FEATURE: The Best Songs of 2016, Part 2
by Chad Jewett
[Read Part 1 here]
10.) Rihanna featuring Drake – “Work”
A relentlessly infectious mélange of dancehall groove, icy minimalism, and deftly deployed production flourishes ,“Work” was as universal a pop-hit as 2016 – a year without a “Song of the Summer” — had to offer. Rihanna’s vocals are at once syrupy and slinky, occasionally blossoming into sudden harmonies (“Don’t leave me stuck here in the streeeets”) with the singer generally having a hell of a time with all of the negative space left for her manipulation by producers Boi-1da, Noah “40” Shebib, Sevn Thomas, and Kuk Harrell. Drake’s verse: Passable, and to his credit, he similarly embraces the sing-song possibilities of the track’s lurching groove. But the real story of “Work” remains Rihanna’s performance, quite possibly her most singular since “Umbrella”, and absolutely one of her most fun.
9.) Tancred – “Bed Case”
In reality, there are at least 7 songs on Out of the Garden, the terrific second album from Tancred (aka Jess Abbot from Now Now), that could make this list. A collection of power-pop singles in the grand tradition of Elvis Costello, Sloan, and Phantom Planet, Out Of The Garden’s 11 tracks average about 2-and-a-half minutes and about three hooks each. But the best of the bunch is likely “Bed Case” – the album’s sugary, three-minute opener, an irrepressible introductory burst of harmonies, handclaps, and the kinds of bending minimalist riffs that powered an entire half-decade of alt-rock in the mid-90s. Add to all of that Abbot’s gift for quick, evocative imagery and you have one of the year’s smartest, most precise pop songs.
8.) Thee Oh Sees – “Dead Man’s Gun”
John Dwyer’s long-running garage-rock institution Thee Oh Sees gave us, at press-time, about 20 songs to choose from for a list of 2016’s best; an especially productive year for a band that seemingly always has at least one new record up for pre-order. But their finest moment this year was the one that best captured exactly what makes Thee Oh Sees great. “Dead Man’s Gun”, the pressure-cooker opener of their great A Weird Exits does exactly what a Thee Oh Sees song ought to: hums along in an exaggerated psych-rock hush until Dwyer calls down torrential fury with a howled “Woo!”. It’s the oldest trick in Thee Oh Sees’ book, but also the best, and “Dead Man’s Gun” milks the not-so-unexpected twists for all their worth.
7.) Beyoncé – “Sorry”
Of the many sounds and templates in play on 2014’s Beyoncé, “minimalism” might be one of the few that doesn’t characterize any of that album’s 14 songs. But the more austere, stripped-back production lent to “Sorry”, the quiet anthem at the heart of Lemonade suits the song and its complexity well. Here Beyoncé works through issues of gender norms and social expectations, using the song’s central “I ain’t sorry” hook and lines like “I ain’t thinking ’bout you” as a way to celebrate female autonomy and challenge male chauvinism all at once. A few songs on Knowles’ self-titled visual album did some of this work — “Jealous”, “XO”, and “Pretty Hurts” all share some venn diagram space with this song — but “Sorry” stands as Beyoncé’s definitive feminist statement as well as one of her most quietly moving productions.
6.) Vince Staples – “War Ready”
With the 7-song Prima Donna EP, Vince Staples further cemented his status as not only one of his generation’s two or three best rappers, but also underlined once and for all his ungodly gift for making genius use of the absolute strangest sonic surfaces. In the case of the James Blake-produced “War Ready”, which begins with a melted, abstract sample of Andre 3000 before pivoting into a minimalist beat that sounds like an Atari version of the Halloween theme, Staples manages to offer an understated anthem (“War ready / Waaaaar ready!”) and a characteristically complex deconstruction of historical inequities, all at once. Even after the outsized masterpiece that was Summertime ’06 – a magnum opus that by all rights should have earned Vince some time off – Staples remains his insightful, nimble self, adding steam to a discography that has yet to feature anything less than great.
5.) Chance the Rapper – “Summer Friends”
Is there a phrase better suited to capturing the optimism, the warmth, the embracing populism and liberation-theology positivity of Chance the Rapper than a title like “Summer Friends”? Even better is the fact that “Summer Friends,” produced by and featuring Francis & The Lights, lives up to that promise, a warm analog-soul breeze of glitchy drum programming and auto-tuned harmonies that finds Chance moving from the nostalgia of youth to the trials of post-adolescence: “79th street was America then / Ice cream truck and the beauty supply / Blockbuster movies and Harold’s again / We still catching lightning bugs / When the plague hit the backyard” soon turns to “First day, nigga’s shooting / Summer school get to losing students / But the CPD getting new recruitment”. The song is at once hopeful and melancholy, cheerfully reminiscent and quietly haunted. It’s that complexity – loveliness and hushed sadness — that makes it so moving, and so essential a piece of Coloring Book.
4.) Bon Iver – “715 – CRΣΣKS”
The most challenging, and thus the most fascinating, of Bon Iver’s fearlessly avant-garde third album, 22, A Million, “715 – CRΣΣKS” finds Justin Vernon at his most elemental – just his otherworldly, elastic voice and a warping bit of computer programming. The song, whose 2 minutes are devoted entirely to layers of Vernon’s auto-tuned voice, is oddly beautiful as Vernon’s high notes spin out like the far edges of a refracting kaleidoscope, his low notes humming with an unexpectedly warm digital density. It is the bravura performance of 2016, one that takes the past half-decade’s experiments with synthetic voice manipulation to its most stirring conclusion, wherein one artist’s humanity blossoms out arrestingly from beneath all the 0’s and 1’s.
3.) Beyoncé – “Hold Up”
Of the many reasons why Beyoncé’s staggering Lemonade deserves laudation, an especially salient one would be the fact that Knowles and her team have officially delivered a masterpiece of post-genre eclecticism (an idea long talked about in pop criticism, but only truly seen in its full potential on this Beyoncé sequel), wherein the only criteria for the album seemed to be “does it sound great?” That methodology would certainly seem to explain “Hold Up”, a song that bears traces of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, classic Motown, dancehall, Regina Spektor, and the same slow-building drama that made 2015’s Beyoncé an instant classic. Produced by Beyoncé, Ezra Koenig, and Diplo, the song finds Knowles at her most elastic and vampy, at times dipping into a sly growl, at others rising up into a feathery falsetto. Still other moments feature the quick, bravura bursts on which Beyoncé made her name. It’s almost impossible to define “Hold Up”, except to say that it stands out as one of Lemonade’s most inventive and irresistible songs, and is thus one of 2016’s most inventive and irresistible songs.
2.) Kendrick Lamar – “untitled 02 l 06.23.2014.”
Untitled unmastered., the 2016 collection of unreleased tracks left off of the brilliant To Pimp A Butterfly revealed entire subplots to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 magnum opus (that “Pimp! Pimp! Hooray!” refrain, for instance). It also revealed a whole additional set of sonic ideas that couldn’t be fit into the already packed-full odyssey that was Butterfly. The most striking of these is the hushed post-apocalyptic whispers (“Get God on the phone!” / He said it won’t be long”) of “untitled 02 l 06.23.2014.”, a song that arrives in a minor key fog, flecked with free-jazz horns, deep-stomached bass guitar, and discordant pianos that trickle in the song’s quietest moments like the patter of claws. Whenever the song’s beat drops out, swirls of clashing harmonies billow up. Atop all of that Lamar inhabits a character only glimpsed on Butterfly, rapping large sections of the song in a ghostly, mad falsetto. The song is a character study, an image of a neo-capitalist wasteland (“It’s a tidal wave / “It’s a thunderdome”), a vignette of Lamar’s scene-setting at its most cinematic and ominous.
1.) Kim Gordon – “Murdered Out”
You know we are officially in a new reality when the best song of 2016 is a stand-alone single initially released to YouTube with little information beyond a few paragraphs of background from its author. Hell, we still don’t know if this is the first single from a forthcoming album or a one-time offering. But such is the case with “Murdered Out”, the incredible single from from Kim Gordon. The fact that the song, produced by Justin Raisen, is currently only available as a 74-cent download via Matador Records seems to underline just how comprehensive the 3-and-a-half minute song is all on its own. It’s a document unto itself. It contains magnitudes. Arriving via chattering percussion and a scraping, guttural bass groove before expanding with a single thumping bass-snare-bass-bass-snare groove and an acidic storm of guitar feedback and synthesizer haze, “Murdered Out” is as perfect an object-lesson in “post-punk” as you’re likely to get, even if it was released about 35 years after the term was hatched. Gordon’s voice — an instrument of smoky, canny magic — occasionally lets itself get swallowed up by all that post-industrial noise, bending with quick dabs of studio manipulation, her vocal turning itself into another instrument of stylishly perfect sound-design. But for the most part she stands at the center of “Murdered Out” and its ultra-cool noise-punk stomp with a veteran’s authority. Four decades in, and Kim Gordon remains peerless.