CMA Awards 2018

10 Best Rock/Alternative Songs of 2016: Critics' Picks

Jeff Forney
The 1975 photographed on Oct. 14, 2016 at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.

It’s no secret that the landscape is adjusting for rock and alternative music. The umbrella of genres didn’t see much play on the top 40 in 2016, though numerous artists managed to send albums to the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart.

Here, we take a look at our favorite singles from the rock and alternative world, some of which come from these very successful albums. Others are from critically acclaimed newcomers that didn’t sell tremendously, but were on tastemakers’ lips throughout the year. You’ll hear plenty of these rock artists figuring out new, exciting places to take their guitars. But as our list proves, don’t assume it’s just the kids doing so…

10. Twenty One Pilots, "Heathens"

Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph became legitimate pop stars in 2016, hitting with “Stressed Out,” “Ride” and finally this single, tailor-made for the Suicide Squad official soundtrack. Some onlookers had a tough time getting used to them in the top 40 crowd -- and understandably so -- but heathens as they may be, Twenty One Pilots appear ready to stay awhile, and the sleek synth strokes of their first post-Blurryface single provided their most undeniable statement yet.  

9. Beck, "Wow"

2015 brought us the funk-tastic “Dreams,” then 2016 brought bar-dropping Beck back with a vengeance on this zonked-out, pan-flutey, hip-hop-tinged electronic single. The new Beck album it supposedly represents still hasn’t materialized, but this one’s done plenty to keep our attention since dropping in June. When Beck does follow up 2014’s Grammy-winning Morning Phase, be ready to rave.

8. Bon Iver, "33 'GOD'"

Another artist who’s no stranger to following up a Grammy, Justin Vernon took his time recovering from the added spotlight of Bon Iver’s massive sophomore album. He returned this year with 22, A Million, a challenging, yet tender album, marked by a juxtaposition of the human and the un-human, the clear and the distorted. It’s all best expressed on this beautiful collage of a single: Vernon’s voice, a Paolo Nutini sample, the sound of an orchestra in the distance.

7. Phantogram, "You Don't Get Me High Anymore"

The indie duo Phantogram earned itself added exposure through Big Grams, its ongoing collaboration with Big Boi. Back on the Phantogtam front (after a debut EP as Big Grams last year), Phantogram held strong on alternative radio with this powerful send-off to overdosing on whatever it is that ails you. 

6. DNCE, "Cake by the Ocean"

There are plenty of ways to sing about sex in the pop lexicon, and for their breakthrough single, Joe Jonas’ irresistible new band DNCE landed somewhere between beach and baking metaphors. With a song this catchy, it hardly matters what route they took, as long as they’re working those “ya ya ya’s” and that rubbery disco bass line like a millennial No Doubt.

5. Mitski, "Your Best American Girl"

The centerpiece of her breakthrough album Puberty 2, “Your Best American Girl” is an absolute triumph for Mitski Miyawaki, even if it doesn’t start out that way. At first, the half-Japanese, half-American songwriter is singing to her “All-American boy,” reflecting on how her mother raised her, wondering if she could ever be the titular girl. Along with a wall of fuzzy indie rock guitars (swiped from that Best American indie rock canon) Mitski ends the song strong and steadfast in her own, being no one else’s idealized American girl.  

4. Angel Olsen, "Shut Up Kiss Me"

After a strong of very promising albums this decade, St. Louis-born singer-songwriter Angel Olsen hit mass critical appeal with 2016’s My Woman, and rightfully so. Working with a variety of instruments and song structures, Olsen’s soaring voice and powerful persona shined through to reveal a very special talent. It’s most evident on “Shut Up Kiss Me,” a one of the more straightforward rock songs in her repertoire, but a revelation nonetheless. 

3. David Bowie, "Lazarus"

When David Bowie died two days after releasing Blackstar, onlookers quickly pointed to “Lazarus” -- particularly its macabre video -- as an intentional “goodbye letter” from a dying artist. The line about “scars that can’t be seen” could certainly allude to Bowie’s hidden 18-month battle with cancer and in comparing himself to a bluebird, he sounds like someone yearning for freedom, perhaps from an ailing body. Whatever its meaning, “Lazarus”  captured Bowie’s grand final statement on Blackstar, with its eerie stabs of guitar and sax blaring away. 

2. Radiohead, "Burn the Witch"

Radiohead has made a quite a career out of expressing paranoia, and they returned to their discomforting comfort zone on the first song released from their 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool. Thom Yorke and company offer a warning against scapegoats, groupthink and mob mentality but -- just listen to those driving strings! -- it comes on the most uplifting track on the whole disc. 

1. The 1975, “A Change of Heart”

The 1975’s sophomore album was a revelation, and frankly, we could have gone with a number of tracks -- “Somebody Else,” “Love Me,” perhaps a deeper cut like “Loving Someone.” But there’s something just so alluring about “A Change of Heart,” the young British band’s incandescent synthpop tale of a relationship crumbling apart. Frontman Matty Healy is openly shallow in his all-too-human flaws, pointing out how ogling his partner’s good looks both drew him in and turned him off. But he’s also masterful in setting the scene with the way he point out her little quirks (lighting the wrong end of a cigarette, Instagram-ing a salad) and the way he breaks down in tears when it’s all over. There’s all that, and the adorable music video, in which Healy masterfully mimes out the narrative already told so well in song.

Billboard Year in Music 2016