Times music writers pick their favorite songs of 2016
Freshen up those playlists. Below, Times writers pick their favorite songs of the year.
The transgender artist now known as ANOHNI earned early fame with her group Antony and the Johnsons, and for the first project under her new name she stormed the dance floor in service of hardened, political bangers. Taken from the album “Hopelessness,” the track “Execution” typifies her Trojan Horse approach: she decries capital punishment via a striking, house-inspired beat. The result is a kind of negation, one that subverts dance-floor positivity in service of a less palatable truth. — Randall Roberts
Beyoncé is a master of suspense, releasing pop culture-shifting statements however she pleases. But not even her most adoring fans were ready for “Formation.” The record is a provocative mission statement from a singer that has spent her entire career uniting myriad audiences. It’s a song about female empowerment and sexuality, her frequent touchstones, but she chose to speak specifically and directly to her blackness. She proudly sang about loving her “Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils,” liking her “baby hair with baby hair and afros” (references a breadth of her audience probably still doesn’t understand) and celebrating her Southern heritage amid a Mike WiLL Made-It beat that explodes into a marching-band stomp. — Gerrick D. Kennedy
It’s a wonder that Detroit rapper Brown made it out of “Golddust” alive, given the myriad drugs he consumes during the song. Over the course of 2½ intense minutes, the frantic, immediately identifiable Brown rhymes about partaking in cocaine, a Bloody Mary, Adderall, marijuana, more cocaine, more liquor, a mimosa, MDMA and, yes, more cocaine. Miraculously, not only does Brown survive, but he prevails throughout “Golddust,” which is taken from his album “Atrocity Exhibition.” He’s urged on by producer Paul White’s intense, snare-rolling beat, which samples post-punk band Joy Division and a deep bass line from German jazz-rock band Embryo. So singular is that rhythm and Brown’s delivery that it could spawn its own chaotic hip-hop subgenre. — RR
In a year as screwy as 2016, it made sense that music’s dopiest new act would be the one to nail the sense of economic anxiety finally trickling down to America’s millennials. “Baby, pull me closer in the backseat of your Rover that I know you can’t afford,” the Chainsmokers’ Andrew Taggart sings in this pop-EDM smash, before his duet partner, Halsey, moves the action to the mattress she stole from her roommate back in Boulder. The song’s thumping chorus tries to brush off those money troubles: “We ain’t ever getting older,” the two declare, looking for escape en route to the club. But what makes “Closer” stick is how unconvinced they sound. — Mikael Wood
The veteran poet-shaman has always been a master of conjuring primal emotions through words and music, and the title track from the final studio album before his death in November is a textbook example. A single couplet evokes a world of anguish over the human condition as he applies that coal-mine-deep baritone, a minor-key chant and haunting rhythmic undercurrent to the lyrics: “A million candles burning for the help that never came / You want it darker — we kill the flame.” That’s followed by something of a confession, in Hebrew and English: “Hineni, Hineni — I’m ready my Lord.” As Cohen and the precious few musicians who might call themselves his peers know so well, without the dark, there is nothing against which we measure the light. — Randy Lewis
Was “Views” a hit or not? Sure, it smashed streaming records and yielded the unstoppable “One Dance,” but fans and critics seemed to turn on the album from the second it landed. “Too Good” should have been the hit that changed minds, however. A UK Funky beat infused with just enough of the year’s ubiquitous Caribbean smolder as well as a heartfelt duet between Drake and Rihanna that put Drake on blast as a selfish lover on his own album. — August Brown
A fine protest anthem — one that asks more questions than it answers — and one that also feels downright brave. The song, a casual, rootsy strummer that grows more urgent throughout its six minutes, deals with racial divides, the Black Lives Matter movement, police violence, domestic assault and a pundit-driven media, and does it all from the perspective of a Southern white man. “If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks, well I guess that means that you ain’t black,” sings Patterson Hood with a conversational scratch in his voice. He doesn’t sound angry — just exhausted. — Todd Martens
Los Angeles singer and songwriter Green writes terse, smart pop songs that suggest Ramones-esque punk intensity, but she presents them not leading a band of leather-clad thugs but on her own through a little beat-box and an electric guitar. “U Coulda Been an A,” taken from her “Colleen Green EP,” has a basic conceit: her lover could have earned high marks in the school of love, but instead settled for a barely passing grade. Green laments her fate not with tangled, accusatory lines but through a series of wordless, indifferent vocal “ohs” and “ahs.” It’s your loss, she seems to say. — R.R.
Sometimes the right balm for hard times is a bombastic pop jam to get lost in. Grande’s third album was stuffed with sizzling dance-pop and moody R&B overseen by pop savant Max Martin. “Into You” is proof of Martin’s Midas touch. With a heady EDM club beat, disco flourishes, and an infectious hook that manages to evoke Elvis and Mariah Carey in the same line , “Into You” is pop escapism at its finest. — G.K.
“I’m On” celebrates leaving behind the days of living paycheck to paycheck without venturing into clichéd materialism like most aspirational raps. The Oakland rapper effortlessly glides between rapping and singing over a swinging, tropical beat that’s a feel-good throwback to ‘90s R&B/hip-hop innovators Missy Elliott and TLC (the late ‘80s R&B sample also boosts its retro vibes). — G.K.
Released less than two months ago, Lady Gaga’s ultra-hyped “Joanne” seems already to have slipped from memory — not an unfair fate for an album with some pretty shallow ideas about how roots music works. But this majestic country ballad made a deeper impression, thanks in part to a pungent lyric by one of Nashville’s craftiest songwriters, Hillary Lindsey: “Lord, show me the way to cut through all this worn-out leather,” goes one line Miranda Lambert would be proud to sing. But Lambert wouldn’t sing “Million Reasons” like Gaga does: throaty, dramatic, even a bit vulgar. Call it “Phantom of the Opry.” — M.W.
One of the year’s best songs was about failing to live up to the All-American sweetheart ideal. The Japanese American singer-songwriter Mitski had a breakout with “Your Best American Girl,” and found a potent lyrical well in the pain of being othered by a lover. But she comes around to embrace her divides in history and perspective, and comes out stronger for giving up on that old and useless — but still somehow alluring — dream. If you need more inducement: the track absolutely slays, with one of the heaviest and best-produced guitar sounds of this year. — A.B.
A wild, untamed rock song from one of the more promising independent bands around. “Pink White House” is four minutes of humorously youthful discontent led by the nothing-but-extremities vocals of Katie Alice Greer. Savage and howling in one moment, she’s just as comfortable slowing things down to the point where it sounds she’s looking the listener in the eyes the next. One after another, the song touches on some of the more ridiculous aspects of the American dream, and as rhythms settle into a gallop and guitars go from shredding to locking into a groove, Priests almost — almost -- sound tamable. --T.M.
The Illinois-reared singer-songwriter scored a home run with her latest album “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” bringing gritty reality, savvy wordplay and lyrical insight to its 10 songs, among them this instant honky-tonk classic. She bypasses the breezy, feel-good sentiment of so much contemporary country music dominating the radio airwaves, harking back instead to the deep-reaching songs of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn: “I put a hurtin’ on the bottle/Baby now I’m blind enough to see/Been drinkin’ whisky like it’s water/But that don’t touch the pain you put in me.” No wonder Jack White flipped when he heard her and promptly put her album out on his Third Man Records label. — R.L.
The beat is barely there, more the suggestion of a dance-hall rhythm than the thing itself. And though the bass line has some muscle, it doesn’t really do much — just a simple ascending figure that keeps returning to the bottom and going up again, like an escalator. That leaves Rihanna to live up to the song’s title, and boy does she ever: Veering into patois as blurred as the groove is precise, the singer fills the ample available space in “Work” with so much vocal charisma that she had to make two music videos to properly visualize it. And the lyrics! “You took my heart and my keys and my patience / You took my heart on my sleeve as decoration.” Who this year had better lines than those? — M.W.
Of all the death and loss in music this year, the Oakland Ghost Ship fire was the worst, most unfathomable tragedy of all. There’s much work to be done to make artist housing and warehouse venues safe (and affordable), but in the face of so much grief, sometimes listening to the dead is all there is to do. Cherushii’s “Far Away So Close” is a beautiful, uplifting deep-house single that will hopefully remind fans of how much love can live on in memory. But the late, 22-year-old Cash Askew’s band Them Are Us Too is so gorgeous and elegiac that it’s almost too painful to listen to now. But please try. — A.B.
Times staff writers August Brown, Gerrick D. Kennedy, Randy Lewis, Todd Martens, Randall Roberts and Mikael Wood contributed to this report.
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