The Best Albums & Songs Of 2016 (So Far)

It’s hard to talk about the first half of the year without immediately jumping to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Leave it to Queen B to not only set the internet ablaze with yet another surprise release, followed by an amazing Super Bowl performance but pull off the feat of a “movie album.” Interweaving her own personal narrative while also speaking to a much larger audience, Beyoncé presented us with a complex, stunning and emotional journey, while also pushing herself forward as an artist and setting the bar higher (yet again) for everyone who would come after.

So, what else happened this year so far? Frank Ocean finally dropped not one, but two albums. Yeah, you read that right; after countless memes and false release dates we have new Frank Ocean music. Chance the Rapper dropped a masterpiece of his own, Britney Spears is back (though she never really left), Drake scammed his way into having one of the most successful albums of the year, Ariana Grande made the first move into her “Dirrty” era and Rihanna and Kanye both dropped their respective (and also much delayed) projects, and that’s really not even scratching the surface.

It’s been such a front loaded year for music; all the heavy hitters have been releasing everything at the same time. There’s talk that Katy Perry could be coming back sooner than expected, Lady Gaga’s new song drops next week and several heavy hitters have projects that are being rumored to drop in the coming months. But enough about what’s coming, let’s look back at what’s already dropped. Among all of the big releases this year, what’s really stuck out so far?

***Disclaimer: This was written before the release of Frank Ocean’s Blond, Britney Spears’ Glory and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Side B. I finally had the time to finalize some edits and put this up for everyone to read after being lazy and procrastinating lololol***

*** I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It, The 1975 ***

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This was not an album I was incredibly high on through my first couple of listens. At 17 tracks long, The 1975’s sophomore effort seems long and a bit overstuffed (and that’s not mentioning its run on title). But as the months went on and standout track “Somebody Else” lodged its way into my head, I decided to give it a few more chances and I’m glad I did. Sounding straight out of the 80’s with its unapologetic synth and dance-rock influences with some M83 thrown in for good measure, and I’m a sucker for 80’s nostalgia. It’s a step up from their high-octane debut album. ” A Change of Heart,” sounds like it was transported straight from a John Hughes movie, “UGH!” bears a striking resemblance to the songs found on the group’s debut with way more of a pop-feel (that’s not a knock), “Love Me” could moonlight as a song from The Talking Head’s discography, and “The Sound” features a bouncy piano riff with a similarly infectious hook. There are gorgeous interludes, “Please Be Naked” and “Lostmyhead,” that allow the album a chance to breathe amongst the heavy wordplay from frontman Matty Healy, but they also tie the songs together in a way I didn’t notice on the first few listens.  I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It is a grower; I imagine that by the time I’m ready to make my end of year list, I’ll be even fonder of this record than I am now.

***Favorite Tracks: “UGH!,” “A Change of Heart,” “Please Be Naked,” “Somebody Else,” “The Sound”***

***  Is the Is Are– DIIV  ***

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Zachary Cole Smith, frontman of DIIV, has gone on the record to describe Is the Is Are as “a light at the end of the tunnel” and “a chance at redemption.” The bit about redemption clearly hints at the now famous arrest of Smith and girlfriend, Sky Ferreira, in 2013 after being stopped and discovered with drugs (heroin and ecstasy) in their car. A rehab stint followed and album setbacks ensued; DIIV was no closer to releasing the follow up to their acclaimed debut Oshin which was released back in 2012. But delays and personal struggles aside, it’s clear the experiences had a profound effect on not just Smith, but the shaping of the record itself. It’s not always an easy listen, in fact, the LP’s running time often seems much longer than its actual 64 minute length. And while it contains DIIV’s signature, dreamy and dizzy sound, it can be a bit grueling and melancholic much like addiction itself. I wouldn’t go as far to call this a concept record in the same way I would about Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but by the end of the set’s closing song, “Waste of Breath,” it’s clear that Smith put his blood, sweat, tears and much of what he faced during the album’s gestation period into the music.

***Favorite Tracks: “Under the Sun,” “Yr Not Fair,” “Take Your Time,” “Is the Are Is,” “Waste of Breath”***

***  The Colour In Anything  ***

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May 6th was one of the rainiest days of the year. It was also the day that James Blake dropped The Color In Anything, the follow up to 2013’s Overgrown, and in traditional James Blake fashion, accompanied the rainy weather perfectly.

Blake might have the most haunting voice in music today. It’s eerily soothing, and though he’s no stranger to the use of auto-tune it’s something that’s still undeniably his own. He deals in minimalistic melodies, soft arrangements and synthesizers, rarely ever going for the emotional jugular even when the lyrics are steeped in melodrama. But he’s at his best when he hits the off-switch and opts for just the piano, as evidenced on”F.O.R.E.V.E.R.” and the album’s title track, both of which still manage to tug deep on my heartstrings, no matter what my mood is or what the weather is outside. “Don’t use the word forever,” he warns at the song’s very beginning, before lamenting, “People change and I can be tethered… We can’t walk the streets a ghost anymore.”

It would easy to chalk this album up to simply being a “break up record” or “sad music,” but it would also be disrespectful. Blake may be mourning the loss of love, or the failure to “find the color in anything,” but at the album’s end, he discovers something more profound. “It’s me who makes the peace in me… Music can’t be everything,” he sings on “Meet You in the Maze.” Blake uses a vocoder to transform his vocals, but it’s evident that his outlook has also been transformed; he’s realized that despite any sadness or pity he may be feeling, ultimately it’s up to him to change and grow. The album, and his journey, ends with him deciding that despite having every reason not to, he will remain smiling through the all of the pain. You’ve been there and heard that, as have I. But I guarantee it’s never resonated, nor sounded quite as heartbreakingly beautiful, as it does here.

***Favorite Tracks: “F.O.R.E.V.E.R.,” “Waves Know Shores,” “I Need A Forest Fire (feat. Bon Iver),” “The Colour in Anything,” “Meet You in the Maze”***

***  Moth– Chairlift  ***

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A moth might seem like a weird and unconventional choice to serve as the inspiration for an album, but as Chairlift front woman Caroline Polachek told Pitchfork last year, it was actually a no brainer: “Moths aren’t something you really see in New York City. You don’t see them very often at least, but we liked the idea of the moth as a metaphor for vulnerability, for something that’s fragile but relentless at the same time. It goes towards the light; it beats its wings until it dies… there are risks everywhere, but it doesn’t question them.”

That very much sets the tone for Moth, Chairlift’s third album. Much like a moth, it’s strange, prickly but very beautiful in its own way. It’s about love and the immense feelings and sensations that accompany it. Despite its namesake being an insect, it’s an undeniably human record. The songwriting is exceptional, possessing razor-sharp hooks (“Crying in Public” and “Moth to the Flame”) with tightly wound production that submerges the listener into an ocean of feeling (“Ottawa to Osaka” and “No Such Thing as Illusion”). Each song possesses the buoyancy of their breakthrough single “Bruises” (of iPod commercial fame) and the soaring emotions that made “I Belong In Your Arms” such a knockout. And yet, Moth is still such a step forward for Chairlift, managing to sound absolutely different and familiar all at the same time. Though the 80’s has been finding its way back into pop music for awhile now, it’s never sounded as thrillingly new as it does here.

***Favorite Tracks: “Romeo,” “Crying in Public,” “Moth to the Flame,” “Show U Off,” “Unfinished Business”***

*** ANTi– Rihanna ***

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It took us several years, three buzz singles and countless delays, but this was the year we finally got Rihanna’s followup to 2012’s Unapologetic. At the risk of sounding corny, ANTi is the anti-Rihanna (as we knew her) album. The mainstream, pop oriented songs we’ve come to associate with her aren’t present on this album; fans searching for sequels to “We Found Love,” “Only Girl (In The World)” and “Diamonds” might be disappointed. But in shifting from bangers and a focus on hooks to a more subdued sound, Rih has found a sonic consistency that has escaped many of her previous albums. Oh, and this album is the absolute best she’s ever sounded; songs like “Too Close” showcase her crystalline vocals, which we don’t hear enough of.

“Kiss It Better” is the album’s most pop-driven moment and Rihanna at her absolute best. Accompanied by an unforgettable, Prince-tinged guitar riff, the song is as irresistible as the subject matter: Rihanna mourns an impassioned love that just slipped through her fingers. “Work,” the now unforgettable hit single that launched a thousand mis-informed parodies, sees Rih slipping from English to her native patois without warning and getting comfortable within the dancehall beat. There’s also “Needed Me, the SZA assisted “Consideration,” the sultry ” Sex With Me,” sinister “Woo” and the stellar “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” a Tame Impala cover.

From start to finish, ANTi is as fresh today as it was the day it stumbled onto the internet. While much of the press surrounding it covered its troubled release, it’s the moment where Rihanna cements herself as a force to be reckoned with, to those still crazy enough to doubt her longevity.

***Favorite Tracks: “Consideration,” “Kiss It Better,” “Needed Me,” “Same Ol Mistakes,” “Close To You”***

*** The Definition Of…– Fantasia ***

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Since being crowned the winner of American Idol‘s third season, Fantasia Barrino has consistently delivered an impressive catalog of music. She’s able to deliver show stopping ballads (“I’m Here,” a holdover from her performance in Broadway’s The Color Purple) and straight jams (“Without Me,” “When I See U,” “I’m Doin Me”). That she’s faded into the background is a crime, though she’s not making the reductive music that’s currently lighting up the charts.

The Definition Of… continues Fantasia’s  streak of releasing excellent, solid music, except this is the best Fantasia has ever sounded. It’s clear that she’s grown into her own, experimenting with different styles of music. The production is as tight as ever, featuring strings and brassy horns; she bridges old soul with new soul. There’s a vulnerability and a rawness to her powerful voice that really takes these songs to a place a less capable vocalist would never have been able to go to. But for all of the throwback soul, there’s plenty here that would sound right at home alongside more mainstream pop numbers. “Ride” and “Wait For You” feature some monster hooks and beats, and “Ugly” features some slight country influences while never sounding foreign within her catalog.

Overall, The Definition Of… is an album with the potential to satisfy fans of Fantasia while winning over a few more. During interviews in promotion of the album, she said she was inspired by acts like Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and Aerosmith, citing her desire to stray away from trends found in the music dominating radio right now. In forgoing what is popular, Fantasia has found a sound that not only sounds great, but provides the perfect showcase for her underrated talents.

***Favorite Tracks: “No Time,” “Sleeping With The One I Love,” “Roller Coasters (feat. Aloe Blacc),” “Lonely Legend,” “I Made It”***

***  Freetown Sound- Blood Orange ***

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It should come as no surprise that Dev Hynes’ latest album is great. This is, after all, the man that had a hand in giving us now classic songs like Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing,” Solange’s “Losing You” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “All That.” But given his impressive résumé, which also boasts credits for Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue and Florence and the Machine, (hell, there’s even a Debbie Harry feature on “E.V.P.”) Hynes doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Freetown Sound, the follow up to 2013’s Cupid Deluxe is overflowing with his signature, dream-like sound with some extremely poignant, and topical, lyricism, although Hynes uses much of Freetown Sound to share the spotlight with many other voices. There are intros and interludes filled with speeches, samples and even some clips from films; “By Ourselves,” features an excerpt from Ashlee Haze’s poem “For Colored Girls” which is a tribute to Missy Elliot. Just running slightly over two minutes, Haze runs through a number of topics, including feminism and a black woman’s place in it, pleading for more (accurate) representation of black women in media. The aptly named “Hands Up” ends with chants of “Don’t shoot! Hands up, don’t shoot!” a sentence that has become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement in the years since Michael Brown’s tragic murder.

Hynes has said on Twitter that Freetown is an album “about his relationship with the world,” a relationship that is clearly not just complicated, but painful. Look no further than the countless cases of police brutality flooding social media, or the fact that America’s own inherent racism has manifested itself in the form of a sociopathic, white supremacist wannabe holding a presidential nomination from the Republican party, or the fact people just learned a few weeks ago that slaves built the White House. “But You,” in Hynes’ own words, is about the feeling he gets when he’s walking down the street and he sees a white girl get scared, so as a result he feels like he has to cross the street. Freetown Sound is not just an illuminating and deeply personal work by Dev Hynes, but gives further insight into stories that still need to be told in today’s world.

***Favorite Tracks: “Augustine,” “Best to You,” “E.V.P.,” “Hands Up,” “Juicy 1-4″***

***  Dangerous Woman– Ariana Grande  ***

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In just three years, Ariana Grande has lept from quirky internet personality and Nickelodeon actress to one of the music industry’s most ubiquitous pop stars. There’s a reason why she’s been heavily compared to Mariah Carey; Grande is easily the most talented and assured vocalists of her generation (sorry Demi, Selena and Miley). But where many have pointed out that Grande still pales in comparison to Mariah in her prime, it doesn’t matter. Debut album Yours Truly and the star marking My Everything proved that her ambitions were always set on becoming an artist in her own right, on her own terms, and Dangerous Woman is yet another step forward in Grande’s very accomplished career, cementing her place in pop music.

Not only has she grown up, but she’s grown as an artist. “Leave Me Lonely,” a duet with Macy Gray that could double as the next James Bond theme, proves that she has a range (and *the* range) unlike any of her contemporary pop girls; it’s thrilling to hear her effortlessly move from her high to low registers without breaking a sweat alongside Gray’s smoky, soulful vocals. The key change in “Greedy” showcases her mind-blowing vocal control and sees her voice soaring to previously unexplored heights. The enunciation flubs that plagued many of her earlier efforts are absent here.. The album sees the pint-sized chanteuse skipping around to many musical genres, from 90’s house, EDM, synth-pop, to R&B; but holding it all together and keeping it consistent is that amazing, jaw-dropping voice. And to anyone who still bothering to doubt her, Grande couldn’t be less concerned with what you have to say. This is who she is, take it or leave it because she’s just getting started.

***Favorite Tracks: “Into You,” “Greedy,” “Touch It,” “Knew Better/Forever Boy,” “Thinking Bout You”***

***  Coloring Book– Chance the Rapper  ***

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Amidst all the discourse concerning Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the overall disappointment that was Drake’s highly anticipated Views, Chance the Rapper went and quietly released one of the best collections of music, rap or not. Coloring Book, an Apple Music exclusive mixtape, is more in line with the gospel infused offerings found on The Life of Pablo, though it exceeds the highs found on that album. It’s a far richer and more thrilling and interesting listen than whatever Views was going for. And while there are some high profile features like Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, and Yeezus himself, none of them can outshine the music behind them and the man at the center of Coloring Book. The freedom the mixtape platform allows Chance sees him soaring to new heights, both in his bars and with the scope of his ambitions as evidenced in “No Problem,” his warning to major labels.

Overall, it’s an uplifting and deeply personal effort. Masterfully blending influences from the past with much of what makes rap great today, amounts to one of the most sonically adventurous, cutting edge music released this year. There are many things I could call Coloring Book, but none of them would really give it the credit it deserves. Yes, Chance really did that.

***Favorite Tracks: “All We Got,” “No Problem,” “Angels,” “Finish Line/Drown,” “Blessings”***

***  Lemonade– Beyoncé  ***

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Goddamn, goddamn GODDAMN! Beyoncé went and did it again, stopping the world with the boldest, most accomplished album of her career thus far (and that’s saying something). “Formation” was just a conversation starter. Released in conjunction with an HBO special, Lemonade is about many things. It’s about the dissolution, and ultimately the resolution of a relationship between two people who deeply love each other. It’s about a black woman persevering, succeeding and creating something truly unforgettable despite living in a society that seeks to tear her down. It’s about pride in being a black woman, and exploration of the community’s past, present and future. It’s the ascension of one of the greatest artists of our time. It is the creation of living, breathing art.

I implore you to read a number of the think pieces published about Lemonade by black women. They’re more insightful and better written than anything I could hope to type out. What I will say, however, is that no artist working today is doing what Beyoncé does here, and has been doing during her entire career. The album has been picked apart for the “Becky with the good hair,” line in “Sorry.” “Who is Becky?” “Is she Rachel Roy?” “Is she Rita Ora?”

Who cares.

Lemonade is so much more than the potential affair between Jay Z and “Becky,” whoever she may be. What’s more interesting is the music evolution Beyoncé has undergone. Once again, the Queen has forced us all to consume the album as a whole, in an era where radio has deemed them irrelevant. To those who thought she peaked with 2013’s BEYONCÉ, get ready to eat your words.

***Favorite Tracks: “Hold Up,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Sorry,” “Forward,” “All Night”***

Honorable Mentions (Albums I liked but didn’t love):

  • Love You To Death, Tegan and Sara
  • A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead
  • The Life of Pablo, Kanye West
  • This Is What The Truth Feels Like, Gwen Stefani
  • untitled unmastered, Kendrick Lamar

Favorite Songs of the Year (So Far):

  • “Augustine,” Blood Orange:
    • “Late have I loved and chose to see/Skin on his skin/A warmth that I can feel with him.” Dev Hynes uses the second song on Freetown Sound to recount the story of Saint Augustine, a philosopher who spread Christianity in Africa. But rather than simply recounting Augustine’s story, he juxtaposes it against modern day Black America, and the continued disrespect it faces. “Tell me did you love your son?/Tell me did you lose your love?/Cry and burst my deafness, while Trayvon falls asleep.” What follows is a heartbreaking and resonant portrait of the history we’re writing today by revisiting the past.
  • “Blessings,” Chance the Rapper feat. Ty Dolla $ign:
    • “Blessings” comes at the end of Coloring Book. Though it shares a name with the fifth song on the mixtape, it is not a reprise. Chance uses the song to reminiscing on all of his success, his relationship with mentor/fellow Chicagoan rapper Kanye West and how God is the one responsible for it all. Chance opts for s spoken word delivery here, instead of rapping. It’s a smart choice; the prose articulates the message and heightens the emotion, clear in his voice. At one point, it almost sounds like he’s choking on his tears. “I made it through, I made it through,” he laments before the song enters its second half: a thrilling and emotional harmony performed by Ty Dolla $ign, Raury Anderson, Paak BBJ the Chicago Kid and Donnie Trumpet. “Are you ready for your blessings? Are you ready for your miracle?” they ask, over and over again, the words washing over the listener like a gentle ocean wave, bringing you closer and closer to salvation.
  • Can’t Get Enough of Myself, Santigold:
    • Santiguad has been steadily making some of the best music in the industry for years and has gotten close to no recognition, which is a crime in and of itself. But the lead single off of her latest album is fresh, and goes down smoother than your favorite iced beverage on a hot summer day. And the best part? It’s a self-love anthem that has all the bearings of a Santigold song, all held together by her arresting voice. “Ain’t a gambler but honey I’d put money on myself… I don’t know about you but I can’t get enough of myself,” she declares backed by a booming drum line. Loving yourself has never sounded so damn good.
  • “Cheap Thrills,” Sia feat. Sean Paul:
    • Who would have thought that Sia and Sean Paul would be the ones to save us from an extremely disappointing search for Song of the Summer? When the original “Cheap Thrills” was released alongside its parent album This Is Acting, I found it to be undeniably catchy, though empty. Sia’s distinctive voice and an irresistible dancehall  beat made for an attractive pairing, but the song was missing something. Cue Sean Paul, who proved to be just what the song, and the summer, needed. The remix swooped in and batted away Drake’s hollow “One Dance” and the dynamic duo of awful original soundtrack songs: Justin Timberlanke’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and P!nk’s “Just Like Fire” to give Sia her first ever #1 single, and Sean Paul’s first in a decade. After years of writing hits for heavyweights likes of Rihanna (who actually turned down this song), Beyoncé and Adele, there’s something about that narrative that not only sweetens the deal, but makes me want to turn the volume all the way up and listen to this song until my speakers die out.
  • “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Beyoncé feat. Jack White:
    • Of all the songs on Lemonade, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” might be my personal favorite. It’s comes right after the light and bouncy “Hold Up,” which sees B coming to terms with the feelings that come with being cheated on. On “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” those feelings have manifested into pure anger. “I am the dragon breathing fire,” she says before belting out into an angry cry: “Who the FUCK do you think I am?/ I smell that fragrance on your Louis Knit boy/Just give my fat ass a big kiss boy/Tonight I’m fucking up all of your shit boy!” She may be angry, but she’s not crying, and she wants her lover to know she’s just too much for them. The brilliance in this song lies not only in the traces of icons like Tina Turner or Janice Joplin, nor Jack White’s brilliant contribution to the song;”Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a brilliant song from a songwriting standpoint, but it’s really Beyoncé who sells it. The rage, the hurt and the inflection she adds to certain phrases is something not a lot of other singers might have cared to inject. But by throwing so much of herself into such an already evocative and memorable song, Beyoncé makes something that would have been great, unforgettable.
  • “Down In the DM (Remix),” Yo Gotti feat. Nicki Minaj:
    • “Nicki Minaj Remix” or “Featuring Nicki Minaj” have become warnings to listeners that no matter how strong the song or lead artist is, Nicki Minaj will be the one you’re thinking about by the end of it all. Her guest spot on the “Down in the DM” remix is no exception. The original song, which came to be allegedly by Yo Gotti’s friend teaching him how to use Snapchat, is fine and features a sinister beat but pales in comparison after hearing the one with Minaj’s verse; she doesn’t just improve the song, she makes it her own. Alluding to everything from f**k boys, Peggy Bundy and her feud to Miley Cyrus, Minaj reminds now only of her knack for a fire verse and technical prowess, but of her place in the music industry. “Even Queen B had to tell them I’m the Queen.” All hail Nicki Minaj.
  • “Drone Bomb Me,” Anohni:
    • To call “Drone Bomb Me” a masterpiece is still vastly underselling its brilliance. The song’s subject matter is no secret; it was released just two days after a drone attack, by the Obama administration, which resulted in the killing of 150 Somali people. Of the record, Anohni has said that it’s “a love song from the perspective of a girl in Afghanistan whose family has just been killed by a drone bomb.” That she was able to take an issue like drone warfare, and paint such a chilling, intimate and striking portrait is an achievement in and of itself. The song’s production, handled by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, is as sinister as its subject matter. “Blow me from the mountain and into the sea,” Anohni sings as the synth drops, “Blow my head off, Explode my crystal guts.” It’s beautiful, tragic,  angry, difficult and yet a rewarding listen.
  • “Formation,” Beyoncé:
    • There is no other artist working today that is on the same level of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter. In an era where artists must constantly remind their fans via social media and suffocating release campaigns that they have music coming out, Beyoncé opts for total silence. You never truly know what she’s doing until she goes out and does it. 2013’s BEYONCÉ came in the dead of night with absolutely no promotion or warning, famously changing the entire music industry as it sold a ming boggling amount of copies within just a few hours. “Formation,” the lead single to her latest masterpiece Lemonade, followed a similar release strategy; It appeared on Youtube along with its music video a day ahead of her performance at the Super Bowl, once again setting the internet ablaze in its war path. “Formation,” is everything you’ve come to expect from a Beyoncé release, and yet still manages to astound with every new listen, catapulting her to a new level of artistry. It’s a call to arms in the face of black oppression, an anthem for black beauty in a world that prioritizes white, Eurocentric features and a reminder that Beyoncé is our greatest pop musical icon, the heir apparent to the late Michael Jackson. After all, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.”
  • “F.O.R.E.V.E.R.,” James Blake:
    •  I can’t think of another male vocalist working today that can convey such a canvas of raw emotion with just their voice like James Blake can. “F.O.R.E.V.E.R.” might be one of the most melancholic moment on The Colour In Anything (which is saying a lot), as he laments over the lifespan of relationships. “Don’t use the word forever,” he warns, “We live too long to be so loved, People change and I cant be tethered,” proving that Blake is at his absolute best when it’s just him and the piano.
  • “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” YG feat. Nipsey Hussle:
    • “FDT” sums up the sentiment of many, many people all across the world in just three short words: Fuck Donald Trump. As the aforementioned monster has ascended to become the presidential nominee of the Republican party, it’s important to remember his platform is built entirely on ignorance, racism and pure stupidity, with his popularity driven purely by white supremacists and skinheads, something YG echoes throughout the song. According to the rapper, he was contacted by the secret service to see the lyrics to the song but decided to put the song on the album anyway, because as he so eloquently states in a brief interlude, “We the youth. We the people of this country. We got a voice too. We will be seen, and we will be heard.”
  • “Hold Up,” Beyoncé:
    • Every song from Lemonade could have made this list; Beyoncé delivered such a winner of an album that the inclusion of every song feels necessary when discussing this year in music. That being said, if you put a gun to my head and asked me to pick the best song or you’d shoot, I’d go with “Hold Up.” When I first heard the song, I was immediately sucked in by the light, bouncy dancehall beat. I was immediately transported to the moment when I discovered my (now) ex-boyfriend had cheated on me. “Hold Up” is a snapshot of a moment in time we have all experienced at one point or another. It’s the moment before we act, but after we realize; right before there’s any action and any decision making, but after the tidal wave of emotion has washed over us. In that moment, we are seething with betrayal, and how does one cope with that? For Beyoncé, that moment was taking to the streets and joyfully beating in people’s car windows with her trusted baseball bat “Hot Sauce” as people watch joyfully in the background. The quintessential question, “What’s worse? looking jealous or crazy, jealous or crazy?” before answering, “Or being walked all over lately? I’d rather be crazy.” Me too Beyoncé.
  • “In Common,” Alicia Keys:
    • Alicia Keys first single in four years is also one her best, and a total departure from her previous efforts. Featuring wispy, subdued vocals from Keys accompanied by a dreamy dancehall beat, the song details a relationship between two similar albeit very different lovers. Think “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart,” but even more subdued and all the more hypnotic. Welcome back Alicia, we missed you.
  • “INTERMISSION: fLoWeR,” Zayn:
    • There are plenty of bangers and ballads on the ex-One Direction member’s solo debut album, but it’s the  quieter “INTERMISSION” that remains the most stunning moment on “Mind of Mine.” Singing in his father’s native language, Urdu, Zayn gives a gentle and lovely vocal performance against an acoustic guitar. It may only be just a little over a minute long, but you’ll be wishing this song were longer by the end of it.
  • “Into You,” Ariana Grande:
    • “Break Free” and “One Last Time” were just a warm up for Ariana Grande’s next banger: “Into You.” Co-writers/producers and dream team Max Martin and Ilya have written lyrics and produced a beat so hot, the song threatens to melt your face off while simultaneously demanding you rush to the nearest dance floor. Grande’s superb vocal agility, however, is what truly makes the song memorable; stretching from breathy and light to powerful and explosive, it doesn’t even sound like she’s breaking a sweat. Dangerous Woman is full of great songs, but none of them come as close to the level of pop nirvana that “Into You” does.
  • “Kiss It Better,” Rihanna:
    • “Kiss It Better” is the most pop-driven moment on the otherwise subdued ANTi. It’s also one of the most brilliant moments in Rihanna’s career. Aside from the brilliant writing (for which we’re indebted to Natalia Kills/Teddy Sinclair after the world made her into a meme) the infectious guitar riff paired with Rih’s flawless vocal performance makes the song as irresistible as the subject matter. “What are you going to do? Oh tell me what are you willing to do?” she asks before delivering the hypnotic hook, “Kiss it kiss it better baby.” There comparisons to the late Prince are absolutely undeniable, but like the with the rest of ANTi, this feels like the moment Rihanna demands you take her seriously as an artist, and not just one of our very best pop stars.
  • “Sleeping With The One I Love,” Fantasia:
    • The standout track from Fantasia’s latest album comes at the halfway point in the track list. From the moment it begins, it immediately demands your attention. I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the best Fantasia has ever sounded; the marriage between her powerful vocal performance, the strings and horns create a spell that never wavers for even a second. This is a song that screams to be performed live at a major awards show; every time I listen to it, I can clearly picture Fantasia on a stage somewhere, bringing the house down, and I hope she gets an opportunity to do just that.
  • “Somebody Else,” The 1975
    • “Somebody Else,” much like its parent album, is all about mood, and a much more mature effort than many of the group’s earlier songs. Frontman Matt Healy’s voice has never sounded so beautiful than it does here, and the ambient, mellow production compliments it perfectly. Lyrically, the song sees Healy lamenting over his lover, who he’s imagining wants someone else. Been there, done that, though the feeling of unrequited love has never sounded more infectiously melancholy than it does here.
  • “Superlove,” Tinashe
    • I haven’t been this frustrated over a single artist being this underrated in… ever? Seriously though, when is everyone going to stop sleeping on Tinashe?! More importantly, when will Tinashe’s label stop sleeping on Tinashe?!!?!?! Never mind that she’s got some serious songwriting chops (the girl knows her way around a hook, see below) but she is one of the very few pop girls that actually BRINGS IT in terms of having a presence. It’s breezy, light, infectious  and perfect for not only the summer, but for blasting with all the windows down speeding down the highway. While everyone was arguing over Katy Perry’s reductive “Rise” and Britney Spears’ cute but empty “Make Me,” I was annoying my neighbors and roommates by blasting “Superlove”while dancing all over my apartment. Seriously, get into it and make this song blow the hell up. If I have to hear songs like “Just Like Fire” on the radio 1,000 times it’s only fair my girl Tinashe gets her due.
  • “That’s My Girl,” Fifth Harmony:
    • “Work From Home” catapulted the girls of Fifth Harmony into the big leagues of pop music, but it’s “That’s My Girl” that showcases what they’re really capable of. It’s a MONSTER of a song that can best be described as Ariana Grande’s “Problem” on steroids, and even more horn heavy than the girl’s breakthrough song “Worth It” with an explosively catchy hook. Oh, and it’s co-written by Tinashe so it more than earns its certified BANGER status.
  • “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye West feat. Chance the Rapper, The Dream, Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin:
    • No other song could have opened Kanye West’s tumultuous The Life of Pablo. Proceeded by a rocky release (similar to Rihanna’s ANTi), “Ultralight Beam” immediately makes you forget about all that came before (Twitter rants included) and focus entirely on the music. It’s a song that really does sound like it was sent straight from heaven. Kanye asks for peace, he prays for Paris and looks within himself in the process. Kelly Price and The Dream are standouts in their own right during their respective verses, but the real star is Chance the Rapper. He doesn’t just elevate the song, he runs away with it. “This is my part nobody else speak,” he states at one point, before stating, “I’m just having fun with it,” as if he’s completely unaware of just how bright his star really is.
  • “U-turn,” Tegan and Sara:
    • In a year filled with splashy releases from major pop artists, indie-pop geniuses Tegan and Sara brilliantly followed their game changing Heartthrob moving even deeper into synth-pop with Love You to Death. Though “Boyfriend” is the lead single and the song that’s getting the most attention, it’s promotional single “U-turn” that is the true standout. Drowned in an 80’s throwback beat that still manages to sound refreshingly up to date, the girls prove their knack for churning out a smart and memorable hook has remained the same despite opting for an updated sound.
  • “Vroom Vroom,” Charli XCX:
    • Charli XCX has been working at a higher capacity than many of her contemporaries for quite sometime now. Her debut album, 2013’s synth-pop True Romance was, in a word, a masterpiece. Songs like “Nuclear Seasons,” “Take My Hand” and “Grins” still sound fresher than some of the stuff being released this year. 2014’s Sucker contained some great hooks and punk-pop beats, but it’s the Vroom Vroom EP, and its title track, that sees Charli going places she’s never gone before. “Bitches know they can’t catch me, cute sexy and my ride’s sporty,” she coos against the futuristic production, handled by the always great and criminally underrated SOPHIE. “Vroom Vroom” is an adrenaline rush, and more evident of that affinity for rule breaking behavior than anything Charli sang about on Sucker. But she doesn’t just break the rules here, she rewrites them.
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