Well, this was an interesting month. It was one of those months that seemed to go by super fast, but it feels odd to say that Donald Trump was elected president just a month ago. Then again, it may just still feel odd to say Donald Trump was elected president. Regardless, there was a fair amount of good music, although it definitely slowed down from the immense outpouring of the previous couple months. I still found myself with a list of 20, so let’s get down to business. Recall that the parameters for these lists is that the songs need to have been released outside of an album in the month. It’s arbitrary and sort of ridiculous, and it makes work harder for me on my year-end lists, but whatever.
20) THE PUNISHER – Lucius
We kick off the list with a solid song that I don’t have all that much to say about. It’s a neat little pop/punk track by the fairly well-regarded and somewhat underground indie pop band Lucius, whose gimmick involves two lead vocalists who dress the same and stare intensely into each other’s eyes. Anyway, this song’s pretty cool. It’s memorable, and I like the production, with the repetitive choir and the crunchy guitars.
19) CITY OF STARS – Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
“City of Stars” is a single off the soundtrack for the musical film La La Land, which hits theaters this Friday. I haven’t seen it yet, but based on the trailers and reviews, the song seems like an accurate representation of the film. It revels in simplicity, relying on the intense chemistry of its two stars over the grandiosity that most movie musicals display. I was already excited to see the movie, and this doesn’t do much to build on that, but it’s a palpably personal song and it couldn’t go ignored.
18) 2AM – Rapsody feat. Ab-Soul
Ab-Soul is your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, and Rapsody is a whole lot better, so when they come together for a track, you know there’s magic in the air. Perhaps the best female rapper in a game full of phenomenal women, Rapsody’s straightforward delivery serves the song’s 2:00 AM setting really well. Lyrically, both artists bring their A game as per usual, but after trading off with Soulo, Rap takes the song back and spends the entire back half of it playing around with whatever beats her mentor 9th Wonder can throw at her. It’s a display of versatility that proves she’s one of the best in the game.
17) HOLD BACK YOUR LOVE – White Lies
English post-punk group White Lies step out of their comfort zone a bit with their latest track, “Hold Back Your Love,” which seems to draw a lot of influence from new wave. I’m aware that new wave and post-punk are considered to be literally the same by many knowledgeable people, but my point is that this feels more Duran Duran than Joy Division. Above all else, it reminds me of “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” which isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s also got great production, and lead singer Harry McVeigh really puts a lot of power into his performance.
16) RIOT – Trapo feat. Saba
Wisconsin rapper Trapo, at the young age of 18, has been stirring up buzz for a little over a year now, and with good reason. He has a very passionate voice, and even when he doesn’t have a lot to say, he uses that voice and his bouncing-off-the-walls lyricism to leave an impression. On this song in particular, he and Saba bring the idea of metaphorically killing your enemies to an entirely new level.
15) KISSES BACK – Matthew Koma
Look, if you think this song is terrible, I don’t blame you. It’s repetitive, its lyrics could easily be seen as whiny, and it’s not particularly fresh in the world of EDM. But I don’t know, man. Something about the power and the sheer catchiness of the hook gets to me. I also think it’s a fun concept, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I don’t know. I like it.
14) ST. BRICK INTRO – Gucci Mane
This song’s just hilarious. The intro to his forthcoming tape The Return of East Atlanta Santa (his sixth record this year), Gucci Mane continues to win me over with his cute Christmas-themed trap lyrics, his unbridled enthusiasm, and his sometimes-surprising lyrical dexterity. His rendition of “Jingle Bells” is an instant classic.
13) PENTHOUSE FLOOR – John Legend feat. Chance the Rapper
There are sex songs that are meant to be slow and constantly building and intense, and then there are sex songs that are just meant to be fun. John Legend’s sensual vocals aside, this is the latter. The beat work is really neat, the concept is well-executed, the choir’s a nice touch, but it’s really Chance’s verse that puts it over the top. Chance is back in guest verse mode, and this somehow finds a medium between his most bombastic verses and his goofy-ass addition to Justin Bieber’s “Confident” (“Tattoos, piercings, and she just learned to twerk”). It’s as fun as a sexy song can be.
12) GUNSMOKE – Promnite feat. Denzel Curry, Nell, J.K. the Reaper, and Twelve’len
From what I can tell, this is the first single off a forthcoming album by hip-hop producer Promnite. It starts off with some understated electronic vocals, building into the simple, in-depth chorus by experimental soul artist Twelve’Len. All of a sudden, Denzel Curry and Nell start firing off explosive bars back and forth. They work off of each other really well, but after that first verse they go their separate ways and the song sort of meanders away. Still, what an opening.
11) VERSACE ON THE FLOOR – Bruno Mars
“Versace on the Floor” is the other kind of sex song. The second single off his surprisingly-deft third album 24K Magic, it succeeds where Unorthodox Jukebox’s “Gorilla” failed: it’s actually sexy. Needless to say, Bruno does a killer vocal performance. This album does a great job of covering all the nooks and crannies of ’80s R&B, and this song is as Boyz II Men as they come. The slow build-up leads to an immensely gratifying finale. It’s dope.
10) MY SHOT [RISE UP REMIX] – The Roots feat. Joell Ortiz, Busta Rhymes, and Nate Reuss
It’s rare for a remix to improve upon the original, especially when the original’s as strong as “My Shot.” But by god, the Roots found a way. It starts with an almost demonic “Hamilton Mixtape” watermark, and Nate Reuss’ only contribution is some halfhearted woahs at the beginning and end, but everything feels like it has to be there. Black Thought, Ortiz, and Busta each drop an insane verse. I was especially impressed with Busta, though I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t get to say “Don’t this shit make my people wanna rise up?” It gives the original “My Shot” a whole new meaning and rebuilds it from the ground up. Or should I say, from the rise up. No, that doesn’t really work.
9) TRANSIENT PROGRAM FOR DRUMS AND MACHINERY – Soulwax
Belgian electronic band Soulwax (the music is electronic, the people are real) gifted us with this eight-minute techno opus. I think it somehow ties in with their live show of the same name, but I couldn’t find much on what this song is from or for. Still, maybe it’s best on its own, flexing Soulwax’s ability to make some damn good techno. What’s it about? Is it from something? Does it really matter?
8) TELEVISED – Sylvan LaCue feat. Rayana Jay
Sylvan LaCue’s sort of been bubbling under the surface of hip hop for a bit. He won Jermaine Dupri’s “Survival of the MC’s” competition in 2009, but not much came out of that. His 2014 mixtape Searching Sylvan was critically acclaimed, and now he’s working on a follow-up to his recent album Far From Familiar. On this new track, we see him flex his singing chops, his penchant for storytelling, and his quality lyrics. There’s a great beat change, and I really like how Rayana Jay comes in just as the song’s fading out. Sylvan’s sort of on his J. Cole grind here, and it really works.
7) RESURRECTION – Angel Haze
Agender rapper Angel Haze returns with a fiery in-your-faceness on their new song “Resurrection.” I’ve always been sort of lukewarm on them because of their lack of breathing control and a handful of songs I really didn’t care for, but this is good. The sheer power they put into that “YEEEEEEEEEAH” in the chorus. The bars. The singing. Those Godfather violins. If this is what we’re getting from them on their new album, count me in.
6) WE THE PEOPLE… – A Tribe Called Quest
“We the People…” is one of the standout tracks on A Tribe Called Quest’s phenomenal final album We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg lash out against xenophobic politics, making a few thinly-veiled Trump references while also calling out various other forms of systematic exclusion and oppression. Q-Tip is as angry as he’s ever been, and it’s clear that Phife was bringing his A game despite his increasingly-severe battle with diabetes. Considering the way things have essentially returned to business as usual after the aftermath of Trump’s victory, maybe all we needed was a little Tribe.
5) YOU’RE WELCOME – Dwayne Johnson
Who knew Dwayne Johnson could sing? Who knew Dwayne Johnson could rap? Well, he definitely did prove himself in this cut from Disney’s latest classic Moana. We have the film’s co-composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, to thank for much of this song’s strength, having written the music and lyrics. It is a really well-produced, well-written, and irresistible song, more so than any other Disney song in recent memory. “Let It Go” turned out to have some staying power, but it’s not nearly as strong a track as this is. It’s fun, energetic, and ridiculously petty. I can definitely smell what the Rock is cooking here.
4) I FEEL IT COMING – The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk
Daft Punk accomplish what could be another career milestone with the production on “I Feel It Coming.” The legendary electronic duo produce the first and last songs on the album, and while the title track is really solid, this one sort of blows it out of the water. This is Michael Jackson in his prime. It cements the Weeknd as one of the quintessential pop artists of our time. He uses his voice more effectively on this song than anything else I’ve ever heard from him. This isn’t even the peak. It’s still uphill from here. I feel it coming.
3) FOUNDATION – KAMI
B.Y.R.O.O.C. (brilliant young rapper out of Chicago) Kami de Chukwu makes my list for the second month in a row with this blistering, intensely passionate, immaculately produced new single. Where his last amazing song was an ’80s pop throwback, this new amazing song is straight hip-hop. His lyrics are pristine and full of complex imagery: “Their faces filling up with punctuations.” “Funerals are like interludes to remind us life is just like a musical.” If KAMI keeps this up, he could become a new favorite of mine.
2) MISERABLE AMERICA – Kevin Abstract
“Miserable America” is the cornerstone of Kevin Abstract’s insanely-good new album American Boyfriend, offering a piercing and poignant look into growing up black and queer in America. Kevin conjures images of Kanye West and Young Thug, pointing out how we love artists who break away from gender norms, but only those who are rich and powerful enough to get away with anything. Sad boy rap gloom transitions seamlessly into orchestral bliss and back. His only place of refuge is unbridled apathy, but even that devolves into a crunchy, bass-boosted mess. If you listen to one song on this list, I’d recommend this one.
1) ME AND YOUR MAMA – Childish Gambino
When Donald Glover brought his fans on a psychedelic musical camping trip back in September, we figured some interesting new music was imminent. I don’t think anyone expected this. It starts with the bubbly keys we’ve come to expect from Gambino, with some synths and a really neat choir intro. Suddenly, after two minutes of build-up, that song drops dead, making way for a Yeezus-meets-Black-Keys fit of spectacular passion. Donald has never sounded better. The vocals are incredible. The production is incredible. It immediately sticks out as the best Childish Gambino song, but comparing it to his previous work is like comparing apples to demigods. It’s not only new ground for him, it’s not really like anything I’ve ever heard. This is a brand new ‘Bino, our introduction to the most ambitious album of 2016. And I don’t mean to spoil my year-end list, but I like it a lot.