Alas, the finale of the best songs of the year. I hope you enjoy them and my thoughts, as I’ve tried to explain why each song means so much to me–and every song here does mean quite a lot to me. I realized this as I was listening to them again, trying to gather my thoughts about each one. There are progressive, tense ideas both musically and lyrically throughout each of them. There’s joy, pain, death, and life all in equal measure. There’s hardly a safe song among them, so proceed with caution, for each is a stumbling block that we can use to lift us higher.
33/32. “Blessings”/”Blessings” by Chance the Rapper
Coloring Book at its best is a Gospel album for the modern age and Chance brings so much joy and sincerity to it that it’s inspiring he actually pulls it off. He even put two songs titled “Blessings” on it, which he uses as a straight forward admonition of all the ways he’s been blessed. Both are essential, which is why they’re listed here sequentially, the former introducing the idea, while the latter concludes it (and the whole album), including my favorite line which Chance delivers twice beautifully: “I speak to God in public, I speak to God in public“–there’s no shame, proselytizing, or pointed purpose to this lyric–it’s just pure joy.
31. “Formation” by Beyonce
30. “Last You Heard of Me” by Joyce Manor
It opens with a few hard strokes of the guitar before reverting to a muted vocally-led tale of a night out on the town. The song uses a rather simple party setting to characterize a romantic cynicism rather bleakly (and beautifully–at least to me) saying: “When for a second our eyes meet/And in the moment I see everything/Start to finish, sad defeat”. Is it better to have loved and lost than never loved at all? Apparently not.
29. “The Awkward Ones” by Martha
Martha create wonderfully catchy pop-punk songs equally lead by power chords and the vocals of pretty much every member of the band (both male and female). “The Awkward Ones” is my favorite track off of the album because of the way the guitars drive forward its infectious rock melody.
28. “Father Stretch My Hands” (Parts 1 & 2) by Kanye West
Much of The Life of Pablo feels like it’s incomplete and I’ve always felt that both “Father Stretch My Hands” parts belong together, conjoined in the holy mess that Kanye has created. The intro to part 1 creates this beautiful beat to which Kanye sings “I just wanna feel liberated” before it leads into rather graphic tales of his strange sexual exploits. Part 2 continues this thought, intercutting desiigner’s wealth anthem “Panda” next to longings of spiritual expression. It’s a beautiful mess that perfectly captures the human experience in all of its highs and lows.
27. “Worth It” by Moses Sumney
Moses Sumner is one to watch, his EP, Lamentations certainly proved that he is capable of creating highly produced bits of auto-tuned wonder. “Worth It” best captures his ability to make a lament as he questions the unconditionality of love, recognizing the love given to him, but asking if he is deserving of it. Sumney captures the cry of humanity with unbelievable beauty.
26. “Dana Katherine Scully” by Tacocat
Everything about Tacocat is tongue-in-cheek, from their silly name, album artwork, and beach-rock vibe, they never seem like they want you to take them seriously. “Dana Katherine Scully” is a tribute to Gillian Anderson’s character in The X-Files, a seemingly shallow bit of fun and a way to sing about something they grew up watching. Underneath this–what truly makes this song work–is a reverence to the character who ultimately serves as a strong female role model for the band members to look up to. This is necessary in a world where “the truth is out there, but so are lies”.
25. “Kiss Me When I Bleed” by White Lung
I’m sure there are plenty of interpretations of White Lung’s fiery punk jam, but I like it best as this sort of sincerely creepy love song. They use darker imagery to convey the most basic thing people write songs about, reinterpreting the love song for their own purposes. The narrator shrugs off the criticisms she’s received for falling in love, having kids, and committing to someone else, but sometimes the ultimate defiance is the act of making a choice, even if that choice is the traditional one.
24. “Photobooth” by Joey Purp
“Photobooth” will grab you right away, using siren-like noises and bass heavy beats for Joey Purp to declare his message. What I love about Joey Purp is that he delivers every verse with such an urgency that his message feels important no matter what it is (though most of what he has to say is socially conscious). “Photobooth” is one of my favorite combined bits of music and vocals to come out this year.
23. “No Problem” by Chance the Rapper (feat. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne)
This is probably the most fun song in the slew of sincere jams that make up Coloring Book. Opening up with a choir before leading into Chance’s threats that if someone tries to interfere with his music making process, they’re going to have problems. It’s an endlessly singable chorus and guests 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne add to the fun with their verses.
22. “White Ferrari” by Frank Ocean
I’m not the biggest Frank Ocean fan, though I want to be, I mean what’s cooler than thoughtful indie R&B? But part of me just likes the much more poppy melodies of someone like Usher or Ne-Yo. Not that one has to choose, and Ocean is certainly a remarkable talent, creating stuff that is always interesting and worth diving into. “White Ferrari” is the best pure Ocean track on the long-anticipated Blonde, it’s soothing and graceful and shows why Ocean gets as much attention as he does.
21. “THat Part (Black Hippy Remix)” by ScHoolboy Q (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul & Jay Rock)
The original is great, the guitar that leads into Q’s chorus is as intense as anything on an album full of epic beats and deliveries, but the remix was absolutely lauded for replacing a subpar Kanye verse with the other members of Black Hippy–and, frankly, it is better. They took an already great song and added a great verse from Jay Rock, a new verse from Q, and an instant classic from Kendrick (just look at that rhyme scheme).
20. “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)” by Car Seat Headrest
Car Seat Headrest takes small Bandcamp ideas and blows them up into giant rock ‘n roll anthems with layered parts, repeating choruses, whispered verses, and crushing guitar. “Unforgiving Girl” is a great song, no doubt about that, but as I sit here and think about why I love it so much, there’s a part of me that recognizes that I have it on here, because it’s chorus is so memorable. Is it truly better than the rest of Teens of Denial? I’m not sure, and there is certainly one song that I like best from the album (listed below), but the whole album really deserves this spot.
19. “Floridada” by Animal Collective
Listens one through ten of this song (which actually got a lot of airplay on the Sirius XM college rock station that I keep accidentally paying for) felt like a silly subpar offering from Animal Collective, whose schtick often alternates between silly and brilliant noisy pop. Eventually though, the repetition and layered vocals began to really work for me. It doesn’t have the pathos of their best work from Merriweather Post Pavilion, but it’s a really fun song.
18. “Below” by White Lung
“Below” shows White Lung parting from their usually aggressive punk sound, leaving it for what turns out to be their most well-written and complete song (at least from Paradise). There’s a dreamy soundscape to it and it reminds me a bit of what Makthaverskan was doing on II (my favorite album of 2014) with its ethereal musicianship crossing paths with the intensity of its front woman.
17. “untitled 02” by Kendrick Lamar
“untitled 02” could very easily fit onto To Pimp a Butterfly, with its jazzy horns interplaying over Kendrick’s moral dilemmas. The song deals with the themes that Kendrick’s work has been about thus far: what does one do with both faith and success when you’re in the midst of desperate violence? He goes back and forth between the two here, rotating between getting “God” and “Top” (Top Dawg Entertainment) on the phone as he reckons with the stuff he’s done and the stuff he’s got.
16. “666 t” by Bon Iver
Yes, I was too lazy to figure out how to make an upside down t (or supposedly a cross) like is in the actual song title. Bon Iver is apparently too pretentious to use the characters available on a standard keyboard. Yet, Bon Iver is the best at creating melodies, especially ones that soar like “666 t”. Here Vernon outlines some sort of journey he’s been on, from the opening verse where “6’s hang on the door” (explaining the song title) and each chorus progressing him in his journey from having “heard about it” to “learned” to finally having “laughed about it”. It’s unclear what he’s talking about it–like the album as a whole–it’s all shrouded in mystery, but what he offers is quite the ride.
15. “Used to This” by Future (feat. Drake)
Future dropped this lone single a couple of months ago, with it a music video of he and Drake dancing around a bunch of sexed up female soccer players. And that was it. It feels like the song mostly when unnoticed or unmentioned from there. Future is wont to just drop music at any moment, so it’s not really a surprise, but it did feel really random and likely fell short of whatever he envisioned the song being. But, I absolutely adore this track–it’s a catchy, almost poppy song that shows Future could make radio hits if he wasn’t such a sad and desperate person (what is the future we need? This Future or that Future? I think we need both F(f)utures.)
14. “Go!” by M83 (feat. Mai Lan)
This was another grower for me, M83’s 80s laden electronic vibes are always hit or miss for me, but after a while the simple chorus of “Go!” became infectious to me. There’s a guitar solo toward the end where the chorus comes in and boy is it great.
13. “Really Doe” by Danny Brown (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt)
Some of my favorite episodes of Comedy Bang Bang are when they bring in all of the fan favorites to do their most beloved characters in what is essentially just an all-stars episode (you could use SNL as an example of this as well). This song is like that, bringing in some of the best people in the game to each perform their own respective parts in what is one of the best songs of the year. When there’s this much talent, it’s hard to screw it up and Danny Brown & company certainly have made the most of all they’ve been given here.
12. “Jesus Alone” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
“Jesus Alone” is a haunting piece of poetry set to music. It’s supposedly mostly ad-libbed and about the death of his son, which makes the way it haunts even more soul-cutting. It’s about memory, about longing, about achieving something without reaping the rewards of that achievement.
11. “Lazarus” by David Bowie
It’s hard to detach most of what Bowie did on “Blackstar” from his subsequent death just days after the album release. “Lazarus”, which is ostensibly about being raised from the dead, becomes exponentially more powerful when keeping this in mind. Even if Bowie had not tragically passed away so soon after, the performance he gives here is stuffed to the brim with pathos and set to a creeping drum and bass line with jazzy horns intercutting with impeccable timing.
10. “Burn the Witch” by Radiohead
It’s weird to think that the best band of the last 20 years could still be making music that was essential to their catalogue, yet “Burn the Witch” is one of the best songs they’ve ever made. “This is a low flying panic attack” is one of my favorite lines of the year, evoking disastrous fear with a subtlety that matches the eeriness of the song.
9. “All Night” by Beyonce
So much of Lemonade has Beyonce fiercely going after a man that has presumedly cheated on her and she does so with a thriving intensity. “All Night” shows things beginning to evolve into a level of forgiveness, shown by the memory of romance with her love. It’s an exquisitely groovy jam that features a sample from “SpottieOttieDopealiscious”, showing that Outkast are the surprise kings of the year, even as Bey continues her reign as queen.
8. “Solo (Reprise)” by Frank Ocean (feat. Andre 3000)
Hey look its Outkast again! My favorite surprise of Blonde is this track, literally just 3000 rapping over a piano and distant beat for a minute-and-a-half straight. He offers some straight up fire here begging the question as to when that new 3000 album will drop.
7. “Drunk Driver/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest
Will Toledo uses the melancholic depression of post-party regrets to express his existential thoughts about humanity, while throwing in a reference to Blackfish, in order to show the real depravity of humankind. He acknowledges the worst impulses of humankind: the highs we seek and the rationalizations we make, while offering up that “maybe we can learn to start again” choosing an alternate path for our lives. This all happens underneath a perfectly written indie rock song that slowly builds into Toledo’s main refrain “it doesn’t have to be like this”.
6. “Groovy Tony/ Eddie Kane” by ScHoolboy Q (feat. Jadakiss)
ScHoolboy Q had the best produced album in hip-hop, if not all music this year, offering up breathtakingly layered beats to track his often rough vocals. The combination of the two on “Groovy Tony”, along with his intense tale of narcotics dealing, is pure cinema–as gripping as any film I’ve seen all year. Jadakiss comes in essentially stealing the mic and shredding up the atmosphere with a turbulent verse before part II kicks in, changing up the track like any standard plot twist would.
5. “Blackstar” by David Bowie
Blackstar opens up with the eponymous track, a sprawling nine minute song that dives right into a haunting Bowie vocal before taking its time to fully express its ideas. It’s a tightly produced experimentation with jazzy solos that lead into Bowie’s idea of a blackstar–a star that is about to collapse, reaching its singularity, where it becomes something else altogether–an idea that again is apropos to the tragedy that was his death.
4. “Hold Up” by Beyonce
Beyonce uses an Ezra Koenig tweet that was a twist on “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to outline the feelings of still being in love with the one who cheated on you. She’s simultaneously confident and insecure here, expressing that she doesn’t want to feel “jealous or crazy”, but she’d rather choose the latter than be lied to or manipulated. It enters the mind of someone “who’s the baddest woman in the game”, is desperately in love, but also desperately angry; personifying the tension inherent between ones ideals, feelings, and the reality of dealing with the imperfections of humanity.
3. “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski
Mitski’s break up anthem opens up with quiet acoustic strummings as she gently sings in a way that is almost reminiscent of a lullaby. All this happens before the distortion kicks in with a guitar heavy chorus. The song is about cultural differences and how they affect relationships, particularly her own, as she lays out how the lack of ability to compromise between different ways of life can tear people apart. It’s rough, but it feels lived in as she expresses how she tried to be “your best American girl” but ultimately could not. It’s sorrowful, but empowering.
2. “Crying in Public” by Chairlift
Chairlift’s electronic ballad expresses the idea of love entering into the midst of the trials of life. It beautifully builds a narrative where the protagonist is overwhelmed by life, but comes to the sudden realization that there is something more that is gripping her. It’s endlessly listenable, both solemn and hopeful in a way that soothes the soul.
- “Ultralight Beam” by Kanye West (feat. Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, The-Dream, Kelly Price)
From the very first moment I heard this song, that night when everyone was waiting for the album that Kanye was supposedly going to drop, it became my number one song of the year. With “Ultralight Beam”, Kanye kicked off the reuniting of Gospel and hip-hop in a major way, creating what is not only my favorite song of the year, but likely my favorite to come out in the last decade.
It opens with a little kid preaching, setting the tone for the holy tension that Kanye finds himself in throughout most of TLOP. Then comes the autotune, and the “I’m trying to keep my faith”, before Ye introduces the ultralight beam and “God dream”. It’s the best production Kanye has ever done, really an altogether glorious experience. The-Dream brings in some beautiful lyrics, there’s a full-blown Gospel choir with Kelly Price blowing us all away, and the man himself–Kirk Franklin–delivers a benediction to end it.
All of that and we haven’t even mentioned the real star of the show, Chance the Rapper. Chance delivers the best verse of the year, shaming every Christian rapper ever for missing out on all the cool wordplay that can be mined from the story of Lot’s wife, and declaring his arrival as a superstar.
Every bit of this song is perfect and it’s ending cry of “faith, war, safe, more” encapsulates everything this year has been about, looking up towards the heavens as the earth around us remains in holy turmoil.