It’s not much of a stretch to say that 2016 has redefined the notion of what an album is and can be. All of the year’s most hyped releases to date, from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, share one thing in common: the element of surprise. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book brought up the not-quite-age-old question of “Is it an album or a mixtape?”, while Kanye West’s constant tinkering with The Life of Pablo transformed the album into a shifting, fluid construct. Against this backdrop of grand statements and bold experimentation, the song itself has ironically become a kind of anchor, a two- or three- or four-minute cultural artifact that still feels comfortable in its own skin.

    (Read: Top 25 Albums of 2016 (So Far))

    Of course, maybe that’s because the rest of the world has been changing in ways that accommodate smaller, more concentrated impressions like the pop song. The sudden rise of streaming has opened up a vast library of music for immediate consumption, leading many listeners to spread their tastes thin and inhale new bands or artists on a song-by-song basis. Who has an entire sleepy afternoon to commit to Kevin Morby? Better to check out “Dorothy” first and see if it grabs you. Songs leave a powerful first impression that may even end up as the defining impression. Mitski won’t release Puberty 2 for another couple of weeks, but everything we need to know about that album and its important place in the indie rock universe can be found in the three and a half minutes of “Your Best American Girl”.

    Looking over our list of the 25 best songs to emerge from 2016 so far, it seems we can divide them into two rough categories: beauties and bangers. The former includes songs as diverse as Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” and Pinegrove’s acoustic stunner “Cadmium” — songs we prize for their ability to tug incessantly at our heartstrings. The latter category, exemplified by Chance’s roller rink insta-classic “All Night”, features songs that punch instead of tug. In a time when so many albums seem existentially designed to keep us on our toes, it’s a comfort to have songs that go straight for the gut.

    –Collin Brennan
    Associate Editor


    25. Kvelertak – “Nattesferd”


    Sounds Like: If Ragnarok were a kick-ass party you threw when your parents were out of town.

    Key Lyric: “*unintelligible Norwegian*”

    Why It Matters: Music about the end and futility of all things can still be loads of fun.

    Song in a GIF:


    –Sean Barry

    24. A Giant Dog – “Sex & Drugs”


    Sounds Like: A speed freak pogo-sticking across the giant piano keys from Big.

    Key Lyric: “We can tell all your kids about the things that we did/ We can’t even remember being young”

    Why It Matters: While not exactly pro hedonism (the song predicts that there will be chemical-related consequences down the line), A Giant Dog manages to find no-frills, no-snark joy in bad decisions — a far cry from the nasty snarl of some of their garage-rock peers.

    Song in a GIF:

    giant dog

    –Dan Caffrey

    23. Sing Street – “Drive It Like You Stole It”

    Sing Street (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

    Sounds Like: The ghosts of Hall & Oates performing “Maneater” from the belly of a saber-toothed tiger.


    Key Lyric: “I’m outta here, no turning back/ In a baby blue Cadillac/ Just when I was stalling, I heard an angel calling, ‘This is your life. You can go anywhere.'”

    Why It Matters: More so than any other original song on the Sing Street soundtrack, “Drive It Like You Stole It” proves that ’80s kitsch can still have muscle, balancing chrome-dipped guitars with a club-ready back beat for a song that’s as anthemic as anything by Beach Slang or Japandroids. The sloganeered lyrics might even be better, too.

    Song in a GIF:

    sing street

    –Dan Caffrey

    22. Pusha T – “M.F.T.R.”

    Darkest Before Dawn

    Sounds Like: Bricks of cocaine raining from the sky like an R-rated version of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.


    Key Lyric: “I’m Kim Jong of the crack song/ Gil Scott-Heron to the black poem”

    Why It Matters: Pusha T treats rap like it’s a hobby compared to his drug-dealing cash flow, revitalizing his late-era output with the braggadocious charm of an up-and-coming MC.

    Song in a GIF:

    pusha t

    –Dusty Henry

    21. James Blake – “Radio Silence”

    The Colour in Anything

    Sounds Like: A poignant soul ballad that plays during the end credits of an alternate timeline version of Donnie Darko.

    Key Lyric: “I can’t believe this, you don’t wanna see me/ We lived in love with each other so long”


    Why It Matters: The sound is contemporary heartbreak, and the repetitive lyrics convey the desperation of the situation and show Blake’s command over the subtleties of vulnerable, emotionally transparent songwriting.

    Song in a GIF:


    –Derrick Rossignol


    20. Beyoncé – All Night”


    Sounds Like: If the horn section on Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” was turned down to 3 and the sensual female backing vocals were turned up to 11, then bolstered by a reggae groove.

    Key Lyric: “If you get deep, you touch my mind/ Baptize your tears and dry your eyes”

    Why It Matters: So many songs about spurned love — let alone entire albums about spurned love — end in revenge, heartbreak, or both. But “All Night” — the final piece of Lemonade’s core narrative before the epilogue of “Formation” — shows that romance can still be salvaged in the face of infidelity. Sometimes, it can even grow stronger. Is that how it always happens? Of course not. But Beyoncé proves that it’s at least possible, and her lesson in forgiveness is an important one for listeners (especially young ones) to learn.

    Song in a GIF:


    –Dan Caffrey

    19. Kaytranada ft. Anderson .Paak – “Glowed Up”


    Sounds Like: Getting beamed up by aliens — just not the terrifying kind — and chilling in outer space


    Key Lyric: “Pop up, Daddy Warbucks/ Like Warhol, with an 8-ball and a paintbrush”

    Why It Matters: This track is best experienced with a good set of headphones to appreciate KAYTRANADA’s intricate production — the trippy track melds layers of pulsing and shimmering synths paced by Anderson .Paak’s silky-smooth flow. –Killian Young

    Song in a GIF:

    giphy (8)

    –Killian Young

    18. Greys – “No Star”

    Outer Heaven

    Sounds Like: Pent-up anger finally snapping in a giant explosion.

    Key Lyric: “Don’t shoot, I’m not the enemy/ They want you to be scared of me/ I’m everybody’s strategy/ Where do I turn with no star in the sky?”

    Why It Matters: Frontman Shehzaad Jiwani wrote the song in the wake of the political and social wreckage following the Paris terrorist attacks, confronting the ways in which he and others of color are unnecessarily targeted. It’s the type of rebuttal that these CoSigned Toronto guys can bring to life with violent noise punk that remains melodic at its core.


    Song in a GIF:

    giphy (2)

    –Nina Corcoran

    17. Big Ups – “National Parks”

    Before a Million Universes

    Sounds Like: Fugazi reuniting to play a Mother’s Day brunch.

    Key Lyric: “I think I saw her say to herself/ This is everything I’ve missed.”

    Why It Matters: “National Parks” is undeniably a punk song, though it does the very un-punk thing of honoring the sacrifices our parents make to give us a better life. When vocalist Joe Galarraga screams, it sounds like an act of immolation, burning with guilt for taking what his mother never had.

    Song in a GIF:


    –Collin Brennan


    16. Pinegrove – “Cadmium”


    Sounds Like: A collective voice of New Jersey-bred angst.

    Key Lyric: “Put your neck out, tell me the ways you wish you were/ Keep your confidence sound, your hook my eye my spur”

    Why It Matters: Pinegrove have mastered pop punk poignancy, and their songs could leave even the stoniest listener feeling nostalgic.


    Song in a GIF:

    giphy (7)

    –Mary Kate McGrath


    15. Kevin Morby – “Dorothy”

    Singing Saw

    Sounds Like: The sunnier side of Velvet Underground interrupted by bursts of folk jazz from Astral Weeks.

    Key Lyric: “And all the beauty I couldn’t see/ Well it just cut me at my knees / And I was watching the old men fish/ And they’d all give their catch away”

    Why It Matters: Without the jangle, “Dorothy” would be too sylvan and meandering, and without the interludes, it would be too straightforward. But because Morby includes both, he paints a unique kind of optimism that’s as realistic as it is unwavering.


    Song in a GIF:


    –Dan Caffrey

    14. LUH – “$ORO”

    Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing

    Sounds Like: If Anthony Gonzalez had recorded a chopped and screwed remix of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, then increased the speed just enough for it to become a protest song.

    Key Lyric: “Go, work, sleep, repeat until you are fucking dead”

    Why It Matters: As critics, we go on and on about how subtlety and artfulness are things to be admired in music. And they are. But sometimes, it’s equally important to go big or go home, and LUH’s screed against the 1% is so theatrical in its rawness, so pained in Ellery James Roberts’ howl (it’s impossible to fake that kind of passion) that you can’t help but give in to it. And if you make fun of him and his dreams, he’ll only sing louder.

    Song in a GIF:


    –Dan Caffrey

    13. DMA’s – “Delete”

    Hills End

    Sounds Like: A flame that burns a dull blue begins to spark orange and yellow at nightfall, then goes back to blue in the morning.


    Key Lyric: “Don’t delete my baby, don’t defeat her still/ In the quiet of nothing, to the hands of grace/ Don’t delete my baby, don’t defeat her now”

    Why It Matters: By showing caution, these CoSigned Australians have crafted a pragmatic spin on the musical pep talk. Even as they urge a romantic partner to have confidence in themselves, it’s as if they don’t believe their own words — they soon plead to a higher power to look out for their loved one.

    Song in a GIF:


    –Dan Caffrey


    12. Mothers – “Hold Your Own Hand”

    When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired

    Sounds Like: As the sun sets, realizing you’re all you need in this world — and that’s a damn beautiful thing.


    Key Lyric: “Keep those little hands/ Right there in your pockets/ I can’t say I believe them.”

    Why It Matters: The CoSigned Athens, Georgia, act pull lyrics from their diary, sharpen them until they’re perfect bones for a haunting skeleton, and dress it with the warm qualities of a human. Their ability to switch between a shimmering, delicate, finger-plucked dance at dusk into a pained call for help standing on your own signals not only a new kind of bravery, but a learned state of mind where solitude can be used for independence.

    Song in a GIF:

    giphy (1)

    –Nina Corcoran

    11. Chance the Rapper – “Angels”

    Coloring Book

    Sounds Like: Cruising down Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive on a spring day with the windows rolled down


    Key Lyric: “This what it sounds like when God split an atom with me/ I even had Steve givin’ out Apples for free”

    Why It Matters: Chance the Rapper joins the pantheon of Chicago rappers (see: Kanye West, Common) who’ve all penned love letters to the Windy City while also celebrating their personal growth. The track is buoyed by jubilant instrumentation, but Chano also acknowledges his ongoing mission to advocate against violence in his city.

    Song in a GIF:

    giphy (6)

    –Killian Young