I’ve been making best-of lists for exactly 10 years now, and looking back, they don’t all look so pretty. Each list suffers from an enthusiastic overestimation or two, as well as a few conspicuous omissions. Confirmed: I’m human.
That doesn’t mean I’m apologizing for the music listed below, all of which made me feel alive during a year that tried to kill my soul. Even a flawed year-end list can tell us something significant about the mood of the year it was drafted — and we’ll be thinking about the past 12 months for years to come. Here’s what it sounded like inside one human head.
1. YG, “Still Brazy” It was a historically bad year for America but an astonishingly good one for American rap — especially for California rappers, and particularly for YG, a consummate G-funk formalist at the very top of his game.
2. Maren Morris, “Hero” She sings about old cars instead of new trucks and Johnny Cash instead of Jesus Christ, but open your ears to these sleek, savvy country songs and Morris will make you a believer.
3. 21 Savage, “Savage Mode” This Atlanta newcomer recites bleak poetry from the back of his throat, but it’s maestro producer Metro Boomin who frames the rapper’s murmurs so they sound completely internal, as if his comrade is rhyming telepathically from the back of his brain.
4. Rod Modell, “Mediterranea” The Michigan techno veteran conjures a soft, sumptuous sound-world, then lets the groove effervesce for 72 minutes. You’ll want it to last forever.
5. Schoolboy Q, “Blank Face LP” Near the outset of this gangsta-rap opus, L.A.’s most detail-oriented loudmouth uses his gift to describe his curse: “I ain’t been right since out the cervix.” As grim as it looks, he still raps about the future as if it belongs to him.
6. Iggy Pop, “Post Pop Depression” It’s a real shame that rock-and-roll is dead, considering Iggy Pop is still totally alive and, to prove it, recently issued his surliest, sexiest recording in years.
7. Jon Pardi, “California Sunrise” Kinda poetic how this high-spirited country album produced two hits about footwear — “Head Over Boots” and “Dirt on My Boots” — but a more skillful balancing act can be heard in Pardi’s vocal twang, an impeccable triangulation of lungs, heart and schnoz.
8. Cass McCombs, “Mangy Love” With his latest batch of lullabies, McCombs stands among our dying planet’s strongest lyricists and breeziest doomsayers. “No, it ain’t no dream. It’s all too real,” he sings softly. “How long until this river of blood congeals?”
9. Young Thug, “Jeffery” Coaxing a baffling array of sounds from his words, rap’s most dazzling expressionist continues to juice the English language in stunning and stylish ways. May he live forever.
10. Hieroglyphic Being, “The Disco’s of Imhotep” During the more demoralizing evenings of 2016, this Afro-futurist’s thudding house music helped me dance away the brain-ache. Those 4/4 kicks kept saying: “This. Too. Shall. Pass.”
1. Beyoncé, “Formation” The song that won the Super Bowl combined a fistful of thrilling declarations, a few righteous affirmations and a sex bargain that ends with the most powerful singer of her generation picking up a tab for endless shrimp. Incredible.
2. Rihanna featuring Drake, “Work” Our wildly irrational year seemed to make sense only during the eight weeks that Rihanna’s finest hit took up residence at the top of the charts. Blot out Drake’s tiresome cameo and it’s pure pleasure.
3. Young M.A, “OOOUUU” This woman’s Freon rasp was easily the coldest sound of 2016 — and the jubilant half-giggle that punctuates her tough talk at the end of this track was probably the most charming, too.
4. Kanye West featuring Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price, The-Dream, “Ultralight Beam” When popular music’s centripetal antihero tries to describe his psychedelic vision of God, how can we not fall to our knees?
5. Lori McKenna, “Humble & Kind” Tim McGraw turned this modest little ballad into a big-hearted radio hit, but coming straight from the songwriter’s mouth, it exudes an even stronger gravity.
6. Mr. Fingers, “Qwazars” Here’s a NASA-grade dance track that offers a quick trip to the margins of the cosmos — thanks, in part, to a camouflaged vocal sample that sure sounds a lot like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
7. Danny Brown featuring Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt, “Really Doe” If you can forgive Kendrick for emailing that guest verse to the dudes in Maroon 5, his virtuoso performance on this already-epochal posse cut is the reason.
8. Sheer Mag, “Can’t Stop Fighting” Can’t stop, won’t stop. This Philadelphia quintet continues to raise the ghost of Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, if only to enlist him in their ongoing fight against the patriarchy.
9. Steve Gunn, “Nature Driver” Check out how Gunn’s cyclical guitar riff on this oceanic folk jam evokes the tidal motion that he describes in the song’s lyrics. Deep trick.
10. Kodak Black featuring Gucci Mane, “Vibin in This Bih” Two beleaguered rappers — one legend, one legend in the making — walk into a club and try to vibe, but the vibe is fraught with tension because it’s 2016 and even the year’s best party music makes us feel profoundly anxious.
Read more of our critics’ 2016 picks: