On New Year’s Eve, just hours before the dawn of 2016, Natalie Cole died. It was a portent, perhaps, of the cascade of musical icons to fall this year: David Bowie in January, Prince in April, Sharon Jones and Leonard Cohen within two weeks of each other in November. And it wasn’t just music — 2016 saw the death of Anton Yelchin, Alan Rickman, Sonia Rykiel, Gene Wilder, Fidel Castro, the United Kingdom, and the American democratic process. Cohen died the day before the presidential election, but the news wasn’t released until two days later, with Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton still an open wound.
Yet this year was also a fruitful one, for these artists and many others — 2016 was filled with hotly anticipated releases that lived up to, and in some cases exceeded, expectations. Bowie left us with Blackstar, Cohen with You Want It Darker. Bon Iver came back, six years after Justin Vernon declared he was abandoning the project, with 22, A Million. Carly Rae Jepsen followed up a pristine pop album, 2015’s Emotion, with an equally pristine collection of b-sides. Radiohead came out with their first record in five years, Rihanna and Solange each with their first in four, and Rae Sremmurd with a sophomore album that had no right to be as catchy as it was. With each successive release, many of which drove a socially conscious message, we were reassured. Things couldn’t be quite as bad as they seemed, right? Chance the Rapper’s jubilant Coloring Book and Francis and the Lights’s ecstatic Farewell, Starlite! made poptimists of us all; Mitski’s Puberty 2 proved that, even within pop conventions, there was still space to break down gender tropes. These 17 songs renewed our faith in humanity this year.
“First Time” — Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion Side B
26 August 2016
“There are no Carly Rae b-sides,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook shortly after Jepsen debuted her Emotion Side B EP at the end of the summer. Last year, the Canadian pop singer released Emotion, an assortment of pristine ’80s-inflected pop bangers that could convert even the most cynical “Call Me Maybe” hater. A week before the one-year anniversary of Emotion, Jepsen started dropping hints (https://twitter.com/carlyraejepsen/status/767467427202347008) that there was more to come. Emotion Side B opens with the click of a cassette tape on “First Time,” as if, in this digital age, the singer were really turning over a recording to side B. The Dev Hynes-assisted record blends retro influences with a darker, more jaded eye than the A-side. “We won’t get too sentimental, not tonight,” she sings. “’Cause when my heart breaks, it always feels like the first time.” She’s unabashedly sentimental, openly romantic, refreshingly unpretentious.
“Moth to the Flame” — Chairlift, Moth
22 January 2016
“Moth to the Flame” was first released as a single in the first two weeks of the year, presaging the release of Chairlift’s first new album since 2012’s Something. Chairlift has always been a band that takes its time; between 2008’s Does You Inspire You and Something, Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly evolved from indie-pop sweethearts (their single “Bruises” soundtracked an iPod Nano commercial back in the day) to denizens of their own experimental electronic landscape. With Moth, they turned again to bright, clean pop hooks. “Moth to the Flame” was just the first taste.
“I Need a Forest Fire” — James Blake ft. Bon Iver, The Colour in Anything
6 May 2016
In addition to his first solo album in six years, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver will go down as 2016’s MVP collaborator. He featured on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and James Blake’s The Colour in Anything, both also released this year. (He also collaborated with Blake on the 2011 track “Fall Creek Boys Choir,” off Enough Thunder.) Blake’s third full-length was a meditation on grief and heartbreak, but that made it no less restorative. “I Need a Forest Fire” opens with a shimmering ambient synth line; nearly a minute in, Justin Vernon lets out a howl that sends chills cascading down your spine. “Mm,” he grunts. Then Blake, nearly inaudible in the background, chimes in: “Nice.” Teamwork.
“All We Got” — Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
12 May 2016
Like his forefather-slash-mentor Kanye West, Chance the Rapper’s latest full-length opens with a kind of prayer song. Coloring Book, and above all “All We Got,” is a triumphant, ecstatic mixtape, rife with gospel influences and exclamations of praise. In “All We Got,” a jittering drum track and scattered trumpets give way to a thunderous, West-featuring chorus. “Music is all we got,” the two rappers duet. “We might as well give it all we got.”
“Ultralight Beams” — Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
14 February 2016
Kanye West continued to tinker with The Life of Pablo for months after it debuted on Tidal in February, but it was the opening track, “Ultralight Beam,” that sold the album from the beginning. “Ultralight Beam” begins with a sample of a four-year-old girl crying out an impassioned prayer. “We don’t want no devils in the house,” she howls. At its core, “Ultralight Beam” is a hymnal: “This is a God dream,” West raps, before handing the stage off to Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, The-Dream, and Kelly Price. “This my part, nobody else speak,” Chance says. We’re listening.
“Formation” — Beyoncé, Lemonade
23 April 2016
No one really knew what Lemonade would be when Beyoncé began teasing it shortly before its HBO release. What we did know, though, was what we’d seen already: “Formation,” the video and lead single ahead of Lemonade, an ode to black women’s empowerment grounded in Beyoncé’s southern heritage. It opens with a Gucci-clad Beyoncé crouching on the hood of a partially submerged police cruiser in post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s hip-hop, it’s southern gothic, and it’s done more for Red Lobster than any song before or since.
“Your Best American Girl” — Mitski, Puberty 2
17 June 2016
“That song was … not a throwaway song, but I really purely was writing it for myself,” Mitski said of “Your Best American Girl” in late May. “It’s about a very specific experience from a specific background. I don’t think everyone would relate to the protagonist of the song.” Yet the lead single off Puberty 2 is the crown jewel of Mitski’s oeuvre, employing the punk-rock tropes she was weaned on only to implode them from the inside. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, but I do,” she sings. “You’re an all-American boy; I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.” Though she tends to analyze her world as an outsider, it’s when she gets inside that she’s most effective.
“Best To You” ft. Empress Of — Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
28 June 2016
Like Justin Vernon, Dev Hynes is also the consummate collaborator: He co-wrote Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Body Language”; in turn, she features alongside Starchild and the New Romantic on “Better Than Me,” a standout track on Hynes’s latest Blood Orange record, Freetown Sound. Hynes recruited another chanteuse, enigmatic singer-songwriter Empress Of, for the silken crooner “Best To You.” The ’80s are about to have a moment in fashion — but their moment has already arrived when it comes to music.
“Ivy” — Frank Ocean, Blonde
20 August 2016It took four years, many delays, and endless angst on the part of his fan base, but this year Frank Ocean finally came back with not one, but two follow-ups to 2012’s Channel Orange: first, the visual album Endless; then, the 17-track Blonde. Best of all: They’re both excellent. Look no further than “Ivy” for evidence — Frank Ocean thought he was dreaming when you said you loved him, and he’s armed with the dreamy guitars to back it up.
“Friends” — Francis and the Lights ft. Bon Iver, Farewell, Starlite!
24 September 2016
Just… Watch the video. You’ll thank me later.
“Cranes in the Sky” — Solange, A Seat at the Table
30 September 2016
Solange wrote “Cranes in the Sky” eight years ago, but it wasn’t until A Seat at the Table that she saw fit to release it. (Sound familiar, Thom Yorke?) It’s a song of escapism — sex, drugs, alcohol — brushed with a smooth soul veneer. This year, a bit of escapism is what we all need. (Again, watch the video.)
“True Love Waits” — Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
8 May 2016
For more than two decades, Radiohead has been playing “True Love Waits,” a gutting guitar-driven ballad, as a staple of its live set. But “True Love Waits” had never received adequate studio treatment until this year: It closes out A Moon Shaped Pool, stripped of its guitar and replaced with two juxtaposed piano lines. For Radiohead’s most avid fans, true love really does wait.
“Do Yoga” — Rae Sremmurd, SremmLife 2
12 August 2016
For Mississippi-born brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi, 2016 was a banner year. They’ve topped the charts for a month now with “Black Beatles,” but it’s “Do Yoga” that has really affirmed our faith in humanity. Because, you know, they’re literally rapping about yoga.
“Alaska” — Maggie Rogers
13 October 2016The sight of Pharrell’s smug face will perhaps forever be associated with Maggie Rogers’s official debut single, “Alaska.” (She self-released a few folk records in high school, but they’re tough to find except in some corners of Tumblr these days.) Over the summer, Pharrell led a masterclass at NYU’s Clive Davis School of Recorded Music, where Rogers was a student. He listened to a rough cut of Rogers’s track, his mouth quivering and eyes wide. “I’ve never heard anything that sounds like that,” he told Rogers when he was done. A clip of that moment went viral, the internet purporting that Rogers brought Pharrell to tears. And if a college student can make Pharrell cry, anything is possible.
“715-CRΣΣKS” — Bon Iver, 22, A Million
30 September 2016Justin Vernon has periodically rung the death knell for his primary project, Bon Iver, and each time, he emerges again. On his latest, 22, A Million — his first studio album as Bon Iver in six years — Vernon toys with the edge where sound turns into music, and where voice turns into instrument. With liberal use of the Messina, a production strategy devised by his sound engineer Chris Messina, Vernon turns his a cappella voice into an autotuned choir on “715-CRΣΣKS.” The track is as much about the lush sonic landscape as Vernon’s inscrutable lyrics (“Toiling with your blood, I remember something,” he sings), and in a little over two minutes, he’ll just about destroy you. (In a good way.)
“Higher” — Rihanna, Anti
28 January 2016
The release of Rihanna’s eighth studio album, Anti, was, to put it bluntly, a disaster. It leaked on Tidal, came down, and then released again just hours later — ahead of schedule. It’s one of her most diverse, sprawling albums to date, one that brought us both dancehall anthem “Work” and gutsy ballad “Higher.” In just two minutes, Rihanna offers something of a mission statement for Anti: “This whiskey got me feeling pretty, so pardon if I’m impolite,” she croons. “I know I could be more creative and come up with poetic lines, but I’m I’m turnt up off sizz and ‘I love you’ is the only thing that’s in my mind.” Like the album, it’s a little messy, candid, unapologetic even when it’s saying sorry.
“I Know a Place” — Muna
2 December 2016Los Angeles-based pop stars on the rise Muna started playing “I Know a Place” as a lynchpin of their live set months before it debuted as a single. The most recent single in the lead-up to their debut full-length album, “I Know a Place” is an empowering, optimistic — or poptimistic — capstone to the year’s most affirming releases.
See W’s most popular videos: