"untitled 2 | 06.23.2014." by Kendrick Lamar
"Get God on the phone," Kendrick cries out. It's a demand most of us have felt like shouting this year. This is a dark track with no hook and a jazz-like composition, yet it somehow manages to be one of his catchiest. It also somehow manages to be part celebration ("I just got a raise / Spent it all on me / Diamonds all appraised / And I'm bossin' up") and part lament ("My hood going brazy / Where did we go wrong?").
"Pink + White" by Frank Ocean
It's hard to choose just one track off of the triumphant return that was Frank Ocean's Blonde. But the sweetly melodic, waltzing "Pink + White" is a fair choice. We may never know exactly what or who the oh-so-poetic Frank is singing about, but the mystery just makes it all the easier to paint your own mental picture. And there's no better finishing touch on such a masterpiece than the sound of chirping songbirds.
"Never Be Mine" by Angel Olsen
It's fitting that a musician with such a heavenly voice should be named Angel. The perfect mix of newfound infatuation ("Heaven hits me when I see your face / I go blind, every time") and unrequited love ("You'll never be mine"), this '50s-style rock 'n' roll track makes anguish actually sound kind of good.
"Best to You" by Blood Orange ft. Empress Of
Empress Of's Lorely Rodriguez takes center stage on one of the best tracks off of Blood Orange's long-anticipated album, Freetown Sound. Backed by strings, clamoring percussion, and Dev Hynes's whispery, echoing vocals, Rodriguez takes a relationship she's not all that into, but willing to endure, and sings about it in a way that just makes us want to dance.
"Cranes in the Sky" by Solange
"I ran my credit card bill up / Thought a new dress would make it better / I tried to work it away / But that just made me even sadder," sings Solange. We all know what it's like to attempt to shake off bad feelings with material things, and makeovers, and unhealthy habits. Like Solange croons: "Sometimes I don't wanna feel those metal clouds." Here's to facing 2017's metal clouds head-on, and to forgiving ourselves, even when we don't want to.
"I Have Been to the Mountain" by Kevin Morby
Kevin Morby wrote this track after Eric Garner's death. "That man lived in this town / 'Til that pig took him down," Morby sings over horns and soulful backup singers. Deeply affected, like most, by Garner's last words, he continues with, "And have you heard the sound / Of a man stop breathing, pleading?" With this song, Morby transformed from a mere alt-folk musician into a vital and powerful artist.
"Come Down" by Anderson .Paak
It's impossible to listen to this funk-filled, beat-heavy track without bouncing along. The year 2016 may have been filled with disasters, but for Anderson .Paak, it brought success after success. It was this track, with its catchy drum loop and raspy vocals, that first got our attention—and we haven't looked away since.
"Your Best American Girl" by Mitski
We all have expectations to live up to. This song by Mitski—a favorite breakout artist of music critics this year—is about not meeting those expectations, and coming to peace with that. Over layers of electric guitar, Mitski's lovely voice wavers between fierce and gentle as she sings, "Your mother wouldn't approve / Of how my mother raised me / But I do, I finally / And you're an all-American boy / I guess I couldn't help / Trying to be / Your best American girl."
"Drone Bomb Me" by Anohni
It was only days after the U.S. bombed a Somali community via drone that Anohni released this tragic track. Written from the perspective of a girl whose family was killed in a similar attack, it relays (in graphic detail) a hint of the hopelessness felt by survivors after losing family and friends. It's a potent reminder of the incredible ability music has to educate, empower, and inspire change.
"Love & Hate" by Michael Kiwanuka
Soulful, melancholy, and full of beauty, London-based singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka sounds not of this time, as evidenced by the title track off his most recent album. With its mournful, humble, yet hopeful lyrics, it's a great swan song for 2016: "I believe / She won't take me somewhere I'm not supposed to be / You can't steal the things that god has given me / No more pain and no more shame and misery / You can't take me down."
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