Similar to my feelings on the album as a whole, John Muir is an almost impossible song to rank given that its detractions are fairly obvious, but its delights are enough to knock you off your feet. Crude, rude, and completely content to play the villain, Q's flow bounces tauntingly across the track, boasting of whatever sordid excess pops into his head in any given moment. Then there's the beat, a massage to the ear drums that surrounds you like a warm G-Funk bath. Producer Sounwave's work behind the sound boards here isn't so much a tribute to a time gone by in 90's West Coast hip hop, but a perfect recreation of its highest heights, fully comfortable standing next the finest of Dr. Dre's discography. Yes, I know that's some pretty lofty praise, and I mean every word of it.
My last annoying tie of the Top 100 Songs of 2016 belongs to Bon Iver, whose gorgeous album 22, A Million is often too self-contained and of-a-piece with itself to offer many standalone moments. These two reach the front of the pack by traveling almost completely divergent paths, the former possessing the disc's most gigantic moments, while the latter floats into and out of existence with hardly a whisper. Surrounded by distorted voices that seem to serve as an indecipherable conscious, God sees Justin Vernon's signature falsetto slice through the clutter, gaining further power on a bed of rolling drums. Stafford is a perfect opposite, the singer switching back into his lower register for a seemingly traditional folksy lament that gains extra power through the sort of minor production flourishes that serve as the album's trademark. Vernon is known to take all manner of different routes to beauty, and he usually winds up at his destination.
My favorite track off Blond stands out because it does what the rest of the disc refuses to do; raise its voice. Where most of the album allows Ocean's words and voice to basically speak for themselves, Self Control turns a simple late August ode into a journey from playful flirtation to kiss off painted in kaleidoscopic wonder. Flipping in and out of vocorder, Ocean relays simple plans for a knowingly temporary romance, only Alex G's lovely six-string strumming accompanying him on the steady gallop to the final act, where the roof blows open, and you can suddenly see the stars. Turning up the volume on Franks voice and layering it into infinity, the track suddenly becomes gorgeous, melancholy and all-encompassing. And then it's gone.
After a career chuck-full of them, this might just be the most hype Kanye song that the rapper has ever released. "Your love is fade!" a voice exclaims from the silence, firing a warning shot across the bow, the track diving right into its rolling sea of bass and synth with utter abandon. Yeezy himself eventually joins the proceedings, but is a savvy enough producer to keep his voice relatively low in the cue, and just let that beat rock. Chris Brown's digitally shattered vocals, pounding drums that plow through space, a forceful chorus of brawny-sounding female voices; this one is pure bombast through and through, a jolt of power and energy that shoots up your veins and courses through your body. Play it at 11 and a half, and go conquer the world.
This is by no means the first time that Thom Yorke has reached through Radiohead's psychedelic fog, attempting to tug at heart strings. How to Disappear Completely tries but gets caught up in ravishing oddity, House of Cards played it straight and remains unconvincing, and Thinking About You came out before Yorke was abducted by aliens. Twenty years later, the real thing has finally arrived. A simple, ruminating guitar line echos across a vast black canvas, Yorke's feeble voice raising only to the track's same gentle plateau. A small handful of other sounds enter the fray, but somehow their amassing only pushes our singer's lovelorn lament further to the center, his loneliness palpable as the track erodes around him. Many attribute the song's emotional punch to knowledge that the Radiohead frontman and his longtime partner Rachel Owens split before the album's release, but I'd wager it's more about the simplicity of his approach. Nothing here is clever or strives to impress. It's as refined and unfettered as its vocalist's plea; "Please don't leave."
Strangely mysterious despite forgoing even a modicum of subtlety, Crisis envisions a sort of relationship counseling session between the oppressed and the tyrannical. "If I killed your mother/with a drone bomb/how would you feel?" Anohni asks with disarming sincerity for such a brazenly horrific statement. Wafting above counterintuitively bright electronic production from Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, the singer's questions keep on coming and coming, eventually breaking down into a seemingly tearful apology for things we all know are unforgivable. The earnestness in her voice makes it perfectly clear that this is not a joke; it is a reckoning with the pervading awfulness that engulfs large swaths of the world, and a virtual promise that when certain lines are crossed, no passage of time or extending of olive branches can ensure that those wounds will ever heal.
Father John Misty's 2015 release, the resplendent I Love You, Honeybear, is an album about bitterness, anger, and jealousy, and the hard-fought way that love can loosen a person's grip on those ideals finger by finger. Real Love Baby, in that case, serves as a sort of epilogue, where our lovers have finally reconciled their differences, and think only of embracing one another. Dropped suddenly on Soundcloud in the dog days of summer without a proper album release in sight, this is bare-bones affection, Josh Tillman's contented guitar strums seeming to emit rays of sun all by themselves. Old school, sapped of all irony, and potentially romantic to a fault, Real Love Baby is the sound of the biggest cynic in the room offering the most deeply felt utterance you'll ever hear, filling you up with warmth and hope.
As a huge, irrational Kanye fan, I couldn't help but be completely delighted by the Yeezy, Taylor, and Kim debacle of this last summer, but it's a shame that anything could distract from The Life of Pablo's very best song. Built in a sort of pseudo-triptych fashion, Famous takes three passages that would all be the best part of just about any other song and melds them together seamlessly, creating half of a 'greatest hits' album in all of three minutes. Rihanna is first through the door, a hushed organ whining in the background as the singer's sultry croon fills the air, sucked back out of existence by an elephantine beat drop. Cold, hard, and nearly impossible to sit through, a ringing sends sparkles shooting across the songs darkness as Ye raps about all manner of his own awesomeness. He and Rihanna trade the mic for a couple more moments until Sister Nancy's Bam Bam shatters the glass ceiling, moving us from winter to summer over the course of a second. A sonic joyride from start to finish.
Should it be any surprise that, on an album full of noise, sound, and mania, the calmest and most clear-eyed moment would come when David Bowie started writing his own obituary? Down-shifting all the way into second gear, Lazarus is a waltz on downers, adorned in horns that sigh, guitars that pierce, and a storyteller dictating from on high. "Look up here/I'm in heaven," the song opens bluntly, casting the whole affair as a funeral procession even upon initial release, when the Star Man was still with us. It was only two days later when he passed, and while I often find it beside the point to let the outside world bleed into a song, the level of self-awareness is utterly haunting, as are the twisted, brooding instrumentals that take over the song in its back half. In terms of words, sounds, and real-world events, Lazarus is the sound of a wise man realizing that it's finally time to be laid to rest.
As if it wasn't surreal enough to have one music legend openly accept his own demise, 2016 possessed two such incidences, though their thoughts on the afterlife don't exactly meet eye-to-eye. Where Bowie immediately declares his station among the saints, You Want it Darker sounds more like the boat of Charon's trip across the river Styx, a doomed journey full of spite and despair. His gravel-filled voice all but dilapidated, Cohen rattles off both his sins and his opposition to a sort of domineering holy light, preferring to cast himself down into hell rather than acquiesce. A brushed snare drum taps one note, a bass line rumbles deep down below, and a choir of tortured souls rises and falls, pitying the ruined man that is about to join them in eternity. It's certainly not a positive reading of the song, but that's because Cohen has completely denied us of one, practically taunting the listener for the desires expressed in the title before he finally resigns. "I'm ready, my Lord."
"It's kismet that we conflict with the stars." That line, uttered near the opening of Phife Dawg's triumphant verse on We the People... has turned the wheels in my mind more than any other hip hop line I can think of. Tribe has always been something of a merry band of rebels, but the lead single from their 2016 LP brings a new sense of spite and revolt to the table, powered by angered guitars and militant percussion. Q-Tip's production is on point as always, but there's no horsing around in his bars here, examining gentrification and the many subtle steps that lead to its accomplishment. It's not so much of a plea for equality as a call for awareness and action, which is where that Phife line comes in. The many non-white people that populate the entirety of the world have been treated as adversaries for so long that it's almost become a source of pride, a defining factor that unites just as much as it divides. Embracing that struggle with open arms is the only sensible thing to do, and with Tip behind the boards and Phife back on the mic, Tribe is ready to lead the march.
Adore didn't have to serve as a semi-title track in order to stand out as Adore Life's centerpiece; not only does it carry itself with the entire weight of the world, but the song stands out as the clearest manifestation of the album's difficult thesis. A steady rumble of bass and guitar that seem to double as the wick to a sonic powder keg, vocalist Jehnny Beth steadies her normative howl into a wounded hush, bemoaning her openness and vulnerability before repeatedly asking herself an almost elemental question; "is it human to adore life?" The snares and snakes of life have taken their pound of flesh, but Beth refuses to surrender, not because she believes in love or fate or better times ahead. As the track builds to its show-stopping conclusion, it becomes clear that this perseverance is the product of a gratitude for being alive in the world, for waking up every morning and breathing in the air, for the possibilities that they bring.
All Night by Beyonce
Lemonade is a concept album in every sense of the word, the story of a woman (Beyonce, sure, we'll say it's her) learning of her husband's infidelities, and going through all five stages of grief. The structure peaks at its very conclusion, where the singer finally reaches acceptance, and the storm clouds seem to part at her behest. Dripping with romance despite carrying a knowing note of sadness, All Night is resoundingly gorgeous, Bey's brave, beautiful vocals bounding off of strings and drums that roll across the beach at sunset. Having conquered both her depression and Jay-Z's career, Beyonce takes her world domination to previously unthinkable heights by sampling the horns from Outkast's Spottieottiedopaliscious, an act that I had honestly assumed was illegal until I heard how bewitchingly divine they are here. It's the sound of ravishing triumph, and the best song of Beyonce's career.
At Your Best (You Are Love) by Frank Ocean
Go ahead, take your shots. I'll be here when you're done. I fully understand a bit of skepticism propping up at seeing such a contrarian pick as the best song of 2016, but I honestly can't explain how bowled over the was the first time I heard At Your Best (You Are Love), and the feelings that washed over me as the world faded away. Bathed in a sea of white that was created by Johnny Greenwood, James Blake, and the London Contemporary Orchestra, Ocean's falsetto is superhuman, as radiant as it is soulful, imbued with a level of affection that people start wars over. Only lightly altered from the Isley Brother's 1976 hit of the same name, Endless' lead-off track is wisely wary to fix anything that isn't broken, the production carrying itself with a level of formal class that's nearly impossible to find. But this one's all about Frank, who seems to be in the process of ascending into a celestial space, and being fitted with a crown and angel wings. I've never heard this song and immediately recovered afterwards. It is an entrancing diamond, and my favorite song of last year.
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Hype Starts Here's Top 50 Albums of 2016
Hype Starts Here's Top 100 Songs of 2016