Tuesday, January 3, 2017

the top 50 best songs of 2016

I've gone on record that this list in particular is always the hardest to make. Refining a list of songs that I've covered on albums I've reviewed over the course of the year - which numbers in the thousands of songs - down to a select six hundred or so, then down to a subset of just under 200... and then the final fifty. Suffice to say, there's always a lot to cover.

But I have to say, this year felt easier than others. I'd say part of it is that I'm getting a better handle on my organization going into these lists, but that would assume I've got some inkling of what I'm doing here. I think the larger factor is that the truly amazing songs that monopolized my year - the top 35 or so - they fell into place remarkably quickly, and that made ironing out the details easier than I expected. Maybe it was because it was easier for me to get passionate about some of these tracks than before, because if you ventured away from the mainstream Hot 100, there was a lot of great music in 2016. Away from the charts there was great metal, rock, synthpop, hip-hop, and especially country, which had one of its best years in recent memory, and fair warning, there's going to be a lot of it on this list.

As always, the songs had to appear on any one of the albums I reviewed - singles or deep cuts, all are possible, so no more wasting time, we have a lot to get through! So let's start off crazy with...

There are songs that sound crazy, songs that sound demented, songs that don't just give you the feeling the artist was on drugs but that you are too. And then there's 'Ain't It Fun' by Danny Brown, which doesn't just feel like a cocaine overdose in process but one that's on a roller coaster plummeting into the pits of Hell. The wall of blaring, sleazy horns that warp through layers of compression and a deep implacable beat, and then there's Danny Brown howling through the wall of funhouse mirrors, mixing mundane requests with the existential panic of staring the devil in the face and unable to stop laughing at the mad horrors you see. It's the point of Atrocity Exhibition where the downward spiral erupts in full, unsettling as all hell... and yet the madness of the trip is irresistible all the same.

And from complete madness you get... a subtle piano ballad from Regina Spektor with touches of strings as she meets an old friend to catch up before he departs again. And while this is not the only late entry piano ballad to this list - we'll get to it, trust me - Spektor takes this borderline mundane moment and finds the poignance in meeting an old friend who hasn't really changed despite the years. And as such it sets at ease the fear that ran through the album of that temporal passage, as she knows that some connections transcend time. And coupled with an utterly gorgeous and ethereal ending blur of ghostly keys and strings, it's one hell of an album closer that definitely deserves a spot here.

Oh, this one surprised me - I thought at least 'Way Back Home' would have a better shot at this list, it was my favourite from the album at midyear - but at the end of the day, 'Stupid Girl' continued to blow past my expectations. The liquid touches of guitar that gradually pick up more body against the thin tapping beat, gleaming piano keys, and Jennifer Nettles using her throatier tones in a more dramatic yet no less intense mode. And a song like this needs that subtle intensity: it's a track full of the dismissive remarks leveled at female artists in pop country, told to hold back, make them laugh, bury their unhappiness and of course smile - after all, you were successful, what more could you want? And yet Jennifer Nettles does two things to push this song into powerful territory: first, she actually takes the 'stupid girl' blow but doesn't give an inch... and then that mandolin comes over the bridge. It's a powerful subtle moment, shoving into uncharted territory... and yet the fact she's taking the freedom to make mistakes and screw up has all the more weight. It's a hell of a song from a criminally underrated record, and man, I can't praise it enough.

(unavailable on YouTube, sadly)

And here's our second late entry piano ballad, from a record I got to too late but still managed to grip me, especially with this closing track. And it's a gutpunch of a track - again, the pianos are touched by strings and elegance, but here it's bittersweet, as Courtney Marie Andrews imagines her ideal relationship and the romance having now settled at home, that happy ending... and yet it's only in her mind. And more heartbreaking too is that it's something that could have been - should he have forgiven her or if she had been more thoughtful or had been willing to give the time to make the right choices or have the patience to find that happiness, it could have worked, which makes the choice to bring in all this ornate instrumentation all the more saddening - she was so close to getting there. And Andrews' vocal delivery is superb, capturing that starry-eyed wonder... and yet balanced with the real grief that gives this song its impact. A gorgeous song, genuinely powerful, and again, overlooked by far too many - country folk doesn't get much better than this... well, except later on this list.

This is not the first Sturgill Simpson cover to make one of my year-end lists, and I suspect if he keeps making them it won't be the last. But the guts to make this one is unmistakable, because this is a Nirvana cover where Sturgill's recording actually changes the ending of the hook by accident and he had to get permission from Kurt Cobain's estate to release the song. But in the end he got it and by the Nine Hells, this is something special. That supple bassline, the slippery touches of guitar that warble in and out, the cushion of strings that lead into the gracefully integrated horns, the cavernous reverb around Sturgill's vocals that can't help but pull you in, he turns this song into an utter powerhouse, especially on the final hook. And yeah, that lyrical mistake on the hook does change the song, putting words to the unspoken inabilities to build connections that often comes in the throes of teen angst. And yeah, it's a masterful cover where Sturgill damn near makes the song his own, and if that's not worth commendation, I don't know what is.

Okay, there are a few songs that will demand a greater explanation to many of you off of this list, and this is the first big one. I mean, it's a Panic! At The Disco song from a band that's basically just Brendon Urie, that effectively boils down to a swing number with huge drums, big horns, and a hook of roaring guitars that feed a little more rock back into this song. But putting aside that I effectively loved this melody and approach ever since the album dropped - it reminds me of the best early Panic! material simply with the bombast cranked into unstable territory - I tend to have a soft spot for songs where huge egos are on a self-aware precipice. Hell, Urie finally makes the Brian Wilson comparison people have been making with the group for years and yet seems to be puncturing it at every turn with the female narrator remarking that he's not nearly as ingenious, innovative or crazy as he thinks he is - for as much as he wants to fly off the deep end, deep down he knows he's never going to burn with the same intensity as the greats... and yet it doesn't stop him! It's a song of wild desperation more than anything, adding the sort of dramatic intensity and swing Death Of A Bachelor could have used more of, and to my amazement as much as anyone, it stuck with me, and it's on this list.

Okay, some of you might think this is a surprise, but if you've been following me on Twitter you'd know I've been cheerleading for this song all damn year. Where 'Crazy=Genius' was trying to burn out of control, 'Desperado' is all guttered embers and discontent, seething off the deep bassy guitar and blocky rattles of percussion that breaks into thick buzzing swells on the hoook. She's seeking the exit into whatever dangerous territory lies ahead, and yet any sign that this person she's running away with is a partner for love is quickly disabused - she's looking more for a partner in crime, and even then it seems more because she just doesn't want to be alone for the journey. The entire song is all smoldering intensity, partially interpolating 'Waiting Game', the best song alternative R&B artist Banks has ever made, but Rihanna twists it into something with far more menace and presence, easily making it one of the best songs she's ever made. But if you want something with even more intensity...

If Rihanna was staring out into the empty desert, planning her escape from civilization, Sims is on the precipice of a different universe shredding away beneath him, with the hollow keys echoing over the glitch with the drill-like beats echoing over the blackness. But that's only to intensify the primal dread that lurks at the song's core - a man wasting his drugs to scream and shoot at the sky, a child taking a plane to the stars to find the vast gulf empty, a moment of glory and mingled horror as he feels control slip away. And then the song breaks into a massive cacophony of grinding synth and fuzz, the sort of industrial nightmare that captures the panic but only hints at the echoing dread as the grind echoes out beyond human comprehension. This song is primal terror that hasn't been personified this strongly since a Swans record - the sort where swearing by the Nine Hells isn't enough, because this song stares beyond them.

(not available because Beyonce)

And now back to earth... and the most vulnerable song Beyonce has ever made. Yes, it's another piano ballad - it was one of those years, people, and when they're this damn great, I'm not complaining. And make no mistake, it's not Beyonce's vulnerability that rings through here, it's Jay-Z's too, something you rarely if ever see in his music, especially these days - you have to wonder what love caused him to shed tears, the moment where even despite Beyonce's fearsome promises to leave him, it's a promise she can't quite keep. It's that vulnerability that brings her back, an honest picture that she never thought she'd see, especially when the sandcastle of their relationship was washed away - the foundation of trust is deeply, deeply scarred, and Beyonce is not holding back the raw intensity of her rage on that second verse... but they're going to try to salvage something. It's the sort of song rooted in a mature relationship that yes, will show up again on this list in a different form, but as soon as the backing vocals come for the final verse, there was enough to make me believe. Fantastic song, definitely belongs on this list.

And now we have another melancholic country ballad - and friendly warning, it's not the only entry from Brandy Clark in this mold on this list - but this entry from the country classic Southern Family is an utter gutpunch all the same. The story of a father or grandfather passing on peacefully and leaving his wife behind, against the supple touches of pedal steel, acoustic guitar, and mixing that Cobb knows enough to emphasize both the supple warmth of the album and the loneliness that underscores the reverb surrounding Brandy Clark's voice. And while I would say that the piano and burnished arranged instrumentation on the bridge that made this song a lock for this list, the standout performance comes from Clark herself. Her vocal tone has always reminded me of Reba McEntire at her most emotive, but those fragile high notes remind me even of Patsy Cline, and the balance between holding steady for the family and breaking down is somehow held together. It's a gorgeous song from one of the few records that I've ever given a perfect score, and if that's not an endorsement, I don't know what is.

Not going to lie, this song got on the list less because it's intelligent or all that subtle but because it just kicks all amounts of ass, belying the fact that the Brothers Osborne should really be so much bigger than they are right now. The solid bassline anchoring the scuzzy guitar melody that will stick in your head and never leave, the reliance on lower vocal tones as they try to excuse a night of havoc before, it's a song full of belligerent swagger but it's clever about it too. The slick rhyming couplets, the huge handclap driven hook, the massive groove, it's the sort of song that grounds its sleaze in the sort of plausible 'deniability' that's less anchored in truth and more that the Brothers Osborne will kick your ass if you question them. And yeah, that's normally the sort of attitude that rubs me the wrong way, but when it's presented with this much stomping populism and attitude that feels entirely supported, I can't help but get behind it - kickass!

This is one of those songs that you almost forget that it's about Parquet Courts trying - and failing - to lie to its audience or anyone who'll listen about whatever happened in the past, with the loaded implication that it's intended to effectively con the audience into ignoring some huge mistake or breakdown. Of course, while that phantom affection might construct some human veneer to disguise things, the hook sees it coming apart in their hands - but it's hard to care when the hook is so damn good in the first place! Fantastic bass interplay with the richer guitar tones, a bridge that opens into these weedy flutes against the seedy guitars, but the real star is that hook, with the choppy scuzz of the guitar balanced against the perfectly timed multi-tracking. It's an absolutely killer song that yeah, probably works best in the context of the album, but when the hook is this great, I find it hard to care!

I'll say it multiple times in these lists, I think Shura's Nothing's Real was a supremely underrated project with some of the best understated and subtle synthpop you'll hear in 2016, and this song is the first big showcase we get here. And yet it's actually one of the more upbeat songs on the album, or at least one of the more accessible tracks - prominent liquid guitar ebbing across the mix against the firm 80s-inspired bass groove, and all before we get a big glossy hook where Shura openly questions the awkward blend of emotions that comes at the end of a relationship. The meeting is innocuous enough, sparking nostalgia and wondering whether they'd even know each other in five years, but she knows that she was never ready for that connection to go to the next level... so now why the hell is she feeling something? And that sense of frustrated confusion makes the choice to fade back for the hook right after the bridge such a potent sing-a-long moment, easily beating anything Tegan And Sara or Carly Rae Jepsen brought to the table. Like Regina Spektor, Shura gets that those little meetings can mean so much more, and the anxious flurry here is a masterstroke in capturing it, especially in packaging it in an excellent pop song.

Oh, I'm not the only one who has been singing the praises of this song - and really, you can't blame the majority of critics, especially when The 1975 manage to synthesize the best possible version of their 80s nostalgia into a killer track. And the funny thing is that when you dig into the lyrics this song should not work, because it is catty as hell! The entire song is coasting on a thin film of self-aware narcissism and contempt general contempt for the ex in question, and oh, does Matt Healy want her to remember it, through taunts that for as much as she'd mock his sexuality or style or flagrant hypocrisy, she'd be calling back when she was bored and masturbating, looking for some real connection. And yet Healy's aware that many of her words about him also ring very true, and him owning those flaws show how much they're kind of perfect for each other in a lightly toxic way... and yet he managed to fuse all of it into a ridiculously tight percussion line with gleaming keys, a sharp rollicking groove, and let's not forget the guitar solo that is all kinds of awesome and manages to push an otherwise appropriately plastic and shallow song into something spectacular. Amazing tune, and while the UK turned this into a minor hit, it missed crossing over to the US - and you wonder why people thought the Hot 100 stank this year! And yet on the topic of UK hits...

I can see at least three or four fellow music critics seeing this song and losing their goddamn minds... yeah, no jokes with this one, it's an amazing goddamn pop song that shows exactly why Little Mix is the girl group that we all needed in 2016. Sure, the watery tropical synths and snap percussion are nothing all that revolutionary, especially on the bass-heavy hook and the lyrics, while strikingly well constructed, really aren't aiming to do more than capture the fleeting heady euphoria of a crush, but it's all been precisely refined into something more potent, completely with a great subtle percussion build-up on the second verse with the horn accents scattered across the song. But really, the reason this song clicks for me is Little Mix and those vocal harmonies. The melodic switchups, the layering, the perfect poise especially on the bridge and final hook, it brings a wealth of charisma to an already insanely catchy song and makes it irresistible. Folks, I warned all of you that a Little Mix song was among my most played this year - and considering 'Private Show' very nearly missed this list, you should be glad it's the only one.

Okay, look, I didn't love Coloring Book, and indeed my favourite Chance The Rapper song this year wasn't from that album. We'll be getting to that in a bit, but as for this... you know, I might have liked 'Blessings' more at the midyear but 'Same Drugs' really got to me more throughout the rest of the year, mostly as it turns its ramshackle vibe into something incredibly heartfelt and beautifully realized. The muted pianos, Chance's rougher, textured delivery, Eryn Allen Kane's beautiful backing tones as the sparse drum cascades and strings hold a fragile elegance, it's the sort of song that feels rooted in a childlike spirit, all the more accentuated by Chance's references to Peter Pan and the Wendy that grew up as he himself grew into something different. But it's not bitter, just achingly sad and wistful, as Chance saw a girl who left him behind for greater heights and yet has come back under a shadow of sadness that means she can't take to the sky in the same way. Coupled with those little guitar flourishes at the end, it's the sort of song clinging to childhood in the passage of time that 'Stressed Out' wished it was, and definitely deserving to be here on this list.

So I think Jon Bellion fans might have thought some type of way about my review of his wildly inconsistent record - a damn shame, because while that album has very real problems, it also has some absolutely incredible songs, with this being one of two huge examples. And there's so much to love about 'Morning In America' - how the bright synth warbles, sampled vocal drone, huge swelling hook off the deep blocky percussion that opens up into a choppy guitar rollick later on, plus the catchy-as-hell vocal melody, it has the feel of a musical opening number... and just like the best of those it telegraphs its very real instability in the content, describing a predominantly privileged Millennial demographic spinning quietly out of control and on the precipice of something truly dangerous breaking out. It's the most buoyant and catchy song about encroaching existential horror for an entire generation since 'It's The End Of The World As We Know It', and Bellion knows we all know it too. Doesn't stop the track from being amazing, though!

How is it that whenever Jake Owen releases a country album, even if it isn't all that good, he still manages to find a way to sneak a song onto my lists? And yet while I loved 'Life Of The Party' back in 2013, 'LAX' is even better for doing something you wouldn't expect in the mainstream: sounding like a country song! I know, absolutely mindblowing, but that's one reason it works so damn well - prominent pedal steel against a stripped back acoustic groove and sparse tapping beat, all as Jake Owen reminisces about a girl who left him behind to chase dreams in L.A.. But instead of bitterness, Jake Owen has nothing but good wishes for this girl, hoping she succeeds in a seedy Los Angeles recognized more through outdated symbols - which yeah, it's corny, but it fits in a country song. And Jake Owen, the most charismatic performer in mainstream country, sells it with the sincerity and fantastic delivery that's near unmatched. Dude, if for some reason you see this, make 'LAX' your next single, it's perfectly primed for the direction the mainstream is heading, and it's an absolutely fantastic song to boot - please?

I remember when I covered Charles Kelley's solo debut with comments that this song was clearly rushed to Grammy nominations without the sort of promotion and radio buildup you'd expect, especially in comparison to the song that eventually won, Little Big Town's 'Girl Crush'. And a lot of critics were very quick to point out why this was: it was a tasteful collaboration between three lesser-known but well-liked artists in mainstream country, all of whom had distinctive voices that sang in harmony about the symbiotic relationship between singers, their crew, and the audience that listens in a simple framework and celebration, this was tailor-made for the Grammys, it's obvious critic bait. Well, what can I tell you, sometimes they get it right, and I'll freely admit I've loved this song since I first heard it: the perfect weathered chemistry, the excellent songwriting, the gorgeous harmonies, it's a song that deserved to be so much bigger and the Grammy to boot. And yet it's not the only time Charles Kelley surprised me this year... but we'll get to that.

I may have mentioned in my top ten best hit songs of 2016 that Lori McKenna is one of the best songwriters in modern country, and this is your next bit of evidence why that is the case. Of course, she's helped by the weathered rich production of Dave Cobb with those gorgeous touches of arranged instrumentation, but what's really on display on this title track is McKenna's writing, and it's the sort of abstract fairy tale that says so much more than its words. A rifle that doesn't speak much and yet can never fly and follow her, so it seeks to keep the dreaming bird penned in, loving every note of her song but terrified if she were to fly she'd never come home. And yet it's that caging instinct that despite her love caused the bird to take flight in the night, never to be seen again. Again, it's all abstraction, but the relationship is so plainly sketched and yet rich with subtext and nuance that it resonates regardless, the sort of beautiful tragedy that Lori McKenna will prove time and again she is a master at crafting - but more on that later.

Of course, this was the sort of year for country where we didn't just get one amazing woman in the genre - we also got Lydia Loveless, in a record that might stray closer to alternative rock but also touches into some of the most powerful and insightful music you'd hear this year. Now our first example - because of course there's more than one - is this track, one of the most stunningly potent character studies you'll see - but not just of the titular guys, but Loveless herself. This is one of those cases where the framing is so startling frank that you're entirely sure where you sympathies lie in a relationship where both partners know each other better than they should. Yeah, the guy is a bit smothering and you can tell he's trying to recapture moments of misspent youth and would really love if she just blew him already, but he's also romantic and genuinely sincere and he knows enough to see through Loveless' morose confrontational bullshit, and there's a part of her that's very much drawn to that. And all of that is complimented by the oily guitar leads, awkward keyboard leads, thicker bass and steady percussion - it's discontented and a little stilted, and Loveless' blistering scorn, but I love how it hits the major chords in the guitar right after the bridge - a moment of brief respite before tilting back towards the mess. Yeah, definitely complex and messy and not entirely pleasant - but all the more human and strikingly insightful for it.

And yet where Lydia Loveless' relationship seems bound to last longer than it should, Shura's 'Make It Up' shows the situation in tatters, written from third person as she turns inwards, feeling all the more alone as she second-guesses the situation. And it's very telling how despite this uncertainty and loneliness permeating the song and indeed the album Shura can still mine one hell of a pop hook out of it. The shimmering synth and guitar backdrop against the gentle snap and flutter of the percussion that resolves into a sharper new wave groove, all leading to a gorgeously atmospheric hook that lets the unanswered questions linger in the mix with superb multitracking, especially on the final hook. Again, it's a subtle sort of song - especially with the backing textures contributing some potent melodies of their own, especially on the bridge - but it's also the sort of song that will lodge itself in your mind and not let go, and for a song about uncertainty and unanswered questions, that's impressive.

Okay, I know what some of you are saying, that this is not that far removed from my favourite hit song of 2014, especially in composition with the accordion, blocky percussion and weird wheedling guitar leads. But KONGOS is not looking to simply recreate past smash hits and while 'I Want It Free' might take its time getting to the deeper point, its climax is one of the best all year. Like the rest of the album it's an embrace and exploration of total arrogance, but by the time the wheedling, cavernous bridge kicks in, you get the darker tinge of real desperation beneath it. And it's really a Faustian choice - if you want the fame you can embrace raw ego to take it, willfully ignorant of the consequences... but if you don't take that perilous step it'll all fade away. And with every step and layer of backing vocals that comes through on the bridge, you can see him making that damned choice, and it's an utterly haunting moment. It's a creepy song... and yet when the bridge is that good, it's hard not to make the choice yourself to embrace it.

Okay, while Lori McKenna was able to embrace symbolic abstraction for her first song, her greatest skill has always been getting to the relatable human core at the roots of her music, and she embraces a much smaller scope on this song. And yet it's the small scope that looks and feels so much bigger than it is: it references the sweep of Duran Duran and the transformative power of Nirvana... but the most the mix ever swells to match it is with the subtle arranged instrumentation on the hook, for the most part this is all warm acoustics, the sort of gentle track that feels as small as the town and the deeply felt relationship at its core. And that's at the core: she falls in love with the small town guy, and they end up having a baby while all their friends leave for college... and yet it's not resentful or bitter, nostalgic but also tempered with a lot of reality and acceptance of her choices. It's a song that doesn't demonize or glorify that small town life or relationship, just accept its reality, and there's a part of me that thinks more people could have afforded to hear this this year. Just a thought.

There's a lot to love about Aesop Rock's The Impossible Kid, but one of the best is placing his typical brand of impenetrability and personal neuroses in conflict with the larger world, of which he is certainly smarter but also sees through his deflections. And 'Shrunk' is an entire song about deflection and opening up, with the verses reflecting the thicket of dense wordplay that he surrounds himself with in order to deflect from the terror of visiting a psychiatrist and having to open up about himself. And while I could go on for hours about the wordplay here, I love how banal the second verse describes the waiting room where Aesop Rock isn't shying from the sacrificial metaphors, and I really love the third verse, where he's trying to play a game of wits to undermine the psychiatrist... and yet she sees through it and manages to coax out a bit of honesty, even if its drenched in twisted imagery. And yet despite the observations and squonk of the melody against the heavier drums that crank up the tension, creepy touches of keys, Aesop Rock is still coming back for another appointment, acknowledging the first step to dealing with his own fears and issues is to engage, less as patient and doctor and more as 'equals from opposing clans'. In any case, it's a wonderfully witty song and for anyone who has ever had any skepticism surrounding the psychiatry practice, or has been in that system, it's an easy song to adore.

It's Lydia Loveless' least country song to date, the prominent bass driving the melody against the sharper groove and the liquid rollick of the guitar that drives a blur of minor key melodies in something that could almost be out of new wave or retro-disco... but this song, especially as it falls towards the odd guitar line that breaks towards the blasts of harmonica that open up the final choruses, it's aiming much higher... mostly because this is a song exploring the loss of faith, or at least disillusionment. The awkward and very human connections that Loveless explores across the album are literally transposed to hers with a higher power, who is distant, never answers her calls... except note the pronoun usage: 'we built the walls', she knows she's just as culpable here and that by her actions she doesn't believe she's got any place in that paradise. She knows as much as anyone that faith is a two-way street, and so is forgiveness, and the drama comes in not seeing either coming any time soon. And for someone who while not losing his faith did more than his fair share thinking through religion this year... this one got to me, I have to say.

Oh, come on, you all knew this was coming! Man, I wish all of Starboy was like this, from the stalking echoes of guitar echoing against the seething synths that build to a killer crescendo into the stomping darkwave of the hook and The Weeknd delivering one of his most wild performances of his career! And yeah, in terms of content this is not far removed from The Weeknd's usual warnings against women hunting for cash and fame over anything else, or the bleak mental toll that such behavior could trigger... but again, for as much as it is a 'dark philosophy', there's no real judgement - he's just happy he got out of the way unlike so many clueless guys who fell in. But really, the lyrics are barely relevant - the song is here because of a fantastic buildup and an utterly wild chorus that ruled from the second I heard on Billboard BREAKDOWN. The Weeknd hasn't sounded this potent since Trilogy, and while we didn't quite more experimentation like this, the seed is very much still there.

Man, this is a great, unsettled road song - easily the best track from the case/lang/veirs project, it refines such a strong subtle melodic hook against the thicker bass and sharper snares, with just enough reverb against Neko Case's voice as she speeds through the countryside, leaving her sins in her wake as she quotes William Blake. It's a moment of respite at high speeds, complete with some of the best subtle backing harmonies I heard all year, capturing that wild restless spirit that remains captivating with every quick skitter of percussion and a gorgeous piano bridge. Not really a lot to say about this one, other than that I'd really like to hear that promised followup collaboration project... really just any time now!

And speaking of collaborations... this kind of snuck up on me, but I could say that about all of We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, a record that really has grown on me a lot over the past few months since I've covered it. And yet this was the song that always grabbed my attention the most, with the huge triumphant guitar leads surging against the gentle touches of arranged instrumentation for the hook... and yet it fades back for a laid-back bars fest on the verses, as Q-Tip, Phife, Jarobi, and especially Busta Rhymes trade off bars and flows with effortless skill. It's just ridiculously infectious, and the fact that they decided to reassert their dominance while metaphorically holding a torch for the modern MCs who are holding the line for lyrical hip-hop and experimentation. Of course, I would question putting J. Cole on that list - and I'm not wild about that chemtrails line from Q-Tip - but the chemistry and interplay are so damn solid I can look past all of it, including one of the most explosive and stunningly catchy hooks you'll hear all year. Fantastic song, and what a way to go.

(not available because YouTube and Hamilton... sigh)

I said it when I reviewed The Hamilton Mixtape, and I'll say it again: this is easily the best Chance The Rapper song I heard all year, to the point where I'd argue this has more impact for me than when they originally performed it on the Broadway soundtrack... mostly because Chance brings in Francis & The Lights to give the track the same delicate balance between organic and synthetic that made the best moments of Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak work for me. The odd Casio tone of the organ emphasizes the intimacy of the picture, as does Chance's hushed but amazingly emotive delivery, to the point where the touches of autotune add gentle foundation to hold together the trembling emotion. And when you realize that Chance could very well be singing something similar to his own newborn child and how that ramshackle hope that resonated through the best songs of Coloring Book is just as relevant and poignant here, the emotional throughline works. And yeah, part of it is that swell of horns on the bridge that gets me every time... and as I said when I covered The Hamilton Mixtape, this song puts Chance in an entirely different weight class of performers, and I can't wait to hear more.

And from new beginnings we come to perhaps one of the bleakest songs on this list - and from what you've heard, that's probably saying something. I originally hailed this as my favourite song from Big Day In A Small Town at the midyear, and while I wouldn't quite say that now, it's the emotional punch that somehow keeps going. It's very easy to view this track as a companion piece to 'I Cried' from Southern Family, but 'Since You've Gone To Heaven' goes beyond the initial grief to what comes next, and how everything seems to be collapsing around her at that father figure's passing. Her mother roams through an empty house she can't bear to sell, her brother's in and out of jail, the money's drying up and she has to pawn his watch to get him out of jail, the small town's deterioration has come into sharper focus as though things are supposedly getting better they're not seeing it - topical! - and even Brandy Clark herself admits she's been more reckless since his passing. And again, what gives the song it's impact is that it doesn't let up - I'm reminded a lot of Ronnie Dunn's 'Cost Of Livin', another song that references a ruined small town economy, but that got its weight thanks to never pulling away or showing the upside... because sometimes you can't see that upside, if it exists at all. And while of course Brandy Clark's fragile balance between her own grief and being too burned out to show much more is absolutely stunning, credit must be given to Jay Joyce, who knew not to get in the way of a good song, emptied the mix of anything beyond sparse acoustic melody, faded pedal steel, and enough reverb to accentuate that lingering loneliness, especially on a haunting as hell outro... yeah, it shouldn't be any surprise why this was a favourite for a long time.

That's right, folks, two songs from The Hamilton Mixtape are making this list.. but honestly, can you blame me here? Reportedly Kelly Clarkson first was presented this song without knowing the context of the musical while she herself was pregnant, so when given a song about a son dying and then trying to recover and save a failing marriage, her response was an email overloaded with swearing. But eventually she did record the cover... and yeah, it's the best thing she's done in years, no question. This is a song that reminds you precisely why Kelly Clarkson rose above her reality show beginnings to be come a critically beloved superstar, and when she has fantastic material, like she does here, she absolutely nails it. And let's make this clear, 'It's Quiet Uptown' has always been one of the most challenging tracks from Hamilton, but Clarkson manages to get to the core of the grief and pain and desire to pull something together, do the unimaginable. And I'll say it: I love the production here: it's modern and drenched in the same cavernous reverb, but the strings melodies are never compromised and if anything it serves to modernize the song in a tasteful but no less powerful way, capturing the empty grief but also lending to the swell of recovery. Absolutely gorgeous song that reminds us all why Kelly Clarkson was such a tremendous talent years ago... no way to get around how much I love this, it's stellar.

I bet some people are going to be surprised that a Childish Gambino song managed to clinch a spot on this list, let alone this one given how I wasn't really wild about the album. But while the record has grown a little on me, 'Boogieman' remains the absolute standout for being a ridiculously tight, well-written funk track that turns on a dime with the sort of swagger and confidence that reflects the master craftsmanship of a genius. The killer grime of the guitar line, the hook that opens up to one of the few moments where Gambino sticks with his more regular voice, the completely wild breakdown right afterwards, and the fact that the groove persists all the way through until the song picks some impressively eerie effects as it breaks into a whirling cascade of glossy funk, the song is an utter powerhouse. But what really grabbed me most was a lot of the edge of the content: taking the double meaning of 'boogieman' and striking a haunting parallel, because even despite not having the gun, he is the one who is feared, and how can he truly be free? At the end of the day, while the production was a tad too slick on "Awaken, My Love!" to really click all the way for me, 'Boogieman' hit the balance, and landed on this list.

I'm a little lost where to start with this one, partially because it seems to come from a different time. Yes, that's true of the majority of Kyle Craft's music, a blend of bombastic, gothic-tinged glam rock that would be right at home in the late 70s - hell, it's even a song about a burlesque show that tilts right up to the line of stripping - but Craft is the sort of writer who knows how to twist these tropes in interesting directions. For one, 'Berlin' has all the power in the song, taking all the attention and owning it, never satisfied with just one - something which paints the guys drooling over her, which includes Craft as much he might not want to admit it, in the weaker position. There are brief flickers of trying to save her, but he knows he's not her type and instead he's just going to drink in the spectacle as much as he can against the jaunty piano and touches of organ balanced perfectly against the guitar and bass harmonies that makes every part of this song unbelievably catchy. Oh, this is sleazy as hell, but Craft knows to crank his delivery to eleven and own all of it - and it makes for an amazingly fun song.

(not available because YouTube)

I could write a dissertation on the emotional dynamics of this song, how it goes through several different movements between piano and guitar and features one of the most resoundingly potent crescendos you'll hear in 2016, how Will Toledo walks the balance between awkward pain and a deeply felt rage that feels so justly earned even when it really might not be, the horns accenting the mournful collapse, and that's before we get to the Dido interpolation that blows my mind every single time I hear it. But then we get to the content, the penultimate point of Teens Of Denial where the depression and self-loathing that has underscored the record in trying to hold some facade of normalcy together completely falls apart. And just like Ought before him, the words 'I give up' gives him a release from fear as he confronts the deeply held divisions and neuroses held by a generation not allowed to compromise or make excuses despite the fact the previous generation didn't do their jobs, especially when the real disasters and incoming demise are yawing at his feet. It's a tremendous amount of freedom that comes in knowing your end that Toledo maximizes to the fullest extent over eleven minutes of fury. It's a monster of a song and one I can't help but adore... although not the longest, but more on that in a bit.

There's a part of me that's stunned that this is the Beyonce song I liked the most this year, mostly because in comparison with a track like 'Freedom', this could feel slight in its content... except it doesn't for me. In fact, for as much dark bombast as trap-inspired music wants to inspire, Beyonce was probably the closest to getting there, with the huge bass beat kicks leading into a nasal snarl of guitar before the mix breaks into a blend of gothic bells and backing vocals to flip the opulence into something much nastier, and that's before we get the wiry Animal Collective interpolation over the bridge with sharper trap snares before the final hook which flips any sense of wealth and beauty once again into something that seems to be dissolving into a gorgeous inferno around her. And yeah, Beyonce sounds incredible on this sort of dead-eyed anthem to piling up the wealth, but part of the reason it connects so powerfully is that she got The Weeknd to play hype man for her to open the track. His verse is brief but it sets the stage frighteningly well, not just in the opulence but how this could easily be masking something far darker... which if you've heard Lemonade is very much the case. Again, why this was never released as a single I will never know - imagine a 2016 where this went to #1, folks, instead of 'Closer' or 'One Dance'... doesn't that sound better?

And on the topic of surprises that I didn't expect I'd love as much as I do, here's the lead-off single from Brandy Clark's sophomore album that many country critics panned for sounding too modern and synthetic with the sandy beat, tight electric groove, and glossy swells of arranged instrumentation around the hook. And for the longest time I was there with them... but I don't know what to say, it penetrated regardless. Brandy Clark's brand of dark intensity might not have the same explosive power as Carrie Underwood or the same venom as Miranda Lambert, but she compensates with some of the sharpest writing you'll see in the genre, taking American girl-next-door stereotypes and skewering them, but she doesn't stop there. The song gets into the headspace of people who chase that archetype and yet still are attracted to her when she's very much not that, no matter how much they want to change her. It's not castigating that other idea of femininity so much as those trying to define her as something she's not, and when you pair it with an absolutely killer guitar melody, perfect bass line to intensify the driving roars of guitar and roiling drums, it was a country firestorm that was so richly earned.

It's the most traditionally "country" song on A Sailor's Guide To Earth, and I say that meaning instrumentation and delivery only - because Sturgill's 'Sea Stories' is precisely that, mostly set in south-east Asia and remembering his stint in the navy. From the ship's bell that opens the song to the flow of seedy organ backing up the layered guitars to the writing that goes far beyond any country topics to scenes that could seem bizarre - from a perpetual cynicism that comes military service to playing Goldeneye on an N64 on a long stint at sea to prostitutes playing Connect 4, it's the sort of careening absurdity that can't help but suck you in, especially when Sturgill just starts rattling off Asian ports of call. And thus while I was sucked in by the great guitar interlude and tonal switch up on the bridge, what really grabbed me was the final verse, where our sailor gets addicted to pain meds, gets kicked out, tries to get laid on a shitty futon for a year, and then spends the next fifteen trying to figure out why the hell he even bothered... but hey, at least he's alive, right? Folks, this is the sort of songwriting I adore country: so much character and personality and Sturgill's belting his lungs out, it's definitely more of a high seas voyage than any pirate flag Kenny Chesney hoisted. And while I doubt Sturgill will stick with this sort of country-leaning sound in the long term, this is the best possible example to set.

And now we follow it with the most country track from Lydia Loveless, the best song and title track off her newest album... and I can't mince words, the emotional roller coaster of this song is something to behold. All at once intensely cynical about love and yet willing and able to take more steps, it's the sort of song where the guy that Loveless wants is either entangled with another or is just a friend for whom she won't allow herself to feel more - after all, he's no Peter Pan to take her to the stars and she emphatically doesn't want that - but for their brief connection, he makes it seem real. The pedal steel swells up against the guitar line against the cymbals and subtle bass harmonies as that hook slips in to never let her fall, in her mind she knows it's all fragmented illusions that undercut at every turn... and yet she's not letting go. Again, the emotional framing and human complexity of Real by Lydia Loveless made it a tough album to initially appreciate, but with songs like this, she made it seem real, if only for ten tracks.

Of all the songs that I've put on this list thus far, this is the one you've probably seen on other lists, half because critics absolutely adored The Avalanches' long-awaited comeback with Wildflower but also because this song is nuts in the best possible way. Danny Brown's lunacy was terrifying on Atrocity Exhibition, and if you read between the lines it's got the same danger here... but it's just comical and ridiculous enough to make you laugh along with the insane swagger of it all, all between the calypso samples of Wilmoth Houdini from his 1947 song 'Bobby Sox Idol'. And that's before MF DOOM shows up for his relentless impenetrability... but let's get real, the reason this song pretty much blew everyone's mind was the same for me, the sample of 'My Favourite Things' from The Sound Of Music - it comes out of nowhere and never ceases to blow my goddamn mind, not just becoming the sort of zany plunderphonics song that's ridiculously colourful and fun, but something damn near transcendent. I mean... whoa.

So this is a far out track, but in a completely different way - and also the song that tends to polarize fans of clipping.'s space opera concept album, mostly because it owes the most to their previous record of material that was more "accessible" hip-hop, which in this case manifests through a cavernous mix, glassy fragments of synth that build some amazing interplay on the final hook, and a deep echoing beat that sounds like blast doors slamming shut on the other end of a station. And of course Daveed Diggs can spit, but the content is what I find fascinating here: a blur of mingled sci-fi references on effectively a trap anthem from space, where whatever marauding gang to which Diggs' character belonged was abducted and now has been freed from the noose into the unforgiving depths... and if you can't spot the social commentary here, I don't know what to tell you. The hook is stellar, the intensity and blend of bars is spectacular, and it's a showcase for all the reasons why Diggs is one of the most relentlessly skilled rappers in the game right now, and yet still can make the sort of tracks that bang hard - even from space, where there's no air to be found.

This is a difficult song to analyze - mostly because frontwoman Mish Way's approach to feminist punk and indie rock is tricky to contextualize. She set out to make a song celebrating glamour and beauty - and indeed, with the gleaming sparkle of the guitar tones that break into borderline tremolo riffs, it's easily the prettiest song that White Lung have ever made - but it's also a White Lung song, and that means that Mish Way's writing describes beauty in terms of broken crystals and castigated waste... because by dismissing it out of hand as not having real value, that how some brands of feminism treat the desire for beauty, even though it won't really last. They brand it as feeding empty pride, but Mish Way argues that beauty is meant to be appreciated, and hopefully not just as calcified portraits, and she's going to own all of it, even if it is considered base. But that doesn't make it any less human, because since the beginning we have treasured aesthetic beauty, and feminism's rejection of it is framed as another way to exclude women instead of cherishing what they bring. To put it another way, all of White Lung's Paradise is a blistering but extremely necessary examination of feminist subjects most feminists would prefer you discuss, and this song, being far catchier and more potent than you'd ever expect, was definitely the shimmering highlight.

And on the topic of shimmering guitars and celebrating the the littlest of things, here is arguably the best song Tom Krell has ever written - why he has not released this as a single continues to blow my mind. 'Salt Song' may have initially gotten some ribbing for its plainspoken sincerity and pop sense of earnestness... but that's the root of its power and it leads to one of the best hooks of 2016. And hell, it's at the foundation of the song's idea, how when you've built your career off of melancholy it can be a real risk to find composure and happiness, and when struggling with depression to feel that you might deserve to be happy is a huge step in and of itself. Recapturing and accepting that childlike innocence and holding your head high as you go, it's not just dignity but a brand of maturity that Krell has rarely experienced, and it gives the song a tremendous sense of wonder that's anchored in the slick percussion groove playing against that whistle and a backdrop of misty swell. And that liquid guitar flourish after the second hook, the gorgeous multi-tracking with each hook that balances the harmonies perfectly that then fades out before an explosive outro that has damn near more power than any other song I heard this year... again, probably the best song he's ever made, and I absolutely love it.

Look, I've praised Lori McKenna twice already on this list, you know her strengths in terms of brilliant framing of her own life and abstraction... but 'Halfway Home' goes to a more vulnerable place, that of the girl making the late drive home after the hookup as she's left questioning her value. She knows the guy's probably not the one, that she deserves a ride home or at least a full night, that she doesn't want to be seen as one of the dreaming girls searching for a guy to save them that'll never come... all with the acknowledgement that there's nothing wrong with wanting someone to hold her, even if he drifts away the second she kisses him goodnight. Again, the human framing of a song like this is damn near impossible to match, and the fact that McKenna captures the long stares on the empty roads, the tired frustration that comes with not having any of the answers, all against Cobb's supple touches around the acoustic guitar that never quite blunt the loneliness even as the mix picks up a little more swell, but never so much that it overplays the mood. Even with a fragment of hope that McKenna tries to give, it's easily one of the most heartbreaking songs of the year, except... well...

Look, there were a lot of Nick Cave songs that had a shot for this list - over half of the album was in the running, and the cuts there were painful, most driven by the fact that the album really works better as a whole instead of with individual singles, much the same way Southern Family does. Of course, there are exceptions, and this is the one... mostly because I don't think I've ever gotten through a listen of this song without at least getting a lump in my throat. And while there are other songs that get darker or more grief-stricken, 'Distant Sky' feels bigger, with Nick Cave staring out at a reddened sky from behind reddened eyes as he sees the sun begin to rise far, far away. In a rare choice for him he calls upon Else Torp to sing two verses opposite him that pull him to behold the beauty before looking away - it is not for mortals to see ghosts rise towards the heavens. And Nick Cave's words here are telling - Skeleton Tree is a record that shattered his ability to tell the narratives where he found solace, the dreams... but in facing those he loved most, a god in his eyes, not outlive him with them, it's a trembling realization of his own humanity that is painful to hear spoken but brings a sort of imperfect closure that he so desperately needs. And then Warren Ellis' strings come in against the touches of organ and swells of cymbals in the background... and nothing quite compares.

No joking around, this is my favourite hip-hop song of the year... and for the most part it wasn't even a contest. Two stories, told by Aesop Rock in stunning detail about his two brothers, one about encountering a gopher on a baseball diamond, one about a Ministry concert that went unattended. Both in their own way is about loss of innocence and death, in the first case with several inches of aluminum going through a gopher's skull and the latter shown in a proclamation to Aesop Rock's parents that this concert was something his brother was willing to die for, highlighting a sense of morbid absurdity that runs through both stories... and yet are moments that inspires Aesop Rock to reconnect with a brother he has not spoken to in many years. For an album about reengaging with the world, it's easily one of the most plainspoken songs he's ever written... and yet the detail in which he captures each story, given that I'm both a baseball fan and I also ran the gauntlet as a kid trying to get my hands on provocative art - I remember the heated debate with my folks when I went to go see my first metal show - this resonated more than I ever would have expected, bouncing off a gentle jingle of percussion and cascades of keys that eventually builds into a scratchy vocal sample and dusty drums for the hook. Coupled with the best wordplay you'd hear all year... Aesop Rock hit a home run with this one.

Okay, I've mentioned in the past that if you want a way to guarantee a high spot in this list, release a song that will become a lock in my exercise rotation - and, really, the next few songs all became staples for me this year, with this being the big closing climax that pretty much redeemed Jon Bellion's entire career by its existence. The rubbery blocks of bass, the liquid guitar fluttering through the background, his muted deilvery as he's meandering through bad decisions and sustaining a hookup for all the wrong reasons to put off dealing with real grief, all of this seems pretty familiar for Bellion... but then the piano line shifts on the second chorus and you get the feeling you're in for something bigger. But that doesn't prepare you for the next few minutes, where he brings in Sheldon Ray and the Andre Crouch Choir against a tide of strings and rumbling beats for a choral outro that might as well come off the best Broadway climax. It's a medley of the lines merged from across his record and it's a climax point that finds God not in the church but in the little moments that told his story. And for as much music that I covered that touched on religion this year - there was a lot of it, the more I think about it - this was the penultimate moment. But, if we want to flip the script...

It's the longest song on this list and it's the highest placing metal song, for good reason. This song effectively serves as the overture for Ghostlights and has a lot of material to get through while still serving as a titanic symphonic metal track, anchored in ominous pianos, choral swells, thunderous roils of drums and bass, and a chugging melodic guitar riff that mirrors the keys before building into something more aggressive and bombastic. And that's before we get to the vocals, from Tobias Sammet's hero having rejected the mystical in the face of hard logic and reason and demanding the world throw whatever it has against him - and Jorn Lande and Ronnie Atkins as the forces of Temptation and Magic doing just that, with the strength of a full-fledged primal thunderstorm crashing down on him with the monstrous chugging groove that still manages to bring the sort of huge hook that will plant like the doubts this song is trying to lodge in its protagonist's mind. Oh, and that's before we discuss a composition that never feels long or overdone at twelve minutes, features incredible guitar work from Oliver Hartmann, and manages to hold its atmosphere down to the whirring hums of the outro. An utterly stunning song that drives a kickass album, there was very little that could match this majesty... except, of course -

What, did you honestly think Kyle Craft was only getting one song on this list? But if you thought 'Berlin' was something potent, 'Lady Of The Ark' is a spectacular example not just of Craft's writing and tremendous performance, but also his willingness to experiment instrumentally. Beginning with heavy acoustic and electric strums against swells of percussion and jingles of the tambourine, midway through it breaks into a Spanish-inspired accordion solo that somehow perfectly fits despite the song's cosmic ambition. And I say cosmic because there's a very real possibility this is indeed a song about a fallen angel that has left Craft behind to experience the world... and then everything seems to go nuts. She hooks up with a consummate hedonist who steals her purity and runs drunkenly screaming into the night - as you do - and now she's left trying to paw for some sort of attention, and yet while this could very easily resonate as gloating for Kyle Craft having been dumped, he brings in a few important elements. One, there's still affection for this girl but also the acknowledgement that they never worked to begin with, which lends some healthy ambiguity to the situation; two, the song is more a taciturn acknowledgement of what happens when you venture into uncharted territory and things go wrong, not a condemnation of it, as I can see this fallen angel mingling with those rock n' roll kids for a while longer, and three, the entire song is played like an over-the-top farce. The bombast, the hyperbolic imagery, the fact that Craft is howling his lungs out but never seems actually angry so much as he is amused by all of it, it's a patently ridiculous song that seems straight out of vaudeville or a carnival barker - which, of course, was the point and means that Kyle Craft has notched a bonafide classic in ridiculous glam rock that's easily on par with the 70s icons he emulates. In other words, this is just a whole lot of sounds that I love, what could be better? Well...

It feels right that my favourite song of the year is a country song - and it's one you probably could have predicted too, as it fits a lot of the sounds and styles that I like. It's a song not just about making music but living that life and chasing that dream... and in the sort of utterly unforgiving detail that you rarely see coming in mainstream country, Charles Kelley rips away the veneer and reveals the truth of it all against a steady piano line, and eventually a cello, upright bass and touches of acoustic guitar. And the detail is striking and perfectly framed, telling a story that so many songwriters... no, scratch that, artists can understand and immediately relate to. This isn't the naive idealist out of college talking about becoming an artist, this is the songwriter who knows that if you're not writing singles you're not getting paid, even if you pour your heart into it. And yet even if you get something, not only does it not last but in a town like that, the relationships are flaky and at the end of the night you might end up puking behind the bar all by yourself. And the framing doesn't shy away from showing what success means - you become part of the system and blow off other songwriters, and then when your own career struggles you try to make the same calls, and all around you see people who have actually made it big and are settling down, a sense of security you can never have, and you're left picking up whatever you have of your life in messy tatters, praying its enough to spark the next song. But the drama comes in the truth that despite all of this, you're not leaving Nashville, or New York, or Chicago, or L.A., or London, or Toronto - you have that dream, and you're not going to leave that behind. And though Charles Kelley didn't write this song, he sings it as though he lived it, because like so many he probably did. The song is quiet, desperate melancholy about living the dream, and it's not really a song that's comfortable, I'm not surprised this was never pushed as a single. But if you're chasing that dream of maybe being king for a day, until you're not and need to chase it again - like I think so many of us are - this resonates on a primal level, and it's my top song of 2016, without a question.

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