The Top 25 Songs of 2016

2016 was an incredible year for music. Icons left astounding goodbye notesLong-gestating masterpieces dropped from the sky. Artists that you thought would never come back did – and sounded unbelievably good. This is probably the toughest time I’ve ever had whittling a list of songs down to 25. “Formation” is only an honorable mention! Well enough of my blather. Here are the tracks I cranked in my 2005 Honda Civic with the most gusto this year. You can listen to the whole playlist on the player thingie at the bottom. Happy New Year, friends.

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25. Kendrick Lamar – “untitled 8 / 09.06.2014”

Over a dreamy MJ groove, Kendrick details what it’s like to be a broke American, from the perspective of a broke South African.

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24. Azealia Banks – “The Big Big Beat”

Just the latest in Azealia’s seemingly bottomless well of snappy dance-rap masterpieces. She should be on the charts as often as she’s in the tabloids.

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23. Iggy Pop – “Chocolate Drops”

In a very tough year, this I’ve-seen-it-all soul number from the retiring Iggy (with an assist from new pal Josh Homme) contained some welcome perspective – the shitter things get, the closer they are to becoming sweet again.

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22. case/lang/veirs – “Best Kept Secret”

I hadn’t heard of Laura Veirs before this collab with kd lang and Neko Case. So I was doubly surprised when she outshone them both, with this irrepressibly catchy folk song.

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21. 2 Chainz ft. Drake – “Big Amount” 

I want to hear flutes on everything now.

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20. Usher – “Crash”

It’s remarkable that Usher can still make songs like this – an R&B ballad about feeling vulnerable that takes you higher than an ego boost ever could.

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19. The Avalanches ft. Danny Brown and MF Doom – “Frankie Sinatra”

Calypso rap witchery.

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18. Anderson Paak – “Come Down” 

An ambitious R&B auteur contemplates a state of permanent highness over a crackling funk break from Hi-Tek.

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17. Charli XCX – “Vroom Vroom”

The lavender Lamborghini of dance-pop hits.

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16. Lady Leshurr – “Queen’s Speech 4”

Personal hygiene has never sounded this hardcore.

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15. The Monkees – “She Makes Me Laugh”

Romantic sunshine pop to soothe our inner cynic, from the singers of “Daydream Believer” and the writer of “Island in the Sun.”

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14. Drake ft. Wizkid and Kyla – “One Dance”

Dancehall, Afrobeat and hip hop collide on Drake’s entrancing hit – one of the few things most of us could agree on this year.

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13. Kvelertak – “1985” 

A beer-swillingly addictive single from these Norwegian black metal heroes. Sounds like Van Halen fronted by one of Satan’s sandpaper-throated emissaries.

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12. Anohni – “Drone Bomb Me”

On this gut-wrenching takedown of modern warfare, Anohni rips our hearts out, if only to prove we still have them.

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11. Kero Kero Bonito – “Trampoline” 

Dance-pop that’s as blissfully bouncy as its subject matter.

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10. Solange ft. The-Dream and BJ the Chicago Kid – “F.U.B.U.”

Solange sings about racial profiling with calm confidence, over floating organ and crisp, darting horns.

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9. Fifth Harmony – “Work From Home”

When you’re in love, the worst part about being in the office doesn’t involve what you could be doing outside.

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8. Kamaiyah ft. Zay – “Out the Bottle”

Combining syrupy ’90s gangsta with the lit bluntness of Mustardwave, this magnetic Bay Area rapper shows us why the self-confident have no need for stemware.

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7. Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam”

An artist who once claimed to be a god lies prostrate here, before the majesty of a gospel choir, and the nimble footwork of an all-time-great Chance the Rapper verse. He calls it a god dream, and I can’t argue.

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6. A Tribe Called Quest – “The Space Program”

When Q-Tip leans into his first verse on this, the first track of Tribe’s impossibly perfect comeback LP, I feel less silly about believing in something like fate.

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5. Frank Ocean – “Self Control”

Nobody reflects on lost love like Frank Ocean. “Keep a place for me / It’s no thing,” he sings. There’s no regret or bitterness. Just sweet humility, and warm light.

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4. DJ Shadow ft. Run the Jewels – “Nobody Speak”

Killer Mike and El-P bring mics to a gunfight.

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3. Rihanna – “Higher”

“I know I could be more creative / And come up with poetic lines,” sings our narrator, emboldened by alcohol, voice fraying from the sheer force of her feelings. They don’t make love songs like this anymore.

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2. Angel Olsen – “Shut Up Kiss Me”

A total gem of a rock and roll song, powered by love’s frightening adrenaline.

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1. Beyoncé – “Hold Up” 

Remember how awesomely cathartic it was to watch Angela Bassett set fire to her shithead husband’s car in Waiting to Exhale? Now you can sing along.

Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz ft. Lil Wayne – “Bounce”; Azealia Banks – “Skylar Diggins”; Beyoncé – “Formation”; Black Mountain – “Cemetery Breeding”; James Blake – “Always”; David Bowie – “Lazarus”; Danny Brown – “When It Rain”; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Distant Sky”; Hannah Diamond – “Make Believe”; D.R.A.M. – “Cute”; Ariana Grande ft. Nicki Minaj – “Side to Side”; Homeboy Sandman – “Talking (Bleep)”; Masta Ace – “Young Black Intelligent”; Metallica – “Spit Out the Bone”; M.I.A. – “Bird Song”; Frank Ocean – “Solo”; Isaiah Rashad – “Free Lunch”; Rihanna – “Love On the Brain”; Run the Jewels – “Talk to Me”; William Tyler – “Kingdom of Jones”; Vektor – “LCD (Liquid Crystal Disease)”; Kanye West – “Real Friends”; YG – “Twist My Fingaz”; Young Greatness – “Lingo Dripping”; Young M.A – “OOOUUU”; Young Thug – “Wyclef Jean”

The Top 20 Albums of 2016

You don’t need to read another rundown of all the things that made 2016 the absolute worst. We know what happened. So let’s seal ourselves off in a pop culture vacuum and focus on what an incredible year this was for music. I think it’s the best since 2000 – the year of Stankonia, Kid A and a Democrat somehow not becoming president even though more people voted for him. Oh shit. Sorry about that. Calm blue ocean, people. Just read on.

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20. Black Mountain – IV

If you thought rock bands were done generating fresh sounds from old ingredients, here’s some cause for optimism. This Vancouver quintet is certainly a student of 1970s and ’80s rock tropes, but the elements they fuse together on IV felt distinct in 2016. Sabbathy pentatonics make way for undulating synth patches cribbed from Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The melodies are imbued with the downcast posture and shattered beauty of Pornography-era Cure, but sung with the lithe dual-vocalist force of peak Fleetwood Mac. When these considerable influences melt together in the telling of an epic alien invasion or a graveside love affair, you have something that can only be described as Black Mountain.

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19. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” sang Bob Dylan in the late 1990s, while in the midst of a heart-related health scare. Gone was the artist’s typical literary remove, leaving behind an authentic beauty that he’s rarely matched. A similar sense of clear-eyed acceptance is present on what we now know as Leonard Cohen’s final LP. Released a few weeks before his death, You Want It Darker is a spare, haunting treatise on the pitfalls of faith, with the artist staring eternity in the eye and giving it a knowing wink over soft beds of synths and the occasional choir. It’s familiar territory for the writer of “Story of Isaac” and “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Hallelujah” – one last crack at the god that never wrote him backHe may not have won the war, but this final battle is all his.

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18. Angel Olsen – My Woman

Angel Olsen’s third album is a plugged-in collection of rough-hewn folk songs that are resigned to love’s failure. “Heartache ends, and begins again,” she sings. But in this resignation, she finds freedom. My Woman is an ecosystem of love and pain, the evaporation of the former resulting in the thunderstorms of the latter. After the crackling chemistry of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Not Gonna Kill Me” captures that frightening moment when you realize loving someone gives them the power to hurt you. Then, in a torrential catharsis, “Woman” unleashes that hurt, clearing the way for the cycle to begin again. Like Roger Sterling once said, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” By admitting defeat from the beginning, you’re free to just enjoy the ride.

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17. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

With a guest verse on one of the year’s most irresistible dance songs and a weekly slot performing the theme song to ABC’s family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, Danny Brown seemed on a path to being one of the cuddlier MCs of 2016. Then Atrocity Exhibition came out, and we were reminded he was fire incarnate. Inspired by a Joy Division song that was inspired by a J.G. Ballard novel set in an insane asylum, Brown’s fourth album is unrelentingly bleak, a musty hotel room with blankets on the windows and powder residue on the cable guide laminate. Fans of his club-friendly fare won’t find any refuge in the lyric sheet. But they don’t have to. Brown’s acrobatic flow is so effortless, his lung capacity seemingly bottomless, it’s impossible to avoid getting swept up in its energy.

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16. Case/Lang/Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs

When k.d. lang wanted to realize a decades-long dream of creating her version of the roots rock supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, she shot an email to two of her favorite songwriters, Neko Case and Laura Veirs. Within a half-hour, it was a done deal. But Case/Lang/Veirs feels like anything but a one-off experiment. Whether it’s one of Case’s sweeping country gallops, some pitch-perfect vocal jazz from lang or a plaintive folk singalong from Veirs, the production has the same, perfectly lived-in feel. Plus, the shifting spotlight feels natural, because these artists share an uncanny ability to depict the joys and jealousies of long-term relationships. “The hungry fools who rule the world can’t catch us / Surely they can’t ruin everything,” sings Veirs on one of her several standout contributions. When I looked at my wife sleeping next to me on Election Night, I knew for a fact that she was right.

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15. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

Kanye West’s seventh album is by far his messiest. It’s also his most forthcoming. For months leading up to its release, West was wracked by indecision and completely transparent about it, asking for our opinion on the title, tweeting out pics of yet another altered track list. This clear lack of direction had an obvious impact on The Life of Pablo, muddying its themes and splintering all its potential narratives. What’s amazing is that West uses the disarray to his advantage. Listening to this album is like pinballing through the maze of his mind – absurd ego and existential malaise, blue sky gospel and hamfisted sex rap, concerned fathers and bad friends. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” he challenges. I certainly can’t name one that could make an album as magnificently conflicted as this.

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14. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai

Few things convey strength better then staying calm as a samurai in the face of adversity. Like Charles Bronson, vengeful yet stone-faced, in Once Upon A Time In The West. Or Barack Obama, never losing his cool in the face of obstructionist hate. Or the Brooklyn firefighter and underground rapper Ka, who dives deep into the warring psychologies of street life while never once raising his voice. Over candlelit soul samples that would make any Wu-Tang member salivate, Ka delivers every line in a steady, conspiratorial whisper – even the ones about the tragically paradoxical advice of his loving parents. “Mommy told me be a good boy / Need you alive, please survive, you my hood joy / Pops told me stay strapped son / You need the shotty, be a body or catch one.”

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13. Beyoncé – Lemonade

Thirteen years ago, Beyoncé released her debut solo single – an exhilarating song about how love made you feel crazy. This year, on her stunning emotional arc of a concept album, the artist wrestles with the consequences of that overwhelming emotion, how it can be taken for granted and betrayed. “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? … I’d rather be crazy,” she sings over the airy island rhythm of “Hold Up,” refusing to suffer in silence about her cheating husband. Gorgeously curated and thoughtfully sequenced, Lemonade is more nuanced than your typical breakup album. The artist doesn’t limit herself to syrupy ballads to convey her pain. She burns with righteous anger, eulogizes her sense of security, then blazes a path to forgiveness and, ultimately, empowerment. By the end, Beyoncé has transcended being crazy in love. She’s never sounded more powerful.

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12. Masta Ace – The Falling Season

A great storyteller finds humanity in the mundane. Like a math class, or a bus ride, or a conversation with your mother about what high school you should go to. These are moments that Masta Ace writes about on The Falling Season, an utterly absorbing, 23-track hip-hopera about the rapper’s years at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. The 48-year-old MC is on top of his game throughout, his couplets shading in characters and pushing the plot forward with ease. The skits are skillfully written and performed, especially a monologue by self-described “Italian tough guy” Fats that gets interrupted in a sweetly humorous way. Ace has been polishing his skills as an underground rap raconteur since 1990, and you hear all of those years on this record, his words infused with hard-won wisdom, his flow steady and reassuring. In 2016, he was my favorite teacher.

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11. The Monkees – Good Times!

On Good Times!, the surviving members of The Monkees celebrate their 50th anniversary by doing what they do best – exuberantly harmonizing over impeccably produced sunshine pop. Along with producer Adam Schlesinger and an impressive array of guest songwriters, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith lovingly recreate that warm, jangly 1966 pop sound that proved they were more than a bunch of boob-tube Beatles. Schlesinger does an excellent job mixing his authentically retro-sounding sessions with unreleased vintage recordings of Davy Jones (who died of a heart attack in 2012) and old Dolenz pal Harry Nilsson. And while Dolenz handles most of the singing with admirable verve, it’s a joy to hear Nesmith, who sings with grace and transparency on two excellent ballads. At 73 years old, the green-hatted one remains a woefully underrated craftsman.

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10. Jamila Woods – HEAVN

Chance the Rapper had a massive 2016, his relentlessly positive Coloring Book mixtape resonating big time with a traumatized American populace. But to me, Chance’s frequent collaborator Jamila Woods was the one doing the lord’s work this year, radiating strength and self-worth in a society that is hell-bent on destroying it. HEAVN is one beautifully constructed ode after another – to resilience in the face of police brutality, to Lake Michigan, to her name – over gentle, rolling grooves that feel like they were warmed up on a windowsill. The Chicago native is a meditative singer along the lines of Erykah Badu, her voice a balm, exuding serene confidence without ever pretending there isn’t a reason to be afraid.

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9. Kvelertak – Nattesferd

A bearded warrior broods on a mountainside, his loyal space owl by his side, the moon a lingering witness in the early morning sky. One of the highest compliments you can give Kvelertak’s third album is it that its songs perfectly suit its objectively awesome album art. Nattesferd is extreme metal party music that grabs you by your filthy black t-shirt and demands you pay attention. It’s a group of focused Norwegian musicians worshipping the art of the riff as if Odin decreed it to be so. Chugging, triumphant arena rock, exhilarating 1000 mph thrash, reflective minor-chord balladry, sinister doom – it’s all here, and it’s all unbelievably catchy. Vocalist Erlend Hjelvik screeches like a possessed space owl all over everything, which could be a sticking point for some. To me, it’s downright painterly.

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8. Anderson Paak – Malibu

Throughout his sprawling second album, Anderson Paak intersperses interview clips of professional surfers, who discuss the dangers and sensory thrills of their sport. It’s an appropriate motif for the artist, who treats Malibu like one 62-minute wave, created when the current of 2016 hip hop meets the undertow of 1976 soul. And I’ll be damned if he ever loses his balance. Paak is an R&B singer first, but his masterful syncopation and raspy tone are more reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar than any crooner. He’s just as comfortable on an Isley Brothers jones as he is trading verses with Schoolboy Q. One of the surfers says it best: “I enjoy some of the old, and I enjoy the new, and if I can find a balance between it, that’s where I find my satisfaction.”

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7. Solange – A Seat at the Table

In a year that tried its hardest to crush our spirits, Solange Knowles made an album of crisply focused R&B that felt like the eye of a hurricane. Seat at the Table had been gestating for years, but it doesn’t sound remotely fussed over. The artist favors a less-is-more production aesthetic, putting kick, snare and keyboards together in ways that evaporate tension. She sprinkles in a series of compelling conversational interludes to accentuate the informal vibe, while deepening the record’s theme of irrepressible black pride. Whether she’s admitting to weariness, bristling at cultural appropriation, or explaining all the reasons she has to be mad, Solange does so with preternatural calm and emotional insight, like the moment of clarity that comes after a long, productive cry.

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6. David Bowie – Blackstar

David Bowie wasn’t one to sugarcoat. His most universally accessible work was about alienation and mortality. So it’s hard to imagine a more perfect coda to his career than Blackstar, released two days before his passing in January. Bowie sings of his impending demise with wit and honesty, over sumptuous, adventurous production. He casts a cadre of New York jazz musicians as his Titanic orchestra. And they wail furiously, until the pair of stunning ballads that close the record. The last song is called “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” its sweetly bending harmonica a direct callback to the Low track “A New Career in a New Town.” It’s one more glance over the shoulder before he ends his transmission to us all, leaving no doubt he gave us everything he could.

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5. Rihanna – Anti

Rihanna didn’t call her eighth album Anti as some sort of faux-punk Avril Lavigne pose. This is a truly remarkable example of a massive pop star pushing back hard against weighty commercial expectations. Her favored production style is a shadowy electronic murk – faint bass lines rumble under jittery drum machines and the whispered rumor of a keyboard. “Woo” is straight-up label-head-baiting, dissonant art rock, all squealing guitars and Auto-Tune howls. And it works, as does everything here, because of Rihanna’s voice, the beating heart of these compellingly cold environments. She’s always been an underrated vocalist, but on Anti, she’s living the notes, inhabiting the melodies. And it’s 100% why a risky late-album shift to straightforward R&B feels like a spine-tingling coup instead of a money grab. “Higher” is the best of the four excellent ballads that end the album – a raw, drunken plea with a great lyric about being too heartbroken to write great lyrics. When her voice frays on the chorus, I’ve been known to cry.

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4. William Tyler – Modern Country

There’s something about the way William Tyler plays guitar that makes you feel like everything’s gonna be OK. So this year, Modern Country was an absolute blessing. It’s an album of transportive, richly reverberating instrumentals, the kind of music that gets played in the background but refuses to stay there. Tyler is a Nashville native, and his bluegrass chops shine through in the gorgeous way he clusters notes together. His production instincts are open, warm, and never rushed, like a stroll in the country with someone you love. And his tone is pure honeysuckle. Lyrics would ruin this.

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3. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You For Your Service

The day after Donald Trump got elected on a wave of fake nostalgia, A Tribe Called Quest returned after 18 years to give us the real shit. On We Got It From Here, the group accomplishes the difficult task of appeasing nostalgic fans, and mourning one of its members, while never pandering to anyone. It’s full of the warm Rhodes chords, spacious jazz-fusion loops and glorious vocal syncopation of classic Tribe. But rapper/producer/visionary Q-Tip leads his crew down some fruitful new avenues as well, including an embrace of guitar sounds that encompasses distorted Jack White atmospherics and Can’s cold funk. Even more amazing is how great these MCs sound, with Tip and the late Phife Dawg effortlessly trading couplets like old times, and former hype man Jarobi delivering some of the year’s most purely enjoyable bars from out of nowhere. “It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever,” rap Tip and Phife together on the instant-classic opener. Even on November 9, it made me feel hopeful.

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2. Kamaiyah – A Good Night in the Ghetto

In 1992, Ice Cube illustrated how rough most days were in Compton by painting a vivid picture of a good one. Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape extends Cube’s party into the evening, with a collection of pristine, lowrider gangsta shit about how much better champagne tastes when you’ve been broke all your life. The Oakland MC is the definition of charisma on the mic, her flow easygoing, her rhymes both celebratory and reflective. “I shine so hard that you can’t ignore it,” she raps over the rubbery synth bass and vintage high-register keyboard runs of “Out the Bottle,” and it’s a goddamn fact. No album in 2016 was stacked with more hooks than A Good Night in the Ghetto, and Kamaiyah fills them with laid-back swagger that comes naturally to her, like a sigh of relief on payday. She’s like the protagonist on the cover – arms raised with a bag of chips in one hand and a bottle of Hennessy in the other, triumphant in her newfound belief that life is good.

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1. Frank Ocean – Blonde

Frank Ocean took a long time recording his follow up to 2012’s magnificent channelORANGE. And it seems like most of those four years were spent deconstructing. More often than not, Blonde is as stripped down as a folk song. Keyboards are abandoned. Guitars are stranded. His peerless voice goes unsupported as it seeks salvation through loneliness, attempting to transcend the temptations and limitations of fame. It’s passionate, therapeutic and heartbreaking all at once. On some level, Ocean must feel a connection with the haunted geniuses he references on Blonde – Elliott Smith, Karen Carpenter, Nirvana. That must be scary for him. But instead of burying that feeling and trying to recreate the work that made him famous, he has channeled it into something new, and complicated, and compelling in its flaws. Anything means more when he’s singing it. And here, he’s singing for his soul.

Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz – Daniel Son Necklace Don; Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid; Against Me! – Shape Shift With Me; ANOHNI – Hopelessness; The Avalanches – Wildflower; James Blake – The Colour In Anything; Bloodiest – Bloodiest; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree; De La Soul – And the Anonymous Nobody; Drake – Views; Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression; Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows; Kendrick Lamar – Untitled. Unmastered.; M.I.A. – AIM; Noname – Telefone; Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool; Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade; Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth; Survive – RR7349; Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere; Vektor – Terminal Redux; Young Thug – No, My Name Is Jeffery; Young Thug – Slime Season 3

The 2016 Songs of the Summer Megamix 2016

Is there anything better than crankin’ some rockin’ tunes while cruisin’? Break out your drivin’ gloves and coastin’ shades, cuz I’m about to press your boogie-woogie button with The 2016 Songs of the Summer Megamix 2016. Crank it loud. Crank it far. Crank it like a dude with a ‘tude who makes the squares unglued.

SWEENDOGG’S TRACK BREAKDOWN

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Kamaiyah – “Out the Bottle”
Combining syrupy ’90s gangsta with the lit bluntness of Mustardwave, this magnetic Bay Area rapper shows us why the self-confident have no need for stemware. The I-just-don’t-give-a-fuck anthem of the year.

 

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Anderson .Paak – “Come Down”
The year’s most ambitious R&B auteur contemplates a state of permanent highness over a crackling funk break from Hi-Tek.

 

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The Monkees – “You Bring the Summer”
This lilting highlight of the superb Monkees reunion disc Good Times! is brimming with love’s wide-eyed optimism, making a chips-and-dip picnic sound like a trip to Paris.

 

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Kvelertak – “1985”
A beer-swillingly addictive single from these Norwegian black metal heroes. Sounds like Van Halen fronted by a sandpaper-throated emissary from Satan.

 

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Lady Leshurr – “Queen’s Speech 4”
Personal hygiene has never sounded this hardcore.

 

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Charli XCX – “Vroom Vroom”
Full of audacious swagger and undeniable craftsmanship, this is the lavender Lamborghini of dance-pop hits.

 

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Sturgill Simpson – “Keep it Between the Lines”
Sturg goes full Stax on this groovy homage to fatherly advice, full of stabbing low-register horns and a loose falsetto refrain of “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

 

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2 Chainz ft. Lil Wayne – “Bounce”
Two rap vets going in like there’s nothing to lose.

 

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Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla Sign – “Work From Home”
When you’re in love, the worst part about being in the office during summer doesn’t involve what you could be doing outside.

 

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William Tyler – “Kingdom of Jones”
An offering to the sun god, in the form of an achingly beautiful country guitar instrumental.

 

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Kanye West ft. Chris Brown – “Waves”
Effervescent, soulful and hopeful, “Waves” feels like the old Kanye. In the thorny, paranoid sprawl of The Life of Pablo, it’s a striking breath of fresh air.

 

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Iggy Pop – “Chocolate Drops”
If you think your summer is going to shit, the indefatigable Iggy is here to remind you that you’re right around the corner from sweet relief.

 

The Top 20 Songs of 2013

Hello readers of words and listeners of sounds! Here are my 20 favorite tracks from the year that was. The common thread running through them all is that I thought they were good. Enjoy! (full playlist at the bottom)

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20. Prince – “Da Bourgeoisie”

On top of making us feel grateful for new Prince music, “Da Bourgeoisie” almost makes us believe that Sly Stone has finally made that triumphant comeback. On the juiciest riff of the year, the purple one teaches us that funk guitar is like a campfire – if you really want it to burn, you’ve gotta let it breathe.

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19. Danny Brown – “Dip”

Here’s a song about an MDMA bender, that sounds like an MDMA bender. A jittery, propulsive beat built on a distorted memory of Freak Nasty’s 1996 hit “Da Dip” sets the stage for the most addictive thing of all – Danny Brown’s tweaked-out yammer.

Jim James

18. Jim James – “A New Life”

On this sweet, triumphant ballad, Jim James doesn’t just sing the line “There’s more stardust when you’re near.” He pronounces the “t” in “stardust” with NPR-ready elocution. He believes in this stuff, and I’m right there with him.

   Action Bronson

17. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – “Pepe Lopez”

Pee Wee Herman will forever win the award for “Best ‘Tequila’ Appropriation.” But on this song, Action Bronson comes damn close.

Thundercat

16. Thundercat – “Oh Sheit It’s X”

2013 was a heck of a year for ecstasy songs apparently. This vivid, psychedelic synth-funk jam from bass virtuoso Thundercat is the blissed-out counterpoint to Danny Brown’s hyperactive horror story.

1 Train

15. A$AP Rocky (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.) – “1 Train”

Crew songs in rap are like double albums in rock – they’re usually bloated and unfocused, but the ones that work are all-time classics. And this is an example of the latter – with so many creatively peaking emcees one-upping each other over a haunting, string-laced beat, you never want “1 Train” to stop rolling.

Robin Thicke

14. Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell and T.I.) – “Blurred Lines”

Lifting its groove wholesale from Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” this juggernaut of a summer jam possessed just the right mix of sunny songcraft and dumb-ass confidence. Even though I heard it around 156,000 times this year, its “you know you want it” refrain always rang true.

Pistol Annies

13. Pistol Annies – “I Hope You’re The End Of My Story”

For anybody who’s ever been touched by a story like this.

Retrograde

12. James Blake – “Retrograde”

“Ignore everybody else/We’re alone now.” On a record full of bald romantic overtures, the chorus from “Retrograde” shimmers the brightest – as does its lilting melody, Blake’s catchiest yet.

Finnaticz

11. Finatticz – “Don’t Drop That (Thun Thun)”

And now for our next entry of Now That’s What I Call Songs About MDMA!: This insanely catchy slice of stripped-down ratchet, which tells us not to drop said drug while educating us on yet another slang term for it. With that chorus blasting, any other high would just seem redundant.

Kanye West

10. Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”

Seven notes, synth toms, hyperventilation, and the truth.

Chance The Rapper

9. Chance The Rapper – “Cocoa Butter Kisses”

When Chance talks about putting Visine in his eyes because his grandma wouldn’t hug him otherwise, this self-deprecating, nicotine-stained gospel singalong becomes the stuff of great storytelling.

Janelle Monae

8. Janelle Monae – “Dance Apocalyptic”

If Janelle Monae was on the Titanic, that sad-sack string quartet would’ve been jettisoned right quick, in favor some absurdly, deliriously addictive R&B.

Rhye

7. Rhye – “Open”

When delivered in the right way, few things are sexier than a plea. With “Open,” Rhye takes the opposite tact of, say, James Brown, but its languorous, whispered appeals feel just as deliciously desperate.

pusha_t_my_name_is_my_name

6. Pusha T – “Numbers On The Boards”

Push growls with the grizzled confidence of a junkyard dog, over a filthy-hot beat that sounds like a trash compacter on the fritz – giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “raw talent.”

Disclosure

5. Disclosure – “When A Fire Starts To Burn”

Take a snippet of molten-hot ranting from a guy who calls himself “The Hip Hop Preacher,” add a no-nonsense drum n’ bass groove, and you’ve got an eternal flame of a club jam.

M.I.A.

4. M.I.A. – “Come Walk With Me”

M.I.A. wrote the catchiest chorus of the year, and then pulverized it with an electronic air raid.

Drake

3. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”

The 1988 Marvin Gaye last call ballad that never was.

Kanye West

2. Kanye West – “Bound 2”

You’d think the last noise on Yeezus would be some kind of bloodcurdling scream. But it’s actually the reassuring coo of Brenda Lee’s voice, on a song that anchors a tempestuous album in the same way love anchors a man.

timthumb

1. Bill Callahan – “Small Plane”

Human flight is quite a feat, but Bill Callahan finds something else even more miraculous on this profound ode to love’s triumph over turbulence.

The Top 20 Albums of 2013

Dear readers,

Before we dive into yet another year-end rundown of music sounds that I deemed pleasurable, I wanted to say that this particular list was most likely influenced by events other than the physical media spinning on my Discman. This June, my wife and I realized a dream by moving to Maine, and the sudden proliferation of beauty and happiness made me more susceptible to messages about life being worthwhile and love being the most important thing. Am I seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, you ask? Well, I just jabbed a pen at my eye area to check, and nope! No glasses. So even though my retina is bleeding, if I had to pick one lyric I identify with from the albums on this list, it would be “I really am a lucky man.”

future20. Future – Future Presents F.B.G.: The Movie

Auto-Tune was invented to be a form of sonic retouching, a way to ensure pitch perfection for any vocalist. But if you’ve heard Cher’s “Believe,” or seen a cover of Vogue lately, you know that the more you hide flaws, the more you’re hiding signs of life. Which makes Future’s artistic identity all the more transgressive and intoxicating. The Atlanta rapper uses Auto-Tune not as a support system, but as a sparring partner, his voice rejecting its attempts to correct it, resulting in an entrancing, narcotic croak that frays and stutters like a YouTube video played over spotty Wi-Fi. So while FBG: The Movie suffers a bit from your typical rap crew mixtape bloat (it’s intended to be a showcase for Future’s Free Bands collective), it has Future delivering pretty much every chorus, sounding deliriously confident and dangerously vulnerable, all at the same time. Like last year’s Rick Ross tape Rich Forever, FBG: The Movie has so many classic, filthy-loud beats it almost feels unfair. But where Ross washed his kingpin tales in bright comic book colors, Future is a decidedly flawed superhero – a man masked in Auto-Tune, fighting for air.

The Electric Lady19. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

Sometimes an artist is too talented for their own good. They operate on a different plane than their audience, seeing things they couldn’t possibly see, and thereby creating things that are difficult for them to digest. Like sci-fi writer Frank Herbert, whose novel Dune is a breathtakingly intricate achievement of the human imagination, and also boring as shit. Then there’s sci-fi R&B singer Janelle Monae, whose artistic vision is painstakingly complete to a level of confusion. On her magnificent 2010 debut The ArchAndroid, the whole Blade Runner-ish concept didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it didn’t matter, thanks to stone cold grooves like “Tightrope.” It’s essentially more of the same on The Electric Lady, which means Monae gives us an album’s worth of monster jams (“Dance Apocalyptic” will make you do just that, for instance), but almost buries them in unnecessary world building. There’s enough greatness here to forgive these failed attempts at concept album transcendence, but here’s hoping her next record is all sandworm, and no sand.

Lousy With Sylvianbriar18. Of Montreal – Lousy With Sylvianbriar

If Kevin Barnes has made a bad record, I haven’t heard it. But it’s not for lack of trying. Over the course of a dozen albums, the driving creative force behind Of Montreal has taken his music in all kinds of questionable directions – he’s written the twee-est of bedroom folk songs, stacked harmonies like Phil Spector on acid, spilled his guts about a divorce over dance-pop beats, and then created a hedonistic alter ego to take that same approach into some seriously apeshit-sounding places. Lousy With Sylvianbriar represents his first major creative shift since that incredible divorce album (2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?) – convincingly appropriating 1970s country-rock vernacular, full of cheerful slide guitars, chiming mandolins and Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris-style duets. It should come as no surprise that it works; in fact, it’s the most focused collection of Barnes songs in years. Whether he’s burrowing in the pocket of a loose, Sticky Fingers-era Stones groove or cooing an Opry-ready ballad, Barnes sticks to the one thing that has been consistent throughout his crazy-ambitious career arc – dense, whimsical, unforgettable wordplay. Like this doozy: “The voice with the synapse that calls blood bats into action has now entered the tablelands.”

Push The Sky Away17. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

If anybody was worried that original guitarist and songwriter Mick Harvey’s exit from the Bad Seeds would be a death knell for Nick Cave’s most longstanding incarnation, the refrain from “Water’s Edge” should’ve quelled some nerves: “It’s the will of love/It’s the thrill of love/But the chill of love is comin’ down.” Lyrics don’t get much more Nick Cave-y than that, and Push The Sky Away, his 15th Bad Seeds record, is full of similar ruminations on romance and death and dark destinies coming to fruition by the seaside. It’s the band’s most beautiful work in this century, a collection of quietly ominous, pre-dawn ballads that are no less frightening for their prettiness. Perhaps Harvey could’ve convinced Cave to prune a lunkheaded line or two, or at least save them for Grinderman 3 (which is a thing that I’m just going to say is happening because IT NEEDS TO HAPPEN), especially the first couplet from the otherwise crushingly gorgeous “Mermaids.” But on the whole, this is a legacy-worthy installment, a deliciously restrained effort from a band that seemed due for an overreach.

Wakin On A Pretty Daze16. Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

In my best of 2011 list, I tried to explain why Kurt Vile’s lackadaisical brand of folk-rock is so damn compelling. The best I could do was the old cliché that “not trying makes you cool” (which, really? come on, self). Luckily, I don’t have to attempt it again this year, because on the warm, rolling dream that is Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile delivers a line that pretty much nails it – “Feeling bad in the best way a man can.” These are songs with narrators in need – of love, vindication, succor, direction in life, etc. Yet instead of wallowing, they’re more likely to step out into the sunshine, make a wisecrack and coast on the reverberating, 12-string acoustic waves. Songs like “Pure Pain,” “Shame Chamber” and “Too Hard” aren’t titled ironically, yet they’re streaked with hope, and anchored by Vile’s singing, which never rises above an “everything’s gonna be OK” kind of murmur. He’s singing about feelings that sting like freezing rain, if only because they make pretty days that much prettier.

Yoko Ono15. Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band – Take Me To The Land Of Hell

Yoko Ono’s music has a pretty entrenched reputation as the ultimate in avant garde art student bullshit. And while she’s done plenty of that sort of thing – much of it with a man who remains universally thought of as a genius – her actual sonic identity is much more nuanced, marked by hyperactive new wave freakouts, strikingly fragile balladry, and nostalgic 1930s-style romps that make you wonder if she’s been a closet McCartney fan all these years. Her latest album with Plastic Ono Band (which includes son and bandleader Sean Lennon, as well as guests like Questlove, Nels Cline and the surviving Beastie Boys) is a worthy addition to a musical legacy both aggressively offbeat and quirkily traditional. Yes, there are the stereotypical Ono shriek-outs, which make tracks like the opening rock/poetry slam pastiche “Moonbeams” sound off-the-rails dangerous, but there are also meditations on true love that would fit snugly on Double Fantasy (“There’s No Goodbye Between Us”) and a cheeky, cabaret-style kiss-off to an ex that’s as charming as music got in 2013 (“Leaving Tim”). Now an octogenarian, Yoko sounds as feisty and invested as ever – so much so that a trip to hell now feels like one unforgettably whacked-out kind of party.

The Next Day14. David Bowie – The Next Day

If somebody put a gun to my head and demanded I point out a weakness of David Bowie in his prime (which for my money began with 1971’s Hunky Dory and ended with 1977’s Heroes), I’d probably single out his singing voice. In reality, Bowie’s reedy quaver had an enchantingly alien quality that fit all the interstellar/dystopian subject material quite snugly, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful, and hey, this guy’s about to kill me here. And that makes the distinctive pleasure of Bowie’s 21st century material downright ironic – and an argument in favor of the artist being something more than human, like that all-knowing glow-being from The Abyss or something. Because on records like 2002’s Heathen and this year’s surprise release The Next Day, David Bowie’s singing is the number one reason to pay attention – his timbre more resonant, his phrasing more nuanced, his 66-year-old vocal chords responsible for some of the most solemnly pretty noise in rock and roll. The Next Day treads some familiar terrain for Bowie fans – elegant, gothic rock songs about fame, the apocalypse and space dancing – but this time around, our messenger traverses it with a deep, knowing croon, and that makes all the difference. His message used to be “hang onto yourself,” but now that the ride is almost over, he’d rather we sit back, relax, and accept the inevitable with a smile.

Modern Vampires13. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

Like Coldplay, Vampire Weekend is a band that invites an easy kind of hate – for starters, you’ve got the Graceland-aping trust fund ballads, upper crust New England hipster duds, and tween-friendly band name. But let’s pretend that their ’80s Afro-pop hooks weren’t discussed as if they were revolutionary, that they’re all children of Indianapolis schoolteachers, and that they’ve had a good band name this whole time (for the sake of this exercise, we’ll go with “Good Band Name”). And you’ve got a group that can craft a cheerful hook as effectively as anybody, who stuffed its first two albums with so many of them that it seemed unfair, and whose third release manages to work in some stunning mid-mid-life crisis poetry without skimping on the earworms. In this vacuum I’ve created, Modern Vampires Of The City (aka Good Band Name III) is a fantastic work of art, where singer/co-writer Ezra Koenig (aka Frank Stevens) tries to reconcile his faith in God, which is tough to do when he can’t even keep a relationship from falling apart during a cross-country trip. “Wisdom’s a gift/But you’d trade it for youth,” he sings during the lyrical encyclopedia that is “Step.” Considering how compelling his band has become since the days of “Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma,” I’m compelled to disagree.

Carcass12. Carcass – Surgical Steel

I suspect my relationship with death is like most Americans – it gives me a hazy, queasy feeling that I quickly distract myself from with the bounty of cheap food and endless entertainment at my disposal. So when an existential coward like me puts on a record like Surgical Steel, he feels a crazed, drooling kind of glee – here’s a group of middle-aged British guys who channel their death obsession into 52 minutes of relentless, chest cavity-collapsing thrash. This is Carcass’ first record since breaking up in 1996, and it’s (ironically) a stunning rebirth, with Jeff Walker’s mostly unintelligible, coked-up-harpy vocals doing god knows what kind of damage to his throat over Dan Wilding’s firebomb drumming, the guitar parts containing just enough catchy Iron Maiden interplay to make beautiful sense of the chaos. And when you listen closely enough to make out a line or two, chances are it’s worth the effort (e.g. “A working class hero is something to bleed.”). Metal has always been a refuge for the insecure, but discovering a Carcass with this much life in it makes me especially, screamingly grateful for every drop of blood I’ve got.

Pusha T11. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name

Even for a genre where boasting is like breathing, 2013 was an especially egomaniacal year in hip hop – whether it was thrillingly unstable, moody and defensive, reeking of flop sweat, or recorded while waiting for the yacht cable guy. But nobody explored the depths of their own awesomeness with the level of measured cool achieved by Pusha T, whose first official solo record completely delivers on the audacious yet matter-of-fact confidence of its title. It’s a feat even more impressive when you consider the pressure to perform – years into his solo career after the demise of Clipse, Pusha T had put out a mixtape and an EP, and landed some prominent guest verses, but hadn’t really proven he could carry a record. While hip hop is friendlier to its elder statesmen than it used to be, a bust from Push here would’ve been a killer. Not that he sounds concerned in the least over the raw industrial clatter of “Numbers On the Boards,” where he lays claim to “36 years of doin’ dirt like it’s Earth Day,” his gruff, laconic flow selling the hardest beat of the year, illustrating the grime and glory of the drug game in a way that’s both romantic and weathered from experience. Even with the murderer’s row of talent producing him (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, etc.) and a top-form guest spot from the seemingly unstoppable Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T dominates with a steady hand, like the lone survivor in a deal gone wrong.

Matangi10. M.I.A. – Matangi

It’s always been tough to accept the plight of the wealthy celebrity – “heavy lies the crown” makes more sense when applied to presidents than, say, Super Bowl halftime show performers. But ever since making an indelible, kaleidoscopic imprint on the world of popular music with her 2007 album Kala, M.I.A. has been in active rebellion against the idea of being a pop star, and it has been as compelling as any artistic evolution this millennium. On Matangi, her fourth record, the English/Sri Lankan singer, rapper, songwriter and noise wrangler remains in distress about her position of influence, exhorting her listeners to both dance and revolt over squalls of mechanized drumming. And while no song avoids these thrilling, dissonant bursts, M.I.A. does gives those pop sensibilities more room to breathe than she did on her last record, 2011’s cold, tangled, underrated Maya. Sensibilities that are most evident on “Come Walk With Me,” which pairs a sunny, it-takes-two philosophy with an endlessly hummable chorus, giving us enough time to appreciate those incomparable summer jam chops before the sledgehammer drums shatter our reverie. The crown remains heavy, but M.I.A. has come up with a surefire way to deal with it – make sure her records are even heavier.

Muchacho9. Phosphorescent – Muchacho

Matthew Houck’s albums have always been delicate affairs, perfect for the emotional rollercoaster one goes through while nursing a hangover – confusion, regret, inexplicable elation, then regret again. So it’s quite fitting that his sixth album as Phosphorescent was inspired by a recent lonely, heartsick period in Mexico, where an exhausted Houck mourned the loss of his NYC studio (which had to be moved thanks to re-zoning) and the demise of a relationship. But this time around, the singer/songwriter is just as interested in the party that happens before the pity-party, resulting in the most robust production of his career – in between the fragile, spiritual beauty of the record’s sunrise/sunset bookends, Muchacho contains pedal-steel swathed country strolls, a ragged, swirling Neil Young-ish opus, and 1980s adult contemporary synths. Like all Phosphorescent records, it’s all threaded together by the distinctly earnest, about-to-crack nature of Houck’s voice, which can make a line like “I’ll fix myself up, to come and be with you” sound like the rawest, most solemn promise.

Blue Chips8. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Blue Chips 2

Apparently Action Bronson has been recording his major label debut for Atlantic Records. Here’s hoping they’re saving as much of the budget as possible for sample clearance. Because this mixtape, a sequel to last year’s stellar Blue Chips, contains what is possibly the most entertaining melange of looped pop hits this side of Paul’s Boutique – after Blue Chips 2, any record that doesn’t give Bronsolino at least one ironically applied oldie or ’80s smash to spit over will feel like a disappointment. Not to make BC2 sound like a gimmick, because it’s not. (It doesn’t work because it samples “Sledgehammer,” it works because it has Action Bronson opining, “Uhhh … fly shit … grown man shit” over a sample of “Sledgehammer.”) Like the first Blue Chips, this tape features plenty of RZA-like, scratchy soul loops to back up verses loaded with references to food, sex and 1990s athletes (Nick Van Exel, take a bow). But the whole thing is just more fun this time around, what with the snippets of Applebee’s commercials and beats born from “Tequila” and Tracy Chapman’s “Gimme One Reason.” Few rappers are feeling it like Action Bronson these days, and BC2 is the perfect platform for his magnificent, tongue-in-cheek shit talk.

Neko Case7. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case is sick and tired of your expectations. “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?” she asks on “Night Still Comes,” one of many tracks on her stunning sixth album that discover freedom through fatalistic directness. The singer/songwriter has never sounded this fed up – with crummy parents, dumb-ass lovers and those pesky illustrated lampreys – and her scalding sarcasm turns the lovely, warm bath of a typical Case production into a complex, simmering stew. Gone are the love-as-tornado metaphors, replaced by the rallying cries of the defiantly heartbroken – “You didn’t know what a man was/Until I showed you,” she belts triumphantly over the sensational gallop of “Man.” All this vitriol does not change the fact that The Worse Things Get is a joy to listen to on the level of Case’s two previous masterworks (2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood and 2009’s Middle Cyclone). From ghostly a cappella breaks to burbling baritone-sax arrangements, quiet acoustic reflections to finger-wagging girl group choruses, this is as ambitious and assured as Case has ever sounded. On the record’s opening song, she asks herself if she’d rather be a king or a king’s pet. Hearing the absolute power she wields in the studio, you can guess which one she chooses.

Rhye6. Rhye – Woman

R&B is generally viewed as the sexiest genre of music, the go-to soundtrack for doing stuff on bearskin rugs by the fire and the like. And while there’s great R&B that embraces such corny clichés (see Kelly, R.), I think that for the most part, this stuff is at its most sensual when it’s about more than just sex. Enter Rhye, an L.A. duo whose immaculate quiet storm of a debut album is full of excellent pick-up lines, but delivers them with the sweetness and vulnerability of a heat-of-the-moment “I love you.” It’s the same delicate emotional balance that defined Sade at her peak – and listening to how Woman weaves blankets of synthesizers for lead singer Milosh to tuck us in with, there’s no doubt that Rhye is more than just influenced by the queen of slow-burning romance. This album is a tribute to her. So for those of us who find tenderness to be erotic, these guys were the smoothest operators of 2013.

Overgrown5. James Blake – Overgrown

When artists say they don’t really care about attention or awards, it’s usually a lie they’re not even trying that hard to sell. But on the title track of James Blake’s hypnotic second album, his pleas for constancy over frivolity are either totally sincere, or the product of a magnificent fibber: “I don’t wanna be a star/But a stone on the shore/A lone door frame in the wall/When everything’s overgrown.” I can’t help but take him at his word, because Overgrown itself is an argument for the beauty of things that last, a collection of simple mantras about what truly matters woven through a wintry forest of lulling, whispering electronica. Blake has created a consistently entrancing experience akin to his devastating 2011 debut, continuing to draw no lines between moments of transcendence and pain. But there’s a lot more of the former this time around, thanks to a handful of love songs that are as profoundly spartan as a blue collar engagement ring – “To the last/You and I,” he croons, leaving the flowery language to those who crave stardom above all.

Nothing Was The Same4. Drake – Nothing Was The Same

The most compelling thing about Drake is the way he has his cake and eats it too – crafting verses that are drenched in both bravado and insecurity, making references to his days as a child star while also saying he started from the bottom, making music that’s muted and moody, yet somehow perfectly calibrated for the pop charts. These dichotomies could be infuriating in lesser hands – and on lesser Drake albums – but on Nothing Was The Same, the artist’s vision is so thoroughly realized, his collective strengths, weaknesses, priorities and fears make for a story as seamless as its exquisitely sequenced tracks. If the arc of his tortured millionaire persona is a put-on, it’s a fantastically executed one, because on NWTS, the cognac-for-one romantic despair of Drake’s previous work evolves into a grander fear of the other shoe dropping. The more money he makes (which, according to his verse on “All Me,” is so much he’s forgotten the amount), the more he feels like it can’t last. So much of the record finds the rapper revisiting the fantasies of his 1990s childhood, creating a two-song sequence based on Wu-Tang Clan’s most magnanimous single, making Fresh Prince of Bel Air references, comparing his earning potential to Dan Marino’s in his prime. These would seem to be the only things this prodigy-turned-superstar can take comfort in, if it weren’t for all those sumptuous, late-night-neon grooves.

Yeezus3. Kanye West – Yeezus

A casual scan of a Kanye West lyric sheet or Twitter feed will make it clear that this is a man who loves fashion. So he’s probably familiar with Coco Chanel’s famous adage, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” For his album Yeezus, West looked in the mirror and removed almost everything, stripping his ornate production style down to the most visceral noises, accessorizing them only with his rampaging id, intense ego, and super-intense superego. If it’s not his best record, it’s certainly his most exhilarating, and shamelessly human. West, who co-produced Yeezus with an aging Snarf, uses his own gasps for breath as a percussion instrument and features a hysterical scream like it’s a guitar solo. He twists Justin Vernon’s lullaby tenor into something slimy and subterranean. When looking for a metaphor for his song about divorce, he goes with Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit.” It’s a flailing, agonizing, extraordinary experience from an artist whose refusal to be tagged and classified might come off awkwardly on talk shows, but burns bright as diamonds in his art.

Dream River2. Bill Callahan – Dream River

Two years after releasing an album called Apocalypse, Bill Callahan resurfaced in 2013 with the most life-affirming record of the year. Dream River begins with Callahan in full story-song cowboy mode, sitting alone in a hotel bar. But instead of brooding about stuff like how every flower turns to hay, he relishes in the simple joy of a three-word vocabulary (“Beer” and “thank you”), appreciating everyone in the room, just because they exist. From an artist who has tended to espouse a worldview where even the silver linings are tarnished, this is an unexpected, enlightening surprise, like encountering a Larry McMurtry character in a Cormac McCarthy novel. And just when you start to ask why, track two starts playing, and you realize he’s in love. “You looked like worldwide Armageddon while you slept,” Callahan sings in his rich, whiskey-barrel basso. “You looked so peaceful, you scared me.” Fear of losing one’s full happiness is right there in that voice. Fear, and awe, and gratitude. Dream River overflows with moments like these – a cycle of eight songs that represent a metaphysical moment of clarity. Bill Callahan might look at life as one arcing flight through the air, but he’s made an album about the times before you land in which you truly feel weightless.

Chance The Rapper1. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap

Smoking cigarettes doesn’t quite have the cultural cache that it used to – these days, kids need an especially potent sense of mischief, rebellion and self-loathing to get hooked. It’s this precise emotional cocktail that fuels Chance The Rapper on Acid Rap, where he gives a fascinating, charismatic performance that puts him on the short list of young artists who seem primed to leave their fingerprints all over the ’10s. The 20-year-old Chicagoan spent his formative years ingesting Kanye West’s college trilogy and Lil Wayne’s mixtape revolution, and he soaks his second tape in the balmy soul samples of the former, and the effortlessly hilarious, cough-addled wordplay of the latter. But Acid Rap is about way more than influences. Chance has his own fully formed persona here, a laughing-and-pointing playground pest whose vulnerability is clearly visible between all the “nyeah nyeah, nyeah-nyeah-nyeahs.” He litters his verses with a mischievous, nasal quack, which logic dictates should be annoying, but instead is as playful and essential as a Kanye “Haaah!” “Cigarettes, oh cigarettes/My mama think I stink/I got burn holes in my hoodies/All my homies think it’s dank,” Chance sings over the trembling church organ of “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” making fun of himself while making us root for him at the same time. I’m addicted, and not just because it makes me look cool.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Atoms For Peace – Amok; Danny Brown – Old; Cakes Da Killa – The Eulogy; Disclosure – Settle; The Flaming Lips – The Terror; Jim James – Regions Of Light And Sound Of God; Paul McCartney – New; Queens of the Stone Age – … Like Clockwork; Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels; Ty Segall – Sleeper; She & Him – Volume Three; Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed; Shugo Tokumaru – In Focus?; Tree – Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out; Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt

The Top 20 Tracks of 2012

cat listening to music-thumb-238x317-369715

I listened to enough songs this year to choke a horse. And while digging through the bloated horse corpse that I like to call 2012, I found 20 of them that I especially liked.

20. Kanye West (Ft. DJ Khaled) – “Cold”

Over computer blips and orchestra hits, ‘Ye infuses his verses with that on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown passion we know and love, including a PETA-baiting line on the chorus that’s one for the ages.

19. Psy – “Gangnam Style”

There’s a moment in “Gangnam Style” where the music cuts out, and for just a second, Psy waits before delivering the chorus. The anticipation we all feel right then, in spite of ourselves? That explains how pop music can take over the world.

18. The Beach Boys – “Summer’s Gone”

Mike Love has done more than enough to deserve the claim of “the biggest asshole in rock history.” But there could be a silver lining to his latest dick move, because if the Beach Boys never record together again, their final musical statement will be this gorgeous, mortality-laden track. “Summer’s gone/It’s finally sinking in,” Brian Wilson croons over a sea of swooning strings, echoey woodblocks, and artfully stacked harmonies – taking our breath away one last time before the leaves turn.

17. Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built”

Japandroids pull off quite a trick here, putting inspirational poster sentiments and stadium-ready riffage in a blender, and churning out a fist-pumping rock anthem for the downtrodden. No guitar could be loud enough to drown out its big, bloody, beating heart.

16. Dirty Projectors – “Impregnable Question”

The newly found, homespun sweetness of Dirty Projectors latest work is summed up in this chorus: “I need you/And you’re always on my mind.”

15. Ty Segall – “There Is No Tomorrow”

After a year spent pounding our eardrums like Tiny Keith Moon™, Ty Segall closed out his last of three records with this, a supremely catchy fuzzbox ballad that could be a lost Plastic Ono Band demo.

14. Frank Ocean – “Forrest Gump”

Over a smooth, Isley Brothers groove, Frank Ocean took a piece of pop culture I revile and transformed it into one of the sweetest romantic sentiments of the year: “You running on my mind, boy.”

13. Killer Mike – “Southern Fried”

The ultimate song to drive to in 2012, “Southern Fried” is quintessential Killer Mike, full of towering swagger, scythe-sharp wit, and a flow so commanding, it makes you feel like your 2005 Honda Civic is indeed your “meanest machine.”

12. Bob Dylan – “Soon After Midnight”

“I’m searching for phrases/To sing your praises.” How great is it that this, the most romantic opening line I heard this year, came from a grizzled old goat like Bob Dylan? And it doesn’t hurt that what follows is a total stunner of a country & western ballad, one of the prettiest tunes of the legend’s third act renaissance.

11. Angel Haze – “Werkin’ Girls”

With little more than a basic beat behind her, this brilliant, up-and-coming Brooklynite makes you stop whatever you’re doing and pay attention. An ode to females gettin’ cheddar, “Werkin’ Girls” doesn’t just break the glass ceiling – it crushes it back down to the sand from whence it came.

10. Usher – “Twisted”

Over a Pharrell Williams beat that radiates classic soul sunshine, Usher reboots Chubby Checker in the guise of a possessive man whose woman just refuses to play it straight. A summer jam if there ever was one.

9. Tenacious D – “Roadie”

Mythologizing the concert roadie as the heroic warrior who never gets knighted, The D pairs skillfully melodramatic wordplay with soaring melodies. In between belly laughs, there lies the urge to sing along as loudly as can be.

8. Trey Songz – “2 Reasons”

I’m just finishing up David McCullough’s massive 1992 biography of Harry Truman, a plain-spoken man who had to fill the shoes of the far more eloquent FDR. I think that if Truman were alive today, he’d enjoy “2 Reasons,” at least on principle. Because when Trey Songz outlines, in no uncertain terms, the pair of reasons why he came to the club, he’s as straightforward as a Missouri farmer.

7. Nicki Minaj – “I Am Your Leader”

It’s too bad that Nicki Minaj albums remain nothing more than places to corral her singles, but damn, there’s nothing quite like those singles. “I Am Your Leader” was the best of several good ones this year, awash in Minaj’s masterful mic control and silly sense of humor, an example of the artist at her unpolished best. And Cam’ron’s hysterical cameo gets my vote for best guest verse of 2012.

6. Randy Newman – “I’m Dreaming”

No matter how many Pixar movies he scores, Randy Newman will always be one bitter son of a bitch. And “I’m Dreaming” – a piece of right-wing election year satire just begging to be misunderstood, a la 2004’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” – is as beautifully, caustically sarcastic as the guy has ever been.

5. Screaming Females – “Doom 84”

Very few guitar riffs can sound fresh after seven minutes of jamming. “Doom 84” has two of them, and Marissa Paternoster wields them like fiery broadswords, breaking down our natural inclination to refrain from banging our heads, caring not that our necks will be sore.

4. Mystikal – “Hit Me”

James Brown’s influence on hip hop can’t be overstated. But it’s never been so apparent as it is in this song, in which Mystikal appropriates Brown’s energy, rhythms and vernacular in pursuit of his own, Dirty South-ified version of “Star Time.” It’s an instant party, a blast of adrenaline, and a showcase for the emcee’s irresistible, raspy exuberance.

3. Frank Ocean – “Bad Religion”

A soul-searching confession, a tale not only of unrequited love, but of potentially unrequited moral fiber, “Bad Religion” is a jaw dropper. Ocean sings his open vein of a lyric sheet with a power that only comes from autobiography, that one squealed high note a window to his vulnerability. Art rarely gets this real.

2. Kendrick Lamar – “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst”

My grandfather passed away a few months ago, right around the time Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City album was released. Which left me in a state of mind to be floored by this song, a 12-minute existential epic about how human beings long to be remembered after they’re gone. They say that once you put something on the Internet, you can never truly erase it, so maybe these words about Thomas M. Sweeney, Sr., will indeed live forever: He was a good, humble man, who worked hard, loved his wife, and never had a negative thing to say to me. I miss him.

1. Miguel – “Adorn”

As devastatingly sexy a pop song as its clear influence, “Sexual Healing,” “Adorn” swoons in lady worship, Miguel’s voice gliding over the synths and drum machines, confident in its innate silkiness, like something beautiful that just happens naturally. Like love.

Top 20 Tracks of 2011

It’s funny that in a year where we received a deluxe reissue of Nevermind, so few traditional rock bands truly mattered. Sixteen of 20 spots on this list belong to a solo artist, all of whom contributed to 2011’s varied and ambitious musical landscape (and one of whom sang about Solo cups).

20. Eddie Vedder – “Sleeping By Myself”

As much as I loved Pearl Jam in 1992, boy was it easy to make fun of Eddie Vedder’s hysterical mumbles. But this Ukulele Songs standout showcases a voice that’s aged well, embodying the sweet ache of unrequited love without a hint of histrionics.

19. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”

Love has been compared to pretty much everything in Mother Nature. But on “I Follow Rivers,” Lykke Li manages to breathe life into another water metaphor. When she sings “You’re my river running high/Running deep, run wild,” over a murk of B3 organ and clanky synth toms, it’s the sound of someone trusting a potentially dangerous current, because to do so is to be alive.

18. Tech N9ne – “He’s A Mental Giant”

It was a year of wasted potential for Tech N9ne. All 6s and 7s had some highlights, but was overlong. His buzzsaw of a guest spot was wasted on Lil Wayne’s underwhelming Tha Carter IV. But this track’s rumbling swagger cut through the clutter as well as anything in 2011, positioning this brilliant, tongue-twisting MC as the brainiac superhero we need to protect us from whatever the Black Eyed Peas plan to do next.

17. Beyoncé – “1+1”

Few artists have captured feelings of dumbstruck yearning like Sam Cooke did with “Wonderful World.” Which makes this Cooke-inspired, octave-leaping gem of a ballad all the more impressive. Our problems might be bigger these days, but one math problem still trumps them all.

16. Tom Waits – “Get Lost”

Tom Waits is old enough to be a grandpa, but he steps into the shoes of a sexy young hood on “Get Lost,” tossing off exquisitely penned pleas for elopement with a trembling, psycho-Elvis warble. Toss in that filthy blues groove, and you’re reaching for the passenger door.

15. Nick Lowe – “Stoplight Roses”

This song nails that moment when you know you’ve fucked up a beautiful thing, and for good this time. Utilizing a killer metaphor for something that will never last, “Stoplight Roses” goes out to everyone who didn’t miss their water until the well ran dry.

14. Beastie Boys – “Make Some Noise”

It’s been a long time since we heard a single like this from the Beasties, a hooky slab of fuzzbox funk and freewheeling rhymes that’s just messy enough to be dangerous.

13. Bill Callahan – “America!”

On this stilted blues-folk epic, Bill Callahan shows love for his homeland by attempting to soothe its damaged psyche, with comedy and drama, self-loathing and bruised patriotism. When he bellows, “Everyone’s allowed a past/They don’t care to mention,” you best remove your hat, out of respect.

12. Coldplay – “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”

This is the perfect title for a Coldplay song. A phrase so brazenly gag-inducing, you end up respecting the sensitive-guy cojones required to actually use it. Then there’s the insistent kick drum, that beautiful Jonny Buckland guitar hook, and lyrics about the power of music to transport. Sure, you might’ve just puked, but wouldn’t you know it, you feel better.

11. Dominique Young Unique – “Gangster Whips”

Few rappers these days have the energy of this 19-year-old Tampa MC, who makes it indubitably clear that she’s the shit, and that those who disagree can go take one. On “Gangster Whips,” DYU gets all thug romantic over a tremendous, orchestra-hit-heavy beat – sorry T.I., but this is swagger at its best.

10. Heidecker & Wood – “Christmas Suite”

Nothing laid to tape in 2011 was funnier than Starting From Nowhere, the subtly ridiculous yacht-rock album from Adult Swim vets Tim Heidecker and Davin Wood. And “Christmas Suite” is Nowhere’s coup de grace – eight minutes of proselytizing about the importance of “the children.”

9. Brad Paisley – “Toothbrush”

The sweetest love song of the year might’ve looked like a reach on paper (as well as an ad for Reach). But this romance-via-dental-hygiene country shuffle is irresistible, thanks to Brad Paisley’s economy with words, those bouncy guitar licks, and a twist in the third verse that’ll get your waterworks flowing.

8. Beyonce – “Countdown”

This is a jam that grabs you by the ears and doesn’t let go. Beyoncé sings her guts out about her hubby (whom she grinds up on whilst in his boo coupe) and their baby to come, making for a cut that’s simultaneously wholesome and narcotic, 3-2-1 Contact chorus and all.

7. Kurt Vile – “Baby’s Arms”

If you’ve ever loved someone to a borderline sociopathic level, this hazy folk masterpiece is your soundtrack. “I get sick of just about everyone,” Kurt Vile admits, positioning the warmth of his love’s embrace as not only a comfort, but a refuge.

6. Jay-Z & Kanye West – “Otis”

The “golden age” of rap music ended around the same time sampling laws started to be enforced. And this exhilarating single would have us believe that’s no coincidence. Over a brilliant interpolation of “Try A Little Tenderness,” Jay and ‘Ye have the time of their lives.

5. Toby Keith – “Red Solo Cup”

We all know Toby Keith the jingoistic rabble-rouser, but he’s actually more of a goofball Parrothead. And “Red Solo Cup” is more clever by half than anything Jimmy Buffett ever did. An ode to everyone’s favorite keg party drinking vessel, this back porch singalong is catchy, unpretentious, and – when Keith confesses that the cup is his friend – downright hilarious.

4. Nas – “Nasty”

The knock against Nas is that he’s inconsistent. But damn, do his flashes of brilliance burn bright. “Nasty” has no chorus, no guests, and no mainstream ambitions. It’s just Nas, spitting three glorious, amphetamine verses over a skeletal breakbeat. When he lists the places he’s stashed his cash, it’s clear he’s worth every penny.

3. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream”

The Wilhelm Scream is a stock 1950s sound effect that’s appeared in countless Hollywood battle scenes, from Star Wars to Captain America. And it’s an ingenious title for James Blake’s icy cover of his father’s song “Where To Turn.” “All that I know is/I’m falling,” Blake sings, describing those moments when we feel like stunt men – silent, non-descript, and floating in space.

2. Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass”

It was no contest – this was the song of summer 2011. With masterfully syncopated verses from one of the most creative rappers around, soaring, shiny synth hooks, and an infectious onomatopoeia (“boom-ba doop boop, boom-ba doom boop, yeah!”), the louder you crank “Super Bass,” the more your worries fade.

1. Adele – “Rolling In The Deep”

“You had my heart inside of your hand/And you played it to the beat,” lamented 2011’s biggest rock star. It’s a great line, but what made “Rolling In The Deep” such a triumph was its organic groove – that thumping bass drum pulse belying all those lyrics about betrayal, making us stronger with every downbeat.