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Damon Winter / The New York Times

November 27, 2016

The Sun’s Top 10 Songs of 2016

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In a great year for rap, hip-hop and emo, The Daily Sun’s Arts & Entertainment writers came together to name the 10 best songs of the year. 

10. “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” — Car Seat Headrest 

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Courtesy of Matador Records

Steve Jobs once said that hallucinogens reveal another side to reality, but in “Joe Gets Kicked Out Of School” — written about an acid trip taken by Car Seat Headrest frontman Will Toledo — the revelations aren’t so pleasant. On acid, Toledo sees himself and his friends as “filthy people,” hedonistic pleasure-seekers with no meaning or purpose. Good thing the song is so fun. The band’s album, Teens of Denial, builds huge, operatic epics from the building blocks of indie rock, and “Joe” is a perfect example, a seven-minute journey that begins with Toledo strumming an acoustic guitar and develops into a foot-stomping breakdown.

Its chorus leads into itself: “Drugs are better with friends are better with drugs are better with friends…” But this is ironic; Toledo is disgusted with his friends, their drugs and himself. “Joe Gets Kicked Out Of School” can be related to by anyone who’s ever questioned their own behavior — and enjoyed by any fan of ambitious, complex, personal guitar rock.

— Max Van Zile

9. “Two Deliverances” — The Hotelier

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Courtesy of Tiny Engines

Depending on your predilections, The Hotelier’s Goodness is an emo masterpiece or a laughably pretentious work. The 47-minute release packs in production tricks, spoken word interludes and overwrought lyrics. Yet, in “Two Deliverances” the group drops their gimmicks and delivers an earnest track. Over interlocking guitar and bass progressions, Christian Holden sings about the intertwined awkwardness and intimacy (“Your secret world speaks without words/And I feel clumsy and cumbersome in this place”) that come with hanging out in an ex’s room. The song swells to a peak of regret and sorrow when Holden screams, “Was kind of banking on a future that’d be involving you/But I couldn’t ask that of you, I couldn’t ask that.” Critics have wondered if The Hotelier and their peers are bringing back emo, but on “Two Deliverances” The Hotelier reinvents, rather than revives, the genre, delivering a nuanced, confused emotional plea.

— Shay Collins

8. “Pink + White” — Frank Ocean

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Courtesy of Boys Don't Cry

“Pink + White” is one of my favorite tracks from Blonde, for a number of reasons. Like other songs on Blonde, “Pink + White” inspires thoughts of finite love and bittersweet nostalgia, and references moments in Ocean’s own life that have contributed so much to his artistic character. Its lyrical complexity is a fine representation of Frank Ocean’s abstract imagery and poetical songwriting: “If you could fly then you’d feel south/Up north’s getting cold soon/The way it is, we’re on land/So I’m someone to hold true.” The relaxed drum beat and the repeating piano intervals create a dreamlike atmosphere, and these two features combined with Beyoncé’s vocals in the final chorus perfectly personify the tone of the piece in a surreal, sonic swirl. It is songwriting and musical production at its finest.

— Nick Swan

7. “Old Friends” — Pinegrove

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Courtesy of Run For Cover Records

With Cardinal, Pinegrove surprised everyone who was listening with one of the best straight-up rock n’ roll albums in years. “Old Friends,” its opening track, is the most perfect distillation of all the reasons why it’s just that: plodding, aimless instrumentation, composition as taut and peeling as bark on a tree, lyrics as circuitous and rambling as our downcast protagonist. It sounds sprung from the mind of an artist way too old for his years, but it only could have been written by a fuckin’-around 20-something. “I got too caught up in my own shit,” sings vocalist/guitarist Evan Stephens Hall in the last verse, “that’s how every outcome’s such a comedown.” While it’s that kind of self-criticizing, listless pathos with which “Old Friends” leaves you when the final strings’ve been strummed, the sounds backing Smith are so permeated with that timeless hopefulness which all good rock music packs that however you might be feeling, it pleads with you to reconsider.

— Troy Sherman

6. “Hold Up” — Beyoncé

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Courtesy of Columbia Records

“Hold Up” opens up with the classiest-ever use of an airhorn, which churns Beyoncé’s blaring, post-betrayal hurt into a lush, devious display of power. The song — the second on Lemonade — serves as the backdrop to the queen’s liberating property destruction, a representation of our human need to wreck the things around us after our own emotional wreckages. Yet as much as we revel in Bey’s happy-go-lucky romp through the streets, it’s hard to shake off how temporary it feels: after all the windows are broken, all the cars crushed, there remains our broken selves to pick up.  When she sings. “What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?/Or like being walked all over lately, I’d rather be crazy,” it’s a masterful reminder that being crazy is often a choice, but so is cleaning up the post-craze mess — a burden that too often falls on Black women.

— Sofia Hu

5. “We the People…” — A Tribe Called Quest

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Courtesy of Epic Records

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anything that sounds simultaneously so retro and so current as “We the People….”, the single from A Tribe Called Quest’s first album in eighteen years, We Got It From Here… Thanks You 4 Your Service. The ominous fuzz, sirens and booming rock drums sound straight out of the NWA playbook; it’s more aggressive than anything on Tribe’s classic albums. But the lyrics are purely 2016. They never say Trump’s name, but it’s clear who they’re talking about in the chorus: “All you blacks folks, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must go.” The album dropped on November 11, three days too late for the song to be a warning. Instead, it’s a call to action. Fans hoped for a new Tribe album for years, but I doubt many expected anything as vital and politically relevant as “We the People….”

— Jack Jones

4. “Self Control” — Frank Ocean

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Courtesy of Boys Don't Cry

“Self Control” eases in in a deceptively mellow fashion, riding Alex G’s offbeat guitar plucks. Then Frank starts to sing some of the album’s most gut-punch lyrics: “You cut your hair, but you used to live a blonded life/Wish I was there, wish we’d grown up on the same advice.” He’s said before that Prince’s “When You Were Mine” is his favorite song of all time, and he mirrors that song’s norm-bending desire: Prince sings, “I never was the kind to make a fuss/When he was there, sleeping between the two of us,” and “Self Control” echoes the line with guests Austin Feinstein and Yung Lean singing, “Keep a place for me/I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing.” The song builds from a light jam to a crescendo of layered vocals, then sticks like a record in one place and evaporates. “Self Control” shows how easily Frank Ocean makes the conventional sound extraordinary.

— Jack Jones

3. “Your Best American Girl” — Mitski

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Courtesy of Dead Oceans

Listening to “Your Best American Girl” for the first time felt like coming home to a place I didn’t know I had been locked out of; to a cavernous, open room in which there was finally space enough for the multitudes of sadness and anger, shame and pride, self-loathing and love contained inside the body of a girl. I am writing my senior thesis about this feeling, and intend to spend the rest of my life seeking out art and culture that brings me to it.

“Your Best American Girl” tells the story of a woman, attempting to squeeze herself into an ill-fitting identity in order to please a man and make a relationship work; and ultimately choosing herself; conveying immense sadness, fury, regret, pride and self-compassion all at once. Mitski’s multitudes don’t fit comfortably inside the bedroom; or the various attractive, romantic and pathologized narratives of women’s emotions that we are familiar with. So, on “Your Best American Girl,” and the rest of her 2016 release, Puberty 2, she claws and carves out a space for her stories; freeing them from cosmos, myth, slogan and diagnosis. Mitski creates these affective and sonic spaces with an amalgam of her low, and then suddenly huge-hollow voice, minimal, shredded guitar playing, crashing, swollen keyboard synths and stark, intimate songwriting. “Your Best American Girl” is a song with the capacity to make a girl feel more herself and become re-affected by the expanse of her own emotions and experiences. With “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/But I do, I think I do” as a war-cry, Mitski is wielding her sadness as knowledge, her anger as energy, her vulnerability as inquiry—reminding us to wonder how we came to be wounded in the first place, and giving us a language with which to read our pain.

— Jael Goldfine

2. “Formation” — Beyoncé

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Courtesy of Columbia Records

The black power anthem “Formation” shows Beyoncé at her finest. She acknowledges common criticisms of her and turns them into bragging points. She flaunts her confidence, wealth and talent, packing the song full of gender reversals and claims to power like, “When he fuck me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay.” When the internet started a petition for Beyonce to comb her daughter’s hair, she took control and responded with, “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros.” Couple Beyoncé’s assertions with an infectious beat made with Mike Will Made It, and “Formation” delivers an undeniably fun energy while still offering a commanding pro-black, pro-feminism message that serves as a rallying cry in today’s political climate.

— Ryan Slama

1. “Ultralight Beam” — Kanye West 

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Courtesy of GOOD Music

It’s now difficult to picture Kanye in his College Dropout days, a young producer with a knack for soul samples struggling to pitch his rapping skills to record labels. The critical acclaim, the ego, the Kardashian-assisted mega-fame — all of it has worked to build a cult of personality around a guy whose music has increasingly depicted his life as something akin to Greek tragedy. It’s fitting, then, that Chance the Rapper acts as his surrogate on “Ultralight Beam,” a cavernous gospel production that recalls the feeling — if not the exact sound — of the “old Kanye.” In a single verse that upstages both Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin, the young Chicago rapper pledges himself to fatherhood, alludes to old Kanye songs, invokes the Old Testament and, above all, has fun with it. In a difficult year for Kanye and many others, “Ultralight Beam” is the prayer we all needed.

— Chris Stanton

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