The 25 Best Singles of 2016


Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”

Most of the songs on Angel Olsen’s My Woman utilize the singer’s marvelously evocative voice for poignant purposes, bemoaning the loss of love in damaged, defensive terms. But the undertone of aggression that undergirds those imprecations bursts to the fore on “Shut Up Kiss Me,” an attempt to salvage a foundering relationship that finds Olsen embodying both traditionally male and female roles simultaneously, delivering soft and hard in equal measure. Backed by a surging tide of guitar and drums, she pushes from wounded desolation to commanding confidence and back, eventually settling for the latter. Along the way, the song pursues a swaying, woozy build-up that walks a fine line between heartbreak and renewal, while working as a strong showcase for the singer’s staggering musical chops. Jesse Cataldo


Flume featuring Kai, “Never Be Like You”

Australian producer Flume stacked his sophomore effort, Skin, with heavy-hitting featured guests ranging from Vince Staples to Beck, but he achieved the album’s strongest hit in collaboration with the lesser-known Toronto-based singer Kai. Flume pares back his production for a more minimalist approach than usual, using mellowed trap effects, future-bass elements, and ambient synths to complement Kai’s pained, repentant vocal in a song that confronts the emotional fallout of having “fucked up” in a relationship, as she begs to be absolved of these sins—because she’s only human, after all. “Never Be Like You” thrives in these contrasts, at once both forceful and tender, Kai’s vocal both assertive and contrite. Josh Goller


Danny Brown, “Really Doe”

The crew track, while uniquely representative of hip-hop’s communal origins, isn’t the genre’s most auspicious tradition. While a well-calibrated machine like the Wu-Tang Clan was able to turn it into an art form in itself, one-off collaborations between thrown-together groups of MCs often devolve into interminable pile-ons, each participant trying to outdo the others. Not so for “Really Doe,” a rare collaborative effort which, in addition to boasting perhaps the most addictively demented beat on Danny Brown’s twisted funhouse Atrocity Exhibition, also manages to cohesively coordinate some of the most talented rappers working today. Brown himself starts off with a characteristically manic verse, Ab-Soul adds his own impressively convoluted contribution, and Kendrick Lamar carries the minimal hook while further ratcheting up the energy. The track concludes with a rare guest appearance from Earl Sweatshirt, who stops the song dead in its tracks while retaining his own uniquely sleepy, knottily propulsive momentum, downshifting into an ominous ending that acts as a perfect capper to this outstanding collection of diverse voices. Cataldo


Beyoncé, “Formation”

Sarah Silverman’s immediate Twitter assessment of Bey’s latest, arguably greatest, mass missive can hardly be improved on: “Can anyone else in the history of the world release a song and the same day sing it on the motherfucking Super Bowl & we all know the words?” In a year (of all years!) in which pop largely checked its consciousness at the door, Beyoncé connected the dots and made it look easy. Because, she argued, it is easy! Or at least should be, as much so as a date night at Red Lobster. “Earned all this money, but they never take the country out me/I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag.” Knowles 2020. We’re all with her. Henderson


The Weeknd featuring Daft Punk, “Starboy”

Few people would accuse Abel Tesfaye of being too modest. Yet, the artist known as the Weeknd has described “Starboy” as his manifestation of the “more braggadocious character that we all have inside us.” That heightened swagger finds Tesfaye looking down at the gaudier accoutrements of the celebrity lifestyle, blaming pop culture at large for creating his outsized persona in the first place (“Look what you’ve done/I’m a motherfuckin’ starboy”), all while signaling a transformation that’s portrayed literally in the single’s music video, where Tesfaye assassinates his former palm-tree-afroed self to announce the arrival of his shorn Starboy period, a not-so-subtle nod to David Bowie. By joining forces with Daft Punk, Tesfaye adds gloss to this smooth, bombastic sound, resulting in a song that sleekly and effortlessly thrums and sparkles like one of his beloved luxury cars driven under neon lights. Goller