As I mentioned one year ago, it’s difficult for me to rank songs, so when sifting through the vast amount of music that comes out in a year, I try to just write about the tracks that I liked, or thought were important enough to write about. I’m sure I missed a lot. This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list. Obviously, comment on what got missed, or what you disagree with. Please do, it could be fun.
“Nobody Speak” – DJ Shadow ft. Run the Jewels: Spitting over a psycho spaghetti western beat like this one suits RTJ pretty well. One can only imagine the townsfolk stopping and pausing as Killer Mike and El-P ride past the general store on horseback and drop lines like “flame your crew quicker than Trump fucks his youngest.”
“Tiny” – Dinosaur Jr. To put this in perspective – Lou Barlow, J. Mascis, and Murph have reunited for a longer span of time than the initial iteration of the band. Thank God, because they’re still cranking out some of the most solid rock tunes of any band. For a certain set of people, Dinosaur Jr. is classic rock, but unlike most other classic rock bands deep into their career, they’re still making relevant music.
“Burn the Witch” – Radiohead: Radiohead has created a catalogue of songs filled with existential despair. “BtW” is no different. In some manner, “BtW” is the song of 2016 – after all its title feels oddly similar to the demagoguery underlying much of the year’s politics. The song itself shoves along, held together by an orchestra of screeching strings. The song feels a bit out of control. It’s like a nuclear reactor with no failsafe key. Thom Yorke’s piercing falsetto sounds a bit removed and meditative and it controls the song for a while, until the outro. Without Yorke’s voice, the song spins out of control as if the entire song is about to implode. It never does, but as the song rushes to its conclusion the strings start cracking and sound seriously as if they are going to descend into anarchy. Listening to “BtW” is like listening to 2016. While the song never actually descends into complete chaos (something the band is very capable of, i.e. “National Anthem”) the destruction and cacophony doesn’t seem far off. It teeters on the brink – of what? Who knows, but that’s the scariest part.
“Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”- Car Seat Headrest: “DD/KW” is a great example of Will Toledo’s ability to craft soaring choruses. “It doesn’t have to be like this” is a big, anthemic lyric that deserves to be shouted in unison anywhere from your cousin’s dingy basement to the Super Bowl halftime show. Hey, NFL- Car Seat Headrest for the 2017 halftime show?
“Sister”- Angel Olsen: “Sister” starts off slow and folkish, highlighting the contours of Olsen’s vibrating vocals. Around halfway through as she sings “All my life I thought I’d change,” the drums pick up and the song begins to crescendo. There is something distinctly melancholic in Olsen’s voice. She sounds often as if she is longing for something and this is amplified as she sings that last line over the song’s climax. It’s vulnerable. It’s yearning. Most of all, it’s beautiful.
“Frank Sinatra” – The Avalanches: It’s hard to pick a single song from The Avalanches off of Wildflower. The songs flow into one another and create a cohesive space that manages to turn your surroundings into some surreal liquid reality. So, “Frank Sinatra” gets on the list. Not because it’s the best, but because of the album’s tracks it’s one of the few you can remove from the context of the album itself. Also, because it has some great verses from Danny Brown.
“Bob Dylan’s Grandma” – Diarrhea Planet: Diarrhea Planet has a tendency for unleashing an assault of guitars on its listeners as the band throttles through its brand of breakneck power pop. So, it’s interesting that what makes “Bob Dylan’s Grandma” one of the standout tracks from Turn to Gold is a subdued moment of quiet guitar picking at the center of the song. At the two minute mark, the song slows and repeats the opening riff, and seems to build towards an explosion of sound. But the crescendo ends and we’re given a quiet variation on the original guitar part. It fades for a second around the 2:40 mark before starting its build all over again, and erupting into a volcanic anthem of a chorus.
“Human Performance” – Parquet Courts: Andrew Savage is a whip smart songwriter, and across four albums has consistently proven his intelligence and wit as a writer. But every once in awhile, the sheen of NYC cool is broken down, revealing a deep and vulnerable soul. “Human Performance,” a track mourning the end of a relationship, is one of those moments.
“On the Lips” – Frankie Cosmos: Greta Kline sings quietly. Her voice cracks under the intimacy sometimes like when she sings “why would I kiss ya/ If I could kiss ya?” “On the Lips” showcases Kline’s ability to craft emotionally rich and confessional songs on a minimalist scale. In under two minutes, reflecting on an encounter on the subway she’s able to touch upon emotional paralysis, belief, and ultimately the existential worth of human interaction. There’s a directness in her language that reveals much more than she ever says. Like Hemingway’s “Iceberg Method,” the bluntness and brevity of this song reveals a whole litany of hidden emotions and feelings.
Also, according to the all seeing data tracker at Spotify, this was my second most listened to song this year. I’m sure if it hadn’t come a month or so on the heels of the release of Parquet Courts’s “Outside,” it very likely would have been number one.
“Below” – White Lung: This track sees White Lung expand their sonic vision, adding in Cure-esque synths, while still retaining the band’s hardcore roots. “A broken crystal carcass reflects in all the light / I see it fading now but it’s so bright, so bright,” Mish Way sings. In a song about the transience of beauty, this song recognizes the little moment of it and watches as it fades, not as a lament, but as a testament to the fact that it was there in the first place.
“Pink White House” – Priests: Katie Alice Greer’s voice can tear down walls. She has the ability to vary from powerful belting to a punkish sneer. She follows a lineage of punk singers like Corinne Tucker and Kathleen Hannah with her ability to provide a dynamism in her vocals that match the harshness of her band’s music. “Pink White House” eviscerates the American Dream and how it’s “anything you want” mentality is at its most benign a sedative, and at its worst a direct accessory to violence.
“(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says it’s not a Problem)” – Car Seat Headrest: The plainspoken way in which Will Toledo sings “Hangovers feel good when I know it’s the last one / Then I feel so good that I go and have another” can mask the level at which I emotionally connect with that line. “Drugs With Friends” showcases not only Toledo’s lyrical prowess (there’s also a great case of anadiplosis at the end of the song), but his ability to structure dynamic songs that grow and take off in surprising directions.
“Garden” – Hinds: Hinds just feel like a band that is having fun, like all the time. Their garage rock is built on infectious pop melodies that are one part Shangri Las, and another part Pavement.
“Lazarus” – David Bowie: “Look up here, I’m in Heaven” begins the parting statement from a man whose creative impulse never failed to take his career through surprising and fascinating transformations. In a sense, this is David Bowie’s eulogy for himself, and it kind of makes it hard to write about. The song is stunning. Bowie’s voice falters and cracks over the somber music. It’s one last great work, from one of the best artists ever.
“Gardenia” – Iggy Pop: I’ve come to believe that generally, punk musicians have made more enriching and interesting music later in their careers than sixties classic rock musicians. Iggy Pop’s collaboration with Josh Homme is just another example.
“Evil” – Savages: “Evil” assaults you, but only as a means of telling you that everyone will tell you to conform and to be like them. They’ll make you consent to their way of life, without ever asking you to do the same, and that in is what evil looks like.
“80808” – Death Grips: MC Ride, Andy Morin, and Zach Hill have been making some of the most interesting rap music this decade. The intensity of MC Ride’s delivery pairs perfectly with the band’s industrial noise collages. “80808” is a distinctly Death Grips song, and that’s a good thing.
“No More Parties in LA” – Kanye West, ft. Kendrick Lamar: 2016 is the year Kanye was really made for. It’s chaotic, shocking, and questionably so. But before all of this, before he buddied with Trump, before he feuded with T-Swift, before he declared “Bill Cosby Innocent!!!,” he gave us “No More Parties in LA.” While far from the introspection of “Real Friends” or the spiritual meditation of “Ultralight Beam,” this song is my favorite on Life of Pablo. Kendrick, who has subtly had a great 2016, shines on it, while Kanye’s rapping reveals an overly active mind through his free associative verse. Perhaps, of all the songs on Pablo, “No More Parties in LA,” shows us more of Kanye’s reason d’etrie than any other. It’s a snapshot into a hyperactive mind that works so fast, that its continual short-circuiting is almost unsurprising.
“Berlin Got Blurry” – Parquet Courts: Parquet Courts have expertly chronicled the anxieties of modern urban and technological life over the course of four albums now, but their best asset is in singing about the very real and human implications of these things. “Berlin Got Blurry” is no exception. Savage deftly describes the disorientation of being alone in an unfamiliar place – how at the end of the day cell phone service can seem too drastic of a commitment, and it’s freer and “so effortless just to be a stranger.”
“Kiss Me When I Bleed” – White Lung: There are songs about uncompromising love, love against the odds, forbidden love, etc. – but none come close to the intense sound and emotion in this song.
“Best to You” – Blood Orange: Dev Hynes and Empress Of collaborate in a song about being stuck in an abusive relationship. Hyne’s background vocals provide a haunting and ethereal counterpart to Empress Of’s distinct and curt lines.
“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” – Car Seat Headrest: Along with Naked Giants, Car Seat Headrest covered this at The Neptune in Seattle recently. Toledo somehow captures the energy (and sound) of David Byrne. It’s a loose and fun cover, that also excels at being undeniably true to the original Talking Heads version.
“Age of Consent” – Cayetana: It’s kind of just nice that Cayetana released something this year. The trio has been one of the gems of the Philly punk scene, since the release of their 2014 album, Nervous Like Me. Their take of New Order’s “Age of Consent” is strangely muted and subdued, but by no means does that detract from the cover. Augusta Koch’s vocals are simply stunning, and their clarity leads to a quieter catharsis than the original.
“Fake I.D.” – Joyce Manor: Joyce Manor is one of a new crop of bands pushing a new wave of pop punk into genuinely interesting territory. “Fake I.D.” continues this. It’s a clear mark of their development of their musicianship, without losing the energy that made their earlier efforts so enjoyable. I also know someone who experienced an almost identical situation to that of this song’s narrative. Hopefully he reads this.
P.S. Also there’s a reference to Phil Hartman, which for some reason strikes me as so distinctly obscure, which I think is half of the joy of it.
“Formation” – Beyonce: Well there’s the song itself, which stands as the high watermark of pop music this year, with the marching band chorus and the radar echo beat. There’s the music video where Beyonce sings from a top of a New Orleans cop car submerged in water. Then there’s the song as a declaration of African American and female empowerment. It’s possibly the most important song of 2016.
“All You Gotta Be When You’re 23 Is Yourself” – Free Cake For Every Creature: In my postgraduate life, I’ve stopped measuring years from January 1st– December 31. Instead, the new year starts around the time of college graduations in May. So earlier this summer, when I first heard this song, I was entering my second year of postgrad life. In the year since I had graduated college, I had landscaped, tutored, and worked at the bar that I’m still at. As a new crop of kids graduated, the aimlessness of my first year as an adult started to set in. Yeah, I was writing, but I didn’t have a lot of published work. Each time I listened to this song, it quelled my fears somewhat. “Call yourself an artist/ Work part time at Whole Foods/ It’s all good,” Katie Bennet sang. Saying that I’m 24 now isn’t enough time to give a retrospective on this sentiment, but she was right, it’s all good.
“If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You I Will” – Pup: Yeah the song’s about touring, but who hasn’t been stuck with someone in close quarters for an extended period of time. It’s a song that can be about counting the minutes to the end of the tour, or the weeks until the lease runs out on your college house.
“DVP” – Pup: In “DVP,” all that tension building up in the prior track explodes like a volcano in a cloud of self loathing, anger, and alcoholism. “I don’t give a shit, I just don’t wanna die and I don’t wanna live/ I said,” Stefan Babcock sings. But through all the self hatred, it’s an undeniably fun song and one of the best pop punk songs of the year.
“THat Part” – Schoolboy Q, ft. Kanye West: I could listen to Kanye repeat “Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay” a thousand times. Just as I could listen to the rest of his verse on “THat Part.”
“Outside” – Parquet Courts: According to Spotify, I played “Outside” more than any other song this year. The data doesn’t lie. This was my most played song. It’s a brief distillation of what makes Parquet Courts so indelible. There’s Savage’s oblique emotional lyricism (“I picked away all the gray hairs that I grew / That remained on the / Outside”), juxtaposed with his own cutting observations of his own self (How do I blame all my carelessness on you / Tell me”). The song also has one of the best hooks on the albums, making it easy to listen to this 1:40 track, four times in a row. I started off the year writing about this song, when Parquet Courts debuted it on WFUV. Twelve months later, it’s as exciting and addictive as it was then.
“Fool” – Frankie Cosmos: “Your name is a triangle / You’re heart is a square.”
“Shut Up Kiss Me” – Angel Olsen: There’s an urgency to “Shut Up Kiss Me,” that’s unlike any other love song. It’s there in the absence of the conjunction between “Shut Up” and “Kiss Me.” It’s there in the way the song surges forward led by Olsen, whose voice swells and quiets providing the song with a tight enough structure, so that it never feels as if the song is going to falter. It’s fast. It’s urgent and aggressive, but it’s never chaotic. Olsen’s sound is pretty distinctive. Not quite folk, at times retro, but also forward thinking. “Shut Up Kiss Me,” and the entirety of MY WOMAN are in a class of their own.
“Near to the Wild Heart of Life” – Japandroids: I love the artwork of all the Japandroids album covers which normally feature Brian King and David Prowse standing or sitting with each other in black and white. Contrasted with their giant sound, it frames the creators of this sonic good time explosion as just two friends making music together and having a good ass time doing it. “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” sees the band continue to expand their sound from the lo-fi of Post Nothing to the stadium sized anthems of Celebration Rock.
“33 “God”” – Bon Iver: On 22, A Million, Justin Vernon pushed his band Bon Iver in a direction that is almost unfathomable if he was still just the guy who wrote “Skinny Love” in a cabin in a Wisconsin forest. But over the past years, Vernon has revealed a restless creative and experimental spirit that really comes to a head on “33 ‘God.’” But even as he pushes forward sonically, Vernon retains an emotional vulnerability that sometimes can get lost in the experiment.
“Rainbow” – Jeff Rosenstock: On “Rainbow,” Rosenstock returns to the ska roots of his earlier bands like The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, and it could not be more enjoyable.
“War Ready” – Vince Staples: After a 2015 that saw the release of Summertime ’06, Staples contributed a much shorter effort this year with the EP Primma Donna. But don’t let Staple’s brevity fool you. This album is every bit as blunt force powerful as Summertime, especially on tracks like “War Ready.”
“Really Doe” – Danny Brown: I’ve already mentioned that Kendrick Lamar is having a subtly great 2016. On “Really Doe,” he guests and takes control of the chorus, along with his own verse. With killer verses from Earl, Kendrick, and Ab-Soul, it can be easy to forget the man whose track it is.
“Today” – Danny Brown: On “Today,” Danny Brown spits a rapidfire existential lament prophetic enough for everyone to listen.
“Opus” – Uranium Club: Driven by frantic eighth note drumming, “Opus” is a punk anthem that’s Devo by way of Dismemberment Plan. In a year that pop unk was the dominating force of the punk scene, Uranium Club’s frenetic is a danceable anomaly.
“Three Packs a Day” – Courtney Barnett: Even on a compilation album, Barnett’s wit shines through.
“Hot Topic” – Diarrhea Planet: Not many rock songs reach the same height of guitar theatrics on display in this track.
“Festival Song” – Jeff Rosenstock- “This is not a movement / It’s just careful entertainment / For an easy demographic / In their sweatshop denim jackets.” Obviously, this is a critique of the consumerism that surrounds festival culture, but it’s phrased in such a cutting and succinct manner. Rosenstock continues to be one of the best lyricists in punk.
“Cranes in the Sky” – Solange: To admit, writing about “Cranes in the Sky,” or Solange in general is to try to grapple with experiences and feelings that are unfamiliar to me. “Cranes in the Sky” is a song of mourning. Over crying strings, Solange’s voice betrays a heartbroken soul as she sings about feelings of sadness and her defenses against them. The depression inherent in this song is drawn from the treatment and systematic oppression of African American men and women. To say it’s a song in the tradition of the “systems novel,” is a falsehood. But in order to understand it, one must try to understand the methods and systems of oppression in this country.
“Sun” – The Hotelier: “Sun” is the climax of Goodness. Christian Holden’s voice soars throughout the song, exploding out after the build in the song’s middle with the rest of the song. “Carved your name across the sky in a fit of exiting / With the polar night just in sight, will you come and visit me?” he sings, releasing all the subdued emotions and longings of the first half of the song in a fit of catharsis.
“Summer Friends” – Chance the Rapper: On a kaleidoscope album of spiritual meditation, “Summer Friends” sticks out as a dirge about the gang violence in Chance’s home town of Chicago. On this cut, he isn’t just mourning those who’ve been lost at the hands of “the plague,” but the city itself.
“On Hold” – The XX: After four years off, the XX returns with a song that could be a meta-analysis of the band itself, or just about a broken relationship. Either way, it’s nice to hear the band back at it. Jamie XX has been out exploring his own sonic vision over the last couple of years, and it’s nice to hear him return to the XX.
“Conceptual Romance” – Jenny Hval: Probably the most accessible song on Hval’s Blood Bitch, “Conceptual Romance” is still an undeniably weird song, and distinctly Jenny Hval.
“Cadmium” – Pinegrove: “Cadmium” is a slow jam about the impossibility of words and language as perfect symbols and systems of communication, and how this basic ontological problem seeps into our relationships with others.
“We the People…” – A Tribe Called Quest: “The fog and the smog of the media that logs / False narratives of Gods that came up against the odds,” is not only one of the most prescient political points in music this year, but is also a such a tightly metrical verse it would make John Donne’s jaw drop.
“Dean’s Room” – Allison Crutchfield: On “Dean’s Room,” Allison Crutchfield embraces a poppier sound without really departing from the core of her indie roots. Driven by a powerful drum beat that and synths straight out of the 1980’s, it is an excellent pop track, and a great sign for her upcoming album.
By Alex Sniatkowski