Nobody likes you when you're 2016, as Blink-182 might have put it. But this lemon of a year had a bounty of great songs. These are my 25 favorites of 2016 (though some gems are over on my albums list, to avoid duplicating all the same artists). Including, but not limited to: hits, obscurities, guitar monsters, pop twirlers, rap Beatlemaniacs, soul shakers, punk blurts, and karaoke room-clearers. And the Monkees, obviously.
The Starman signs off with one last transmission – one of his most majestic and haunting songs ever. "I Can't Give Everything Away" isn't really about keeping secrets, although of course he was hiding his illness, but a song about how strange it feels to have so much emotion left in him. This guy doesn't want to die yet, not when he still has music to make and love to share. And harmonica solos to play – I've never counted how many harmonica solos Bowie plays on record, but the last one I can think of is "A New Career in a New Town," from Low, nearly 40 years earlier. Bowie wants to give it all away, to settle his accounts, to leave everything he has on tape and make sure none of it goes to waste; he's both shocked and amused by the fact that he can't. So he'll show himself out, but first, one more harmonica solo. No fear in this song, no regrets – just sheer excitement about being alive right now.
Bey-dolatry reached new heights in 2016: It's hard to imagine any other pop star in history needing to make an official disclaimer onstage every night that she isn't God, without meaning it as a joke. But "Sorry" epitomizes why the theological debate rages on: a blast of dust-to-fuckboys aggro, ripping through shrouds of loneliness and inviting the world to suck her balls. Middle fingers up, forever.
The year's most reliable "today sucked until I put this song on" song. The indie dudes in Lvl Up emote about how it burns to hate the people who've left scars on the ones you love, closing out with a heartfelt freak scene of a guitar solo. This song messes me up, but it always makes the rest of the day feel different, which is all you can ask a song to do.
Staples grabs your attention right from the opening line: "I load the .44, then paint the Van Gogh." When he flips out on a death trip, his real-life childhood friend Kilo Kish clears her throat to say, "It's OK – hey, Vince, it's me," and talks him down. She's the angel voice of reason in his dangerous brain – like she tells him, "Keep breathing slowly, slowly."
A deep-soul ballad where Solange can't escape her melancholy, yet Raphael Saadiq's bass gives her the courage to push on to the next line.
The glitter-punk duo sing about growing up as that queer kid who looks out the window and doesn't see any place to belong. Pwr Bttm dropped this just a few weeks after Orlando, which added resonance to the hook "My skin isn't made for the weather" – a song about the courage of stepping outside.
"My sister used to sing to Whitney/My mama caught the gambling bug" – Anderson Paak sings about tough childhood memories, yet he's buoyed up by the Seventies R&B groove, right down to the soulful "mmmm!" he uses to punctuate the lines.
So many great moments on Blonde, but this is the one that skewers me. Halfway through the song, Ocean drops the eerie synthed-up falsetto disguise and risks coming on like a vulnerable human, breathing in pheromones and rain and glitter. You can hear him find his voice
Money, hoes and clothes, all a Beatle knows. I love how this crowd-pleaser gets the flex zone of the Fabs so bizarrely yet beautifully right – a utopian rap party where everybody's rich, everybody's high, everybody's famous. It's a hit that forces you to sing along even if you have to keep making up new verses ("That girl she's a real crowd-pleaser/Hold you in her armchair you can feel her diseases") to up the Beatle ante ("A broke ho can only point me to a rich ho/She came in through the bathroom window/Like Chapo serving yayo to the gringo/You a Pete Best bitch, she a Ringo"). After all, the Beatles wrote "Can't Buy Me Love" in the haze of a nine-day orgy with Miami's finest groupies – as Paul McCartney said, "It should have been 'Can Buy Me Love,' actually." So no wonder Paul loves this song as much as the rest of us do.
A grand country-roads ballad: Mike Nesmith flexes the weathered Texas twang in his voice, while Micky Dolenz adds the harmonies. Only a true fan could have written a song this perfect for Papa Nez and crew – in this case, Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard. The Monkees sound like they've waited years for this moment – and they're not the only ones.
Rihanna's lifetime total of fucks given remains zero – in fact, "Needed Me" might push it down into negative numbers. "Trying to fix your inner issues with a bad bitch" – ouch. "Needed Me" is the coldest of cold, the hardest of hard, the most fabulously merciless Rihanna has ever sounded on wax.
Thugger's salute to Rihanna flips her hit "Work" – but it's really about him, as he buries the thug persona and reclaims his government name. His Jeffery mixtape is full of diary entries disguised as fan letters, named after his idols: "Wyclef Jean," "Gucci Mane," "Harambe." But "RiRi" is the funniest and realest, as he throws himself into his seal-bark mutations of "work work" and "earn earn earn it," as if Jeffery Williams can only discover his true self by pretending he's Rihanna. He craves a vicarious glimmer of Ms. Fenty's diva self-esteem – like all of us, right? Thug's just trying to fix his inner issues with a bad bitch, striking his RiRi pose the same way he models that blue dress on the cover.
Hyper-verbal rock & roll goddesses, in just one of the highlights from their excellent Jurassic Punk cassette. They share a tragic tale of all the dreadlocked bongo-playing loser dudes they've dated, including the type who leave to work on eco-friendly kale farms: "He dug my heart out with a spade and then he dragged me through the dirt/I hope he's found enlightenment in his designer yurt." You probably think this song is about you.
"You were always perfect and I was only practice" is a tiny little heartbreaker of a line, but it pushes this piano loop to gargantuan emotional levels
This sorely underappreciated single might seem like a dippy song about humping a stripper pole, but it's so much more – it's Britney's Black Mirror, maybe also her Westworld. She thinks she's sharing an intimate lapdance moment with her guy, begging him to close the curtains – until she notices there's an audience eyeballing her. For Britney, that's life as she knows it. (Brit's exegesis: "'Private Show' is inevitably a sexy song and it promotes feeling sexy and girls feeling alive and I think that's fun for girls.") The fact that the single really was a private show – i.e. nobody bought it or even noticed it came out – just adds to the mise en scene.
An out-and-proud lesbian MC from Brooklyn scores a Top Ten smash about being a bully and a boss, smoking loud, respecting the bro code and asking why your girl keeps sexting her. Bow down!
A sad indie girl tells the story of her life, which amounts to "I'm trying to be fine but I lied." There's something piercing in Emily Sprague's flat voice as she says, "Think of me by the creek in cut-off jeans, holding on to something that has meaning to me." The guitar goes for that Nico Chelsea Girls sound. A song that tries hard to be petite and eloquent and delicate, but ends up making a mess of itself, which is why I relate.
The Philly rap challenger offers a thug's guide to social media – he'll go prowling for groupies on Instagram, but Snapchat? Never that: "I think it's too personal/That's what I got Twitter for."
England's Newest Hitmakers should treat themselves to a three-day full-immersion blues-covers shindig every year from now on – for Mick Jagger, this may be the most fun Mr. I'm the Bleeding Volcano has allowed himself to have in public since he went forehead-to-forehead with Bowie in the "Dancing in the Streets" video, while Charlie Watts lets it bleed.
If you are ever unlucky enough to get trapped in a karaoke bar when I grab hold of this song, you will definitely wish you were work-work-working from home, and so will the bartender. Apologies in advance.
The Texas gal blew up into one of 2016's brightest Nashville upstarts, with a foul-mouthed chant for all the country girls at the bar who get so cry they can't stop drunking
My favorite scene in the Mike Love autobiography is when he goes deep on his creative process during the composition of "California Girls." "So I wrote, 'The East Coast girls are cool.' No. 'The East Coast girls are sharp.' Not quite. Then: 'Well, East Coast girls are hip.'" Eureka! I think DNCE put similar cerebral ministrations into this beach-blanket hit, where the Joest of Bros writes a song that's basically a Weird Al parody of itself.
When the going gets weird, the weird go Nineties. Slow-jam perfection, so saturated in old-school R&B it should have a line about a two-way pager.
Alison Wolfe (of the O.G. riot grrrl band Bratmobile) and her fabulously named new band throw postpunk disco shade all over L.A. Good question: "Can't keep a rubber on your lame-ass dick/So why you gotta make all the bad girls sick?
The late, great Merle Haggard had a provocative line a few years ago about surviving into old age. "It's kind of like finding out there's time on the show and you've played your best songs," he told Rolling Stone's Jason Fine. "God was kind. But now he expects some work out of it." Leonard Cohen also got assigned extra work in his final years, and he made the most of it, closing his encore with the magnificent "Treaty." The chorus recycles a melodic hook from one of his most famous ballads, "Anthem," as he sings, "We sold our souls for love but now we're free." There's a poignant urgency in that moment – the man was in a hurry to finish the damn song. So he got it done. One of his best. And by the time he died in November, the song was out there in the world, where it belongs.