Best of 2016: The 25 best songs of the year, from Beyonce to Rihanna to Sia (with playlist)
Why list 25 favorite songs of 2016, instead of just 10? I love spreading the love, for one thing — many of artists on my Top 10 albums list also have a song here, and what’s the fun of running the same list twice?
More than that, though, expanding the list gives me the chance to shout out many more of the great artists I dug in 2016, from all-time icons to one-hit wonders. It’s never an easy task, though, so I have a couple of groundrules to keep me straight:
1. Only one song per artist. That makes it tough to choose a favorite hit from, say, Beyonce’s Lemonade or Rihanna’s Anti, but it helps shine a wider light on more types of music.
2. I try to be a hard-liner when it comes to release dates, meaning songs released in late 2015 that only really took off in 2016 are out of contention. But I’m thinking I might tweak that rule in 2017, because it forced me to leave so many good tracks on the table — DIIV’s Under the Sun, Lucius’ Born Again Teen, Christine and the Queens’ Tilted, Desiigner’s Panda, David Bowie’s Lazarus. Had they been eligible, all those songs probably would’ve made this list.
Without further ado, my Top 25 songs of 2016 (scroll down for a Spotify playlist):
25. Fantasia, Sleeping With the One I Love: One of the most radioactive singers in American Idol history cuts loose on a confident and expansive chunk of retro soul, courtesy of writer-producer R. Kelly. It’s five minutes of slow-burning flame.
24. Domo Genesis and Anderson Paak, Dapper: The hardest-working rapper of 2016 (sorry, Drake and Chance) pops up on Domo Genesis’ enjoyable Genesis for this groovy roller-rink party jam.
23. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, Side to Side: Grande’s Dangeorus Woman marks a top-to-bottom leap forward, with numerous standout singles (Into You also deserves a shout-out on this list). But this reggae-flavored duet with Nicki Minaj was the perhaps the sexiest smash of the year.
22. Maxwell, Lake By the Ocean: Turns out Maxwell’s blackSUMMERS’night was worth the wait. A dreamlike love song full of naturalistic imagery and Maxwell’s incomparable falsetto, it was the grown-up love song of the year.
21. Sturgill Simpson, Keep It Between The Lines: While Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth falls somewhere between outlaw country and outer space, this standout track, delivered as a letter as advice to his new son, keeps things grounded in rollicking rock ‘n’ blues, thanks to the mighty horns of the Dap-Kings.
20. Lady Gaga, Million Reasons: There are two Lady Gagas. There’s the full-force party monster, and then there’s the Gaga who secretly wants to be a balladeer playing for tips in a Long Island piano bar. With Million Reasons, that second Gaga finally has a song worthy of her mighty voice.
19. Against Me!, Rebecca: Laura Jane Grace’s latest collection of ragers, Shape Shift With Me, is all about navigating relationships as a trangender woman, and none rock harder than this song about furious but fleeting romance. “I just want to grab you by the skull / Rebecca, kiss me, but let’s not fall in love / Want you to hit me like a bus / and then I’ll get right the f--- back up.”
18. Pinegrove, Old Friends: A lo-fi indie band with a slightly emo yelp and a gift for heartfelt hooks discovers a banjo, and all is right with the world. The song itself is a poignant reflection on loss and regret, but the music is enough to keep you going.
17. Bon Iver, 8 (Circle): Bon Iver’s 22, A Million is either a brilliant reinvention of electro-R&B or a sleepy piece of glitchy background music. But the experimental textures and warm ‘n’ fuzzy feels work in total harmony on 8 (Circle), a gorgeous song that feels like the Justin Vernon of the past embracing the Justin Vernon of the future.
16 Steven Tyler, Only Heaven: Much was made of Steven Tyler supposedly going country with his debut solo album We’re All Somebody From Somewhere. Turns out he was still capable of writing the best, most bombastic Aerosmith power ballad since I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.
15. A Tribe Called Quest, The Space Program: Fans didn’t have many reasons to be optimistic about A Tribe Called Quest’s first album in 18 years, especially after founding member Phife Dawg died in March. But We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service is a triumphant return to form for the alt-hip-hop icons, starting with its mesmerizing opening track, on which Q-Tip blazes through evocative rhymes on economic inequality and racial disenfranchisement.
14. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, Stranger Things: The nostalgic Netflix creepfest Stranger Things was a pop culture sensation, thanks in no small part to the pitch-perfect synthesizer score of composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, from the indie band SURVIVE. Their pulsing theme song was so instantly iconic it was immediately sampled by Wiz Khalifa. But accept no imitators; Dixon and Stein did it first, and they did it much better.
13. The Chainsmokers and Halsey, Closer: The first time I heard this song -- back in spring, when the DJ duo had only played it live -- I knew it was going to be gigantic. The studio version feels a little more restrained, and Drew Taggart and Halsey are not very strong vocalists. But Closer is undeniably original and creatively structured, with a surprisingly specific sense of time and space that’ll give it lasting nostalgic appeal. Haters will hate, but there’s a reason it became the year’s biggest pop single: It’s really good.
12. The Avett Brothers, Ain’t No Man: Unlike the sepia-toned Americana of their previous hits, this loose rubberband single from the Avett’s True Sadness feels like back-porch ‘70s gospel-funk, with just a hint of Three Dog Night or Creedence Clearwater Revivial. It’s all bass and harmonies, and sometimes that’s all you need.
11. Cardiknox, Into the Night: The world didn’t catch onto this Seattle-born pop duo’s catchy Portrait the way they did Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion or Taylor Swift’s 1989. But this killer late-night cruise of a single, with its handclappy verses and huge chorus, deserve a long second life. Turn your phone to silent, fly along the sidewalk like a nighthawk and scream along.
10. Chance the Rapper featuring Knox Fortune, All Night: Few artists better represent the gospel/hip-hop trend than Chance the Rapper, but All Night is all disco. Chance called this song about the sudden fame and celebrity “the best song I’ve ever written.” It definitely might be his danciest.
9. Rihanna, Kiss It Better: Rihanna’s best album bounces from genre to genre with abandon, with no song illustrating that better than this incendiary monster ballad. With Extreme’s Nuno Bettancourt nailing his epic solos, it’s an era-perfect song about wanting that perfect lover to come over and give it to you good, consequences be damned.
8. Flume featuring Beck, Tiny Cities: When Tiny Cities dropped, Beck confessed in an interview he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to sing it live. No wonder: This up-and-down, rising-and-falling, all-over-the-map vocal melody sounds astonishingly difficult. But Australian producer Flume pulls it out of him (with a little added digital assistance) for a song that’s a majestic cloud of atmospheric electro-pop, as well as the finest vocal Beck’s ever laid down.
7. Chairlift, Polymorphing: A slinky, funky highlight of an album that glides along like a breeze, Polymorphing is all about the chemicals of love and what they do to our brains and hearts. That said, it’s the beat, not the lyrics, that’ll have you jonesing to dance up close to your special other.
6. Rae Sremmurd, Black Beatles: It doesn’t hurt that Black Beatles became as the de facto soundtrack to the the mannequin challenge, a 2016 viral trend so widespread that everyone from Hillary Clinton to the cast of Saturday Night Live to Paul McCartney himself joined in. But it’s a great song even if (perhaps especially if) you’re moving, subverting Baby Boomers’ ideal image of greatness by filtering it through the eyes of two young bucks in the club.
5. Maren Morris, ‘80s Mercedes: My Church got all the headlines, but this snappy, confident single better exemplifies why Morris was such a breath of fresh air in Nashville. No one’s calling her old school, but hey, she’s a ‘90s baby, and ‘90s country was all about hooks and melody. So is this song.
4. Radiohead, Burn the Witch: A while back, Radiohead released Spectre, a song that was intended to be the theme to the James Bond film of the same name. It was rejected and went nowhere. But can you imagine if they’d submitted Burn the Witch instead? Those jabbing strings, that imposing sense of dread and doom – this was not only a surprising sound for Radiohead, it was instantly one of the most Gothic and muscular songs in their catalog. And that’s saying something.
3. Sia and Sean Paul, Cheap Thrills: Truth be told, I prefer Sia’s original solo version from This Is Acting, which technically debuted in December 2015. But Sean Paul’s guest vocals are what made Cheap Thrills such a smash worldwide. Originally written for Rihanna, Sia’s first No. 1 single already felt like a rebellious indie-kid dance party in the middle of Carnival; Paul’s riddims just let everyone else in on the fun.
2. The 1975, The Sound: The 1975 don’t know how to dial it back. That boundless ambition isn’t always a good thing, but when it works, it’s dynamite – like on The Sound, a pulsing, screaming avalanche of a single that sounds a lot like the sugar rush of young love feels. It’s a pastiche of sparkling, neon ‘80s synth-pop, yes, but it’s so immaculately done it’s hard to care.
1. Beyonce, Formation: It’s the song that upstaged the Super Bowl. What else needs to be said? Fine, how about this: It’s the most quotable single of the year (“I got hot sauce in my bag,” “I take his ass to Red Lobster,” “I twirl on them haters” and, of course, “Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation”). It’s a song so musculuar it both opened Beyonce’s Formation Tour and slammed the door on her album Lemonade. And on top of it all, it’s a swaggering, empowering statement about African American beauty and identity. Bey came to slay with this one, and left no one standing in her wake.
Honorable mention: Paul Simon, The Werewolf; Michael Kiwanuka, Black Man in a White World; Phantogram, You Don’t Get Me High Anymore; Kanye West, Feedback; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree, Run the Jewels, Talk To Me
-- Jay Cridlin