Our Top 25 Songs of 2016.
20. Solange – “Cranes in the Sky” [Saint/Columbia]
An impressionistic retro-soul jam at once modern and timeless, “Cranes in the Sky” finds Solange furthering her own distinct artistic identity. While her sister has set her sights on pure pop music domination, Solange has been far more content to explore her own idiosyncratic brand of underground R&B seemingly without the slightest concern for commercialism. Indeed, rather than working with big name producers and songwriters, Solange has contented herself to work with like-minded artists across a broad musical spectrum.
Kicking off with a throwback, shuffling groove, the song builds seamlessly as strings ease their way into the mix followed by a wandering, sparsely funky bass filling in the gaps. When she enters, her vocals are almost tentative in a way that underscores the melancholy of the lyrics. As she lists all the ways in which she attempts to distract from her myriad problems, she begins to sound all the more lost within herself. By song’s end, she allows her voice to soar into the sky, an elongated falsetto vocal glissando easing its way to the top of her range. In all, “Cranes in the Sky” is a haunting neo-soul ballad that shows Solange continuing to grow artistically by leaps and bounds. – John Paul
19. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Girl in Amber” [Bad Seed Ltd.]
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree is one of the best reviewed albums of 2016. From its bleak darkness to its atmosphere of dread made possible by dissonance and experimentation, no one was really surprised about the quality of the record. But that doesn’t mean people weren’t blown away in the same regard.
When crafting a list of the best songs of the year, it’s easy it pick favorites. The true choice, however, lies in the tunes that best encapsulate their respective albums in a short, sweet package that allows people to say, “This is what this record sounds like.” “Girl in Amber” does exactly that for Skeleton Tree. It’s as beautiful as it is crushingly sad. It blankets the listener in darkness as it brings tears to the eye because of the sheer power music can have when it comes from the right source. This is a five minute-long heartbreaker that offers bits and pieces of what you’ll find on the record as a whole. Ambient noise looming in the background. Tinkling, depressive progressions on the keys. Cave’s voice as it offers its deep, deep sadness with its classic low-down timbre. Granted, this isn’t a song to play on repeat, but on an album so well-received—raved about, more like—it’ll make the hairs on your neck stand up straight while it proves that it’s not just the best and most focused tune on Skeleton Tree, it’s hands-down one of the best songs written this year. – Nick Gregorio
18. Kendrick Lamar – “untitled 03” [Top Dawg Entertainment]
While it may suffer in comparison to its predecessor, Kendrick Lamar’s surprise album untitled unmastered is just as triumphant of a statement as To Pimp A Butterfly. The difference between the two is really just a matter of scale: while one is a grand sermon bellowed from the mountaintops, the other is a quiet rumination, an exploration of its creator’s mind that’s more thoughtful than cathartic. The album’s third track actually predates most of the Butterfly material-it was famously the last live performance on The Colbert Report-so it dabbles in some of that album’s themes of identity and isolation. The song is a manic fever dream on which Kendrick picks apart stereotypes in a quest for wisdom and enlightenment. He blows apart supposedly “positive” stereotypes about the wisdom gained from east Asian and Native American traditions while chastising the largely white record executives who take the art of people like him and commodify it for their own financial benefit. One can hear the seeds of what became To Pimp A Butterfly on this track, but the presentation is less bombastic. It’s as if Kendrick is testing new waters, looking out to a world beyond himself and finding the explanations to be wanting. – Kevin Korber
17. Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” [Matador]
A song about something as small as feeling blue after a party wraps up and as large as original sin and the pervasive demons that keep us from being the people we want to be, Car Seat Headrest’s “Drunk Drivers /Killer Whales” is an alt rock masterpiece and the linchpin of Teens of Denial, one of the year’s best albums. Car Seat Headrest’s frontman/mastermind Will Toledo is an award-worthy lyricist who might be the best indie rock writer since Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, but he’s just as gifted at piecing together his instrumentals and creating songs that are grander and vaster than the sum of their parts. As a musician, Toledo never displays virtuoso talent, but he understands how to combine each element beautifully; he’s a serviceable singer with a tremendous ear for harmonies, and a workmanlike guitarist who knows how best to layer his fretwork. “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales” also happens to be one of the more masterful split songs in recent memory; while a lot of artists opt to render the difference more starkly, Toledo instead lets one song bleed into the other, mimicking the blurry string of thoughts that fade in and out of focus at a certain point of intoxication. There’s quite brilliance everywhere on Teens of Denial, but “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales” is a show-stopping statement of arrival from one of the preeminent minds in indie rock. – Grant Rindner
16. Rae Sremmurd – “Black Beatles” [Interscope/Ear Drummer]
After their debut album full of seemingly disposable hits, it was easy for some to write Rae Sremmurd off entirely. But Sremmlife 2 doubles down on the sing-songy hooks and quotable asides that made them such clubbing mainstays, while mixing it up with an eerie strangeness undercutting the proceedings. It makes sense that “Black Beatles” became the de facto soundtrack for the viral Mannequin Challenge sensation. The track, itself only a few shades more complex than your average banger, is infectious, but uneasy. The instrumental sounds haunted, but not by ghosts, perhaps just the lingering haze of the last night (or several) you’ve spent drinking and murmuring its chorus to yourself and your friends.
There’s a real sense of inclusivity about the track directly at odds with the implications of the title. It’s too chill to give a shit about the rampant Beatles slander that’s become so du jour for Migos loving internet denizens, and there’s something about the John Lennon namecheck that feels as self congratulatory as it does nostalgic. Mike Will’s woozy production sounds at home at any kind of party, no matter how low key or debaucherous, with pockets in the ad-libs for literally anyone to pop in, even if they don’t remember the verse’s lyrics (“They know meeee…”). – Dom Griffin