Another year has come and gone, meaning we’ve hit another arbitrary stop-point. It’s time to take stock, and figure out what we have (or haven’t) done in the past 366 days. Included in the traditional late-December/early-January fun is End of Year List Season!
For many, 2016 was a year of disappointment, death, and sadness. For me, the year progressed toward a feeling of uncertainty. The idea of finality has been looming nearby; I’m nearly finished with grad school (after all these years). However, life doesn’t just end with cap and gown. I have no idea what happens next! I don’t know where I’ll be living in 5 or 6 months, I don’t know what I’ll be doing, I don’t know who I’ll be near. This all creates a strange pang of nostalgia for the present (however contradictory that sounds). Questions I’m asking lately: is this the last time I go to a concert at the Newport? How many more times do I eat at Ray Ray’s? Are my nights as trivia team captain almost over?
In a parallel construction, I’ve been contending with a mix of music present and music future. 2016, for all its warts, yielded great music moments for me. I heard new Radiohead! I went to Modest Mouse and Courtney Barnett shows! I saw Drake with LeBron James (sorta)!
On the other hand, there’s the looming specter of 2017. The unknown has some shape, with releases from Spoon, The National, Arcade Fire, Japandroids, and The xx all on the horizon. But what will they sound like? Will I be pleased, or disappointed?
For now, though, I’ll leave the future out of reach. Instead, it’s time to explore my favorite songs, albums, and live concert experiences of 2016. I’m going to follow the same setup as last year: I’m picking “favorite” instead of “best.” I’m not the World’s Culture Expert, so I won’t claim to be. These lists are the music I loved the most (and that means no Bon Iver).
Today: my Top 25 Favorite Songs of 2016.
There’s a Spotify list at the end of this article, if you’d like to browse and listen that way. You have the power.
(A few arbitrary, self-imposed rules: only one song per artist, and if the songs are part of a proper album, the record must have been released in 2016. Although, I will bend that rule for Missy Elliott because I expected a full album and excluded a track from her last year. Deal. With. It.)
25. “Sure and Certain” by Jimmy Eat World
Why I Like It: Jim Adkins’ voice is soothing to me. I enjoy the messaging about getting outside your comfort zone (seems good for 2016 and into 2017). I like the guitar breakdown, and the chorus is a great earworm.
Why You Might Like It: You wanted a nuanced sequel to “The Middle.” You are looking for a calm guide. You enjoy buttery rock voices.
24. “In a Black Out” by Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
Why I Like It: I love the prominent acoustic guitar line, it’s dark and mysterious. I like when the drums come in, to add that extra propulsion. I enjoy hearing Leithauser’s voice straining on the emotional parts.
Why You Might Like It: You are looking for a sinister version of The Walkmen (as opposed to angry). You enjoy Vampire Weekend production, and hope it takes over the rest of the indie universe.
23. “The Wheel” by PJ Harvey
Why I Like It: I like that this sounds so similar to Let England Shake, one of the best albums of this decade. Which means all those positives apply: I like Harvey’s voice, and I like the instrumentation style (the sax work here, especially). This time, though? I enjoy the pace most of all.
Why You Might Like It: You crave a bit of tension in your rock music. You want to feel something instead of sit numb at tragedy (Harvey’s lyrics are a dramatic take on child deaths).
22. “FloriDada” by Animal Collective
Why I Like It: I like that this is accessible Animal Collective. I suspect that will repel longtime fans. For me? I love the bouncy rhythm, the lack of yelping, and the simplicity of the melody. I crave the chorus every time it comes around. It’s pure joy.
Why You Might Like It: You are looking for songs to include on a bouncy castle playlist. You are playful. You enjoy painting.
21. “Empty” by Garbage
Why I Like It: The opening riff! I could hear that all day, forget the rest of the song. But don’t actually forget the other parts. I also enjoy Shirley Manson’s vocal performance, and the pop of the chorus.
Why You Might Like It: You are a 90s kid, looking for that nostalgic fix. This song probably dropped out of a time warp.
20. “In Every Way” by The Thermals
Why I Like It: It’s The Thermals. They’ve been playing on a variation of the same punk sound for years, and it clicks with me every time. I like Hutch Harris’ balance between playful and serious singing. I especially like how the guitars and bass lock together to drive a massive sound.
Why You Might Like It: You liked old Green Day, and you want that pop-punk blend. You have seen your future, and you know songs like this will reign.
19. “Simple Life” by Summer Cannibals
Why I Like It: I get pulled in by that intro. The guitar grabs me, and I want to know more. And then I’m completely on board when everything gets loud, when that guitar solo freaks out. I like rock and roll, so I like this song.
Why You Might Like It: You also enjoy rock music. You are up for a tasteful guitar solo. You enjoy the journey from a quiet place to massive romp.
18. “One Dance (feat. WizKid, Kyla)” by Drake
Why I Like It: Like so many others, I am helpless when subjected to Aubrey Graham’s magic. I like Drake’s singing, I like the samples and melody. I buy into Drake’s semi-sincerity and emotions. I appreciate how “One Dance” is, in fact, danceable (for people who can dance, which excludes me).
Why You Might Like It: Oh, for goodness sake. You’ve heard this a thousand times already. You know if you like it or not… unless you’ve just escaped some kind of underground bunker and found my blog before finding Drake in the wild. In which case, I’d appreciate if you contacted me to explain yourself.
17. “Lazarus” by David Bowie
Why I Like It: It’s impossible for me to fully separate this song from Bowie’s demise, so I won’t even bother. I marvel at the death message Bowie shared here. “Lazarus” reads like the most self-aware of all the Blackstar songs, and that’s why I appreciate it. And on top of that, I still manage to enjoy the construction, the lurching drums, and the passionate sax solo. It’s communication from beyond the grave, an immense effort done in the last days of life, and I am astounded.
Why You Might Like It: You enjoy music, you appreciate life, and you respect death.
16. “Darker Parts” by New Madrid
Why I Like It: I like that this reminds me of Radiohead. I like how I can latch onto that particular drum sound. It’s vintage Phil Selway. On top of that, I like the distorted vocals, the wandering guitars, and the brief hints of Wall of Sound.
Why You Might Like It: You are an old-school Radiohead fan (or you think Phil Selway is the best). You demand distortion.
15. “WTF (Where They From) (feat. Pharrell Williams)” by Missy Elliott
Why I Like It: I love how effortless this feels. I love how it’s fun. I can’t help but bounce around when that electronic drum kicks in (which is right away). Most of all, I enjoy the playful lyricism. Elliott slithers through a complex wind of rhymes with a smooth flow.
Why You Might Like It: You now or have once enjoyed feeling happy. You want to marvel at the best vocal delivery in the game. You Work It while wearing silly hats.
14. “Everybody Out” by Al Scorch
Why I Like It: This strikes the Modest Mouse nerve in my brain. I adore how Al Scorch pulls off a perfect Isaac Brock. I love good banjos. I can get on board with the solid clarinet (or oboe) toward the end. I feed off the superb energy, that never outstays its welcome.
Why You Might Like It: You want to romp around in the yard. You need a furious singer and a banjo in your life.
13. “Shut Up Kiss Me” by Angel Olsen
Why I Like It: I love the guitars. I like the build from one instrument to a full band. I like the force and certainty of Olsen’s singing. And that massive outro. The song finishes with intertwined guitars, and that high note pluck? That sticks in my brain all the time.
Why You Might Like It: You believe that rock isn’t dead. You sympathize with Olsen’s lyrics, and you can’t be ignored any more.
12. “Low Hymnal” by Told Slant
Why I Like It: Here’s another song that burrows into the Modest Mouse part of my head (see also: #14). The whammy bits on the guitar recall “Dramamine,” so that’s where I get aboard. Where “Low Hymnal” really takes shape is the close, repeating “Felix, you can battering ram this life.” I read it as an escape from the stark lack of comfort earlier in the song. And that’s what I love.
Why You Might Like It: You’re looking for a song that will smolder under your skin.
11. “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” by Car Seat Headrest
Why I Like It: THE GUITARS! As is true for several other songs on this list, “Hippie Powers” appeals to my basic rock desires, and I can’t deny the impact. I like the Pixies-type balance between quiet and massive wall of noise. And I get all worked up in the final vocal section, “What happened to that chubby little kid who smiled so much and loved the Beach Boys?” It’s cathartic.
Why You Might Like It: You didn’t get enough rock music from Angel Olsen, Garbage, New Madrid, The Thermals, or Summer Cannibals. You want a bit of depression and existential dread in your big guitar songs.
10. “I Will Follow You” by Toulouse
Why I Like It: I am a sucker. I am so easy to push into emotions. And wouldn’t you know, a stupid Apple advertisement had a perfect sobbing song. So I looked further, and found the track independent of the TV spot. As it turns out, this is a reinvention of a 1963 song performed by Little Peggy March. Instead of that pop production, Toulouse coos quietly over delicate pianos. To me, this song seems like the inverse of Radiohead’s “True Love Waits” (which we’ll see soon). “I love you, I love you, I love you.” It’s beautiful, and wonderful.
Why You Might Like It: You want a love song, and you’re willing to let your heart melt.
09. “Blessings” by Chance the Rapper
Why I Like It: I love the sincerity. This is a gospel-inspired song, and Chance the Rapper doesn’t go halfway. I love that Chance is so open with his thankfulness, how he understands that he has been blessed, and how true blessings aren’t completely self-sustained. Yes, individuals have to make the effort to act on their skills, on their desires. Chance knows there’s more, that he’s been gifted so much in his life. I like that this is a song about human love, and love for a higher power.
Why You Might Like It: You need an emotional boost. You’re ready for a miracle.
08. “Postdoc Blues” by John K. Samson
Why I Like It: I like “Postdoc Blues” because it hits me squarely in the face. It’s about a researcher, a student trying to get himself (or herself) through a rough patch. “Don’t despair, you’ll get it right,” Samson encourages. “I believe in you and your PowerPoints.” It’s the biggest pickmeup song of the year, and I think it’s written exclusively for me. I love the optimism, and I love how the end is even more positive than the opening. “Recommit yourself to the healing of the world,” Samson says. It’s a noble goal, and with the right wind at your back? Maybe, just maybe, it’s a real possibility.
Why You Might Like It: You’ve fought with dongles. You are preparing your dissertation. You need a pat on the back.
07. “I Hate the Weekend” by Tacocat
Why I Like It: Sometimes I love chaos, and here we are. I love the punk explosion, the rush of noise, the massive energy. I like that the song is so short, only 2:05. Any longer, and it might grate. Instead, Tacocat set their song on fire and it burns in a furious blaze.
Why You Might Like It: You have had too much coffee, and you need some twitch-music to use up all your energy. You are angry.
06. “Human Performance” by Parquet Courts
Why I Like It: I like the blend of rock, emotion, and nervous lyricism. That’s not to suggest the three meeting is entirely unique. Rather, I like how Parquet Courts pull the elements together so neatly. I like the bouncing bassline and the light drums during the verses. I love when the song finds a new gear in the refrain, the distortion jumps in and the vocal reverb happens. I also appreciate the sung regret, even if I don’t “like” that part in a traditional sense.
Why You Might Like It: You’re looking for a Pavement outlet. You want your guitar songs to have balance. You want a chorus to stand apart from the rest of the song.
05. “Hotel Pool” by Lily & Madeleine
Why I Like It: I enjoy the sweeping, echoing sound. I love the intertwined voices. I like the playfulness of the drums. I latch onto the vagueness of the lyrics. Early on, the song plays like an ode to a lover (“You know it’s only me and you”). As the track progresses, the lyrics read more like an act of rebellion (“Got eighty dollars to my name,” and “It felt like some new treasure / That we didn’t deserve”). Above all else, I love the pianos. It’s hard for me to pass up a mid-tempo piano tune with a good melody.
Why You Might Like It: You like “Clocks,” or “Karma Police,” or anything that tickles the ivories. You are a swimmer.
04. “New Friends” by Pinegrove
Why I Like It: I enjoy the balance between punk guitars and country twang. I like the earnest delivery of singer Evan Stephens Hall. And that’s fitting, because I am drawn in by Pinegrove’s vulnerability. The final third of the song is my favorite, and the pained coda makes everything work. “What’s the worst that could happen? The end of summer and I’m still in love with her.” It’s universal unrequited love, and it would be easy to shrug off if played too cheesy or over-serious. Hall hits the middle ground, and makes “New Friends” a classic.
Why You Might Like It: You regret past inaction. You need someone to help you forget it. You are looking to sympathize with another introvert.
03. “Watching the Waiting” by Wye Oak
Why I Like It: I love the pacing, that “Watching” is so fleet footed. Partway through, the drums come to life, adding another layer of pulsing vitality, and I love that too. I love Jenn Wasner’s singing, her beautiful voice dancing through the song. I love the wash of sound, the guitar, the piano, the electronic pulsing rhythm, and the theremin solo (or at least, I think that’s a theremin). I love the interplay between all the parts, adding to a full sonic environment.
And I like the comfort I perceive in the repeated phrases, “And there is nowhere I need to go / And there is nothing left to do / And I am sitting watching myself / Watching you.” Apparently, all that’s left is to sing and celebrate, and I love it.
(And “Watching” is the last bit of positivity you’ll see on this list, so you’d better soak it up.)
Why You Might Like It: You enjoy taking it all in. You delight in sight. You are fine with waiting.
02. “Distant Sky” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Why I Like It: This song exists in the same space as Sufjan Stevens’ “The Only Thing” (my favorite track of last year). I’m not sure I “like” what’s presented in any traditional sense of the word. “Distant Sky” is spare and sorrowful. Nick Cave sounds like a man on the edge of emotional breakdown at the outset.
It’s a feeling that extends throughout the song. Cave laments, “They told us our gods would outlive us / They told us our dreams would outlive us / But they lied.” I think it’s easy enough to feel awful for the singer. “Distant Sky” is made all the more visceral with news that Skeleton Tree was composed around the time when Cave’s son died. For me, it’s the same problem I have with Blackstar or even Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, I can’t separate the context from the song. And the emotional reaction to death draws me deeper into the experience.
Now, deep dark sorrow alone can be powerful. What pushes “Distant Sky” to the front of my brain? The fragile pulsing organ instrumentation, and the vocals of Else Torp. Torp sings every other verse in the song, and her voice brings humanity and hope to the dark quasi-church sounds. She emotes, “Let us go now, my only companion / Set out for the distant skies / Soon the children will be rising, will be rising / This is not for our eyes.”
I interpret this as Nick Cave’s hope for heaven, his final hope for the fate of his son. And it rips at my soul, and I appreciate that this song has made me feel something (even if “like” isn’t the right way of expressing that feeling).
Why You Might Like It: You won’t. But you may fill with sorrow, and that may be what you want. Look, you should probably go call your parents, or hug your friends, or maybe pet a dog. Life is short, you know?
01. “True Love Waits” by Radiohead
Why I Like It: “True Love Waits” is not a song of joy and pleasant tidings. Or, rather, the A Moon Shaped Pool version is not a positive spin on the song. As originally shared, “True Love Waits” was a track that I heard as an expression of gratitude.
In 2016, the warmth of acoustic guitar is replaced by frigid pianos and vocal delivery. The words haven’t changed, but the intonation has all gone sideways. “I’ll drown my beliefs to have your babies” no longer sounds like the gooey words of a love-drunk man. Instead, I hear Thom Yorke clawing to hold onto something that’s slipping away. The refrain also experiences the transformation. “Just don’t leave, don’t leave.” It’s desperation as a former love glides away from Yorke.
So what’s to love here? I love the humanity. Radiohead are a band that gets linked to technology and paranoia. And given their evolution from straight rock group to sonic experimenters, that makes sense. However, I would suggest that glossing over the band’s emotional heft in favor of social and “pure” artistic evaluation is a mistake. OK Computer, for all its guitar heroics, holds up because of the humanity. “Lucky” is a ten ton behemoth of a song because Yorke’s delivery sounds so harrowing. “Idioteque” on Kid A is legendary because of panic, a feeling that drives emotional unease.
“True Love Waits” doesn’t dwell in air crashes or the apocalypse in a bunker. Instead, it’s the most personal devastation, life falling completely apart as love shrivels away. In response, Yorke waits and begs. “I’m not living, I’m just killing time,” he confesses. For me, it’s heartbreaking.
I also love the stark beauty. The primary piano drives the melancholy melody, and periphery keys twinkle in and out of focus. On an album (and a career) full of layers and orchestration, “True Love Waits” is relatively simple, and that simplicity works for me.
And finally, as I’ve hinted at all this time, I love Thom Yorke’s voice. He’s an essential part of what makes the band tick, what makes Radiohead so Radiohead. In “True Love Waits,” he delivers what I think is his finest performance in a career full of highlights.
For me, that’s enough. It all adds up to my favorite song of the year.
Why You Might Like It: You have been a Radiohead fan for a while. You are interested in a good cry.