20. Brasstracks - Say U Won't
What a year Brasstracks has had. The Brooklyn duo has helped produce songs for Anderson Paak and Chance the Rapper on their 2016 albums, in addition to creating their own album. After listening to "Say U Won't", it's easy to see why Chance picked them up to work on his hit single "No Problem". Nobody is playing better Future Funk than these gentlemen; their blend of live instrumentation and studio-produced sounds is immaculate. As they do on most of their tracks, Brasstracks keeps the horns front and center, letting them carry the melody. In a year lacking positivity, the energy of this track will bludgeon you into submission until you finally end up thinking happy thoughts!
19. Laser Gun - M83 (ft. MAI LAN)
I had casually listened to the new M83 album this summer and, full disclaimer, I didn't think all that much of it. I've never been a big M83 fan to begin with, but later on in the summer I went on a road trip with some friends and one buddy of mine wacked me over the head with how wrong I was about M83. This song is playful, with a repeated refrain that takes you on a trippy journey through multiple sonic landscapes. My favorite part of the song is a funky saxophone breakdown that you can't miss, it's so good!
18. Flume (ft. Kai) - Never Be Like You
One of the bigger hits of the summer, Flume's lead single off the album Skin might not reinvent the wheel, but it's one of my favorite pop songs of the year. It's all about that absurdly catchy falsetto that Kai, the featured singer, drops into when delivering the titular phrase. Aside from the addictive catch-phrase, there's a general sense of waviness to this track that I really like. I think it comes from the cadence of the lyrics - they flow really well - and the bouncing synths.
17. Still Parade - 17:41
It's got a pretty hip name, but Still Parade's first track of 2016 was a delightful piece of psychedelic alternative rock in the same vein as bands like Tame Impala. Released all the way back in January, I still get goosebumps when I hear the drums kick in. The percussion is the star of the show here, producing an infectious, driving rhythm. Once your head starts nodding, these wobbly, reverby sounds are introduced. I'm not sure if they're highly altered guitar or completely synth based, but I do know that they are cool!
16. Jacob Collier - Hideaway
This London artist took me on an epic sonic journey the first time I heard this song. It starts innocuously - I judged it to be a pretty, but ultimately typical guitar-based pop song. Boy was I wrong. As if leading you on a journey to a secret hideaway, the track continuously morphs into new musical styles, often changing the rhythm. Jacob Collier proves just how talented a multi-instrumentalist he is by introducing swirling arrangements of guitars, mandolins, drums, maracas, chimes, piano, etc (I think there's even a brief accordion bit). Mr. Collier's impressive vocal range is also showcased on this song, as he layers his voice on top of itself for intricate vocal harmonies. Through all of this, the track never loses its way, always coming back to the same musical motifs set up by the introductory melody. Simply lovely.
15. Charles Kelley (ft. Dierks Bently & Eric Paslay) - The Driver
Released on an album of the same name, "The Driver" is certainly a track worthy of having an album act as a vehicle around it. Pun totally intended. Conceptually, I like the theme of the song, following three archetypal characters that form a concert. Each verse is from the perspective of a different character, and sung by a different artist as well. It doesn't have all that much depth when examined closely, but the melodies are pretty, especially when all three singers harmonize on the chorus. It's a big, all-encompassing anthem that is meant to be sung in backyards on warm summer nights.
14. Maggie Rogers - Alaska
As stated in a video with Pharrell last year (where this song went viral), Maggie Rodgers has her roots firmly in folk. A search of her youtube or soundcloud reveals a slew of songs that are just her and her guitar. As you can tell from the first seconds of listening to "Alaska", this is not folk music. So what brought about this musical metamorphosis? According to the aforementioned video, it took some serious soul-searching and a newfound appreciation for electronic music. "Alaska" is a lovely little piece of indie pop that has all sorts of interesting sounds going on it. Miss Rodgers, probably leaning on her folk sensibilities, goes out of her way to make the electronic noises sound both unique and natural on the track. Everything is tastefully layered, plus her falsetto during the chorus will take your breath away. It reduced Pharrell to tears!
13. Angel Olsen - Shut Up Kiss Me
This is a song about passion and the friction it can sometimes cause in relationships. While this is a common subject to be written about, I think Angel Olsen does a fabulous job of conveying this passion, not only in the songwriting, but in her voice. She forcefully warps her voice at key junctures throughout the track, perfectly translating the sense of desperation that her character feels. The guitar, particularly during the chorus, amplifies the anxiety, with strong pounding notes after each line. It's a sign of a well crafted song when the instrumental, lyrics, and vocals all line up to exude a certain emotion. Did I mention the chorus is also stupidly catchy too?
12. Childish Gambino - Me and Your Mama
While some might prefer the sexier cut "Redbone" off of Gambino's latest epic, psychedelic, soul/funk fusion album, I prefer the bombast of "Me and My Mama". Don't get me wrong, I had to think long and hard over which song to include on this list, but I ultimately decided upon the opening track. Reasons: The song lulls you to sleep with the dulcet tones of some chimes (chimes are fucking awesome) and the combination of low/high, hypnotic synths. Just when you're about to take a nap - BAM! Bino comes in hard with a scream and a killer guitar riff. The transitions in this song are absolutely bananas. While that initial wake-up slap is cool, my favorite is the switch-up to the outro, right around the four minute mark. Mid riff, with the gospel chorus building, all of a sudden the noise drops away, leaving just a piano melody behind. It's a work of art.
11. Honne (ft. Izzy Bizu) - Someone that Loves You
I'm pleased that Honne hasn't proven itself a one-hit wonder, after their strong hit in 2015, "Warm on a Cold Night". The vocal interplay in this dual-singer track is what makes "Someone that Loves You" a special one. As I mentioned in my review of Honne's album earlier this year
, I love Izzy Bizzou's little inflections in her delivery. Her voice also fits like a cold hand into a warm mitten when combined with Andy Clutterbuck's wistful drawl. The chemistry is palpable in this song and I sincerely hope they collaborate again. For a more intimate cut of the track, check out the Late Night Version.
10. Mura Masa - What if I Go?
This song has two things that I like to hear in electronic music - a ridiculously awesome drop and steel drums. Before I get into those though - I feel like the rhythm behind this song is fairly unique for an EDM tune. It feels like it has breakbeat nature to it at times, which adds a bounce that I appreciate. Extra bounce is added by the aforementioned steel drums, an instrument that I can't help but hear and smile. Bonsai's deft vocal delivery then breaks into an instantly memorable chorus of "Wherever you go I'm going with ya babe". Just when you didn't think the song could get any more catchy, Mura Masa decides to ratchet the funkiness up to 11 with a splash of synths and modulated vocals that will leave your body in pieces.
9. Billie Eilish - Ocean Eyes
For some reason, the hook for this gorgeous song became burned into my memory for months at a time. Billie Eilish's voice is absolutely haunting as she sings, implying a history of love beyond what the listener can truly understand. I love how the pacing of the lyrics and minimalism of the instrumental give Eilish's vocals a lot of room to breath here. You really feel the weight of every line while listening to a tasteful amount of echo. I especially enjoy the stripped down chorus at the end, which is a nice touch. Get on this hype train early, because this singer is only 14 years old. That's right. Four-teen.
8. Day Wave - Gone
Jackson Phillips, the creative mind behind Day Wave, has managed to perfectly encapsulate the essence of melancholy. In "Gone", Phillips mixes the driving guitars and vocal delivery from 80's post-punk bands like New Order with a bit of sunnier flourishes from surf rock bands like the Beach Boys. The smart, pop-oriented writing on the track will also insure that you'll be singing right along even on your first listen. The resulting sound is something melancholic, while retaining just a glimpse of positivity at the same time. The light at the end of the tunnel, if you will. There is no better music for long drives or scenic runs.
7. Chance the Rapper - Same Drugs
It was a fantastic year for hip-hop and there was no other album I was anticipating more than Chance's third mixtape. While I don't think Colouring Book quite lived up to my lofty expectations, the tape still produced some of my favorite tracks of the year. "Same Drugs" is a gorgeous cut; both epic and intimate at the same time. In it, Chance uses the metaphor of drugs to describe drifting apart from his old friends. It's an instantly relatable theme, and one personal to Chance after a restructuring of priorities in his life now that he is a father. At first, I was disappointed that the track never really took off with a huge crescendo of energy, but now I appreciate Chance's restraint in keeping the track relatively subdued.
6. Sturgill Simpson - In Bloom
My list last year also featured a country cover on it and if the covers are this good, then long may the trend continue! This re-imagining of Nirvana begins at a leisurely pace, but slowly gathers steam. Intriguing layers of instruments are woven in; a banjo chord here or maybe some swelling strings there. At last the horns announce their joyful, boisterous presence and the songs bursts into a full orchestral symphony. Simpson fully transforms the original tune into a moody, strangely uplifting journey. This should be the golden standard for cover songs.
5. Crying - Wool in the Wash
The fusion of styles on this song perfectly scratches an itch I never knew I had. The lo-fi singing from Elaiza Santos, along with groovy (xylophone heavy) production evoke the style of late 2000's synth pop bands like Passion Pit and Starfucker. The twist put on by Crying in "Wool in the Wash" is some lovely technical guitar bits, which have the sound of 80's metal, but played in the style of pop-punk. Anybody who knows me would tell you that this is my musical weakness. The outro guitar riff is particularly delightful.
4. Bishop Briggs - River
One of the breakout hits of the year, this track is dominated by Sarah Grace McLaughlin's freight train of a voice. The way she isn't afraid to allow her voice to break as she delivers her gut-busting yell during the chorus is one of the most impressive vocal performances I've heard in recent years. In conjunction with McLaughlin's voice, credit has to go to the instrumentals here, which do a fantastic job of blending soul with trap while keeping the focus on the singer. Great mixing.
3. Mac Miller ft. Anderson Paak - Dang!
Oh man, what a tune. Wresting the much-coveted title of Best Summer Song from its many worthy competitors is no mean feat, but this wasn't even a close contest. "Dang!" stood head and shoulders above any other songs this summer with an unlikely, but ultimately killer collaboration of artists. Anderson Paak proves to be the perfect partner for Mac Miller, whose lyrical rough edges are smoothed out by Paak's buttery delivery on the chorus. I can stomach, even enjoy, Mac's most juvenile lines on this track, like "I just eat pussy other people need food". It ends up working out for him on this song because of the subject matter - Miller is totally believable as the guy who is constantly messing up in his relationships.
2. Tourist - Run
Too many EDM songs are impatient these days. Everyone wants the drop, so why not give the audience what they want right away? What they don't understand is that the longer and more drawn out the intro, the more satisfying the payoff. This gorgeous track builds and builds for two and a half minutes, constantly teasing the listener, until finally unleashing a torrent of pent-up energy. I absolutely love how the synths weave in and out during the peaks of this track and just how smoothly Tourist is able to blend all of these complex melodies together. My favorite part of the track however, has to be the ending. Not to spoil, but it builds and builds and then... nothing. Like a bittersweet ending in a movie, it leaves you wanting more. Luckily you can just play it again!
1. Kanye West (ft. Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price & Chance the Rapper ) - Ultralight Beam
In the number one slot, we have another enormous song from Mr. West. What makes Ultralight Beam so special to me? For starters, there's a certain circularity about this song that tickles my fancy. Like many, I prefer Kanye's earlier forays into hip-hop, which the intense gospel choir of "Ultralight Beam" harkens back towards. Especially when considering that the song that got me into Kanye was "Jesus Walks", which this song feels like a sequel of, you have a recipe for me enjoying this track right off the bat. Insert "I miss the Old Kanye" joke here.
The circular nature of this song continues down to Chance the Rapper's feature. Chance sings "I made Sunday Candy, I'm never going to hell/ I met Kanye West, I'm never going to fail". Right here, Chance references a Kanye verse from the song "Otis" where Kanye says "I made Jesus Walks so I'm never going to hell".
Speaking of Chance's verse and Old Kanye - New Kanye made the best decision ever by taking a step back and letting Chance do the rapping on this track. As he's gotten older, Kanye's writing has fallen further and further behind his production, which has always been top-notch. In "Ultralight Beam", Kanye has effectively passed the baton to the new prince of Chicago - one whose verse is among the best of the year. After powerfully announcing his new mission, complete with clever wordplay, Chance doesn't forget to take a few moments to pay respects to his past and the old king.
That's it! Hope you enjoyed the list. If you didn't or thought I missed a song, let me know in the comments below. Next week, I'll be covering my 10 favorite albums of the year. In the meantime, here's a convenient playlist of all 20 songs on this list:
, Still Parade
, Jacob Collier
, Charles Kelley
, Maggie Rogers
, Angel Olsen
, Childish Gambino
, Mura Masa
, Day Wave
, Billie Eilish
, Chance the Rapper
, Sturgill Simpson
, Bishop Briggs
, Anderson Paak
, Mac Miller
, Kanye West