Our Top 25 Songs of 2016.
5. Danny Brown feat. Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar & Earl Sweatshirt – “Really Doe” [Warp]
For the most part, Danny Brown spends his albums either working some shit out or getting too fucked up to care that he has shit to work out in the first place. Rarely does he ever cut loose in a way that really feels fun, rather than an attempt to keep the demons at bay. “Really Doe” is one of those exceptions. It doesn’t contend with the same internal nightmares that populate the rest of Atrocity Exhibition. No, this is a posse cut, pure and simple. This is four guys rapping and showing off just for the hell of it, and the song is all the better for it.
As great of an MC as he is, Brown is also surprisingly benevolent, taking a bit of a backseat and letting his friends spit fire. Ab-Soul shows off some of his undersung skill, sounding equal parts brash and smooth. Kendrick Lamar is Kendrick Lamar: you know what you’re going to get at this point, and it’s always a joy to hear. However, Earl Sweatshirt ends up stealing the show with a verse that turns one of the song’s repeated themes (“I wish a motherfucker would”) on its head in a tirade of detached fury done in a way that only Earl could ever pull off convincingly. One could look for depth in “Really Doe,” but that would kind of miss the point. It’s a blast, pure and simple. – Kevin Korber
4. DJ Shadow feat. Run The Jewels – “Nobody Speak” [Mass Appeal]
Spooling out on the high chords of Caterina Valente’s 1968 cover of “Ol’ Man River,” DJ Shadow’s single immediately builds an old-school beat as a bassline wraps snugly around both elements. Enter the equally smooth but punchy deliveries of El-P and Killer Mike, and the track becomes the militant variant of “Uptown Funk,” a throwback that feels completely of the moment. Shadow’s casting of Run the Jewels was a shrewd move; as much as their own work, his propulsive, swinging but bruising programming brings out the best in their dynamic. El-P leads off with his bratty, baiting braggadocio (“Picture this/I’m a bag of dicks/Put me to your lips”) before Killer Mike’s low bark adds even more punch to the twos and fours. As ever, Mike’s own playfulness and El-P’s political stridency shakes up staid, regimented rap duo roles, and their flowing interplay adds such rhythm that when a horn section comes in for added funk, one gets the impression that Shadow threw them in just so that the music could remotely live up to his guests’ own flow. The synergy between Shadow and RTJ is so natural that one is left with the hope that they meet again not too far down the road. – Jake Cole
3. Beyonce – “Hold Up” [Columbia/Parkwood]
The second track on Lemonade feels like a curious departure for Beyonce on an album peppered with genre experimentation. But before we reach the blues-y rock stomp of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” or the renegade country anthem “Daddy Lessons”, we hear “Hold Up”, a heavy song that feels absolutely weightless. The song’s life began as a demo from Diplo and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig that cribs the hook from “Maps” by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The lilt and melody of Koenig’s authorial style is definitely present in the finished version, but as with all the other stylistic excursions on the LP, Beyonce transforms that familiar feel into something more powerful.
While the narrative behind Lemonade is a textured story about infidelity, inner strength and the boundless complexity of the black woman in America, sonically the album seems like a PowerPoint presentation Beyonce’s put together to remind listeners just how versatile she’s always been. There’s an effortlessness to the instrumental that serves to highlight the richness of her vocal delivery, intoning individual lyrics with just the right measure of force, or tenderness. She hops between delicate coquetry and righteous indignation the way someone might ask to pass the pepper.
The real treat is how she’s not just singing to Jay, or the faceless philanderer of the song’s tale. It’s as much a confrontation as it is an affirmation of her self worth. It’s a self help check-in to reassert her confidence in the weakest of moments, surfing a wave of indie pop effervescence. What can’t she do? – Dom Griffin
2. David Bowie – “Lazarus” [Columbia/RCA/ISO]
Released the day before his 69th birthday, the video for this pivotal Blackstar track was David Bowie’s final public appearance, and from its hospital setting to lyrics calling from the afterlife, it seemed an attempt to prepare fans for something they didn’t want to hear. What we do hear is a drumbeat that passes for the dying star’s heartbeat and sax and guitar lines that sound like sobs. When he finally sings, “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” it was sadly obvious this would be his valedictory speech, and what a beautiful song to go out with. Bowie’s death was just the first call for public mourning in a year that seemed to have no end of them. As the year winds down, it’s still hard to watch the video without shedding a tear. We can be grateful for the chance to hear it and hopeful that Major Tom really is in a better place now. Bowie made some missteps throughout his long career, but his closing salvo was a harrowing work of art – and, with the instinct that stayed with him till his dying breath, a brilliant piece of uncanny marketing that capitalized on his own failing body. – Pat Padua
1. David Bowie – “Blackstar” [Columbia/RCA/ISO]
When discussing a song like “Blackstar,” considering the fact that it came from one of the 20th Century’s musical giants some 40 years after his creative peak, 30 years after he last enjoyed any legitimate commercial prominence—not to mention just weeks before he slipped off his mortal coil and succumbed to cancer—any especially effusive praise may seem a bit overstated. But let’s dispense with that notion right now. “Blackstar” isn’t just a great David Bowie song for his age. It’s not only a great David Bowie song in comparison to the decidedly uneven work he’s produced in recent years. We’re not even saying it’s great just because we’re sad that he’s dead and are thus blowing his final opus out of proportion. No, “Blackstar” is unequivocally one of Bowie’s greatest songs, displaying a level of seamless genre amalgamation, fearless experimentation and tastefulness the Thin White Duke hadn’t even attempted to achieve since the late ‘70s.
But it’s no retread of “Station to Station” or “Heroes” – like all of Bowie’s greatest work, the 10-minute epic is something entirely new and delectably strange. The first section’s bizarre cross-pollination between a stuttering EDM-inspired drumbeat, disorienting Middle Eastern-sounding chanting and a jazzy sax solo doesn’t seem like it should work at all on paper, but this is Bowie we’re talking about – he’s been spinning this kind of genre-bending weirdness into gold for a long, long time. That said, the song doesn’t kick into the next gear until that section dissipates into a more old-fashioned stretch of sunny blue-eyed soul, which sounds like an old friend coming home to visit for the first time in years. “I’m not a pop star,” Bowie croons. He was, of course, but we take his meaning – there was no other pop star like him. “Blackstar” is proof. – Jeremy Winograd