Tyler runs down the best Songs of the Year, featuring a heaping helping of insistent and ebullient hip-hop moments, from emergent artists cementing their place to entrenched superstars topping themselves over again.
10. oso oso – “Reindeer Games”
Somebody let Kenny Vasoli, peak Max Bemis and Andrew McMahon record a song together in 2003 and put it in a time capsule, then let Jake Lillitri open it up and fly away with the best pop-punk song of the year. This probably sells Lillitri short, as, obviously, “Reindeer Games” is uniquely his. But man, as a pure distillation of that early Aughts pop-punk, it’s unrivaled.
9. (Sandy) Alex G – “Sportstar”
“Sportstar” is quintessential Alex G. Weird, affecting in an off-putting and personal way, yet still clearly transmitting the bones of an off-beat tale that could be interpreted as Alex G himself or another of his stories. “Sportstar” is a teenage hanger on’s journal entry to the high school crush, the All-Star, the one who will never acknowledge your existence. Pulled over a U2-like guitar line, plinking piano and a heavily AutoTuned voice, it’s one of the weirdest tracks on G’s Rocket. It’s also, by far, the best.
8. Spoon – “Hot Thoughts”
Spoon has always had to reintroduce itself. Britt Daniel and co.’s manic indie rock spirit remains undaunted over twenty years into their career, so it becomes imperative for their first single off a new album to be at least a decent simulacrum of the wavelength the Austin Hall of Famers are wandering this time through. “Hot Thoughts” fits this mold perfectly, harkening back to an early Aughts wiggle and shake of dance-punk acts like Maximo Park or Hot Hot Heat, yet manages also to be as outrageously sexy as a bunch of white dudes playing guitars and glockenspiels have any right to be.
7. Frank Ocean – “Biking feat. Jay Z and Tyler, The Creator”
Frank Ocean is one of the most confounding voices in pop music. His albums (to me) are a scattershot of impeccable ideas and frivolous noodling, never settling into a groove in any meaningful way. Perhaps that’s the point and I’m missing it. Still, with Ocean establishing a residency on Apple Music, we’ve seen more flashes of brilliance than the noodles, and “Biking” is a transcendent example of his expert songwriting flair. Allowing Jay Z to table set, Ocean follows with an expert verse about aging into his wistful 20s, arriving finally in a cathartic shouted outro that roughly encapsulates the feeling of letting go of the handlebars and coasting down a steep hill, gaining speed, near out of control, yet feeling unbelievably free of limitations.
6. Run the Jewels – “Legend Has It”
I sadly fell off of Run The Jewels 3, most surprisingly because El-P’s beats sometimes feel a bit too abstract for the frequently hilarious fucking around MCs as they bullshit over everyone else around them. RTJ3 was a crowning moment for the duo, and they got a little lost on the way to the altar. Yet their opening single had all the trademarks and pedigree of classic RTJ and fully followed through. In your face and pulsing with an anthemic funk, “Legend Has It” bops like great Run the Jewels songs do, proving that, though they lost their way a little, Mike and El can still go up when they need to.
5. The World Is A Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – “Marine Tigers”
“Like oil in an ocean, like we love that poison. Please remember as a person, it’s the land that’s always foreign. Can you still call it a country if all the states are broken? Can you still call it a business if all you do is steal? Came in on Marine Tigers, or the boat Lorraine was named for. We huff and puff, but nothing comes. There’s nothing wrong with Jose. There’s nothing wrong with Moses. There’s nothing wrong with kindness. There’s nothing wrong with knowing we’re here.”
4. Hurray for the Riff Raff – “Pa’lante”
A moving piece both excoriating the self for being unsure and thanking everyone around her for their passion and their continued hard work to make the world a better place. Would that we could all be as determined as Alynda Segarra.
3. Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”
God, that drop. There’s nothing like it. After the excellent, but divisive and weird “The Heart, Part IV,” there was a (stupid) question if Kendrick Lamar had finally completely left radio rap behind. In one drop, one squelching guitar intro, those doubts were silenced. Then, for the next nearly three minutes, Lamar reasserted his dominance over a genre that had somehow forgotten how forcefully he could take it. That “HUMBLE.” became a megahit across radio, sports broadcasts, and on stereos belies how fundamentally, uniquely Kendrick “HUMBLE.”, filled with wacky voices, appeals to a modicum of authenticity (“show me something natural like ass with some stretch marks”) and referencing the Affordable Care Act and TED Talks in one verse. “HUMBLE.” is unassailable, dominant.
2. Downtown Boys – “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)”
The punk nature of being simply different can propel songs forward past where they sometimes belong qualitatively. But when punk hits on both the “difference” and the recipe, there’s almost nothing like it. Take Downtown Boys, the Providence horror punk band fronted by unstoppable force Veronica Ruiz. Their nascent immediacy stemming from both “Joey Quits,” featuring band member Joey La Neve DeFrancesco as the titular Joey, and their Mexican-American lyrics menacingly sung at their fevered live shows, “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)” is the culmination of Downtown Boys’ ascent into a brash, unmissable strike of punk energy.
It hardly matters the translation of the song (which boils down to a strong-armed argument for why Ruiz is the same but different than everyone else, and deserves the same options and opportunities as everyone else). It’s a beastly call for inclusivity as well as individualism, and it’s the most insistent song of the year.
1. SZA – “Doves in the Wind (feat. Kendrick Lamar)”
Last year, Beyonce’s “Formation” was a towering force, a brutal announcement of dominance by the Queen Bey, further cementing her status as the de facto greatest, most important, songwriter in pop.
Despite that Beyonce has a little sister perfect adept (some would say Solange even more so than Bey) at crafting ethereal, powerful songs, SZA’s “Doves in the Wind” feels like a clever sibling to “Formation,” an affirmation while also sliding into a bratty and confident snarl. Witty and hilarious, focused on both SZA’s Forrest Gump crush and the prevalence of weak dicks, “Doves in the Wind” is an elegant “ode to the vagina,” doubling as an effective outlining of why women’s experiences are vitally important in this music climate (saying nothing of every other climate). Kendrick Lamar even stops by for a mid-song guest verse essentially copping “pussy is so undefeated, that’s amen to that,” appearing both as his humble/confident braggadocio character and also the reverent, on his knees man in front of such a powerful emblem of women’s art. SZA never veers too far into shit-talking, preferring to maintain a 5,000-foot stare at the realities of her own power, inhabiting in the mellow, Lauren Hill era hip-hop. “You are now watching my TV,” she intones through the song. And it’s impossible to look away, or not to kneel before such an outstanding song.