Ask just about any mainstream pop critic what the anthem of 2016 was, even a politically agnostic or avoidant type of critic, and they’ll likely find themselves settling on Beyoncé’s “Formation,” which kicked off the year with a jolt of empowerment and sustained its position through force of will. Don’t believe us? Just ask Spin, who had it at the top of their list of songs at the year’s halfway point, along with Rolling Stone and NPR, who just named it the year’s best track.
And yet, was it really so ubiquitous? Or influential? Or representative of the year at large? At no point in the year did it top the Billboard charts. What ruled in this most apocalyptic election year of our epoch? Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Drake’s “One Dance,” Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” the Chainsmokers’s “Closer,” and Sia’s in-this-context appropriately titled “Cheap Thrills.” Rihanna might say we’ve all got a lot of “work, work, work, work, work” to do, especially given the departure of some of pop music’s finest and most conscious practitioners: Prince and David Bowie.
So many of the highlights and lowlights of the year in singles were, for better or worse, attuned to what feels like a worldwide drift toward maintaining one’s own financial and psychological (same diff) bottom line at the expense of anyone else’s. Beyoncé, of all performers, was far from immune, though her particular brand of exceptionalism continues to dress itself up in the finery of collective consciousness raising. Far more common were the unfussy, ruthlessly entertaining likes of Fifth Harmony speaking on behalf of Melania Trumps everywhere. Or Kanye West’s epic clapback against Taylor Swift, which in turn presaged his detour into the mental hospital, which we’ve now seen firsthand more or less counts as the first step in a presidential bid in 2020. Eric Henderson
Massive Attack featuring Hope Sandoval, “The Spoils”
Massive Attack reteamed with singer Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star for this gauzy trip-hop ballad about the uncertainties and insecurities of love. Even an acknowledgement of love feels spoiled by possessiveness and fear: “I somehow slowly love you/I wanna keep you the same/Well, I somehow slowly know you/And wanna keep you away.” The Bristol band’s most accessible single since at least 1998’s “Teardrop,” “The Spoils” unravels patiently across nearly six minutes, with spacy synth drones, lush orchestral swells, a minimalist drum loop, and electric organ enveloping Sandoval’s creeping doubt. Sal Cinquemani
Bob Mould, “Voices in My Head”
Because it came from the bald, white-goateed, 55-year-old version of Bob Mould, and not the young, Hüsker Dü-backed hardcore pioneer incarnation, it’s unlikely that “Voices in My Head” will come to be remembered with the same level of reverence as the likes of “Celebrated Summer,” “Something I Learned Today,” et al. That’s a pity, because the track is as concise and accessible a summation of Mould’s songwriting themes and prowess as he’s managed to date. What the song lacks in the unhinged intensity of Hüsker Dü’s work, it makes up for with brazen, charging hooks, all triumphant Townshend-like chord changes and disarmingly sing-song-y vocal phrasings. Through it, Mould puts his two most historically reliable tools—abrasive guitar fuzz and bone-deep lyrics about personal demons leading to something verging on mania—to use as expertly as ever. Jeremy Winograd
James Blake featuring Bon Iver, “I Need a Forest Fire”
Pairing Bon Iver’s abandoned coo with a haunting loop of James Blake’s voice, “I Need a Forest Fire” is a celestial ode to rebirth, a theme that’s played heavily into both artist’s catalogue but hasn’t been captured as elegantly as it is here. The song seems to move in one long, slow breath, as Blake gradually builds shimmering organ and glitchy bass into a sweltering cavern of sound, then deconstructs those same elements for a quiet coda. “I hope you’ll stop me/Before I build a wall around me,” sings Blake, sounding in his characteristic way like someone who knows better what he doesn’t need than what he does. Jonathan Wroble
Young Thug, “With Them”
A game of pass-the-AUX-cord at the Madison Square Garden premiere for Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo led to the spontaneous debut of Young Thug’s “With Them” and you could feel the self-seriousness rush right out of the room: “She suck on that dick on the plane and I call her an airhead (woo).” With that “woo” acting as the tardy pop of a starting pistol, we’re off on a three-minute marathon of virtuosic, gleeful, effortlessly melodic rapping for rap’s sake. The unbearably high stakes of Kanye’s labored-over but immense opus were to be upstaged by no one that night, but Thug’s necessary decompression pointed the way forward. For all the heightened anxieties and expectations that 2016 would bring, we would need some pure irreverence. Sam C. Mac
Drive-By Truckers, “Surrender Under Protest”
A little over a month ago, Mike Cooley’s steely eyed diatribe on the myth of the Confederacy’s Lost Cause played as a stinging rebuke of the white nationalists whose grip on power and cultural relevance seemed to be in its death throes. Post-presidential election, it works just as effectively as a rallying cry for those afraid of being left behind and abused in Trump’s America. Whatever message you take from it, “Surrender Under Protest” is one of Drive-By Truckers’s leanest, angriest rock songs, spearheaded by utility man Jay Gonzalez, who weaves seamlessly between roiling guitar solos and angelic piano fills. Winograd