we’re going to need it next year, too. — JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD
2. Beyoncé, “Formation”
So much of Beyoncé’s music feels instantly relatable, because that’s what ultimately makes a pop icon—the ability for people to relate, and their desire to try and emulate. Months before the election, Hillary Clinton gave an interview on Hot 97’s Breakfast Club and dropped a line about how she, like Beyoncé, carries hot sauce in her bag. The knowing reference from “Formation” was her attempt to gain some cultural cache and was gleefully shared through the feeds of millennials with the tag—and song’s next line—”#swag,” instantly raising Clinton’s visibility among black and female voters while spreading the colloquial call-and-response that the track commands. The power of “Formation” is that the most singular aspects of Beyoncé’s rallying cry were immediately commodified into a common language and ethos for groups of people who identify themselves against each other. It’s a song about the black woman’s experience as a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a beacon of power—it is not about all of us, but it’s easy to feel like it is for all of us.
For Beyoncé’s music to inspire female solidarity and sisterhood isn’t at all new—“Diva,” “Ego,” “Bow Down,” and “Flawless” come to mind immediately—but “Formation” felt especially important this year, because of how desperately the mainstream tried to understand black narratives. The looming political climate aside, the singer was pointedly speaking to a black identity and experience, and to an audience who wanted to be included in a very specific storyline. Here is a woman who reps Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas; who recruited sissy bounce queen Big Freedia to lead the charge; who is openly furious about how her husband’s indiscretion has forced her to be possessive (as if it’s a cliche); who is proud of her Jackson 5 nose and of her daughter’s afro. Had this song not been by Beyoncé, had she not perched on a sinking cop car as the streets rose up to voice that “black lives matter,” it’s unlikely the song would have become the feminist anthem it is now, emblematic of women who cannot relate to most of it, and who find catharsis and strength in its hook nonetheless.
When trying to pinpoint the heft this song carried in 2016, it’s understandable to return to the women who led similar-minded revolutions in protest or female affirmation, from Nina Simone to Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill. These singers gave perspective as routed through very specific lanes: hip-hop, soul, “protest music.” Instead Beyoncé and “Formation” recall for me Aretha’s popularized version of “Respect,” or Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” instantly recognizable pop hits and feminist anthems that make female black experience universal in a way that our country has never been able to. They ask for very little—respect, community, acknowledgement, a fucking break every now and then—something that feels victorious for all women who want the same. Beyoncé’s version is refreshingly pointed about its blackness while being charitable in its scope. You are forced to see her, and what she’s choosing to represent, before blindly following along. Okay, ladies: You’ve been hearing her all year. Now it’s time to listen. — PUJA PATEL
1. Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles” ft. Gucci Mane
In an ideal world, Rae Sremmurd wouldn’t be considered rebels. They’re unapologetic party kids who willfully resist any idea of the old-guard, instead performing as jesters of their own self-expression. Besides, where radio rap runoff comes and goes, 2016 saw a Swae Lee freestyle become the rallying call at the center of Beyoncé’s “Formation.” That alone was enough to make them a genuine phenomenon this year, even if they hadn’t released a new record.
Then, that album had “Black Beatles.” It wasn’t supposed to be a single, but when Sremmlife 2 dropped, it became clear it was something special. Mike WiLL’s polyrhythmic production was a work of Aquarian alchemy. Swae Lee’s performance, a slide through staccato chants and mellifluous caroling, transformed tropes (“She think she love me, I think she trollin’”) into distinctive Sremmisms. Slim Jxmmi provided a barrel-chested anchor verse, subverting the mo money, mo problems mantra—“I had haters when I was broke, I’m rich, I still got haters / I had hoes when I was broke, I’m rich, I’m still a player”—into a generation-specific boast. (You can be unemployed and drowning in student debt, and still thriving.) There was a flourishing feature from a newly-freed Gucci Mane, who’d discovered Mike WiLL, who’d then discovered Rae Sremmurd—a righteous ascension for three different movements of raucous Atlanta rap.
The song was already buzzing before it became the score of the Mannequin Challenge, one of the year’s defining memes. The visual flashpoint was without a soundtrack before Rae Sremmurd’s team, in a stroke of brilliance, saw an opportunity to entrench the duo further within the zeitgeist. Rae Sremmurd’s concert version became definitive enough for “Black Beatles” to score the Clinton campaign, Michelle Obama, and Paul McCartney’s takes. Once again, young African-Americans were essential in showcasing the potential of short form video. (RIP, Vine.)
But where temporary exposure replaced compensation and attribution for many of these viral creators, Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee’s escaped the shadow of virality—pockets right, fur coat fluffed, melanin intact. Their song went to #1 on the charts; they got to laugh at the old rap heads who looked down on them from day 1. Were they still just a flash in the pan? Did it matter, if the flash was this bright? No song provided more of a joyous reprieve during a year where the Earth crumbled with every degree of rotation. If the White Beatle wasn’t above this thrill, neither are you. — BRIAN JOSEPHS