Our Top 25 Songs of 2016.
10. Chance The Rapper feat. 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne – “No Problem” [Self-Released]
“No Problem” comes across as the cheeriest, warmest, most good-hearted banger of 2016 – remarkable given that its chorus is an open threat against record labels. It was a stroke of empathy and genius to hire Lil Wayne for the third verse; not only has Weezy had label troubles of his own for years, but nobody has ever sounded more lovable telling you about the ways they’ll fuck you up. Add an on-fire 2 Chainz – who scrounged on the D-list for years before his astonishing breakthrough – and you get one of the best three-fers in recent rap memory.
The music industry is Chance’s great enemy, as he’ll tell you throughout Coloring Book. Given how pious he is, we know he’s not fucking around when he compares them to Satan. But a big part of the appeal of “No Problem” is that it isn’t an indictment, just a fun slice of classic shit-talk rap. Chance has wealth to flaunt, and everyone in Chicago knows who he is, so why bother with kissing A&R ass? It’s easy to imagine obscure young rappers deleting their e-mail drafts to Interscope after hearing Chance rhapsodize about scooping blessings out of his lap. Still, it’s not like Chance became the biggest indie rapper in the English-speaking world through sheer luck. Hooks like this one, tailor-made for car-belting and drunken festival singalongs, certainly help. – Daniel Bromfield
9. Leonard Cohen – “You Want It Darker” [Columbia/Sony]
The lead cut from what now stands as the final album Leonard Cohen released in his lifetime, “You Want It Darker” is a prayer from a dying man who may or may not be the artist himself. Whereas plenty of words have been spilled about raging against the dying of the light, this song doesn’t just accept that the light is growing dimmer. It snuffs it out. There’s a kind of defiance in that act, too, an acknowledgement lurking somewhere in all this that being good, in the end, isn’t enough for one to get their just rewards.
The song’s funeral chords and Cohen’s lived-in voice walk the line between light and dark the way that Cohen had done so often in his storied output, asking to contemplate a little more deeply our motives and fears and landing on the decision that all that matters in the end is if we’ve readied ourselves for the inevitability of death.
Cohen was ready, it turns out, and he proudly announces this in the song, acknowledging that nothing more could bring him satisfaction and peace than the final dimming of the light, an exit that carries him to the other side. Could he have known what was coming when he sang these words? Not entirely, of course, but he’d reached a point in his life where the days, no matter what, were becoming fewer. Who is to say that one can’t race toward rather than run from the inevitable?
As usual, there’s a poetic ambiguity in his words. He did have to know that the song would live on after him and that the listener would take what they wanted away from the tune and leave the rest. Then again, we could absorb it all and contemplate the weight of our own lives. All that in 4:44? Yes. Remember, Cohen was a poet capable of capturing the spirit of a life or the spirit of the age in half that time. He was being generous with his knowledge and limited time. – Jedd Beaudoin
8. Radiohead – “Burn The Witch” [XL]
First conceptualized during recording sessions for Kid A, and tinkered with through the subsequent 16 years, “Burn the Witch” has acted as harbinger for the sinister rise in xenophobia and ethnic scapegoating that has swept the Western world and led to unprecedented voting results in both the United States and Radiohead’s native UK. While A Moon Shaped Pool may otherwise be one of the band’s least political records, opening track and lead single “Burn the Witch” is clearly the exception, as Yorke’s voice soars over pensive strings arranged by Jonny Greenwood in flat-out opposition to the demonization of the perceived “other” that has been going on in varying degrees since time immemorial.
In a year when bigotry has emerged from the shadows and infused itself into mainstream discourse, Radiohead provides us with an ominous anthem for unprecedented times, a song that’s at once invigorating and downright unnerving, its expansive swells of strings adding a vintage atmosphere to longstanding problem and culminating with the kind of tension befitting a Hitchcock film. Accompanied by a stop-motion animated music video that pays homage to the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man, Radiohead artfully calls attention to how panic and hysteria, often stoked by authoritarian figures, has brought out the very worst in humanity. – Josh Goller
7. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “I Need You” [Bad Seed Ltd.]
This may seem improbable on its face, but even coming from a guy who has spent almost 40 years with the Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds and Grinderman bellowing about stealing your soul, raping children and feeling his own head starting to smoke, “I Need You” is in some ways one of the most frightening listens in Nick Cave’s catalog, despite ranking among the Australian bard’s most musically beautiful and lush ballads to date. That’s because hearing the man responsible for the likes of “Stagger Lee” display such a heartbreaking degree of vulnerability in the course of starkly expressing his emotional devastation over the tragic death of his teenage son Arthur, who fell from a cliff in Brighton during the Skeleton Tree sessions, is deeply revealing to the point of fostering real discomfort in the listener. Only the best songs demand such a visceral emotional response.
“I Need You” actually comprises one of Cave’s simplest lyric sheets in a catalog of verbose, literary writing, and never explicitly mentions Arthur’s death. But insinuation is all that’s needed, with Cave largely just repeating a couple of basic phrases—“Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone,” he moans—as the track builds masterfully into a six-minute outpouring of guts. The doomy synth pads that open the track may lead one to expect Cave to approach his performance with his typical growling menace. But they only belie Cave’s true emotional state, underscored by his weary intonation and the song’s heartbreakingly sweet melody. For possibly the first time ever, he sounds broken and lost, and only by singing “I Need You” can he begin to heal. – Jeremy Winograd
There’s plenty to delve into on Frank Ocean’s stunning second record, but “Nights” may have been the track with the most surface appeal and still plenty to unpack deep beneath. On a record that lacked much traditional percussion, the thump of drums and the percussive tick of clock-like, chiming synths and guitar give the song backbone and bounce. And even though the outro of the track has some callbacks to its beginning, the metamorphosis of “Nights” still leaves us in a completely different – and far more somber – place than where it opened, one in which we are forced to compare the Frank from the first section to the much different presence we feel on the second, coming to some mournful and profound conclusions. The vocal shift is striking, going from full-bodied Frank to a thinner, meeker iteration that recalls the manipulation on “Nights.”
The lyrical metamorphosis here is also fascinating, from cocky, callous posturing (“Ain’t no bitch in my body”) to confessional and hyper-personal (“We could only eat at Shoney’s on occasion”). As a record, Blonde builds on conceptions the listener comes in with about Frank and his music and leaves them in a completely different place, a feat that “Nights” manages to accomplish on a smaller scale in the span of a single, shape-shifting, masterful track. – Grant Rindner