The 25 Best Singles of 2016

5

Rihanna, featuring Drake “Work”

The year’s other great “work” song isn’t about work any more than it’s about really anything else: The disintegrating patois of its language signifies a kind of breakdown of meaning all together. That is, unless you consider the song from its most beguiling and largely unexplored angle: as a furiously manic self-interrogation, with the workaholic Rihanna reconciling with the desires and whims of the impulsive, unpredictable Barbadian youth Robyn Fenty. “I hope that you see this through,” she repeats, but it’s hard to imagine anyone’s unmet expectations affecting Rihanna more than her own. And there’s been no greater justification for the year of aborted singles and convoluted promotional efforts that preceded Anti than this ingratiating three-and-half minutes, which finds Rihanna’s personal (affected, individualist vocal) and populist (dancehall) instincts working together seamlessly. Mac

4

Beyoncé, “Hold Up”

“What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” Beyoncé asks on “Hold Up,” not long after confessing to going through Jay Z’s phone and wishing ill on his girlfriends. With co-writers including Diplo, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, and Father John Misty, the song is a musical curiosity, as its feel-good, reggae-tinged meld of bouncing synths, cloppy percussion, and stray air horns is bizarre enough on its own, not to mention as a backdrop to revenge fantasies and resentment. And yet “Hold Up” works, what with its mishmash of sounds and styles creating an indelible groove as Beyoncé breaks from a public image normally cool and calm. Or, as she puts it: “I’d rather be crazy.” Wroble

3

Radiohead, “Burn the Witch”

Whether Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch” is interpreted as a warning against authoritarianism or commentary on the peril in quashing dissenting viewpoints within a more socio-cultural context, Jonny Greenwood’s expansive string arrangements pair with Thom Yorke’s soaring falsetto to present a song that is, at once, both gorgeous and unsettling, culminating in a discordant swell of twitchy strings as thrilling and ominous as a Bernard Herrmann score. A fitting anthem for a depraved new world. Goller

2

Kanye West, “Famous”

“Famous” functions equally well as both banger and ballad, another baring of Kanye West’s softer underbelly that matches its gentle moments with another ready-made batch of strident controversy-bait. The latter comes courtesy of West himself, throwing out passive-aggressive barbs at Taylor Swift and a variety of other unnamed targets, building up his own name by denigrating others. The churning, hellish beat emphasizes the devilish, self-destructive qualities on display, but the song’s hook says otherwise, depicting the rapper’s sensitive side via a series of female voices. These range from Rihanna’s serene and aching take on a Nina Simone verse, to an ebullient Sister Nancy sample and finally the timeless voice of Simone herself, the entire progression further grounded by a thrumming organ line which underscores the song’s confessional structure. Cataldo

1

A Tribe Called Quest, “We the People…”

Sandwiched between the more unimpeachably grooveful “Whateva Will Be” and ambitious, high-concept opener “The Space Program,” the lead single from A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service is the song of 2016 because it sounds as palpably angry about, and disenchanted with, modern times as the rest of us. We the people, Tribe had obviously hoped (based on the more optimistic and empowered songs elsewhere on the album), wouldn’t be foolish enough to elect a man who’d nod approvingly at the lyric about Mexicans and Muslims being deported en mass, but well, here we are. And so Q-Tip’s dejected attitude on topics like gentrification and a dumbed-down media culture stings all the more, and exists as the album’s most cathartic moment of commiseration. At the same time, there’s just enough hope here to keep “We the People…” from being completely defeatist: How bad can the world be with new Tribe music…and ramen noodles? Mac

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