16 Best Songs Of 2016: Music Was The Year's Only Saving Grace
It's been an awful year in the music world just everywhere else. Bookended by the deaths of legends like David Bowie and George Michael, we also lost artists across the musical spectrum including Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, Maurice White, Sharon Jones and Prince.
But as painful as it was to be a music fan in 2016, it's also been rewarding thanks to the great songs that came out this year —from Bowie's farewell address "Lazarus" which arrived three days before his death to Cohen's "You Want It Darker" just 11 months later.
In a year marked by a Trumpian "whitelash," black artists took over popular music from the apolitical pop of Drake and the Weeknd to agit-pop by Beyonce and her sister Solange. The year also welcomed a Polaris Prize-winning multi-genre of music from Montrealer Kaytranada, the "Ultralight"-fuelled star turn by Chance the Rapper and even a Tribe Called Quest comeback.
Electronic music kept going strong with great tracks from Canadians like Keys N Krates and indigenous DJ crew A Tribe Called Red, whose "We Are The Halluci Nation" album is sure to rack up well-deserved awards in 2017.
Music was maybe the year's only saving grace, and here are the best songs of 2016 (and also a longer Spotify playlist):
16. Leonard Cohen - "You Want It Darker"
Canada's preeminent prophet of darkness saw the future, and it was murder. In his final months, Leonard Cohen wrote and recorded this divine goodbye in which welcomes his coming death, which happened the day before the U.S. election, while predicting the horrors waiting for the rest of us:
"They're lining up the prisoners/And the guards are taking aim," he intoned. "You want it darker/We kill the flame."
15. A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest originated in the '90s conscious rap era, but they've never been as political as they are in this 2016 comeback track. Over a boom-bap beat and a Public Enemy-alluding air raid siren, the old-schoolers go in hard on our Trump New World. While a posthumous Phife Dawg verse sees the rapper "Dreaming of a world that's equal for women with no division" his partner Q-Tip warns "We don't believe you/'cause we the people/Are still here in the rear, yo" and delivers a painfully on point chorus about all the marginalized groups that "must go."
14. Kaytranada - "Glowed Up" ft. Anderson .Paak
Haitian-born, Montreal-based producer Kaytranada mashed up electronic music, hip-hop, soul, pop and R&B into his Polaris-winning album "99%" and "Glowed Up" was one of many standout tracks. Rapper-singer Anderson .Paak rides Kay's complex, slow-mo-tempo track like a pro, delivering powerful bars while not missing a metaphorical beat.
13. Keys N Krates - "Nothing But Space" ft. Aqui
Like the Toronto DJ's hit "Save Me," "Nothing But Space" is another female-fronted dance floor classic. Keys N Krates offer up some light jungle clatter on the woozy synth-battered drops, while making use of Aqui's diva-free vocals to create the trap-meets-trance anthem.
12. ANOHNI - "Drone Bomb Me"
Anohni first made her name with Antony and the Johnsons, but the trans singer has become perhaps even more powerful solo. About as darkly hued as electro-pop gets, the Hudson Mohawke-produced "Drone Bomb Me" sounds like a love song but is actually a death plea. Told from the perspective of a young Afghani child, the song is about a girl who wants to be "blown from the mountain to the sea" by a drone so she can join her fallen family.
11. Savages - "Adore"
Pop-noire quartet Savages have always played in the darkness, but this time they brought along a bright spark. The post-punk music offers decomposing guitars, echoey bass and spectral synths swelling into cathartic choruses. In "Adore," bisexual singer Jehnny Beth quietly croons "I adore life" as a challenge to those who have lost hope.
10. Rihanna - "Higher"
Rhianna turns a two-minute ode to after-hours booty calls into a soul ballad that has the Caribbean pop star dreaming of staying up late and smoking a J. But as chill as her aspirations may be, the song's sizzurp lope propels her toward a vocal shredding performance that proves we've taken her for granted.
9. Operators - "Control"
Dan Boeckner has been dabbling in dance music since he first took a break from Wolf Parade to form synth-rock duo Handsome Furs. His latest group, Operators, moves the dial far more into the synth side, and they particularly nail the landing on "Control." With assistance from keyboard genius Devojka and Divine Fits drummer Sam Brown, Boeckner pushes his Goth Springsteen vocals out onto a dark disco dance floor.
8. A Tribe Called Red - "R.E.D." Ft. Yasiin Bey, Narcy & Black Bear
Ottawa electronic trio A Tribe Called Red have been building their international following one lit dance floor at a time. But their "pow-wow step" recording side has been evolving, too, and this year's stunning "Welcome to the Halluci Nation" was introduced with this banger that features Mulsim rappers Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and Narcy firing off intense bars. Meanwhile Tribe's indigenous chants and brutalizing beats connect marginalized people all over Turtle Island.
7. Beyoncé - "Formation"
Coming off her visual album "Lemonade," it's hard to separate Beyoncé's triumphant black pride single from its triumphant black pride music video. Combined, they show that the roots of resistance will come from within. Raining quotables like a New Orleans storm, the first track sees Beyonce slaying haters while boasting about her Jackson 5 nostrils, the hot sauce in her bag and her black Bill Gates future.
6. Miike Snow - "Genghis Khan"
Cult indie-pop act Miike Snow returns with "Genghis Khan," an electro-soul banger that uses the Mongolian conquerer as a metaphor for jealous anger and then contrasts the dark lyrics with joyful beats from the Swedes who produced Britney's "Toxic." Like most of their non work-for-hire tracks, the song takes a few listens before embedding itself in your head forever. Bonus points for the beautiful gay James Bond music video.
5. Kanye West - "Ultralight Beam" ft. Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price and The-Dream
This would be here even if it was just the minute or so clip where Chance the Rapper delivers a 2016-stealing, career-defining verse that bounces between personal autobiography and glory be to God. But "Ultralight" is also Yeezus at his most creatively divine, bolstering Chance's hip-hop gospel with the real deal from Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price and The-Dream while declaring "This is a God dream. This is everything."
4. David Bowie - "Lazarus"
Can't say David Bowie didn't warn us that 2016 was going to be garbage fire. Mere days into the year, Bowie passed away but he left us with an album, "Blackstar," and this career-highlight single, which is saying a lot. He turned dying into art with a nostalgic yet forward-facing single. Evoking the vocals and storytelling of "Space Oddity," this autobiographical song begins with the White Duke singing "Look up here, I'm in heaven" and ends with Bowie declaring "Oh I'll be free / Ain’t that just like me."
3. Drake - "One Dance" ft. Kyla & Wizkid
Drake may have taken "From the Six" off the title of his record-smashing album "VIEWS," but he fully reps Toronto ingrained diversity with this amalgam of Caribbean dancehall, UK funky (by sampling Kyla's 8-year-old track "Do You Mind") and Afrobeat. The latter comes courtesy of Nigerian superstar Wizkid, whose echoey contributions are what transforms the tune from mid-tempo floor-filler to everyone's song of the summer.
2. The Weeknd - "False Alarm"
The Weeknd unexpectedly brought punk back with this screaming b-side to the more radio-friendly title track "Starboy." The lyrics of "False Alarm" offer another one of Abel's club-girl-gone-bad tales. But from there, he drives right out of his wheelhouse with the guitars-and-synth beats building to mosh pit-crazed choruses and "hey he hey hey" chants before ending on a minor-key Ethiopian denouement.
1. Rihanna - "Needed Me"
Rihanna calls us from the future in "Needed Me." DJ Mustard delivers a spectral avant-R&B track of spacious echoes and spooky electronics that supports and surrounds Rihanna's epic kiss-off to an ex. "Didn't they tell you I was a savage? Fuck your white horse and a carriage," she seethes, before delivering the titular killing blow: You needed me."
More Best Songs of 2016
Rae Sremmurd - Black Beatles ft. Gucci Mane
SOLANGE - Cranes in the Sky
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam - "A 1000 Times"
Harrison - "Checkpoint Titanium"
Angel Olsen - Shut Up Kiss Me
Brasstronaut - Raveshadow
Chance the Rapper ft. 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne - No Problem