Illustration by Erik Carter
1. Rihanna, “Sex With Me”
Maybe “Sex With Me” was too backward-looking for ANTI, the album built to reflect Rihanna’s personal growth. Co-written by PARTYNEXTDOOR and only released as a deluxe edition bonus cut, it presents Rihanna as more fantasy than human, just as we’d known her before. But I’m glad it was eventually pushed as a single anyway, because there’s no disputing: sex with Rihanna is amazing, and that she says so is no less revolutionary than Beyoncé’s proclamation that she woke up like that. Women are pure, wet temptation. We do all this hard work, and there’s no vacation from it.
On “Sex With Me,” Rihanna hits an impressive array of flows. The beat holds slow, for partner dancing; it’s as luxuriously pulpy as a spa robe. To be honest, I’ve loved this song, but I wouldn’t have asked it to stand in for the whole year until recently. But now that things have gone hella wrong, may we all remember: pussy made the world go round. And it still does. — NAOMI ZEICHNER
2. Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles”
Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” sauntered into the collective consciousness this fall with a stoked, smoked-out air. Undoubtedly the year’s most rewarding sleeper hit, it was released as the third single from SremmLife 2 in early September, but only climbed to the Billboard No. 1 spot two months later. Much analysis of “Black Beatles” has laid its success at the feet of the Mannequin Challenge, and there’s no doubt that the viral video craze gave it a boost. But there’s something so inherently joyful at its core that it’s easy to imagine why kids and adults alike would desire to be suspended in its moment, one way or another.
Mike WiLL Made-It’s economical beat creates a wide open stage for the brothers Sremm to wild out on, their successes and excesses as casually slung as their Gucci jackets. The song’s cultural reclamation — rock has its roots in black music — even caught the affection of 74-year-old Beatles founder Paul McCartney, an “old geezer” who knows music royalty when he sees it. At a time when there’s very little to feel good about, “Black Beatles” is an island of optimistic energy; a space in which to shrug off haters, spend generously, and have plenty of sex. No wonder we all keep hitting play. — RUTH SAXELBY
3. Kanye West f. The-Dream, Chance The Rapper, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin, “Ultralight Beam”
Forget, if you can, Kanye’s capacity for not just saying the wrong things, but the worst things — because he speaks before he thinks; because he’s stubborn in the belief that adoration and fame will shield him; because he’s thin-skinned and full of demons. For all Kanye’s godhead self-regard, it’s surprising how generous of a collaborator he continues to be, attuned to the splendor around him. “Ultralight Beam” is canonical Kanye because it’s magnificent and overblown, the type of song nobody else would ever contemplate making. It’s also a song propelled by the drama of others: The-Dream, shaken and wandering, casting about for faith. “So why send oppression not blessings?” Kelly Price wonders, resounding and truthful, before lifting her head and looking to the light. There’s Chance The Rapper, all gracious purity; Kirk Franklin extending a hand to all who feel “too messed up”; the choir, shading in Franklin’s words, a glorious reminder that we are weaker alone.
Kanye’s on the side of the stage, admiring his creation. It’s impossible to bracket his failings, for they have become the primary engine for his music. Perhaps it’s the depth of those flaws that compel him to try and make something so large — he’d have you believe this was the case, that it’s the war of desires, the tension between sin and salvation, fame and the scrutiny that comes with it, long-ago aspiration and today’s achievements, that compel him to lunge toward “a God dream.” What makes “Ultralight Beam” divine isn’t the sermonizing, those smears of heavenly synths, the potential rags-to-redemption TV mini-series tucked in those verses. Its spirituality is in its vast field of vision, the fact that it remains a humble gift from an arrogant soul, with a sense of scale and sublime faith that dwarfs even its own creator. — HUA HSU
4. Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”
I was in Montreal when A Seat At The Table came out. The opening hustle of percussion on “Cranes In The Sky” brings to mind the tawny autumn sun illuminating that city’s curious mix of historic and contemporary architecture, flooding my friend’s massive flat with light, and silhouetting Mount Royal in the evenings. Like Solange sings, in Montreal I tried: to drink it away and put one in the air, to dance it away, work it away, sleep it away, sex it away, and read it away. I ran my credit card bill up, bought a new dress, and — weeks later, back at home in Toronto — I even changed my hair. I’ve always been reluctant to leave home, but “Cranes” unlocked a deeper pain with the city — and myself — that’s been fermenting. Over the last decade Torontonians have lived under more ‘metal clouds’ than city-dwellers across North America. Montreal isn’t impervious to capitalism, but it offered a relatively unobstructed perspective, and so it was my escape. “Cranes In The Sky” isn’t brilliant because Solange does that genius songwriter thing of articulating and soothing a billion individual expressions of ennui, but because she chronicles how racial and gender identity, money, materialism, the body, travel, and gentrification are intersecting, corroborating factors in modern disillusionment. It is perhaps the first pop record about millennials inheriting tenuous adulthood. Under that weight, distraction is the most accessible of coping mechanisms and for a while, in Montreal, I indulged, while humming along to “Cranes In The Sky.” — ANUPA MISTRY
5. Mal Devisa, “Sea of Limbs”
After unwittingly catching a straight-up transcendent live performance on Valentine’s Day, I spent a lot of 2016 telling anyone who'd listen to check out Deja Carr, the bass-playing 19-year-old from Massachusetts who records bluesy folk songs as Mal Devisa. I drove to her neck of the woods over the summer to report a story about Dark World, the eccentric all-boys collective with whom she occasionally collaborates. They spoke of her highly but vaguely; she seems to be a bit of an enigma, even to her pals. Her powerful solo music, homemade and self-released, is just as full of magic and mystery. She’s got a once-in-a-lifetime voice, rich and unpredictable and heartbreakingly huge. On “Sea of Limbs,” a gospel-tinged highlight off her extremely promising 2016 full-length, she uses that instrument to devastating effect. When the chorus hits, there will be goosebumps. — PATRICK D. MCDERMOTT
6. Frank Ocean, “Self Control”
Frank Ocean’s Blonde sounds like the end of the night feels: tipsy, half-high, a little lost. “Self-Control,” a last-call love song about two people who are all wrong for each other, exemplifies this beautifully. It’s a tearjerker in the truest sense, a gorgeously-sung tribute to the ones who got away. “Wish we’d grown up on the same advice/ And our time was right,” Frank sings on the first verse, his glassy voice careening over waterlogged guitar work by Alex G, a Philadelphia songwriter whose homemade rock songs possess a similarly intoxicating outsiderness. The song’s atmosphere is cavernous, all pitch-warped hooks and shadowy background croons. Later, muffled wolf-like howls give way to a world-swallowing outro, which might be Blonde’s single most arresting passage. Despite early theories that the section featured guest vocals from infamous boy-genius Yung Lean, new credits indicate the singing is all Frank, his hymn-like self-harmonizing making the case that grappling with a broken heart can be akin to a religious experience. — PATRICK D. MCDERMOTT
7. Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
What does it mean to be an “American,” and who gets to claim that identity? This question permeates the music of the New York-based Mitski Miyawaki, who is half Japanese and grew up across several continents, especially on “Your Best American Girl.” A standout from her newest album of punk-hearted folk, the song begins with languid strumming and Mitski yearning to fit into the life of an all-American “big spoon.” In real time, she turns a pained confession — that she’s tried to conform herself, and can’t be exactly what someone else wants her to be — into a triumph. The way she was raised, which she used to see as a burden, is now a crucial perspective worth celebrating. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/ But I do,” she cries in her forceful vibrato, “I finally do.” The realization, backed by a glorious crescendo of electric guitars, is one of the year’s most cathartic music moments, and will hit home for anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t fit into a mold. — PAULA MEJIA
8. Beyoncé, “Formation”
The Black Woman was never meant to rise. Not in this America. She was fated a minimal existence: to serve, to stay in line, never to resist. But resistance, the poet Audre Lorde instructed, is its own parable of love. And because love is what the Black Woman knows how to do best, she has, for centuries now, refused to accept the world which closes in on her. Out of this uniquely American biography, Beyonce Knowles-Carter emerged with “Formation,” an insistent pop riot that is at once proclamation and pure phenomenon. It is flesh-and-bone black woman rhapsody — a delicious, irreproachable offering that is more than the sum of its parts, a song which could only have arrived at this fractured historical moment. The seesawing coils of its first inhales; the chorus’s unbowed collective force (“We gon’ slay, gon’ slay, OK”); the intransigent marching-band strut sowed into the beat’s backbone, itself a stamp of Mike WiLL Made-It’s shrewd production. And though its layers are many, the message of “Formation” is crystalline: history has not given me what is owed, so I am here to claim what is mine.
One of black feminism’s core principles has always concerned ownership. So when Beyoncé says, “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros, I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils,” she is not just taking ownership of herself, her daughter, and her husband, but of all that has come before her and all that will come after. It is a line that stretches back to Louisiana and Alabama and even further perhaps to the cooper shores of West Africa. Seismic and incandescent, “Formation”’s genius rests in its capacity to look back and forward, to resist as a form of love, to collectively gather the Black Woman across time and rise in uniform splendor. And by God, what a sight it is. — JASON PARHAM
9. Chance The Rapper f. Francis and the Lights and Jeremih, “Summer Friends”
For Chance The Rapper, summertime as a black boy in Chicago was liberating and cautious. That’s the message of “Summer Friends,” a wistful standout from his Grammy-nominated Coloring Book. Following a softly sung opening courtesy of Francis and The Lights, Chance digs up imagery that reminds me of my own childhood in Philadelphia, from jumping rope barefoot on the asphalt to playing hard until the streetlights came on. But for all its sun-soaked nostalgia, “Summer Friends” also reinforces that these moments are fleeting: it’s a time of the year that brings change and loss, too. Chance remembers the gun-violence “plague” as clearly as catching lightning bugs, and he sounds more somber than usual as he repeats the hook’s mantra: “Summer friends don’t stay.” This is a song that instructs you to be mindful of your surroundings, but to loosen up enough to have vibrant experiences — even if they end too soon, like those summers always seemed to. — LAKIN STARLING
10. D.R.A.M. f. Lil Yachty, “Broccoli"
A lot of people gave up this year, me included. For reasons both personal and political, it felt more difficult than usual to believe in the bounty of the universe, to expect that what you put into the world is what you’d receive in return. D.R.A.M., however, believed. When his runaway hit “Cha Cha” spawned an even bigger one in “Hotline Bling” last summer, he was introduced to much of the world and dismissed as a one-hit wonder in the same breath. But the Virginia rapper and singer remained steadfast, and then he made another smash this spring, with “Broccoli,” featuring Lil Yachty, whose sudden and unlikely rise this year feels similarly self-manifested. Instead of attempting to replicate the sound people clearly loved in “Cha Cha” — a cynical but all-too-common strategy employed in many early careers — D.R.A.M. went left, keeping only the heart-happiness that birthed it. If “Broccoli” is a stoner’s anthem, and it is, think of it as only a sativa, a happy weed. The song climbed to No. 5 on the Billboard charts, without a viral dance challenge to get it there — just a sunlight-bright piano chord, an insanely infectious hook, and a positive mental attitude. — RAWIYA KAMEIR
11. Drake, "One Dance"
12. Travis Scott f. Young Thug and Quavo, "Pick Up The Phone"
13. Young M.A, “OOOUUU”
If Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga” provided a demarcation point for New York rap in the era of decentralized virality, then Young M.A’s “OOOUUU” stuck close to that line while also charting its own path forward. “OOOUUU,” which was nowhere and then everywhere this summer, is clearly the city’s first post-Shmurda hit. Its pitter-pat snares felt like an overt homage to the Lloyd Banks beat Shmurda jacked, and M.A even calls him out by name late in the track. But “OOOUUU” has none of the exuberance — naive, it would turn out — that dripped from “Hot Nigga.” Shmurda may have unshackled rap in the five boroughs, but in doing so he became a target of New York’s ruthless criminal justice system and paid the price for his fame. In turn, “OOOUUU” feels ominous and foreboding. It has its own sort of slithery groove, but it also broods and broils in a way that recalls nothing less than “Quiet Storm.” Still, M.A is a jokester, and her runaway hit works as something like gallows humor. An ode to cunnilinguis, essentially, it normalizes same-sex relationships within rap music like perhaps nothing that has ever come before it. But as importantly, it hinges on an indelible punchline — “Headphanieeeee” — so lovably stupid you can’t help but crack a smile. — JORDAN SARGENT
14. Kamaiyah, "I'm On"
15. Lil Uzi Vert, "You Was Right"
When the world around you sucks, one way to feel better is by finding solace in a completely different one. For me, Lil Uzi Vert’s imagination, as presented on April’s Lil Uzi Vert Vs. The World tape, provided an escape from this year. Uzi’s is a free, fantastical, videogame-like dreamscape comprised of fast wheels, long money, pastel colors, and the on-again, off-again love of his life, Brittany. The soundtrack is his signature ad-lib-punched rap-singing, paired with stretchy synths, space-like melodies, and the occasional bagpipe harmony.
But 2016 wasn’t all ups for Uzi, and he’s real enough to know he’s not perfect. That much is made clear on “You Was Right,” his hypnotic Metro Boomin-produced apology song. Uzi chronicles the aftermath of being caught cheating — especially significant because the couple has been very open about their love IRL (after one recent break-up, we cheered for their relationship like we knew them personally). “Yeah, alright, alright, alright/ You was right, I was wrong/ Yeah, I should’ve never ever took her home,” he drawls on the infectious hook. The pain is palpable, and the remorse feels honest. The fullest and most authentic version of Lil Uzi Vert’s world, it turns out, is the real one. — NAZUK KOCHHAR
16. Rihanna f. Drake, "Work"
17. Sampha, “Blood on Me”
For a long time, Sampha was faceless. For a long time, all we knew was his voice. A powerful, emotionally precise machine, it would land on top tracks by SBTRKT and Drake and promptly, graciously, yank us into greatness, then disappear again. This year, though, Sampha took the whole stage, and revealed his story, and on his own songs — proper, solo songs! — made what he had once hinted at abundantly clear.
Take “Blood On Me,” where we find Sampha mid-nightmare. The growling hounds are in pursuit. The dead-eyed creeps are closing in. We do not know if it’s paranoia, or the true, long-dreaded knock on the door in the dead of night. But it is exactly in that askew — in what must be a bad dream — where life these days feels most real. Operating there, Sampha somehow makes the inevitability of violence sound beautiful. It’s Borges, and it bangs. — AMOS BARSHAD
18. French Montana f. Kodak Black, “Lockjaw”
There were plenty of other indications that Kodak Black had ascended to mainstream visibility before the video for “Lockjaw” came into our lives. But this — this was special. Just years earlier, in his “Project Baby” clip, a skin-and-bones 16-year-old Kodak ran around his Pompano Beach projects in basketball shorts and an Italia jersey, jumping through windows, hanging at the store. Now French Montana was here, at the very same housing projects. This was the industry meeting the phenom on his terms — literally, on his doorstep. Over Ben Billions’s airy vocal samples and driving drum pattern, Kodak and French sound world-weary even when they’re trading flex lines. The song is a summer slap about grinding your teeth off on ecstasy — on its own, a bit of brilliance. But in our year of anxiety, it becomes an anthem for any number of jaw-clenching reasons.
Amidst the subdued bravado of the song, Kodak reminded us, as he often does, that his 19 years of life have been filled with trauma. At the end of November, he was released from jail in St. Lucie County, Florida, where he spent most of the fall locked up for misdemeanor drug charges. He was turned over to authorities in South Carolina, where he will face sexual battery charges stemming back to an arrest at the beginning of the year. Kodak could face up to 30 years in prison. If he’s found guilty, we’ll likely stop rooting for him, and he’ll become exactly what he’s always told us he is. “I been tryna change my life/ But the monkey on my back,” he raps here, openly, before locking his jaw once again. — BEN DANDRIDGE-LEMCO
19. Kanye West f. Kid Cudi and Kelly Price, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”
Every time I hear “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” I know my weary shoulders will slacken — if only for the song’s brief two minutes and 16 seconds. Every time I hear the sample from Pastor T.L. Barrett’s “Do Not Pass Me By,” I think about how, at parties, the bumpy bass line relaxes bodies into a sway. And every time I hear the Future-voiced drop — “If young Metro don’t trust you, I’m gon’ shoot,” he says, sounding as if he’s lost in space — I remember the good side of the internet, which turned a catchphrase about a remarkable come-up into one of the year’s best memes. It is impossible not to feel something about “Pt. 1” because it’s Kanye at his best: an indelible soul sample, religious zeal, a parable about love and lust and ignorance. In July, I drove across the tiny, dusty island of Majorca with The Life of Pablo on blast, giddily aware that Kanye’s dubious, banging gospel was forcing an internal commotion on my companion, a staunch atheist. Kanye got this lapsed Hindu to be his witness and, though I firmly disavow associating masculinity with godliness, in 2016 he nudged me closer to a divinity I forgot I needed. — ANUPA MISTRY
20. Anohni, "4 Degrees"
21. Drake, “Controlla” [Leaked Version]
Drake’s sometimes unruly dabbles in dancehall have earned him no small amount of ire. But when two songs from Views leaked in March, weeks ahead of the album’s release, it was dancehall star Popcaan who stole Drake’s shine with a feature on “Controlla.” “Gyal yuh body good and yuh special to me,” he crooned on the song’s intro. “Wan mek yuh mi lady officially.” It was impossibly sexy, a track that demanded its place in the bashment rotation, the sultry slow wine to “Work”’s bubble. It insisted you hold a corner, and Popcaan’s sensuously elongated vowels dared you to risk it all. Not for the first time, Drake’s verses took a backseat: with dated, saccharine sound-bites that have undergirded his career, his chorus evoked ’90s R&B to almost comical effect: “I think I’d lie for you/ I think I’d die for you/ Jodeci cry for you.”
When the official version dropped in April with Popcaan scrubbed from the track, fans were justifiably outraged. Even the final breaths of the song — a sample of Beenie Man’s “Tear Off Mi Garment” — couldn’t mask Drake’s inability to hold the riddim without Poppy. The leaked version signals what Views as a project went on to prove: Drake is at his best when he gets out of his own way. — HANNAH GIORGIS
22. Solange, "Don't Touch My Hair"
23. Fifth Harmony f. Ty Dolla $ign, “Work From Home”
This year women used music to expand the definition of “work” beyond mere physical and professional drudgery. Both Rihanna and Toronto singer-songwriter Charlotte Day Wilson released tracks titled “Work,” the former a jaded love song turned liberating dancefloor directive, the latter a call to persevere through the hard work of emotional labor. But Fifth Harmony’s toy-synthed tease, “Work From Home,” felt particularly resonant in a year when I spent a lot of time, well, working from home. “Work From Home” feels like a millennial anthem — a song for young hustlers who have inherited the big dreams and economic failures of prior generations. For them, home is no longer merely a site of comfort; it’s the new workplace. — ANUPA MISTRY
24. Charly Black, "Party Animal"
25. Migos f. Lil Uzi Vert, "Bad and Boujee"
26. 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, "No Heart"
27. DJ Khaled f. Drake, “For Free”
If influencing is the ultimate millennial profession, then it makes sense that in 2016 Drake fully blurred the line between rapper and curator. And if “One Dance” was the final phase of this initiative — a dastardly ingenious culmination of his flirtations with dancehall that grafts his own rubbery patois and the mumbles of the Nigerian artist Wizkid onto a slow-mo rework of a British funky house classic — then “For Free,” a three-minute one-off for DJ Khaled’s post-celebrity album Major Key, whips by like a fleeting breeze. Less weighed down by the burden of legacy, the song could have fit perfectly into the meaty midsection of Views. But Drake gifting it to Khaled carried the implication that he was one-upping the professional curator himself, as if he wanted to make sure that the best song actually made it into the mix. It also happens to be so good that nobody seemed to care that the chorus is an uncrackable logic puzzle, or that Drake spends roughly three percent of the song’s runtime quoting Too $hort. — JORDAN SARGENT
28. Kaytranada f. Craig David, "Got It Good"
29. Kendrick Lamar, "Untitled 07 | Levitate"
30. Kodak Black, 21 Savage, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, and Denzel Curry, “XXL Freshmen Cypher”
The XXL Freshman Class always seems to be a point of contention and, when the list was released in June, many wondered why there wasn’t even a single woman included. But the proceedings did give the internet multiple moments with replay value, and Kodak Black, Denzel Curry, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, and 21 Savage’s cypher was the most enjoyable part of the whole affair. The selection of these rappers was also divisive, as many have simultaneously become meme-driven fan favorites while pissing off old-heads in the process.
But in less than 16 bars apiece, each rapper bucked their own narratives: Denzel didn’t freestyle; Uzi went off the top with a purse around his shoulder; the “high school-ass” Yachty came the hardest; 21 looked like he was actually having fun; and Kodak made the whole room crack up when he asked, “Who the fuck picked this lil sorry ass beat?” More than anything, the freestyle session is simply fun to watch, and seeing this group of rappers do impromptu ad-libs for each other makes me smile every time. — BEN DANDRIDGE-LEMCO
31. Beyoncé, "Sorry"
32. Steve Lacey, "Some"
33. Pinegrove, "Old Friends"
“Old Friends” was released on January 6, and I’ve been telling everyone it’s the best rock song of the year ever since. It’s taken a while for the universe to fully absorb and reflect back this declaration, but there are signs that it’s happening. Suddenly surging over the past month, they’ve just done a Radio 1 session and a Tiny Desk concert. And when I sing along to “I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago/ I saw some old friends at her funeral,” my voice always cracks. It still catches me off guard, every time. — DUNCAN COOPER
34. Kanye West, “Real Friends”
Sometimes I think about Kanye’s cousin, the one who stole his computer and earned a $250,000 check in exchange for the betrayal. How does he sleep at night? And has he followed along as his famous relative has crumbled in prime-time? Nearly a year on from its release, “Real Friends” — the tear-jerker of a Life of Pablo song on which the familial blackmail was first alleged — is clear foreshadowing of the emotional turmoil that would follow for Kanye. Over monstrous drums courtesy of Havoc, and alongside sandpaper-rubbed vocals from Ty Dolla $ign, Kanye lays his troubles out straight: debt, paranoia, regret. The years of financial pressure, forgotten birthdays, and one-sided relationships have a logical, if heartbreaking, conclusion: “I guess I get what I deserve, don’t I?” he asks rhetorically in the hook. Much of the song’s three verses are an admission of his own failures as a friend and family member. But from this side of 2016 — months after Kim was robbed at gunpoint and the Kardashian-Wests responded by firing a football team’s worth of longtime staffers, and weeks after Kanye was hospitalized and his tour cancelled — it’s hard not to wonder, while listening to the song, about all the people who failed him. “How many of us are real friends/ To real friends, 'til the reel end/ ‘Til the wheels fall off, 'til the wheels don't spin?” Not many. — RAWIYA KAMEIR
35. Francis and the Lights f. Bon Iver and Kanye West, "Friends"
36. Rihanna, "Higher"
“Higher” is a hymn for the kind of messy love that is best activated by liquor and a strong indica, the musical equivalent of a drunk text. It’s hinged on the type of inebriated persuasion that typically takes place in the backseat of an Uber, or the dank bathroom of a dive bar. Written by Bibi Bourelly and clocking in at just two minutes, it’s the shortest track on ANTI. It finds a woman known for her bad gal demeanor and unapologetic ways at her most vulnerable, her tail between her legs as she offers up drunken apologies to an unnamed lover over a solemn, violin-led melody. “I just really need your ass with me/ I’m sorry 'bout the other night.” On one of her most passionate vocal performances to date, Rih lets loose some bluesy wails, stretching vowels like hiccups after too many bottom-shelf drinks. “Higher” is a heartbreaking booty call, a celebration of all of the vices that Rihanna enjoys, and a tipsy tribute to lust — the one vice that gets her the highest. — DEIDRE DYER
37. Future f. Lil Uzi Vert, "Too Much Sauce"
38. Whitney, "No Woman"
Soon after the heyday of mid-aughts indie rock, the genre was declared dead; software replaced instruments as the default domain of musical self-expression; and floppy-haired white boys were out of style. In more recent years, rock and folk releases have earned my ear again, but only a few have managed to catch me in the way they might’ve a decade ago. Among them is Whitney’s “No Woman,” the dainty first single from the Chicago band’s Light Upon The Lake. Together, the six-piece wrings beauty out of a tried-and-tested formula: softly strummed guitars, warm horns, and wounded vocals. The lyrics don’t break new ground either. “I left drinking on the city train/ To spend some time on the road,” sings Julian Ehrlich in something approximating a falsetto. Some people have fairly pointed out that neither the song nor the band is particularly transgressive. But sometimes the warm, familiar comfort of a rock song can be just as much of a punch in the gut. — RAWIYA KAMEIR
39. Ty Dolla $ign f. Big TC, “No Justice”
In a year overflowing with songs trying to make political statements, Ty Dolla $ign’s “No Justice” stands out because it’s rooted in testimony. On the song, Ty and his brother Big TC trade verses about America’s mass incarceration and police brutality crises over a slinky beat. TC recorded his verse and hook via cell phone from a California state prison, where he’s currently serving a life sentence for a murder he maintains he didn't commit. “No Justice” avoids blind promises of hope, instead offering a call to action: “There can never be no justice when killing us is legal/ Somebody’s gotta take a stand/ Sacrifice and be a man.” 2017 will be filled with even more songs about personal politics, and “No Justice” works as a blueprint for all artists who want to speak out. — MYLES TANZER
40. YG f. Kamaiyah, "Why You Always Hatin"
41. Young Thug, "Digits"
Before the release of Slime Season 3, the final installment in Young Thug’s pivotal mixtape series, Lyor Cohen and 300 employed an interesting marketing technique. At SXSW in March, pallbearers carried a black coffin that bore the name and release date of the project down Austin’s 6th Street. Young Thug eulogized the mixtape series on his now defunct Year of Thug site. “All good things must come to an end,” the Atlanta rapper wrote. “This is the birth of something new.”
Young Thug has lived multiple lives since the beginning of his career. It seems like not that long ago that a large portion of rap fans online couldn’t discuss the Atlanta rapper without a homophobic comment. But the Slime Season series made him a certified superstar, thanks to hits like “Best Friend” and “Power,” and the always restless Thug was due for another rebirth. On “Digits,” Slime Season 3’s standout track, he hinted at the driving ideology behind his many reinventions.
Whether or not the second word that Thug says in the song is “horses” or “hustlers,” the overarching theme is regeneration. He poses a question from the jump: “Why not risk life when it’s gon’ keep goin’?” “Digits” otherwise sounds like what we have come to expect from Thug and producer London on da Track: a booming instrumental with lush chords which Thug uses to showcase his dizzying dexterity. Thug’s reminder that “when you die somebody else was born” felt darkly comforting in a year when nothing felt certain. — BEN DANDRIDGE-LEMCO
42. PARTYNEXTDOOR f. Drake, "Come and See Me"
43. Frank Ocean, "Nights"
44. Blood Orange f. Empress Of, "Best To You"
“Best To You” is the catchiest track on Freetown Sound, Blood Orange’s diligently produced album of soft-edged hooks and ambitious ideas. A shoulder-shrug-paced earworm with some surprising emotional heft, the song is Dev Hynesian in every way, on par with his most iconic collaborations. But “Best To You” was elevated to windows-down, summer-jam status thanks to a truly glorious vocal turn by Empress Of, the do-it-all bilingual songmaker who’s somehow still a little slept-on. Impressionistic details about a flailing romance flow out of her like running water over smooth stones, and her intonation on the song’s euphoric bridge is a true gift — I look forward to the section on every listen. “I feel my bones, I feel my bones, I feel my bones crack in your arms,” she sings, graceful-sounding even as everything falls apart. — PATRICK D. MCDERMOTT
45. Domo Genesis f. Anderson .Paak, "Dapper"
46. J Balvin, "Bobo"
47. Noname, "Casket Pretty"
48. Dae Dae, "Wat You Mean"
49. Anderson .Paak, "Carry Me"
50. A Tribe Called Quest, "We The People"
It might feel prescient that A Tribe Called Quest, one of the most influential rap groups of all time, dropped a new album — and this track, specifically — mere days after Donald Trump took the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “All you black folks you must go/ All you Mexicans you must go/ And all you poor folks you must go/ Muslims and gays/ Boy we hate your ways,” Q-Tip chants over the race car bassline of “We The People.” If the rhetoric didn’t feel so real, the hook would sound almost cartoonish. So our short memories might marvel, It’s like they knew!, but it’d be truer to the song to note that Tribe — formed under Reagan, refined under Bush Sr., canonized under Clinton — isn’t chronicling some temporary malady that would disappear with a blue victory, but the pathological crookedness that props up modern America. —ANUPA MISTRY
51. Rihanna, "Needed Me"
52. Nao, "Girlfriend"
When Nao sings “If I was your girlfriend” over submerged beats, it’s less a seduction than a challenge. The London R&B artist spins a darkly intense tale of two people who are both “broken,” and asks whether a couple can be a balm to each other’s bruises. Musical flourishes mirror this co-dependent balance of power and vulnerability — the spacey synth hits in the chorus like your heart’s lurching. “Could you pull me through?” she asks in a high-register, with the kind of raw emotion that feels as if you’re holding her hand as she pours her heart out. Relationships, as Nao recognizes, rarely live up to the “beautiful and mystical illusion” that society projects, but with its honest take on the realities of attraction, “Girlfriend” nails a perspective that’s just as special. — OWEN MYERS
53. Mozzy, "Messy Murder Scenes"
Mozzy records constantly, as if to stop working would mean leaving breathing behind as well. He’s credited this prodigious work ethic to his grandmother, a Black Panther who instilled a drive with moral dimensions in him: “She always encouraged me to become strong, strong-minded, strong-willed, outwork everybody … She just made me militant," he told XXL in October. That internal fire is what enabled a troubled son from the forgotten city of Sacramento to become his region's best hope. Likewise, it shaped his sound and catalog, which to date has a frenetic, formless quality. As a rapper, Mozzy’s signal-to-noise ratio remains strong, but between guest spots, mixtapes, and collaborative projects, his output is intimidatingly scattershot.
"Messy Murder Scenes" marks a step forward; his manager told me it was the first time Mozzy revisited a song before release, tightening the final product with a modified conclusion. Despite the extra consideration, this four-minute, chorus-free rap showcase captures his unvarnished talents — for putting words in memorable formations, and for communicating an often-disturbing, always heartfelt picture of the mindstate that inspired this prolificacy. The tumbling momentum of his thoughts echoes his sense of urgency. Too lurid to reduce to simple violent entertainment, Mozzy’s work suggests a search for a higher purpose. “I wanted to hold some type of power like it didn’t matter what it was," he’s said. "I just wanted to be the leader, the source.” — DAVID DRAKE
54. Roy Woods, "Gwan Big Up Yourself"
55. Kanye West, "Fade"
56. Future, "Wicked"
57. Desiigner, "Panda"
58. Beyoncé, "Hold Up"
59. Mister Wallace, "It Girl"
60. G.L.O.S.S., "We Live"
61. The xx, "On Hold"
British trio The xx found recognition for the insular teenage world they created on their 2009 debut, xx, a snapshot of whispered 5 a.m. conversations and the visceral shock of first heartbreak. Seven years on, they’re gearing up to release a third album, I See You, which they teased in November with an uncharacteristically bubbly single called "On Hold.” It’s about the dismay of discovering that someone you thought you had a future with has moved on for good. Thematically, it’s xx territory for sure, with references to the celestial metaphors of their first LP, but it’s the band’s delivery that points to their evolution. For the first time, Jamie Smith’s “voice” plays as significant a role as those of his bandmates Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim, in the form of a sample from Hall & Oates’s 1981 song “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).” Like he did on his acclaimed solo album, In Colour, Smith chops and reassembles the vocal, this time into a French house-inspired chorus that’s abuzz with a flirtatious sexual tension. Madley-Croft and Sim respond in kind, crafting reflective verses with clear eyes — the result is less riddles and more reason, yet every line still aches with a need to be etched on skin. As The xx lean into adulthood, it seems their work has the flexibility to grow with them, too. — RUTH SAXELBY
62. Frank Ocean, "Slide On Me"
63. Lil Yachty, "Minnesota"
64. Angel Olsen, "Shut Up Kiss Me"
65. Jenny Hval, “Conceptual Romance”
Norwegian artist Jenny Hval’s sixth album, Blood Bitch, can feel like an out-of-body experience, or a guided meditation. In the gossamer, electro-pop surrealism of its standout song “Conceptual Romance,” Hval explores how overwhelming your imagination can be. It makes sense to learn that it’s based not on outer lived experience, but on inner realities: a fantasy that Hval had about a female vampire running from a disco, and a novel about a woman’s unrequited love.
“Conceptual Romance” is as comforting as it is intense, like a daydream you’ve fallen all the way into; finding its protagonist waking up “high on madness,” the song’s synths swell, glitter, and engulf the listener. It’s also one of Hval’s most distinctly memorable earworms, designed to burrow right into your mind like an obsessive crush. This masterstroke makes her most conceptual track also one of her most accessible. For all its inward-looking fantasizing, it feels more real than any song about “real” romance. — AIMEE CLIFF
66. J Hus, "Friendly"
J Hus is an objectively handsome 20-year-old from Stratford, East London, who finds pleasure in saying he's “Mr. Ugly.” The alias is perhaps a reflection of how he views himself, but it’s also an example of his sardonic sensibility. That quality that has served him well, elevating every lyric into a punchline and positioning him at the forefront of one of the most exciting moments in British music since grime. On “Friendly,” Hus synthesizes the sticky mash-up of traditional #bars, Afropop flows, and dancehall grooves he perfected on early freestyles and a breakout 2015 mixtape, and coats it in a subtle U.K. funky vibe. Over a rolling siren of a beat by frequent collaborator Jae5, he flips stale subject matter into entertainment. To enemies on road, Hus asks with insolence, “Why you don’t grind, you no like money?” To women, he calls out, “Big batty girl, good evening/ I can see that your chicken need seasoning.” In a dream world, J Hus would be on track to dominating culture and radio beyond the U.K. At worst, his diasporic sound will serve yet another class of culture vultures who brought reggaeton to the Billboard charts. — RAWIYA KAMEIR
67. Burna Boy, "Pree Me"
On “Pree Me,” Burna Boy’s rich voice rides in after bubbles of synth: “Enemies been on a mission,” the Nigerian Afropop rock star star sings. It’s been feeling that way this year, like we’re living in the last page of a comic book and all the cartoon villains have started stepping into the real world. Enemies are everywhere these days, a fact exemplified in the video for “Pree Me,” which shows three generations of people facing their haters. The song and video both suggest that you can’t avoid the bad in this world, but if you push through it, you’ll be stronger. “I wouldn’t change anything/ Not even all of my bad luck,” he sings. The catch, though, is that you might only be able to rely on yourself. “Me really can’t trust no friend,” the song goes. It’s a pretty sad sentiment for a track with such a sturdy, feel-good rhythm. But when Burna Boy sings “Dem ah pree me,” it lifts the heart. — LEAH MANDEL
68. Gallant, "Open Up"
69. YG, "Fuck Donald Trump"
70. Giggs, “Whippin Excursion”
Giggs’s fourth album, Landlord, dropped at a time when plenty of younger acts — Section Boyz, Fekky, and 67 among them — were coming for their piece of the U.K. rap OG’s crown. But, in a scene that prizes authenticity, the siren-fueled, heavy-bassed lead single “Whippin Excursion” proves that you can’t get realer than Giggs. For one thing, the lyrics read like a CV of street credentials from the pioneering south London rapper, delivered in his inimitable, authoritative gut-punch style. (Note the quintessentially modern insult: “You’re not a gangster, you’re just an internet version.”) But its defiantly minimal structure also proves some truths that the U.K. rap and grime scenes have long held precious. Namely, your song doesn’t need a chorus to make Skepta skank, and you don’t need to take the British slang out of your bars to get the approval of an international pop star, or more importantly, the whole dancefloor. — AIMEE CLIFF
71. Sheer Mag, "Can't Stop Fighting"
72. Cass McCombs, "Laughter Is The Best Medicine"
73. Zay Hilfigerrr & Zayion McCall, "Juju On That Beat"
74. Skepta, "Man"
75. Bon Iver, "29 #Straffod APTS"
76. Nicky Jam, "Hasta El Amanecer"
77. Sia, "Cheap Thrills"
78. James Blake, "Modern Soul"
79. Aminé, "Caroline"
Before 22-year-old Ethiopian- and Eritrean-American rapper Aminé burst onto the scene with the impossibly infectious “Caroline,” he was just a black boy making music in the mostly white Pacific Northwest. Luckily, the Portland rapper’s debut single injected a dose of joy — and a stew of cooly dexterous catchphrases — into summer ’16, and it didn’t take long for the listening public to take note. By mid-November, when Aminé delivered a stringently political anti-Trump performance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, “Caroline” had been streamed north of 150 million times.
A buoyant bop whose title draws inspiration from OutKast’s “Roses,” “Caroline” is a dedication to a series of women who have come into Aminé’s life, all of them “fine as hell, thick as fuck.” With an assist from Portland beatmaker Pasqué, the sun-kissed video only amplifies the song’s spirited radiance: it follows a Pulp Fiction tee-wearing Aminé and a crew of friends as they drive around doing goofy, regular shit. They play video games, lie on the sidewalk staring up at the sky, grab burgers, ride around in and on a car — then dance outside it. It’s an almost Fresh Prince-esque montage of black boy joy, tailor-made for GIFs and Tumblr hashtags. The scenes are lush, too; food and fruit (bananas appear in abundance) pepper the shots. When Aminé asks about the purpose of the tropical fruit that pads the car, the friend (Portland student Yosief Berhe) responds incredulously. “For decoration,” he says. Purposefully carefree, “Caroline” slaps in the way West Coast rap often does best: with bass that bangs hard and bright. — HANNAH GIORGIS
80. Schoolboy Q, "That Part"
81. Modern Baseball, "Mass"
82. Show Me The Body, "Metallic Taste"
83. Princess Nokia, "Tomboy"
Afro-Boricuan rapper Destiny Frasqueri, a.k.a. Princess Nokia, embraces the many intersections of her existence on “Tomboy,” a juiced-up anthem from her 1992 project. Between the beats of a snare drum, she weaves stories of defying gender norms, loving her body, splitting a Philly, and fucking up the patriarchy — all in a day's work. What makes this song one of the best of 2016 is its summation of a generation of women and femmes unafraid to take up space (“You come to my party/ You gon' meet my army/ A room full of girls and we acting real rowdy”). With her "little titties and fat belly," Princess Nokia is in a league of her own. Because in approaching the music industry on her own DIY terms, she’s playing a different ballgame. — SAGE ADAMS
84. Childish Gambino, "Redbone"
85. Mykki Blanco, "High School Never Ends"
86. Jorja Smith, "Where Did I Go"
87. Carly Rae Jepsen, "Store"
As essentially a grab bag of rejected songs, E•MO•TION: Side B was necessarily less cohesive than the 2015 masterwork that preceded it. “Store” is a microcosm of that scatteredness, but that’s precisely how it achieves such total transcendence. The organ-backed moodiness of its first verse is a throw-off tactic — when the cheery chorus unexpectedly hits, it’s the smartest and dumbest pop moment of the year, like a firecracker shot out from under the covers.
On that chorus, Carly Rae flips the classic exit line of the abandoning father (see: Will’s dad in Fresh Prince, Phoebe’s on Friends): “I’m just going to the store, to the store/ I’m just going to the store/ You might not see me anymore, anymore/ I’m just going to the store.” Is the chipper carelessness of her breakup a modern-day triumph, or does the descent back into melancholy in the next verse give away the lie? What do you do when you can’t trust joy? — DUNCAN COOPER
88. Kodak Black, "Vibin In This Bih"
89. Quay Dash, "Shades On Top Down"
90. Ezale, "Day Ones"
91. Drake, "4pm In Calabasas"
92. serpentwithfeet, "Four Ethers"
93. Vince Staples, "War Ready"
94. Weyes Blood, "Do You Need My Love"
95. Ayo Jay, "Your Number"
96. Brandy Clark, "Homecoming Queen"
97. DJ Quik, "A New Nite / Rosecrans Grove"
98. Isaiah Rashad, "Wat's Wrong"
99. Terrace Martin, "With You
100. Abra Cadabra f. Krept & Konan, "Robbery Remix"
101. Lydia Loveless, "Out On Love"
102. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, "A 1000 Times"
103. Ray BLK, "My Hood"
104. AK Paul, "Landcruisin"
105. Little Mix f. Sean Paul, "Hair"
Little Mix is a British girl group that’s less likely to sing about needing a man than detailing how they faked orgasms with their no-good exes. This year, no other song had quite the same straight-talking sense of fun as “Hair,” their emoji-age anthem that’s equal parts playground handclaps, “Hollaback Girl,” and “I'm Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.” Amid a flurry of cash register rings and record scratches, they belt out metaphors about hair salon techniques and treatments to describe the multifaceted ways that men are trash. Sean Paul plays at being a “sugar daddy” in his guest verse, but he’s no threat to Little Mix’s woman-positive empowerment gospel. As they munch on pizza while wearing fluffy slippers in the video, it’s clear they’re performing for each other rather than anyone else. — OWEN MYERS