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2016 in Review: Top 10 songs

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Thanks to the decline of the album, and rise of music streaming, 2016 saw single songs succeed in unprecedented fashion. Singles launched meme-cians to astronomical heights, and gave the biggest stars a reason to never make another over-long, over-stuffed album again (since their singles are breaking enough industry records). While many great full-lengths were indeed released this year, almost every one stood on the shoulders of a great song. Featuring fleeting expressions of furious anger, pulse-raising pop, and searing soul-searchers, here are our top 10 picks for the best songs of 2016 (plus a few extras).


20. French Montana “Lock Jaw” [ft. Kodak Black] (listen)
19. Carseat Headrest “Fill in the Blank” (listen)
18. Danny Brown – “Pneumonia” (listen)
17. Japanese Breakfast “In Heaven” (listen)
16. YG “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” [ft. Nipsey Hussle] (listen)
15. Chance the Rapper  “No Problem” [ft. 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne] (listen)
14. DIIV – “Bent (Roi’s Song)” (listen)
13. Rae Sremmurd “Black Beatles” [ft. Gucci Mane] (listen)
12. James Blake – “Modern Soul” (listen)
11. Kevin Gates – “2 Phones” (listen)


10. Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein
“Stranger Things”

When the chapter for 2016 is finalized in the history books, it will be written that the least-skipped-over-title-card-sequence-in-television-history belongs to Netflix’s Stranger Things. What began as a little show about 80s sci-fi nostalgia, cute kids, and a wacky Winona Ryder, became one of the year’s biggest pop-culture sensations seemingly overnight (as if everyone was binge-watching in unison). But it’s viral rise and subsequent success can be traced back to the now infamous opening sequence, and Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein’s instant-classic, retro-synth laden theme. The Stranger Things theme, in all it’s succinct wonder, has captured the hearts and imaginations of Netflix subscribers and beyond. With two Grammy nods for the show’s soundtrack, it feels like we’re in our own “upside down” — one where Stephen King, Spielberg, and riding around with your friends on your bike are the only things that matter in the world.
– Sam Podgurny


9. Jesu / Sun Kil Moon
“Exodus”

Supplied

Listen to “Exodus” here

The year’s most touching tribute to the death of Nick Cave’s son came not from Cave’s own Skeleton Tree, but instead from this deep cut off Mark Kozolek’s tragically overlooked collaboration with Jesu. In his now-trademark confessional style, Kozolek sing-speaks about Arthur Cave’s death, and uses the moment to delve into a heartbreaking meditation on the deaths of young children. Kozolek’s experimental lyricism can sometimes yield mixed results, but on “Exodus” the sincerity of his performance gives his diffuse and winding anecdotes an immediate power. Jesu’s funereal instrumental stays appropriately toned down, but when it lifts behind Kozolek’s refrain of “to all bereaved parents/I send you my love,” the result is one of the most achingly human moments of either artist’s oeuvre.
– Stefan Makowski


8. Animals As Leaders
“The Brain Dance”

As I sat in the parking lot of the West Edmonton Fit4Less, still sweaty and sore from a workout, I clicked play for the first time on “The Brain Dance.” Seven minutes later I still had my car in park, my aching muscles no longer on my mind as I stared out the window trying to process what I had just heard. I clicked play again. To this day, Animals As Leaders leave me stunned with this track. The opening guitar plucks, twangs, and slides ring out in my ears as beautifully as they ever have, and the intricate details of Tosin Abasi, Javier Reyes, and Matt Garstka’s playing grows more impressive and absorbing with each listen. As “The Brain Dance” unfolds, the pace quickens and slows, acoustic and electric guitars intertwine, and melody and machine-grade musicianship co-exist. If you’re like me, you won’t be able to fathom what is actually going on in this song, but if you’re also like me, it won’t matter. Turn your brain off, and just allow it to step, twirl, jump, and dance however it wants.
– Sam Podgurny


7. Radiohead
“Ful Stop”

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Watch Radiohead’s “Ful Stop” short film here

Radiohead made a sublime return to form this year with the invigorating A Moon Shaped Pool, anchored by a song like nothing else in their catalogue. “Ful Stop” is Radiohead at their most inventive, blending genre-defying ideas with incredible results. The song begins with a throbbing rhythm that widens into a massive surge of electronics, as an uncharacteristically venomous Thom Yorke sneers “you’ve really messed up everything” amidst the fray. Midway through, the chaos is sidelined by an angular guitar line that builds to an astonishing three-alarm drop in one of the band’s most brilliant displays of songcraft, ever. From there, the band unravels, gradually fading back into the murk after six unforgettable minutes of tension and release. Leave it to Radiohead to deliver one of their all-time best songs almost 30 years into their career. Who else, really?
– Stefan Makowski


6. Kanye West
“Ultralight Beam” [ft. Chance The Rapper, Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price, The-Dream]

I first heard “Ultralight Beam” as Yeezy intended: on a grainy live-stream, though an aux-cord at Madison Square Garden, as a bunch of people dressed in brown stood around for a while (the Kardashians looked good tho). Still, it sounded fucking great. I couldn’t wait to have the Apple Music release delayed, taken down, re-uploaded, and changed a few times so I could listen to it on my $20 London Drugs headphones. Things changed for me after “Ultralight Beam.” I realized that Chance guy was actually alright, and was pretty inspired by this article I read about how the song came to exist. The opener to The Life of Pablo is the album’s only safe choice for being called a “good” track and is probably its most focused. On a record likely to only be remembered for its tendency to divide and lack of ability to decide, that’s a win. “Ultralight Beam” shines as a beacon of hope that TLOP can be seen for more than it’s coinciding (and amazing) Twitter rants about pants.
– Sam Podgurny


5. Beyoncé
“Formation”

It says volumes about the musical climate of 2016 that the year’s most confrontational, forward-thinking song came from its biggest commercial success. When it appeared out of nowhere in February, “Formation” made for a surreal first listen. Never before had Beyoncé been so audacious and uncompromising. Against all conventional wisdom, the song’s bizarre and abrasive instrumental, lyrical aggression, and defiant political imagery infiltrated popular culture virtually overnight. And yet, its improbable nature made “Formation” feel that much more necessary. The song filled a long-neglected cultural vacuum, bringing a statement of empowerment for black women to the mainstream at a crucial time in American history. This made the song’s success (and the inevitable backlash) seem all the more significant. “Formation” will likely go down as Beyoncé’s magnum opus, the moment she transcended from pop star to unstoppable force.
-Stefan Makowski


4. Rihanna
“Work” [ft. Drake]

Good pop music holds more of a special place in my heart than even I am willing to admit most days. There’s a superior level of artistry at work when the masters of this genre make a hit that seamlessly penetrates the general public interest, sticks to the radio like glue, and goes on to become the top of this Billboard or that Top 40 chart. Rihanna’s “Work” is the best example of a song which perfectly finds the middle on the pop music, popularity, and artistry Venn diagram. Sweating, twerking, and Carribean-club grinding it’s way onto all of our playlists, “Work” tantalizes with a slurring hook (that everyone happily and sloppily sings along to) and lusty beat which pops, locks, and drops better than any other nü-dancehall interpretation this year. Alongside her former-bae Drake (who is at his most relatable when lusting for RihRih), Rihanna proves making year-defining hits ain’t nothing but a ting.
– Sam Podgurny


3. Angel Olsen
“Sister”

Angel Olsen’s latest, My Woman, was a stellar blend of vulnerability, empowerment, and sonic anachronisms. Nowhere did these elements come together more powerfully than on the sprawling, eight-minute “Sister.” The song’s timeless instrumental sounds as if it could have come from anywhere in the last 50 years, blending a staunch alt-country mindset with an ambitious and contemporary approach to songwriting. Olsen’s somber guitar work is the ideal setting for a powerhouse vocal performance that runs the gamut from defiance to longing in only a few lines. As Olsen and her band repeat the mantra “all my life I thought I’d change,” backed by an awe-inducing swell, it’s the sound of someone self-actualizing on record. “Sister” is a revelatory track, the product Angel Olsen coming into her own not just as an artist, but as a person.
– Stefan Makowski


2. Nails
“You Will Never Be One Of Us”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPVt9yR8t2o

For many nihilists people out there, 2016 made a strong case for burning it all down — society, government, education systems, you name it. If you’re one of those folks still feeling raw about the year, Nails offer a one minute and 29 second scorched-earth, napalm-drenched solution to your woes, via album title track “You Will Never Be One of Us.” I’ve listened to a lot of metal over the years and rarely have I had the pleasure of finding new music that can shock my body’s systems quite like this. Squealing feedback shreds ear drums before guitars and drums brutalize from all angles. Todd Jones’ vocalization of pure human anger piles on top like 10 tons of hot coal. For everything that beat you down in 2016, Nails give you a chance to mosh back. As the world inches closer to DEFCON 1, put this on, turn it up, and sing along: “No truth, no trust/You will never be one of us/Soaked in disgust/You will never be one of us.”
– Sam Podgurny


1. Frank Ocean
“Nights”

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While Frank Ocean turned heads with the stripped-back sound of his long-awaited Blonde, there’s little he didn’t pack into album centrepiece “Nights.” This song has it all: sex, drugs, cars, insomnia, multitasking, workaholism, failed friendships, financial woes, corruption, mortality, Hurricane Katrina, and that beat change. Through the song’s blistering run of stream-of-consciousness quotables, Frank crafts a jarring image of millennial disillusionment that, despite its insular lyrics, rings undeniably true. “Nights” is the anti-torch-song torch song we didn’t know we needed, a snarky, all-over-the-place romp that barely masks the unhappiness lingering under its surface. More than any other song this year, the overworked, underslept “Nights” captured exactly how it felt to be alive in 2016.
– Stefan Makowski


0. The Chainsmokers
“Closer” [ft. Halsey]

No, this isn’t me being ironic or some kind of post-Pitchfork prick. “Closer” does deserves a spot on this list. As my managing editor Jon once told me, learning to love “Closer” is like going through the five stages of grief. First you experience denial. “Pssh, who cares about The Chainsmokers? Are they the ones who made ‘Selfie’?” Next comes anger. “Okay! Enough of this EDM, Top 40, Major Lazer fucking rip-off bullshit! Anyone who likes this song is a stupid head who doesn’t understand what real music is!” Then bargaining. “I’ll take anything over this song, honestly, please. Bieber, I liked ‘Sorry,’ can we have more of that? T-Swift? Anyone???” Depression. “It never ends. She’s always going to be pulling him closer in the back seat of her Rover. No matter what I do, no matter what I say, or read, or Tweet angrily about.” Until finally, there’s acceptance. “You know what? Fuck it. Turn this shit up. This is my jam!!! Summer ’16 wooooo! It’s so catchy, I can’t stop singing it! ‘… pull the sheets right off the corner of that mattress that you stole, from your roommate back in Boulder, we ain’t ever getting older’ *plays air keyboard passionately as beat drops*” Get off your high horse. It’s a good song, don’t deny yourself from listening to it. I know I, I, I, I, I can’t stop.
– Sam Podgurny


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