LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This stream contains profanity.
Playlists are a dime a dozen these days. Cheap and charming, updated by algorithm or "curated by hand," the grab bag anchors this post-album, post-download, post-mixtape moment. Still, we don't think you'll find anything quite like this list of 100 songs. Beyonce's here; so is Bowie. But in between, you'll find songs spread across a dozen genres and all the spaces in between, picked by NPR Music's station hosts, staff and contributors to represent the best of the first half of 2016. Songs we couldn't stop listening to, and couldn't wait to share.
We had just a couple of rules: Only one song per artist, presented here in alphabetical order. But if shuffle's your thing, you'll find a stream at the top of this page where you can listen to every song on the list. (Or if you prefer, you can listen to a Spotify playlist of most of them.)
NPR Music's Favorite 100 Songs Of 2016 (So Far)
Ana Moura, "Ninharia"
On an album that pushes traditional Portugese fado music in new directions, "Ninharia" sticks out as decidedly old school. There's the typical 12-stringed Portuguese guitar, with its sad, tinkling teardrops of notes. There's the subject matter: a lover lost over "ninharia" (nothing much). And then there's that voice, Moura's smoky mezzo, which expresses so directly the crippling regret, the darkest melancholy that truly inflames the heart of fado. --Tom Huizenga
Anohni, "Drone Bomb Me"
A song about the war in Afghanistan, voiced from the perspective of a young girl who has lost her family — with a video featuring a lip-syncing supermodel, no less — could have been soggy, earnest and utterly dismissible, if not outright contemptible. But instead, Anohni has created something of shattering bleakness and harrowing depth, her burnished voice arcing over dark pools of electronics. --Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anthony Hamilton, "Amen"
Anthony Hamilton has long been a master at infusing contemporary southern R&B with gospel-y, rooted textures. In "Amen," over a skittery, unhurried beat and church organ swells, he testifies to domestic ecstasy with a marvelously playful blend of loverman swagger and Sunday morning conviction. --Jewly Hight
A$AP Ferg, "Strive"
A$AP Ferg's dynamics pair with the once and future queen of phrasing, Missy Elliott, in this shot in the arm, a three-minute pep rally. --Frannie Kelley
Aurora, "Running With The Wolves"
Aurora Aksnes may be a diminutive Norwegian barely out of her teens, but "Running With The Wolves" soars hugely and majestically — larger than life, with one of the catchiest choruses you'll hear this year. --Stephen Thompson
Avalon Emerson, "2000 Species Of Cacti"
Described as a love letter to her childhood home in rural Arizona, Avalon Emerson's latest release is a techno take on desert music. Over an unrelenting beatdown of sun-soaked drums, "2000 Species of Cacti" finds bits of shade behind its wisftul melodies. The snarling bassline and swinging hat fan flames into the groove, while sustained bells swoon overhead, shadowy and cool. Like a long, empty expanse, it's harsh and beautiful at the same time. --Sami Yenigun
A-WA, "Shamak Zabad Radai"
A trio of Israeli sisters pay tribute to their roots in Yemen on the dance floor — layering brash, bracing three-part harmony with heavy electronic beats and zinging synths. --Anastasia Tsioulcas
Metal is no stranger to gimmicks (see: KISS, Gwar, Dio's 1980s stage show), so a J-pop trio backed by a metal band shouldn't really be a stretch... right? While previous singles played up the novelty of three Japanese girls doing choreography to crushing riffs, "Karate" makes good on a wild premise: Babymetal glitches a groove into a heavy ballad that uses the drama of J-pop melody to make metal soar. --Lars Gotrich
Barbara Hannigan/Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, "I Will Go Out Now (Abrahamsen)"
What if Ophelia (from Hamlet) was a woman firmly in charge of her destiny? That's what happens in Hans Abrahamsen's riveting song cycle let me tell you. Sung with extraordinary sensitivity (especially in the highest register) by the indomitable Barbara Hannigan, Ophelia's final move is to walk resolutely out into a landscape of snow as the orchestra eerily winds down. Hannigan's high C on the word "snow" is a thing of staggering beauty. --Tom Huizenga
The hardest song of the year is also, depending on your constitution, a salve. It is therefore eminently functional in this time and place: a moment when the personal became the popular because it was political. --Frannie Kelley
Bibi Bourelly, "Sally"
There's been plenty of Lemonade served in 2016, but if you're in the mood for a more complex cocktail shaken from similar ingredients, Bibi Bourelly delivered a phenomenally confident if overlooked solo EP on Def Jam in May. On the handclap-driven lead single, "Sally," raspy-voiced Bourelly — the buzzworthy scribe of Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money" and Berlin-raised offspring of famed avant guitarist and composer Jean-Paul Bourelly — revisits the '50s mythology of Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally" (and its ideas about sexually "free" women) in a driving black rock setting that foregrounds her spunky intelligence and her command of pop form. With her writing gifts and vocal chops, Bibi is an alt-pop-soul-rock force to watch. --Jason King
Big Thief, "Masterpiece"
Big Thief recorded its debut LP in an old house off Lake Champlain, and "Masterpiece" sounds like a sparkling treasure dredged up from the lake's muddy bottom. Guitarist Buck Meek's sledgehammer chords are the perfect counterpoint to Adrianne Lenker's jumpy, electric vocals; as on Lenker & Meek's 2014 record A-Sides, the two display an audibly intuitive musical understanding. This song — like every one Lenker writes — conjures a sense of real stakes in its composition and performance. She sings of standing by a long friendship: "Old friends, old mothers, dogs and brothers / There's only so much letting go you can ask someone to do." This is a song about taking what you're given, standing by it no matter what and then showing it to the world in all its chipped and battered glory. --Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey
Bombino, "Timtar (Memories)"
Bombino's guitar work is arid and winding, a mix of reggae upstrokes and classic West African blues guitar. With the aid of a hypnotic, driving rhythm section, the Tuareg singer and guitarist born Omara Moctar mourns a bygone love. In each chorus, his guitar reprises a pealing cry over increasingly driving percussion — it sounds at once muscular and heartbreakingly lonesome. --Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey
Boris Giltburg, "Etude-tableaux, Op. 30, No. 3 (Rachmaninoff)"
If Rachmaninoff's Études-tableaux are short stories in sound, then pianist Boris Giltburg is an astonishing storyteller. From the urgency of the opening jack-hammered theme to the smoldering conclusion, Giltburg presents a poetic and personal vision where the final notes, he says, flap in the wind, like the shutters on the homes of an empty village. --Tom Huizenga
Brandee Younger, "Soul Vibrations"
Wherein Brandee Younger proves herself a worthy (and modern) inheritor of the funky harp tradition while providing as good a place as any to start, if you're among those who didn't know such a tradition existed. --Patrick Jarenwattananon
Brandy Clark, "Since You've Gone To Heaven"
Brandy Clark is hands down one of the wittiest songwriters working in country today, but "Since You've Gone To Heaven" is a very fine example of what she can do with a heartsick ballad. The protagonist unburdens herself to her deceased dad, lamenting the tumbledown state of attachments that once seemed so sturdy. The detail in the lyrics and the delicate resignation in Clark's delivery make for a devastating listen. --Jewly Hight
Caleb Caudle, "Uphill Battle"
There are times when Caleb Caudle gives his songs the scruffy, alt-country treatment, but he's most affecting when he takes the softer, finessed approach on display in "Uphill Battle." The North Carolinian delivers the wilting melody with beguiling subtlety, gently submerging himself in melancholy rumination on how his lover's been burdened by his unsteadiness. --Jewly Hight
Car Seat Headrest, "Vincent"
The nearly eight-minute journey that songwriter and Car Seat Headrest singer Will Toledo takes listeners on in "Vincent" reminds me in tone and execution of Television's seminal 1977 song "Marquee Moon," but better. The song's liftoff takes over two minutes, filled with guitar hammering and harmonics, building tension before the drums and bass kick in. It's a song filled with stream-of-consciousness indecision, lines like, "Half the time I want to go home, and half the time I want to go home" next to reflections on the whining of tourists in Toledo's colonial college town. His indecision and depression is summed up well when he sings, "In the back of a medicine cabinet, you can find your life story"
Vincent's namesake is Vincent Van Gogh, who is injected in the song when Toledo sings:
"They got a portrait by Van Gogh On the Wikipedia page For clinical depression. Well, it helps to describe it"
From there, the song propels itself into a world of self-doubt, with a bit of Holden Caulfield-type cynicism in the mix. A sad, brilliant journey, lyrically and musically. --Bob Boilen
case/lang/veirs, "Atomic Number"
Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs all have front-and-center voices, but when they share the mic in "Atomic Number," each commands equal attention — in the verses, the singers even trade lines. Amazingly, the song itself soars instead of collapsing under the weight of its top-notch ingredients. --Stephen Thompson
Chance the Rapper (feat. Ty Dolla $ign), "Blessings (Reprise)"
"I speak to God in public," Chicago's anointed rapper says in the poetry-slam testimonial that dominates this track, one of three Chance has recorded with the "Blessings" title. The way he does so is so graceful, self-aware and grounded in current realities that it's making gospel fresh for a new generation. --Ann Powers
Charles Bradley, "Changes"
Imagine if James Brown covered Black Sabbath. That's kind of what happens on the title track to Charles Bradley's album Changes. But in fact this former James Brown impersonator, now a unique artist in his own right, has made the piano/mellotron ballad from Black Sabbath's 1972 album Vol.4 his own, and it is stellar. Afro-soul group The Budos Band provides the climatic arrangements with horns, an organ and perfect rhythmic backing for Bradley's believable interpretation of Black Sabbath's atypical, cocaine-inspired tune. --Bob Boilen
Charles Lloyd & The Marvels, "Of Course, Of Course"
A flute floats, a drummer beats about the bush and two twangy guitars keep on truckin'. As does the ageless bandleader, who first floated this melody differently in 1965. --Patrick Jarenwattanon
Cobalt, "Beast Whip"
"Pity for the hardened, screaming end of life," shrieks Charlie Fell, but even that doesn't prepare you for "Beast Whip." Cobalt's punishing yet dynamic nine-minute track is colossal in every way, from the nervous, Middle Eastern-inspired guitar melody to Erik Wunder's band-saw punk riffs and machine-gun drums to the surprising third act, a stoner-metal groove beaten into the earth. This is extreme metal for every corner of the pit. --Lars Gotrich
Craig Xen, "Voltage"
A Houston rapper who sounds like anything but, on one of the most electrifying productions of the year (courtesy of Miami's Mikey the Magician). Craig Xen's "Voltage" can only be described as the quintessential example of new-school punk rap, brewing deep in the South. --Kiana Fitzgerald
D∆WN, "Not Above That"
On "Not Above That," D∆WN cuts right to the chase: "If I beg for it, will you get me off?" The Machinedrum-produced, club-ready pop song darts in and out of clipped synths and breathy vocals. But it's D∆WN that ultimately gives "Not Above That" its beating heart, owning desire and celebrating the self with a song that moves bodies and planets and hearts. --Lars Gotrich
Daniel Wohl, "Source"
A shaman of sound, Daniel Wohl conjures dream-like electro-acoustic spaces, dizzy with swirls of buzzes, blips, steely abrasions, chugging trains and breathy vocalise. The singers, Pulitzer winner Caroline Shaw (Roomful of Teeth) and Olga Bell (Dirty Projectors), are evocative and unrecognizable — just two more instruments in Wohl's teeming aural wonderland. --Tom Huizenga
David Bowie, "Blackstar"
Part epitaph, part victory lap, David Bowie's Blackstar is an immaculate, elegant way to end a brilliant life and career. This song, the opening track, makes it clear just how much effort Bowie put into the project, as the song metamorphoses through several gorgeous phases — a process the singer knew well — over the course of 10 grand and glorious minutes. --Stephen Thompson
Dayme Arocena, "Stuck"
The first great young talent to emerge from a newly opened Cuba infuses a house music cult classic with brilliant inventiveness and the glorious fervor of her voice. --Ann Powers
Dedalus & Muzzix, "Behold (Moondog)"
The enigmatic Manhattan street composer and musician known as Moondog regaled passersby in Midtown for decades. "Behold," from 1969, is lovingly rendered by two French new music ensembles Dedalus and Muzzix. It incorporates Moondog's love of Bach (it's in the form of a canon) and American Indian music (as a kid he learned drumming from Chief Yellow Calf) with lyrics poised between riddle and nursery rhyme. --Tom Huizenga
Esperanza Spalding, "One"
This rhapsodic plunge into young love's urgent eroticism earns jazz boundary-buster Spalding the comparisons to Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell that lesser artists crave; she nails a wild melody that very few could even approach. --Ann Powers
Fanfare Ciocarlia and Puerto Candelaria, "Fiesta de Negritos"
The party song you never knew you needed: A brass band from Romania tries some cumbia on for size, courtesy of some Colombian friends. --Anastasia Tsioulcas
Fat Joe & Remy Ma (feat. Jay Z), "All The Way Up (Remix)"
Dry and triumphant, "All The Way Up" shifts into third gear when Remy Ma hits the scene; where the boys abide by the beat she makes us forget all about it. --Frannie Kelley
Fifth Harmony (feat. Ty Dolla $ign), "Work From Home"
Fifth Harmony, the reality show-boosted girl group that has long struggled to find a consistent identity and chart success, finally reversed its fortunes by tapping into the pop music topic of the year: "work." The quintet delivers the most audacious lyrical concept since Danity Kane's "Damaged": the lonely-at-home vixen sexting her at-work partner in the effort to get him to come home early — except home isn't relaxation either (although she also promises to "let her body do the work" too). Like Rihanna's "Work", "Work From Home" has verses more clever than its dopey chorus, but the song mixes a European ethos of anti-competitive, "take the day off when you need to" labor tied to a feminist, dancehall-esque dominatrix conception of sexual bodywork. --Jason King
Fuego, "Se Me Nota"
By this point in the 21st century it should be noted that reggaeton isn't going away anytime soon. Hell, even the cultural watchdogs in the Cuban government tried to outlaw it and it just came back even stronger there. So when an outfit like Fuego takes liberties with the basic reggaeton groove it automatically raises the stakes on innovation that will have profound effects on other recordings and on the dance floor. --Felix Contreras
Gaelynn Lea, "Someday We'll Linger In The Sun"
There's simply no other song on our list quite like "Someday We'll Linger in the Sun." It's a song out of time, disconnected from pop influences, steeped in Irish tradition, a fiddle style Gaelynn knows well as a player and fiddle teacher. I found Gaelynn Lea after we sifted through over 6,000 submissions to our Tiny Desk Contest, and we chose this heartstring-puller as our winner. It's what I try and find in music: a singular voice, a sound that can be made by no one else that also speaks to me, that connects emotionally. It's likely music out of your norm, but here's your chance to take a leap and listen. --Bob Boilen
The Gloaming, "The Pilgrim's Song"
Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird possesses one of the world's most beautiful voices — and it's framed to perfection on this song from the all-star quintet The Gloaming. Wistful, tender and completely transporting. --Anastasia Tsioulcas
Gregory Porter, "Take Me To The Alley"
Built around a meditative piano line and made opalescent by Alicia Olatuji's gentle background vocals, this parable of divine visitation from young jazz's favorite male voice offers today's world the compassion it so sorely needs. --Ann Powers
Hayes Carll, "Sake Of The Song"
Though it's roughened up with a lonesome delivery and a healthy dose of cynicism, this self-aware meditation on the work of being a musician is oddly affirming: No matter whether you're a superstar or a starving artist, it's up to you to "tell your truth however you choose." --Rachel Horn
Heron Oblivion, "Beneath Fields"
Picture the scene: Gently unfurling smoke covers lush, green grass. It's barely morning. Flames flicker around a maypole as ribbons curl up into ash. Featuring the regal voice of Meg Baird with members of Comets On Fire and Assemble Head In Sunburst Sound, this is psychedelic music that whispers fire. --Lars Gotrich
Iggy Pop, "Gardenia"
An old man's cry to the working woman he stalks, illicitly employs and (no mistaking it) loves. Punk's greatest living emeritus infuses this ballad with longing and disgust, honoring the ambiguities it demands, while his all-star band paints the nightscape dirty behind him. --Ann Powers
Ingrid (feat. Sevyn Streeter), "Flex"
With the help of R&B goddess Sevyn Streeter, Texas songwriter and rapper — and recent signee of Beyoncé's Parkwood Entertainment — Ingrid unfurls an A1 dope girl anthem, perfect to put on repeat while getting ready for a night out. And at the after party, and the after-after party, if you catch my drift. --Kiana Fitzgerald
Jaimeo Brown, "Be So Glad"
A work song from a Mississippi prison c. 1959, remixed in the discomfiting/soothing electro-acoustic manner of Radiohead. But then the sax solo kicks in, praise and ardor at once. --Patrick Jarenwattananon
James Blake (feat. Bon Iver), "I Need A Forest Fire"
Together and separately, James Blake and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon have put a lot of thought into smearing the lines that might otherwise separate folk, electronic and gospel music. In "I Need A Forest Fire," they follow through, crafting a sweeping and unsettling ode to the kind of renewal you only get when everything you know goes up in flames. --Stephen Thompson
Jeff Parker, "Get Dressed"
A guitarist with rhythmic pedigree (Tortoise, Chicago Underground) makes a sonically rich "beat tape" from new recordings and old samples, turning the Dilla-esque trick of sounding like it was made by a human. --Patrick Jarenwattananon
Jowell y Randy, "Guadalupe"
Wonder whatever happened to clever music videos? They are apparently alive and well in Puerto Rico. In the video for "Guadalupe," a Caribbean take on The Exorcist, the dynamic duo Jowell y Randy plays to the camera. Don't let the padre costumes fool you. These guys cross the line in telling this wacky tale of the devil and his monios. --Felix Contreras
Kadri Voorand & Talinn Chamber Orchestra, "Plainland Song (Korvits)"
Keen to uphold his country's rich singing tradition, Tõnu Kõrvits reached back to rework a choral song by fellow Estonian Veljo Tormis. The result is a cinematically evocative meditation on Estonia's south-eastern plains, sustained by Kadri Voorand's androgynous voice and the thrumming of the kannel, the Estonian zither. --Tom Huizenga
Kali Uchis, "Sabor a Mí"
Written by Mexican composer Álvaro Carrillo Alarcón nearly 60 years ago, "Sabor a Mí" is a staple that's been turned over again and again by Latino artists. With nothing but an understated Rhodes and her own sultry, lingering vocals, Kali Uchis has delivered a singular interpretation that finds its sound somewhere between Trio los Panchos and "Nothing Even Matters" by Ms. Lauryn Hill. The longing is clear whether you speak Spanish or not. –Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey
Kanye West (feat. Chance the Rapper), "Ultralight Beam"
Kanye West barely bothers to greet us at the door of his latest creation, but it's hard to blame him given the state of the place: You can hear in his murmured welcome that he's itching to get back to tightening screws and realigning gears. Like the best scenes in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the Homestar Runner cartoon where Strong Bad gets a computer virus, The Life of Pablo is a world in permanent collapse, where each brick laid fractures the one beneath it. With the builder indisposed, "Ultralight Beam" instead presents his horsemen — faith, more, safe, war, the four humors of a Christian hedonist pulled between private domesticity and public provocation — as well as a host of avatars to speak on his behalf. It's fun to imagine how each featured voice, especially gospel godfather Kirk Franklin, might fare given time to stretch out in the song's starry expanse, but once Chance The Rapper steps on the scene he draws all the available light. Just barely 23, Chancelor Bennett approaches the mic having absorbed the lessons of Kanye's pop decade and assembles a ladder of punchlines with the same "How are you doing that?" deftness his mentor once wrung from Nicki Minaj. It's quite a thing to witness, the master content to wade in his insecurity while the student walks on air. --Daoud Tyler-Ameen
Kari Faux, "Lie 2 My Face"
Over the most adventurous beat from her debut album, Lost En Los Angeles, the curveball quasi-emcee from Little Rock, Ark. is on one as she taunts and teases the temporary object of her affection. --Kiana Fitzgerald
Stealthy and addictive and wild smart, this is the one you put on and just wait for somebody to come ask you who it is. Works every room; makes a little dance floor wherever you go. --Frannie Kelley
KING, "The Greatest"
"The Greatest" is the opening statement of an album a long time in the making, but you'd never know it from the way the song settles into its featherweight groove. The lyrics, of course, are about the greatest ever "greatest ever," Muhammad Ali; what hit the ears as a demonstration of joy found in gracefulness when it first came out found new meaning as a tribute to Ali's singular — and socially crucial — self-confidence when the champ died on June 3. --Jacob Ganz
Ladi's husky tone bounces flawlessly over producer Parks' uptempo electro-soul foundation. It's all fun and video games until that hook kicks in. It's serious business from there. --Bobby Carter
Leslie Odom Jr., "I Know That You Know"
The Kickstarter pitch for Leslie Odom Jr.'s solo album, conceived well before the world knew him as a flow-savvy antihero in a waistcoat, was to make the record Nat King Cole would make today. But even here, singing a reworked Cole classic, his voice touches far more than what's on the page. Odom's instrument steals your breath not just with smoothness but complexity, exuding an acutely modern blackness that can move through jazz clubs, church halls, Beats by Dre headphones and the Broadway stage, without pausing to self-congratulate. Wherever he lands next, it'll be in our interest to show up, too, ears and minds open. --Daoud Tyler-Ameen
Leyla McCalla, "A Day For The Hunter, A Day for the Prey"
"A Day For the Hunter, a Day For the Pray" is a brief glimpse into Haitian-American cellist, singer and songwriter Leyla McCalla's rich, multi-faceted musical identity. It's her imaginative reinterpretation of a Haitian proverb, a poetic inhabiting of the voice of the oppressed who've survived by struggle and cunning, lent brisk energy by the vigorous lilt of her phrasing and the darting cadence she taps out with her bow. --Jewly Hight
Lindstrøm, "Closing Shot"
For the first minute, it sounds like a pep rally, for the next a chase scene from a neon rip-off of a Michael Mann film. After that, it's all top-down driving, probably in a pastel early-'90s Mercedes, distant city lights glinting off the pearlescent paint job at the moment just after the sun drops below the horizon when the sky is transparent fire and you know that if you keep driving west, and hit the gas pedal a little harder, you can keep the light from disappearing for just a few minutes longer. --Jacob Ganz
Los Angeles Master Chorale, "our common fate (lang)"
Composer David Lang snipped words from the national anthems of all 193 United Nations member countries to weave together into a five-movement piece called the national anthems, performed here by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Calder Quartet. Overall, the effect is disquieting — the lyrical collage makes it clear just how much each country lays stake to the same kinds of claims and aspirations. Lang sets the piece in spare, sharply rendered sonic lines — each like a pen-and-ink drawing — but in this last movement, the chorus and strings bathe the listener in radiant susurrations of sound. Just gorgeous. --Anastasia Tsioulcas
Lucy Dacus, "I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore"
It's no fun to be trapped in a stereotype, so Lucy Dacus decided she wouldn't be. In "I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore," the Richmond singer-songwriter swipes through various potential personas — the cute one, the smart one, the artist — with her signature lyrical wit. But Dacus is so earnest, with a beautiful, resonant voice, that her shapeshifting comes across as soul-searching, never insincere. --Marissa Lorusso
The underground dance track of the year (thus far) is actually a throwback to an era when vocal house topped the pop charts. The infectious hook of "Feelings" — a snippet from the a cappella of The Jason Load Experience's "Mainline '90" — was recorded in 1989, the same year a similar-sounding dance act, C + C Music Factory, unleashed Gonna Make You Sweat on the world. While that album spawned three gold singles, "Mainline '90" never received the radio edit that might have made it a crossover hit. Instead, it was the track's a cappella, featuring isolated vocals from guest singer Iyona, that left its mark on history. More than a dozen producers, from the likes of drum 'n' bass act Omni Trio to progressive house star Sasha have sampled Iyona's ecstatic sangin' over the years, but none of those cut-and-paste jobs feel as seamlessly integrated as "Feelings." Whoever is hiding behind the Mainline moniker has friends in high places: BBC Radio 1 premiered the 12" in March, and some of the finest DJs in the world, including Four Tet and Ben UFO, spun it long before it became commercially available. --Otis Hart
Maren Morris, "Rich"
Nashville hasn't produced a singer who sounds so effortlessly close to the contemporary pop moment since Shania Twain ruled the charts as mid-'90s folk-rock was revving into millennial hyperdrive. Maren Morris sounds awfully comfortable over this year's pseudo island vibes, and the big joke of the lyrics — she's not actually rolling in it, just good enough at falling for an unreliable partner's promises to go pro — puts her alongside Rihanna, Fifth Harmony, Sia and other recessionistas making small change into big hits. What sets her apart: the economy of the punchlines in her lyrics and the startling complexity of the bait-and-switch internal rhymes on the chorus. "Rich" is more fun to sing along with than anything else currently on the radio, and if there's any justice, it'll soon be more fun to sing along with than anything playing at an enormous stadium near you. --Jacob Ganz
Margaret Glaspy, "You & I"
One of the year's best kiss-off songs from one of the year's best new artists. "You & I" has swagger, a ridiculously catchy guitar riff and perfectly delivered indifference. --Robin Hilton
Mashrou' Leila, "Aoede"
A band from Beirut scores an anthemic, unforgettable plea to the muse of song: cool, glittering instrumental textures overlaid with lead singer Hamed Sinno's beseeching, impassioned falsetto. (Check out the timely video, too.) --Anastasia Tsioulcas
Michael Kiwanuka, "Black Man In A White World"
This song builds like consciousness being raised. Gospel handclaps underpin afro-Funk guitar, swirling strings and Kiwanuka's earthy, ranging vocals, elevating a lyric that's as honest about the experience of encountering racism as it is steadfast and passionate about surviving it. --Ann Powers
Mikael Seifu, "How To Save A Life (Vector of Eternity)"
The Addis Ababa producer mixes the sounds of his city's street musicians with mind-bending techno to transcendent effect. On "How To Save A Life," Seifu expertly orchestrates a choir of synths, samples and an Ethiopian lute called the masinko to conjure a crescendo worthy of the rapture. --Otis Hart
Miles Mosley, "Abraham"
From the L.A. sessions that brought you Kamasi Washington's The Epic comes a muscular groove that finds bassist Mosley stepping to the mic with a swagger, proudly claiming his multifaceted identity amid regal fanfares. --Rachel Horn
Mitski, "Your Best American Girl"
There are love songs, and then there is "Your Best American Girl." Like the character in the song, Mitski makes herself into someone else in order to be with someone else. It's the classic tale of two worlds that don't fit, but the way Mitski plays with '90s grunge angst (the band-dropout-and-feedback-squeal is a nice touch) puts a tongue firmly in her cheek as tears run down it. --Lars Gotrich
Morgane Stapleton & Chris Stapleton, "You Are My Sunshine"
This is a song that's become so embedded in popular culture as a simple children's tune that it's all but lost its country connotations, not to mention the darkness in its lesser-known verses. Morgane Stapleton and her husband draw out those bleaker overtones in a swampy, goosebump-inducing rendition that evokes a storm brewing. --Rachel Horn
Moses Boyd, "Rye Lane Shuffle"
Give the drummer some! South London drummer, producer and all around cool-as-heck musical explorer Moses Boyd builds a non-stop groove on one of his drum patters with echoes of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the small band sound and Tower of Power in the horn punch. Is that a bass clarinet I hear? --Felix Contreras
Mr. Fingers, "Qwazars'
This wonderful return by Larry Heard, one of American house music's resident geniuses, is beauty as simplicity, parsing tension between the harmonic chords of sci-fi keyboards, the 122bpm hi-hats/bass-kick and a curious narrator. --Piotr Orlov
I just came home from Havana, and I have to say I heard reggaeton more often than I heard classic Cuban son. While the genre was once identified by its very manly posturing, artists like Mula are softening the edges and offering lyrics that play to the ladies. --Felix Contreras
ORA,"Kyrie after Byrd"
For its ambitious debut album, the newly-formed choir from London called ORA commissioned contemporary composers to look back to the Renaissance for inspiration. Their assignment: Choose a movement from composer William Byrd's Mass for Five Voices and compose a new work based on it. Roxanna Panufnik chose the Kyrie, the standard "Lord, have mercy," opening to a requiem mass. Her approach is respectful of the original. Instead of drenching the music in modernism, Panufnik introduces subtle contemporary harmonies, allowing the piece to unfold like a flower in true high Renaissance style. --Tom Huizenga
Parker Millsap, "Heaven Sent"
Parker Millsap has a talent for bringing convincing, complex characters to life. Here, tapping thoughtfully and critically into a language learned in a Pentecostal upbringing, he illustrates a young gay man's heartbreaking plea for his pastor father's acceptance. --Rachel Horn
Paul Simon, "The Werewolf"
In his seventh decade of making music, Paul Simon's profoundly masterful songwriting remains just as provocative as ever. Set to a 21st century African polyrhythm-meets-'50s-rockabilly beat. "The Werewolf" rides on a series of cheeky, deeply-premediated lyrics about a Milwaukee man killed by a sushi knife and some sage musings about "ignorance and arrogance, a national debate." The howling effects are as hokey as Shakira's "She-Wolf," but you know there's a deeper point given that the werewolf has always been the symbol of transmogrified masculinity as monstrousness. Always a vessel of the era, Simon's latest seems fitting in a year that's already seen toxic machismo contribute to everything from the rise of Trump and to the recent catastrophe in Orlando. --Jason King
Pinegrove, "Old Friends"
"Old Friends" is equal parts precocious and endearing, with a groove that lands somewhere between roots rock and emo. Pinegrove singer Evan Stephens Hall has a twang that's undeniably American but regionally indistinct; he sings with a youthful honesty that gives way to unexpected and brief moments of clarity. It makes "Old Friends" a theme song for walking around your hometown and thinking about the painful decay of relationships and the lessons yet to be learned. --Marissa Lorusso
No matter how ridiculous and how outrageously fun it is, PUP's "DVP" is ultimately a huge bummer crammed into two and a half minutes of a chaotic pop-punk sing-along. Frontman Stefan Babcock is three sheets to the wind and trying (and failing) to make up with a girlfriend who practically says, "Yeah, you'll never do better than me." It's a vicious cycle of screwing up and drinking and feeling like a turd for screwing up and drinking. But the band always has his back, shouting along when s*** gets too real, and making a dumb joke to cover it all up: "She says that I drink too much / Hawaiian Fruit Punch / She says I need to grow up." --Lars Gotrich
Pusha T (feat. Jay Z), "Drug Dealers Anonymous"
This song is precise and boss, sneering at the kids. It's sophisticated in a way that's just about unnecessary today, recalling a kind of imaginary rap belle époque to which really only these two aspire anymore. --Frannie Kelley
Radiohead, "Burn The Witch"
All anyone really needed to dub A Moon Shaped Pool a return-to-form for Radiohead was some innovative, dread-inducing orchestration (dig the opening strings, plucked with guitar picks) and Thom Yorke singing the words "This is a low-flying panic attack." That is what we call a band hitting its sweet spot. --Jacob Ganz
The Range, "Florida"
Producer James Hinton dresses vocals of unknowns hijacked from YouTube in simulacra of yesterday's hottest beats; rather than sounding like a rusty time capsule, his creation taps into the insta-nostalgia of moments buried in scrolling feeds, the humanity hidden in corners of insane comment sections, the time-slippage created by our never-ending rush of content. --Jacob Ganz
Rihanna (feat. Drake), "Work"
The most corporeally-galvanizing song of the year next to "Panda," "Work" boasts the laziest chorus in many a moon, but who cares when the reggaefied beat is architectonically designed to Zika-infect you in the effort to force you to dance at your own risk. The stream-of-conscious lyric and Ri-Ri's bourgeoning low-pressure approach to singing, abetted by an above-average Drake cameo, has been the song that blasted from a trillion car radios, that could never fail to jump start a party — in any global shebeen or dance club. Rihanna still feels like a bit of tourist in the accomplished one-off club hits she concocts with Calvin Harris, but she feels entirely at home and fully herself in "Work"'s pan-Caribbean setting. --Jason King
Riton (feat. Kah-Lo), "Rinse & Repeat"
The feel-good hit of the summer has a feel-good story, too. Henry Smithson, who records as Riton (pronounced with a French accent on the "o"), has long been a producer's producer. With a catalog that dates back to the late 1990s, Smithson makes the kind of pop-curious dance music that would sound just right in a James Murphy DJ set, but he's never had that signature single that reaches fans outside the club. Until now. "Rinse & Repeat," powered by the understated vocalist Kah-Lo, has taken the dance world by absolute storm, racking up more than 16 million plays on Spotify since its re-release on Interscope in May. And for a dance song, "Rinse & Repeat" has lyrics worthy of an ASCAP award: "Time to make the club go up / time to shut this b---- down / this is not how I woke up / but it's how I look now." --Otis Hart
Robbie Fulks, "South Bend Soldiers On"
'Tis a gift to be simple, but even the most pristine scene always has secrets hidden in its corners. This delicate ballad from Fulks's fantastic Upland Stories comes on gentle and wise, embroidered by lilting Wurlitzer and organ figures from Wayne Horvitz. But the wise words of the song's Midwestern town elder, ruminating on his porch swing, are colored by subtle sarcasm and deep loss. Longtime Chicagoan Fulks captures the fatalism of a heartlander who recognizes that, in a nation pledged to constant motion, to stay put is to be left behind. There's a little T.S. Eliot in this song, and a lot of novelist Marilynne Robinson's plainspoken grace; but mostly there's Fulks's own insight into ordinary Americans who still dream despite themselves. --Ann Powers
Robert Ellis, "Drivin'"
It's just like the agile musical mind of Robert Ellis to pull the bait-and-switch in "Drivin'," which he co-wrote with Angaleena Presley. The song may be a frisky string band romp, but it conjures a feeling of overwhelming inertia. Verse by verse, the character confesses to searching out mundane ways to kill time rather than face the reality that a marriage has disintegrated. --Jewly Hight
Rolf Lislevand, "Caprice de chaccone (Corbetta)"
Get Rolf Lislevand going about playing the baroque guitar and he'll talk about rhetoric, speech and storytelling. Here, he proves himself a great communicator. With crystalline transparency, precision and a sense of the dance in every note, chord and strum, Lislevand makes 350-year-old music come vibrantly alive for the 21st century. --Tom Huizenga
In Savages, singer Jehnny Beth presides over a sound that can roar with thunderous, stone-serious ferocity. But "Adore" dials down the excess without sacrificing intensity — and, even better, makes celebrating the joy of living sound like a radical statement of purpose. --Stephen Thompson
SG Lewis (feat. Dornik), "All Night"
The U.K.-based producer created the ultimate '80s midnight rider and tapped fellow Londoner and NPR fav Dornik to skate over the filtered kick and sexy Moog to further build our anticipation for an album. --Bobby Carter
Shura, "Touch (Four Tet Remix)"
Budding British pop star Alexandra Denton, a.k.a. Shura, broke through in 2014 thanks to the slow-burning alt-pop anthem "Touch." With her debut album on the horizon, the viral hit received an upbeat update from the most respected name in the remix business that, even if it doesn't necessarily improve on the sexiness of the original, gives us a reason to celebrate it all over again. --Otis Hart
Skepta (feat. Pharrell), "Numbers"
The godfather of U.K. grime teams up with one of the world's greatest melody makers for a diss track about record label priorities. The fiercely independent Skepta runs his own imprint, Boy Better Know, so he means it when he spits bars like "A&R looking like shark / Front teeth lookin' like Jaws." --Otis Hart
Tacocat, "I Hate The Weekend"
At first pass, this two-minute speedball pop-punk gem is all surliness and sugar: an irrepressibly fun anthem that rages against fun with a contrarian smirk. But all that fizzy propulsion hides a darker and more pointed examination of how safe spaces are routinely compromised and overwhelmed by floods of drunken interlopers: "Paint the rainbow shades of beige / Take down everything we made / The neighborhood walks home afraid." --Stephen Thompson
Terrace Martin (feat. Rose Gold and Kamasi Washington), "Think of You"
A trippy and natural swirl of your auntie's records and your cousins' and yours and head and heart, what was and what could be. --Frannie Kelley
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, "Astonished Man"
Bit-crunched guitar riffs, fractured beats and tUnE-yArDs' adventurous production gives life to Thao Nguyen's visceral feelings of abandonment stemming from her father's absence from her life. As she dissects the lingering wounds and need for closure that estrangement has caused, Thao channels heart-wrenching experiences into jarring artistic risk and yields her best work yet. --Mike Katzif
Tweet, "Dadada ... Struggle"
Charlene Keys' ability to convey inner turmoil has been unmatched since her debut, Southern Hummingbird. On the elegantly orchestrated "Dadada" she yearns to break the hold of irresistible love. There's nothing worse than conscious wrongdoing but we're front and center when Tweet sings about it. --Bobby Carter
Ugly God, "Water"
In his typical style, the Houston producer-rapper doles out memorable one-liner after memorable one-liner (none of which can be written here) in one of the funniest rap songs to come out in the past six months, by far. The best part? There's way more where that came from — find Ugly God on SoundCloud ASAP. --Kiana Fitzgerald
Weaves, "One More"
The first time I heard Weaves perform this song I snapped back to being a 7-year-old with a little wind-up airplane. There was a rubber band attached to a propeller, attached to a small 8-inch balsa wood plane. I'd wind the rubber band tight, real tight, crank it to where it would almost bust, then let it fly. The plane's wild 30-second journey precisely describes the joy-filled frenzy of "One More" and the frantic beauty that is the new Toronto band, Weaves. --Bob Boilen
Weezer, "California Kids"
Weezer proves it's still among the best when it comes to crafting thoughtful, infectious pop with a concept album inspired by the Beach Boys that opens with this anthemic ear worm. --Robin Hilton
William Bell, "The Three Of Me"
The veteran soul songwriter's deceptively straightforward lyricism is enhanced by the weathered wisdom of someone who's loved and lost in complicated ways over a lifetime. Appropriately enough, given the ballad's conceit, Bell sings harmony with himself. --Rachel Horn
Xenia Rubinos, "Mexican Chef"
"Mexican Chef" feels overstuffed in the best possible way, as Xenia Rubinos tears through rapid-fire commentary within an arrangement that defies genre and convention. But the song's message — about the burdens Latin Americans face while propping up the U.S. service economy — rings through with precision and force. --Stephen Thompson
Yo Gotti (feat. E-40), "Law"
The follow-up to "Down in the DM," Gotti's biggest hit record, has proven to be equally potent. Follow the guidelines he and 40-water have placed before you and flourish. --Bobby Carter
Young Thug and Travis Scott (feat. Quavo), "Pick Up the Phone"
We already know Travis Scott and Young Thug go good together; this time, with the addition of Quavo, they're pouring their sticky-sweet insouciance over a distracted and nearly believable ode to monogamy. Thug equates cheating with treason, which is appreciated, and Quavo admits he was wrong. Other, less attractive choices are made, too, but those dampened steel pans, sounding like a parade rolling past Ariel's block under the sea, charm instead of cloy. Credit for that most go to summer jam chefs of previous seasons Frank Dukes, Vinylz and Allen Ritter; can't forget about Mike Dean's mix here, not ever, especially after those synths loom and veer melodramatically as the curtain falls on this fever dream of a song. --Frannie Kelley
Rafters-loud, "Pillowtalk" is the most aggressively sung tune ever about the hushed, intimate communication that happens between lovers. But Mr. Malik had reason to shout: The Frank Ocean-esque track convincingly announced his #brexit from his paler One Direction peers as it became a runaway global sleeper. It did so on the strength of Zayn's on-fleek, disaffected South Asian pin-up hotness and his unapologetically Brit pronunciation ("in the bed all day"). That's to say nothing of the song's winding sharp melodic turns (who closes a pre-chorus on the tonic?) and its shame-free embrace of a dusky erotic sensibility, the sort of which no ex-boy bander has ever previously aimed or achieved. --Jason King
The 312, "Touch Your Body (Moodymann Remix)"
The debut collaboration by three Chicago house legends (Felix da Housecat, Vince Lawrence and Jamie Principle) grooves for the modern dance-floor and speaks with a community voice — both a throwback, and a way forward. –Piotr Orlov
The 1975, "A Change Of Heart"
What's the word for negging someone on your way out of a relationship, when the stakes are nil and you could just as easily be polite? Two decades after Weezer zoomed in on a ragged microfiber of the male id, The 1975 have crafted a Pinkerton successor whose music feels imported from the peak of the album era, but whose lyrics read like 2016 Twitter poetry: slight and sweet, audibly underpunctuated and often packing a last-second finishing move. Warm-bath synths notwithstanding, the most effective device on I like it when you sleep's most undeniable track is Matt Healy's accent, whose lushness swallows you whole before you realize what a jerk he'd be for saying any of this stuff to your face. --Daoud Tyler-Ameen