10. “Burn the Witch,” Radiohead
Even in their quieter, more introspective work, Radiohead incorporates a feeling of alienation from the ever-growing bombardment of modern technology, capitalism and authoritarian governments. After nearly five years of silence, the band returns with “Burn the Witch,” a raucous, thrilling and politically charged anthem that mixes societal paranoia with Jonny Greenwood’s abrupt string orchestration and electronic flourishes. As Thom Yorke takes the lead, singing with his signature warble about the dangers of scapegoating and groupthink, “Burn the Witch” showcases a darkly unsettling message with surprisingly splendid musical overtones. It’s classic Radiohead.
— Sam Rosenberg
9. “We The People…,” A Tribe Called Quest
Perhaps no single rap song hit the nail on the head for the American political climate in 2016 more so than “We The People”. Where they typically drop quips and clever punchlines that could go over casual listener’s heads, the synths alone on this piece sound like a street riot.
Q-tip’s voice sounds like it’s been processed through a megaphone as he chants a hauntingly simple hook: “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.” The late Phife Dawg also drops a show-stopping verse, with the song literally centered around him.
In a year that’s taken Phife from us and given us President-Elect Donald Trump, “We The People” was the finest response that the hip-hop community conjured.
— Shayan Shafii
8. “Black Beatles,” Rae Sremmurd
On one hand, “Black Beatles” is somewhat synonymous with a sometimes entertaining, sometimes aggressive — but now definitely dated — viral phenomenon. On the other, it dethroned the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” on the Hot 100, so it’s chill. Nonetheless, the Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane collab will long outlive its viral roots. In a year saturated with political dialogue, especially in terms of race relations, “Black Beatles” puts race in the center of a not-so-political context. Infectiously comparing the British culture of the Beatles with Rae Sremmurd’s particular brand of hip hop, the product is stupidly catchy — one aspect of 2016 young bulls and old geezers can agree on.
— Christian Kennedy
7. “Festival Song,” Jeff Rosenstock
Jeff Rosenstock has a peculiar knack for blurring the lines between pop, punk and rock, all while making it incredibly accessible. “Festival Song” is by far the most indicative of this talent, and by far the catchiest song I’ve heard all year. Strolling down State Street I’d catch myself humming the song, only to be socked in the arm by my friend for infecting her with it, too. It’s an inescapable blend of punk rock and snazzy synth lines, with clever lyricism to top it off. Like the vast majority of the tracks on WORRY., the track is an angry, reflexive look at capitalism and self-worth in today’s America — but on the surface, it’s still the perfect song to scream and dance along to with your pals at a party when you need a (much needed) break from The Chainsmokers' “Closer.”
— Dominic Polsinelli
6. “715 CRΣΣKS,” Bon Iver
Justin Vernon’s 22, A Million marks a sort of departure for the artist, away from his traditionally folk-based, acoustic music to a more experimental, electronic sound. It’s kind of like what Kanye did with 808’s & Heartbreaks. And that’s a fair comparison to make seeing as the two are friends, and make music together — this new Bon Iver project is heavily reminiscent of their collaboration “Woods.” That track was an obvious precursor to “715 Creeks,” a standout track which features only Vernon’s vocals and a synthesizer. It’s here the artist best demonstrates the strength of his vocals, the intensity of his lyrics, and the inventiveness of his production to create something completely engrossing but totally heartbreaking. Listening to the song is exhausting, but in a cathartic way; it feels necessary and right, but that doesn’t make the emotional impact any less severe.
— Rachel Kerr
5. “pick up the phone,” Young Thug and Travis Scott
There was much fanfare in the last year about the “tropical vibe.” It seethed less successfully on some abrasive EDM tracks, brought Justin Bieber back to the radio (because, why not?) and soared on some of the year’s biggest songs.
Sometimes, though, trends work. “pick up the phone,” a collaboration between the distinctive Young Thug and the notably less distinctive Travis Scott, is by far one of the best examples.
The production doesn’t scream “Look, we’re on an island!” but its influence is clear. It’s the Goldilocks principle at obvious play: not too much, not too little, but just right. Young Thug might occasionally sound the blabber of a baby, but it’s still perfect. Travis Scott yelps in background, but it’s still, you know, masterful. Everything just falls into place.
Also, it just happens to bang. Like, really, really bang. It warrants every replay, every screamed “I know you’re home baby!” I don’t care how many times you heard it in the basement of that frat — “pick up the phone” is still one of the best songs of the year.
— Matt Gallatin
4. “Cranes in the Sky”Solange
When I first heard this song, I thought Solange was singing about birds. I thought the cranes in her sky were big, long-necked, migratory birds. I thought it was about movement and escape. It wasn’t until I did a quick Genius lyric search for this blurb that I came across all this talk about construction.
Supported by Raphael Saadiq’s serene orchestral bass, “Cranes in the Sky” floats. Stripped of meaning and intention, it’s light and dreamy. Solange’s vocals are soft and the lyrics are simple, but there’s something else that lurks beneath its surface.
“I tried to drink it away / I tried to put one in the air / I tried to dance it away / I tried to change it with my hair,” the song begins.
What is this “it” that Solange wants so desperately to escape? The song itself doesn’t give an answer — there’s never an antecedent. But for me, and I’m sure many others, “it” is the communal loneliness of womanhood, and more specifically Black womanhood. It is the force that constantly pull women away from each other — an idea that is made strikingly tangible in the track’s accompanying video, where shots of Solange alone in the desert are interspersed with her lying down, her limbs interwoven with those of other women. With this track, Solange beautifully captures the absurdity of loneliness in a hyperconnected world, as well as its inevitability.
In that way, “Cranes in the Sky” is a song of opposites. The best hint towards what the “it” might be comes in the chorus, where Solange sings “Well it’s like cranes in the sky / Sometimes I don’t want to feel those metal clouds.” Her loneliness looms over her like a crane, an image steeped in both hope and fear no matter which type of crane you think it is.
I still think it’s about birds.
— Madeleine Gaudin
3. “Nikes,” Frank Ocean
No song off Frank Ocean’s Blonde better epitomized the album’s surreal mass appeal than “Nikes.” It’s a slow, meditative track that barely has a beat and features vocals pitched up beyond human range, but it managed to lead off one of the most talked-about and beloved albums of the year.
“Nikes” contains all aspects of what makes Ocean so compelling. It’s got the hazy cross-faded imagery, the detached-at-the-party vibe that has been part of Ocean’s arsenal since his early hit “Novacane,” but it also takes the time to pay respect to Pimp C, A$AP Yams and Trayvon Martin, as Ocean’s own mortality looms over all the song’s thoughts and actions.
But he balances out “Nikes” with his underrated sense of humor. “You got a roommate he'll hear what we do / It's only awkward if you're fucking him too,” is the now-famous closing line, but don’t sleep on the early couplet: “Said she need a ring like Carmelo / Must be on that white like Othello.” As sparse as it sounds at first listen, “Nikes” reveals something new each time you return to it, and it’s another tremendous accomplishment for one of our most multi-dimensional, enigmatic modern pop stars.
— Lauren Theisen
2. “Formation,” Beyonce
“Formation” is an unabashed salute to the power of womanhood — more importantly, to the fortitude of Black, southern womanhood. Partnered with the striking images in the music video of various Black women over time, the track transcends the confines of pop music and becomes an instance of protest. Bey is refusing to be limited by her race, place of birth or gender, and rallies against such boundaries with lyrics flaunting her wealth alongside her heritage.
“Formation” wraps social issues — police brutality, the disenfranchisement of women, regional and racial stereotypes — in an alluring pop packaging. Lines like “I got hot sauce in my bag, swag” seem meaningless on the surface, but, when preceded with “Earned all this money, but they never take the country out me,” become seeped in cultural significance. This kind of nuanced wordplay, along with its undeniably infectious musicality, makes “Formation” one of 2016’s most important tracks. No wonder Beyonce is called the Queen.
— Carly Snider
1. “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye West
Before the pro-Trump rants and the Kim K drama and the hospitalization, there was a beam. It captivated and guided, but above anything else, the beam enveloped. On The Life of Pablo, an album with so much punch, it says something, a lot, to kick it all off with this sensitive admission of wrongdoing. Well, it’s also somewhat of a plea for redemption. Or it’s both, and a lot more. It’s gorgeous.
The organ! It stays grounded in its sanctity. The choir!
Kanye has forced himself into a conversation of divinity in a manner only he could pull off. He wanted us to buy into this preaching, that he is a god, and we kind of did buy it. But now he’s the one most in need of a ride on the beam, simultaneously enticing others to revel in its benefits while not actually rapping.
The real rap belongs to Chance the Rapper, who delivers that verse — the one that miraculously and successfully conflates humble beginnings, earnest success, and pompousness. Bolstered by The-Dream and prayers from Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin, the total product is a message that reverberates even for the most unholy. Desperate, devout, and fulfilling all at once, it’s complete Kan-tharsis at its finest.
— Joey Schuman