Is anything more personal than a favorite song? Even with our thinking caps on, we all experience music through unrelentingly individual ears. When evaluating entire bodies of work, perhaps a committee’s consensus will suffice. The best album of a given year may well be the one that inspires the most cumulative positive reactions — a collection of music heralded by a collection of people. But coming to an agreement over individual tracks has always felt like a fool’s errand here at Stereogum. Just when you think you’ve nailed down the year’s one definitive anthem, another dozen contenders spring into memory, each one special and meaningful in its own way.
So instead of ranking the year’s best songs, our tradition has been to let each writer submit a list of their own personal favorites. Below, as in 2013, 2014, and 2015, you’ll find playlists of 10 tracks apiece built by Stereogum staffers and contributors, this year adding up to 100 songs in total. Along with the music, each writer has posted some brief thoughts on why these sounds dominated their 2016. Consider it not a definitive list of the year’s best songs but rather a series of mixtapes comprising moments that resonated deeply. Peruse our picks below, and be sure to share your own in the comments.
A few weeks ago Lorde tweeted a photo of tangled Apple EarPods, writing “listen to the record on these every day. wanna hear it exactly how you will.” Smart. I listen to music on great headphones when I can, but plenty of time I’m using my iPhone’s default buds or, worse, listening through my MacBook’s speakers (sometimes to ripped YouTubes!). And lately my iTunes does this thing where it only plays the first 30 seconds of a song before skipping to the next one? These are not ideal listening conditions and surely Neil Young would roll over in his LincVolt if he knew. But at least now you know what this year’s music was up against (er, at least on my end at … the rest of Stereogum listens exclusively on Pono). Kvelertak’s EVH homage, Lil Chano’s groupie brush-off, the 1975’s coked-up synth-pop, Cass McCombs’ seedy cityscape, young Ariana’s disco hit, and the rest of these tracks all spoke to me, again and again, no matter how I was listening to them, and even when Mac Miller snuck in some bars. Which is good news because for the next four years I’ll have to listen to them from a Jambox in my bunker.
01 Ariana Grande – “Into You”
02 Cass McCombs – “In A Chinese Alley”
03 Chance The Rapper – “All Night” (Feat. Knox Fortune)
04 The 1975 – “UGH!”
05 Thee Oh Sees – “Plastic Plant”
06 Kvelertak – “1985”
07 Gurr – “Moby Dick”
08 Night Moves – “Staurolite Stroll”
09 KING – “Native Land”
10 Free Time – “All Four Seasons”
Listen to Scott’s playlist on Spotify.
Some good things happened in popular music this year. Pop music absorbed dancehall in ways that we haven’t heard, helping give way to slinky, insinuating anthems like Alicia Keys’ “In Common” and Drake’s mighty, world-conquering “One Dance.” (It would’ve been nice if some actual dancehall stars had broken through, but maybe that’ll happen next year.) Unreformed, head-knocker street-rap made a comeback, one that gave us Young M.A’s “OOOUUU,” O.T. Genasis’ “Cut It,” and the strange phenomenon of Kevin Gates’ stardom. Glimmering disco hooks showed up in the strangest places, whether they came from an underground dance phenom like Kaytranada or a formerly underground, formerly alt-rock duo like Tegan And Sara. EDM lightened up under the Chainsmokers, who come off like buttholes but know how to put together a pop song. Bittersweet melodic regret refused to go away, finding expression in a song like “A 1000 Times.” All of that is great, but we now live in a world where Donald Trump is about to become president, which makes it harder to enjoy any of that. So: YG’s “FDT” is the most important, most cathartic, and best song of 2016. At your New Year’s party, don’t play any other songs. Just keep that one on repeat, and if anyone leaves, you will know that that person is the enemy.
01 YG – “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” (Feat. Nipsey Hussle)
02 Young M.A – “OOOUUU”
03 Tegan And Sara – “U-Turn”
04 Alicia Keys – “In Common”
05 O.T. Genasis – “Cut It” (Feat. Young Dolph)
06 Drake – “One Dance”
07 Kevin Gates – “Really Really”
08 Kaytranada – “Glowed Up” (Feat. Anderson .Paak)
09 The Chainsmokers – “Don’t Let Me Down” (Feat. Daya)
10 Hamilton Leithauser & Rostam – “A 1000 Times”
Listen to Tom’s playlist on Spotify.
The song that moved me most in 2016 didn’t come out in 2016. It came out in 1982. It’s Billy Joel’s “Allentown.” I’ve known the song by heart since childhood, but I hadn’t thought about it in years until one day this past summer, when I heard it out of nowhere, someplace in my periphery. And in that moment, the song hit me like a bolt of lightning. I’d been reading all these stories about lifelong democrats in American manufacturing towns who were reluctantly considering a vote for Trump, but “Allentown” made this visceral to me — urgent, even. I spent the next two days reading obsessively about Apple’s iPhone production in China, trying to understand whether it would be reasonable for the company to move those operations to the United States. (FYI: It is not merely unreasonable; it is impossible.) “Allentown” left me in a cold sweat. Time collapsed on itself; I saw, instantly, this country’s past, present, and future. For me, nothing has looked the same since that moment. If you haven’t heard the song in a while, you should listen to it right now.
But I’ve gone off-prompt. The assignment here is “my favorite songs of 2016,” and the list below is that, sort of. As I’ve done in years past, I’ve chosen here to focus only on “metal” songs, knowing my colleagues will pick up the slack on pretty much everything else. Are these the 10 best metal songs of 2016, then? Probably not. I’m pretty sure they’re my 10 favorite metal songs of the year, but on any given day, I could probably be persuaded to make entirely different choices. Just the same, I played the hell out of these songs this year, and if you need hard music for these hard days, you should play the hell out of these songs, too.
01 Alcest – “Oiseaux De Proie”
02 Astronoid – “Air”
03 Harakiri For The Sky – “Funeral Dreams”
04 Martyrdod – “Harmagedon”
05 Cobalt – “Final Will”
06 Dawnbringer – “North By North”
07 Wode – “Cloaked In Ruin”
08 Gojira – “Stranded”
09 Kvelertak – “Heksebrann”
10 Metallica – “Atlas, Rise!”
Listen to Michael’s playlist on Spotify.
Up top we have the unbounded joy of the gospel according to Chance: a message of spiritual and temporal freedom alike. No songs tingled the spine nor elicited more physical exaltation than “Ultralight Beam” and “No Problem” these past 12 months — though “Broccoli” came close — and my God did we ever need such release. More in line with the tone of actual events was “True Love Waits,” a once beaming love ballad now drained of all hope and freezing to death. It had stiff competition among breakup songs between the impeccably gleaming “Crash,” the achingly beautiful “29 #Strafford APTS,” and the all-consuming tidal wave “Your Best American Girl,” a reminder that intersectionality is personal as hell. “Old Friends” wrung powerful sentiment from a more universal loss of intimacy, that creeping sense of disconnection from everyone you’ve ever held dear. And although the effortless swagger of “Black Beatles” and “Work” seems out of step with this year’s widespread trauma, both conjure the extremely 2016 sensation of being trapped inside a computer with a tireless melody rattling around your brain.
01 Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam” (Feat. The-Dream, Kelly Price, Chance The Rapper, & Kirk Franklin)
02 Chance The Rapper – “No Problem” (Feat. 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne)
03 Radiohead – “True Love Waits”
04 Mitski – “Your Best American Girl”
05 D.R.A.M. – “Broccoli” (Feat. Lil Yachty)
06 Pinegrove – “Old Friends”
07 Bon Iver – “29 #Strafford APTS”
08 Usher – “Crash”
09 Rae Sremmurd – “Black Beatles” (Feat. Gucci Mane)
10 Rihanna – “Work” (Feat. Drake)
Listen to Chris’ playlist on Spotify.
Gabriela Tully Claymore
This playlist doesn’t make much sense, but then again, neither did this year. Optimism up and left me, and in times like these it’s good to have something to look forward to, like new music. This was one of my favorite years for new releases in recent memory, which is why my list is so scattered. I included some unconventional pop by Katie Dey and Bellows to contrast the punishing self-reflection heard on Vince Staples’ “Loco” and Show Me The Body’s “Aspirin.” I slid in Jenny Hval, ANOHNI, and Angel Olsen, three artists who released career-defining albums this year. “Higher” is in there because I saw Rihanna live for the very first time, and her set closed with it. In other firsts, I wrote a cover story on the band White Lung, and “Below” is a masterpiece of reinvention. But there’s one song on this list that matters more than any of the others, and it’s obviously ranked at #1. In the only interview Frank Ocean gave after the release of Blonde, he revealed that there were originally 50 different versions of “White Ferrari.” His teenage brother heard one of the 50 that he thought was especially good, but Ocean didn’t want to release that version. “Because it didn’t give me peace yet,” he explained. “White Ferrari” followed me on international road trips, Northeastern Megabus rides, long stretches of Miami freeway, rainy Appalachian trails, and endless subway commutes to and from home. It’s a perfect song for being in-between, one that offers me that unquestionable sense of peace Ocean was searching for. I need to feel that peace for a few minutes every day for the rest of this year and into next.
01 Frank Ocean – “White Ferrari”
02 Jenny Hval – “Conceptual Romance”
03 White Lung – “Below”
04 Katie Dey – “Fear O The Light”
05 Angel Olsen – “Shut Up Kiss Me”
06 ANOHNI – “Drone Bomb Me”
07 Bellows – “Dark Heart”
08 Vince Staples – “Loco” (Feat. Kilo Kish)
09 Show Me The Body – “Aspirin”
10 Rihanna – “Higher”
Listen to Gabriela’s playlist on Spotify.
When I become really, truly obsessed with a song, I listen to it non-stop — on the subway, in my car, on a loop before I have to go out into the world. The song becomes a shelter, a familiar home where I can place my excess emotions. It’s always been this way, but it felt especially important to find those moments to latch onto in a year that felt like a whirlwind of shit. All the songs on the list below occupied that on-repeat slot in my brain at some point over the last 12 months, providing comfort and stability in a world that seems averse to both. The climax of IAN SWEET’s “Cactus Couch,” the top song on this list, provided me with a mantra to live by: “There is nothing wrong with me, but everything is wrong with me,” a circuitous phrase that validates messy internal contradictions while offering some assurance that it’s not all in your head. Other songs on the list possess a strong narrative thrust, evoking situations specific to the songwriter’s experience but potent enough to stand up as larger-than-life: “Bully”‘s inward-facing story of a friend’s substance abuse, “Pain”‘s embittered search for revenge. And other songs were just plain evocative: the snaps and cracks on “Best To You,” the smooth co-dependent independence of “Solo,” the joyful friendship swells of “Emotional High.” Music’s magic lies in its potential as a catalyst for real transformation and reflection, and these songs were important to me this year in providing a structure in which that can actually happen.
01 IAN SWEET – “Cactus Couch”
02 Mannequin Pussy – “Emotional High”
03 Frank Ocean – “Solo”
04 Bellows – “Bully”
05 Blood Orange – “Best To You” (Feat. Empress Of)
06 LVL UP – “Pain”
07 Modern Baseball – “Mass”
08 PUP – “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will”
09 Frankie Cosmos – “Sappho”
10 Guerilla Toss – “Diamond Girls”
Listen to James’ playlist on Spotify.
I’ve been an album listener since I can remember. The first album I listened to front-to-back was Dr. Dre’s The Chronic when I was five years old. I probably shouldn’t have been listening to Dre at that age, but that’s what happens when you grow up in LA worshiping your older brother who bangs and ruins shirts with jheri curl drippings. I certainly didn’t understand everything on the album, but I needed to listen to everything on the album. That method of consumption just stuck with me, to the point where I didn’t even revisit an album’s standouts if I didn’t like the majority of it comprehensively. I’m still an album listener, but that habit has waned a bit over the years. Since starting at Stereogum at the tail-end of last year, I have been more tuned in to individual songs as hermetic entities than ever before. That vigilance and the constant search for solace through music in a personally and nationally shitty year has had me playing therapeutic singles on repeat all year, sometimes entire days at a time. So you’ll find the full feel gamut on my list this year: the celebratory, exultant funk victory lap that is “Come Down,” the ineluctable sadness of “Cranes In The Sky,” the doubt and vulnerability of “Worth It,” the righteous anger against ignorance on “Think Like They Book Say,” the smooth, beautiful nostalgia and romance of “Think Of You,” the technological fatigue of “Check To Check,” etc. These songs will probably not have the most longevity in the zeitgeist, but each of them is excellent and will instantly transport me back to this year for better or worse. Hopefully there’s something on this you will connect with too.
01 Anderson .Paak – “Come Down”
02 Vince Staples – “Pimp Hand”
03 Topaz Jones – “Powerball”
04 Solange – “Cranes In The Sky”
05 Isaiah Rashad – “4r Da Squaw”
06 Terrace Martin – “Think Of You”
07 Saul Williams – “Think Like They Book Say”
08 Mal Devisa – “In My Neighborhood”
09 Open Mike Eagle – “Check To Check”
10 Moses Sumney – “Worth It”
Listen to Collin’s playlist on Spotify.
This was a shitty year — and I don’t just mean that in a geopolitical sense. This was a shitty year in pretty much every sense imaginable, one of those years that almost feels like a joke in its commitment being utterly terrible. In a year like this, you have to hold onto small moments of comfort wherever you can find them, and a lot of the time, those moments happened to be musical. I’m talking about moments like Frank Ocean’s voice straining upwards into pained transcendence at the end of “Ivy,” or the second that “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” starts rocking the fuck out, or every time Sadie Dupuis’ voice does that airy laugh thing on “Less Than 2.” As with most of these lists, there aren’t a whole lot of obvious commonalities on mine — we have Rihanna going full ’80s power-ballad, Crying playing a rock concert inside an arcade on top of cloud, PUP making sad-bastard self-loathing sound like a raggedly melodic fist-pump, School Of Seven Bells giving a master-class in laser-focused pop precision, etc. But what these songs do have in common is their ability to make me feel big, dumb feelings, to take over my entire brain and filter everything through their skewed lens whenever they start playing. And in a year like this one, that’s enough.
01 Rihanna – “Kiss It Better”
02 Frank Ocean – “Ivy”
03 Crying – “Wool In The Wash”
04 Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”
05 Vince Staples – “War Ready”
06 Sad13 – “Less Than 2″
07 School Of Seven Bells – “Open Your Eyes”
08 PUP – “DVP”
09 Mitski – “I Bet On Losing Dogs”
10 Mai Lan – “Technique”
Listen to Peter’s playlist on Spotify.
David Bowie’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away” was supposed to be my favorite song of 2016. It was, after all, the perfect coda from one of my favorite musicians. Car Seat Headrest’s “The Ballad Of The Costa Concordia” was supposed to be my favorite song of 2016 because, well, there’s just way too much shit to relate to in that one. At any given point in the year, I could’ve said that about any of the songs on my list — once more, the songs that followed me around while on tour or traveling for pieces, acting as little pillars in a year spent on the move, in many different places. But one of those songs, Liima’s “Amerika,” gradually took on more and more significance as the year wore on. Written by three Danes and a Finn on the islands of Madeira, “Amerika” is a song from the perspective of outsiders looking out across the ocean with their homes at their backs, thinking of that mythic place out over there, reconciling the vision they grew up on with the real place they had experienced, the real place they could look out and see in 2016.
“Amerika” became my theme song in travel: a meditation I’d listen to around this country, around other countries, thinking about being an American out in the world as this year grew more and more warped. Gabriela and I were in Iceland when the election happened. From afar, we watched our country mutate, or reveal itself, when they elected a reality TV con man with no clue what he’s doing to the most powerful position in the world. “Amerika” shifted my perspective then: what once was a conduit to travel around thinking about my country and people’s perception of us around the world then became solace. We drove through alien, volcanic landscapes in Iceland listening to it, our homeland feeling just as alien, just as distant. “I hope for you,” Casper Clausen sings across the sea at the song’s crescendo, before falling into a wordless refrain that bears as much catharsis as it does pain. I still can’t tell whether I now hear it as elegy, or as a prayer for some other future we can’t quite see yet.
01 Liima – “Amerika”
02 David Bowie – “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
03 Car Seat Headrest – “The Ballad Of The Costa Concordia”
04 Radiohead – “Daydreaming”
05 Underworld – “I Exhale”
06 School Of Seven Bells – “Ablaze”
07 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Jesus Alone”
08 Mitski – “Happy”
09 Merchandise – “Flower Of Sex”
10 Fufanu – “Sports”
Listen to Ryan’s playlist on Spotify.
It’s hard to find a common thread that links all of my favorite tracks this year without forcing it. Music serves different needs depending on where we’re at and what we’re going through. Between these ten songs, I was amped up when I needed a boost, calmed down when I was panicked, and distracted when I needed an escape from my own little world. Some of them represent finding solace and energy to move forward after the gut-wrenching end of a long-term relationship, trying to convince myself that I was going to be fine (“Sorry,” “Needed Me”). Some are bold, banging tracks I came back to time and time again when my uptight ass needed to let loose for once (“2 Phones,” “Kiss Me When I Bleed,” “Really Doe,” “Junie”). “Nights” and “Not Gonna Kill You” will forever remind me of my move to New York — two songs with varied and thrilling pacing that accompanied me on repeat during long stretches of train ride or waiting for it to finally show up. I listen to an embarrassing amount of really depressing, really emo music, but when it comes to individual tracks that I love, I can’t help but select ones that make me feel more alive. The closest to emo that this list gets is “The Waters” and “Real Friends,” both songs just slowly chug along and examine some fucked up and troubling feelings, but at the end of the day, still make me dance.
01 Beyoncé – “Sorry”
02 Frank Ocean – “Nights”
03 Anderson .Paak – “The Waters”
04 Angel Olsen – “Not Gonna Kill You”
05 Rihanna – “Needed Me”
06 White Lung – “Kiss Me When I Bleed”
07 Solange – “Junie”
08 Kanye West – “Real Friends” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
09 Kevin Gates – “2 Phones”
10 Danny Brown – “Really Doe” (Feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, & Earl Sweatshirt)
Listen to Grace’s playlist on Spotify.