by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Music Year in Review

Top 10 Songs of 2016

December 29, 2016

Just another year gone by—except songs seemed particularly vital for getting through these last 12 months. Not that you need me to tell you, but we lost some of our greatest purveyors of the form in 2016, and if the 10 selections below can’t compensate—if there’s no “Kiss” or “Mama Tried” or “Modern Love” among them—most look struggle, and sacrifice, and the indefatigable march of time, head-on, as much a reflection of their times as the classics that came before them. And if a few others merely throw a party at the dawning of our apocalypse, who could blame them? Sam C. Mac

10. Margo Price fills most of her breakthrough album, the phenomenal country & western hardliner Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, with straight-up shit-kickers, songs that take their cues from Outlaw Country’s flare for rhythm n’ blues. The set’s opener, though, is a different thing altogether: “Hands of Time” is an impeccably poised, composed, and performed bit of lush cosmopolitan country pop, a show of pure formal skill—as if Margo’s just proving herself capable of that standard. Were it merely an appeal to cross-genre tastemakers, it might read as a compromise, but instead it opens Midwest Farmer’s Daughter on a moving note of self-actualization: “All I wanna do is make my own path,” Price opines over gorgeous weeping strings and hammond B3 organ, “…And turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time”—which, at this point, is an actualized narrative we can all wish for. SCM

9. With his sophomore album, Still Brazy, rapper YG largely traded the personal for the political—and somehow in the process gave up very little of the partying that has made much of his music so ingratiating. It’s no coincidence that the hook of this song, “fuck Donald Trump,” works in all these contexts: “FDT” honors the object of its ire by never mincing its words. YG and featured artist Nipsey Hussle ruthlessly mock Trump’s policies and lob the kinds of schoolyard-worthy personal attacks that our (uuuuuugh) “president elect” made a hallmark of his repugnant campaign. Unsurprisingly, these two’s taunts are way more entertaining (“Where’s your L.A. rally?/We gonna crash your shit!”) and their off-the-cuff, freestyled flows—along with the protest march and picket signs of the song’s music video—make the raw sentiments resonate with their irrepressible outrage, and our own. SCM

8Birds of Chicago’s breakthrough album, Real Midnight, is an album of voices; like Aretha’s Spirit in the Dark, it taps gospel music for its sonic qualities, not its religious ones, and imagines every tune as a kind of raucous singalong. The album’s second song, “Remember Wild Horses,” is one of its best examples: Showstopper Allison Russell weds her voice to JT Nero’s weathered croon, trading verses and taking choruses together. But it’s a songwriter’s showcase as much as a vocal one. Each verse offers a character who’s haunted by what was, or what might have been. “There was not a single one among us/Who thought she’d be alone,” Russell sings of the first verse’s woman of solitude; “I loved her so long I believed that she loved me,” offers Nero, voicing the second verse’s broken-hearted fool. They’re haunted by regret, but the chorus brings consolation: “You don’t have to wipe away your tears/Come on and let ‘em fall.” Time plays tricks on all of us; some days, you just gotta cry. Josh Hurst

7. Tiimmy Turner” started out as a 45-second video—of a XXL Freshman freestyle—but once again this year, Desiigner turned nothing into something. Both haunting and uplifting, “Tiimmy Turner” has the Brooklyn rapper’s charisma (and Future-sounding voice) melodically concentrated on producer Mike Dean’s menacing synthesizer. The song showcases an angrier voice—one Desiigner used rather unsuccessfully for his mixtape, New English—but it’s often not what he’s saying, but more how it comes out, turning largely hard to decipher lyrics into emotional cries. Just the hook itself (“Timmy, Timmy, Timmy Turner/He been wishin’ for a burner”) starts to sound mantra-like, creating a spiritual energy akin to a modern day gospel hymn. Still huge off of “Panda,” it’s easy to dismiss this 19-year old as another flavor of the month, but “Tiimmy Turner” suggests that appeal still has its surprises. Paul Attard

6. As the first single from Miranda Lambert’s post-divorce double album, The Weight of These Wings, “Vice” confounded expectations: Neither back-to-basics barnburner nor tabloid-ready tell-all, it starts a cappella but picks up subtle production touches—a buzzing synth; a lonely, reverb-heavy snare—the way its narrator accumulates bad habits, while the languid rhythm and restrained vocals evoke the sense of crushing inevitability that comes from seeking escape in the same old things. “If you need me/I’ll be where my reputation don’t precede me,” Lambert sings, with the weariness of someone who’s pulled their share of geographics. “Vice” is particularly devastating in context as the wounded but clear-eyed centerpiece of Wings’ spirited, rambling ode to “freedom in a broken heart”: the weight pulls Lambert back into a cycle of old records, familiar whiskey, and new one-night stands. There’s a recognition for the strange comfort in knowing one’s own particular powerlessness—but a fiery coda, complete with guitar solo and affirming backup vocals, is just rousing enough to necessitate hitting repeat. When it hurts this good, you’ve got to play it again, and again, and again. Alex Engquist

5. “Formation” is the most urgent song of 2016’s America. Producer Mike WiLL Made-It’s Southern-fried, alarm-sounding beat stokes momentum to a chorus that’s among the year’s most exhilarating, deriving its twangy sound effects from the bounce genre. The lyrics, meanwhile, rival Xenia Rubinos’s “Mexican Chef” as the most politically plainspoken in a year when we needed a powerful, inclusive voice to unite us while at the same time propel and embody its own specific identity. “Formation”’s twice-repeated verse is scrupulously structured: at first, Beyoncé is deflecting common petty ad hominem and replacing criticism with style and strut, including a dominating glance thrown her spouse’s way (remember, this was months before we quite had an idea what was going on there). Then, she escalates into the intoxicating refrain that centers the song in a racial community, time, and place: “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils/Earned all this money but they never take the country out me.” More than the slickest Rae Sremmurd song, “Formation” spawned memes and catchphrases that fiercely embedded themselves in the cultural landscape, its “best revenge is your paper” kiss-off a telling nod to the internet-age capitalism that this eternal anthem dominated. Charles Lyons-Burt

4. Too often on SremmLife 2, the rap duo Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi sound like they’re trying to redefine what Rae Sremmurd is: the infectious hooks that made the group’s first album a hit take a backseat to competent verses designed to prove a point. But “Black Beatles” is the platonic ideal of a Rae Sremmurd joint, as catchy as “No Flex Zone” or “No Type” but delivered with the acquired cool of a group that can make hits in their sleep. Over an ear-worm Mike WiLL-Made-It instrumental that sounds custom made for driving at night, Swae and Jxmmi play to their strengths and craft another ode to fame and partying, interpolating the Beatles’ lyrics and making John Lennon lenses cool again between drinks. And because Swae Lee’s hook approaches sublime beauty and Slim Jxmmi turns in his most energetic work of any on SremmLife 2, “Black Beatles” didn’t really need to add the best Gucci Mane feature of a year that already had many—but of course, it doesn’t hurt. Chris Mello

3. Mitski took to Facebook in May to clarify that “Your Best American Girl” was written to be an earnest love song, countering a narrative that had cropped up and positioned it as an ironic counterpoint to the possessive love songs of white boy indie rockers. Either way, it’s the best rock song of 2016, and maybe the year’s best love song as well; it entrenches itself in the specificity of heartache across an irreconcilable cultural divide while encompassing depths of feeling. Love here is massive, worthy of the shift into the loud fuzzed-out rock that characterizes the song’s most cathartic moment—but it also carries preexisting conditions, namely history and culture: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me.” With “Your Best American Girl,” Mitski aspires not to an assimilation into a greater culture but to fit in with just one person, only to find the distance overwhelming and become caught in a heartbreak that’s been seemingly predestined. CM

2. From its ebullient opening notes, joined within seconds by Young Thug’s melodic yet caustic bray, “Pick Up the Phone” exemplifies the platonic ideal of a crossover track. In other words, the song works-in the kind of dichotomies that best satisfy many demographics—shades of light and dark, with lyrics that profess earnest romanticism (“Never will I cheat on you…blowin’ a bag on you/Do all of that for no reason”) alongside narcotic urges and sexual deviancy. Travis Scott, who boasts no proper verse of his own, nonetheless furthers his persona as shadowy midnight marauder, a cloaked and hard-bitten party animal, contrasted with Thugga’s image as rambunctious, gender-fluid wordsmith and generous father. (The line “I need all this cash, I got hella kids” now has an enjoyable illustration after this memorable recent Instagram post.) For years, Thugga fans have known his potential for melding genuine idealism (“Mama told me I’m her brightest star/Mama told me don’t hate on the law/Because everybody got a job/Because everybody won’t be a star”) with a penchant for turning booty-call blips into weird, grandiose bangers. This one, with Scott’s help, adds some patience to that sound, rendering the beat a bit less ADD than usual, and allowing Thug’s pop instincts to fully come to the fore. CLB

1. Sonically, “Ultralight Beam” is a decade of Kanye West, synthesized: experimental auto-tuned vocals with boom bap percussion, thundering choral harmonies, and a patient, pounding back beat. It also represents the very best of Kanye’s approach, featuring precious little of the performer himself, and instead accentuating his penchant for accumulating talent, a righteous recrimination to all who find his particular brand of hubris and self-aggrandizement unforgivable. Here, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin all play indelible roles, but it’s Kanye’s handoff of the track’s lone rap verse to the song’s original author, Chance the Rapper, that proves most astute. And yet, “Ultralight Beam” is ultimately still Kanye’s vision, and his publicized struggles at the twilight of 2016 lend fresh power to its nu-gospel form of confessional. The-Dream croons, “I’m tryna keep my faith, but I’m looking for more,” and it hits even harder now (at the end of this year), while the intro sample of a young girl’s Pentecostal recitation, paired with Kirk Franklin’s full benediction in the outro, work in tandem to convey Kanye’s yearning, amidst the turmoil, for the steadying faith of his youth. Luke Gorham