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The best songs of 2016 so far

It’s been a great year for new music—here are our picks for the best songs of 2016 thus far, from Rihanna to Tortoise

Photograph: Courtesy the artist
Lil Yachty

From pristinely-produced pop anthems (Rihanna, we’re looking at you) to politically-loaded experimental jams (Anohni’s flawless Hopelessness)—this year might only be half-over but the best new artists and best albums of 2016 thus far have already yielded a slew of incredible new tunes. We’ve already been tracking the best new songs as they’ve been released each month, but here we narrow down and reappraise those picks to rank the best songs of 2016 so far.

Best songs of 2016 so far

1
“Augustine” by Blood Orange

“Augustine” by Blood Orange

A vast journey through history and allegory, "Augustine" represents the apex of Dev Hynes’ ever-expanding artistic vision with Blood Orange. Behind his trademark mix of grainy drum machine and morosely floating piano chords, Hynes’ hushed R&B tones set up parallel journeys: his parent's immigration to London, his own move to New York, and St. Augustine's pilgrimage from Rome to West Africa. The song is more than an exploration of origins and displacement, though. Quoting St. Augustine's Confessions—"skin on his skin / A warmth that I can feel"—Hynes extracts homoerotic desire from puritanical Middle Ages poetry to long for a queer futurity, while the following reference to Trayvon Martin's murder mourns that very future's denial by the violent present. Rarely does a song this ambitious in its breadth land so squarely on its feet.—Rohan Samarth

2
“Work” by Rihanna

“Work” by Rihanna

Rihanna's Anti wasn't exactly a pop-banger buffet, but it did serve up this hypnotic chart topper. Her lilting patois, Toronto producer Boi-1da's warm, minimal dancehall groove, the Drake guest spot—was there any chance this song wouldn't hit? It's Ri's fourteenth time cresting the Billboard Hot 100; she now has more No. 1 hits than Michael Jackson (coincidentally, at this year's MTV Music Video Awards she'll receive an accolade that bears his name: the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award). Rihanna is clearly on her grind, and whenever this song comes on, so are we.—Kristen Zwicker

3
“No Problem” by Chance the Rapper

“No Problem” by Chance the Rapper

The first real single from Chance the Rapper's streaming sensation Coloring Book is a diss track of sorts, but it's not targeted at a fellow MC. Instead, the unsigned Chicago rapper takes aim at the record labels that have stopped him from releasing music featuring friends with contracts. Its message might be menacing, but Chance approaches the track with a mischievous tone, audibly smiling atop gospel-sampling production (accompanied by equally playful verses from 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne). Instead of sounding threatening, "No Problem" comes off as triumphant—the work of an artist who has played by his own rules and come out on top.—Zach Long

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4
“Drone Bomb Me” by Anohni

“Drone Bomb Me” by Anohni

Anohni, known previously as Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), delivered a pointed indictment of the United States' military practices in this heartrending ode, which served as the opening salvo to her superb album, Hopelessness. The Mercury Prize–winning English singer, songwriter and composer wrote the song from the perspective of a young Afghan girl who lost her family in a drone attack and in her grief seeks to share the same fate. Anohni's falsetto shivers atop a wistful beat, courtesy of Scottish phenom Hudson Mohawke and experimental electronic musician Oneohtrix Point Never, imparting a fragile beauty; a stark contrast to the strength of Anohni's convictions.—Kristen Zwicker

5
“Friends” by Francis & the Lights

“Friends” by Francis & the Lights

This song's computerized gospel hook does a great job as the basis for Chance the Rapper's "Summer Friends." Here, assisted by pals Justin Vernon and Kanye West, it's just as vital with Francis & the Lights expounding on the importance of friendship through a vocoder-like effect (identified by the singer as a "prismizer"). Take its overflowing, layered climax as a metaphor for joyful connection bursting through the static of 1s and 0s, or just soak it in.—Andrew Frisicano

6
“1st Day Out Tha Feds” by Gucci Mane

“1st Day Out Tha Feds” by Gucci Mane

Like its name suggests, Gucci recorded his comeback single’s vocals immediately after being released on parole, dropping the song the next day in fact. On it, Gucci takes on a nimble beat by Atlanta hitmaker and friend Mike Will Made It, narrating a paranoid vision of post-release life with foes lying in wait around every corner. It's both a clear-eyed appraisal of the pitfalls that await him and a signal that one of rap's great talents is back and ready to reclaim his throne.—Andrew Frisicano

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7
“Gesceap” by Tortoise

“Gesceap” by Tortoise

Named after an Old English word that roughly translates to "shape" or "creation," the longest (and most captivating) track on Tortoise's The Catastrophist is a composition that slowly comes into focus, taking shape only as its shifting layers coalesce. The web of intersecting melodies and rhythms is both a musical and technical achievement—no small feat, even for a group that has spent more than two decades fusing genres. Contrasting chaos and order amid its fray of synthesizers, "Gesceap" is yet another effective demonstration of how instrumental music can speak volumes.—Zach Long

8
“Minnesota” by Lil Yachty

“Minnesota” by Lil Yachty

Yachty's "Minnesota" capitalizes on all the hallmarks that make the anti-rapper distinctive: a hyper-basic toy piano melody, shaky (and oft off-time) falsetto and a general atmosphere that sits somewhere between childlike innocence and defiant apathy. While some wordsmiths' vocal delivery—for instance, Yachty's XXL Freshmen classmate Denzel Curry—bear that "knife through butter" dexterity, Lil Yatchy's sounds more like the butter: mushy, ultra-lazy, melting from word-to-word and congealing in a pool on the floor. “Real rap is dead” purists be damned: This oddly-affected, infectious anthem encapsulates an entire era of post–Lil B, net-aesthetic sincerity.—Rohan Samarth

9
“Nothing’s Real” by Shura

“Nothing’s Real” by Shura

A panic attack might not sound like the ideal subject matter for a buoyant pop song, but English singer-songwriter Shura spins the details of a frustrating hospital visit into a disco-tinged electropop opus. "Nothing's Real" echoes the effervescent pop production of the '80s, but it's grounded by the existential dilemma faced by its narrator. The resulting track is one you can (and should) dance to, but it's equally enjoyable to hear a pop song that deals with something a bit more cerebral that the usual romantic yearnings.—Zach Long

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