Songs of the Year

2016 Songs of the Year: 50 – 16

Tyler worms his was toward his Top 10 songs of the year, covering songs 50-16, featuring Joey Purp, The Avalanches, Kanye West and Ariana Grande.

Why does my song of the year (or album of the year) list matter? Well, cosmically, it certainly doesn’t. And my taste certainly doesn’t fully line up with yours (I think I’m one of the only people to ride or die super hard for Martha). But I think the idea of a list this idiosyncratic is that it provides a unique, uncut slice of what the zeitgeist looks like to someone. Perhaps art is completely meant to be subjective. My subjectivity just happens to be in a power ranking.

Hope you enjoy.

50. Solange – “Cranes in the Sky”

“Cranes” sneaks up on you. Meandering in on the back of it’s simple drum and synth line, Solange Knowles slowly unfolds her deep inner conflict about the way she is portrayed as a strong, independent black woman. She did so many things to push the discontentment away, and yet… those metal clouds are always present. No matter what state, no matter what lover, those unnatural emotional detractors are always obstacles to be overcome.

49. Ariana Grande – “Dangerous Woman”

Belters are in short supply, as the Age of Gaga trascends into the Age of ‘Yonce and her fellow hip-hop inflected kin. Ariana Grande is from the Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey mold – a classic early 2000s belter. Her greatest strength is letting her voice catapult into space from her mini frame. The best part of “Dangerous Woman” which, for its first minute or so is a bog standard strutting pop song, is when Grande’s vocals soar above and build off each other. Grande may not have been fully able to hack it with the Carey’s of the world in their day… but she’s what we’ve got, and “Dangerous Woman” is damn great.

48. Tacocat – “I Hate the Weekend”

Imagine your local bartender. Maybe their nice, talk to you after your difficult workday. Sometimes reminisce about sports. But then… really consider them. Do they really want to hang out with you? Or are you a weekend cash monster, casually annoying the bartender until you stumble home to your comfortable life? Tacocat posit that the much more prevalent circumstance is the latter, and “I Hate the Weekend” is a hilarious, revved up screed against yuppie working for the weekend-ism.

47. Pkew Pkew Pkew – “Prime Minister of the Defense”

Pkew Pkew Pkew’s self-titled has fantastic moments of twenty-something, beer drenched tomfoolery, but there’s nothing like a good metaphor to perfectly sum up the band’s ethos. The band cut an almost Kenny Powers-esque figure on the song, perfectly willing to hang out in relative mediocrity so that their qualitative output can seem better by comparison. It’s a fascinating axiom to throw at the majority of smaller bands reaching for some greater significance in an era of Spotify “Discover Weekly”-ing… y’know what? I don’t feel like thinking about Pkew Pkew Pkew so much. This song rules, simple.

46. Modern Baseball – “Wedding Singer”

Processing a grandparent’s passing has rarely felt so zippy, mosh-worthy, or hook laden. But then again, what would expect from Jake Ewald, the ever so slightly better half of the songwriting duo that leads Modern Baseball. With a guitar line that’s straight from mid-Aughts period The Starting Line or Say Anything pop-punk, Ewald’s lazy drawl flipping his verse about what it’s like to rush back from tour to find out, too late, that the loved one has already passed. That the song doesn’t linger or get sappy is again to its credit, and places Modern Baseball further up the ladder than almost any of their pop-punk peers.

45. Martha – “Do Whatever”

Punk nihilism is so easy to descend into, especially given current events and the willingness for others to embrace falsehoods as basis for argument. That’s the setup for Naomi Griffin, as she leaves work, “tangled up in the semantics.” Yet there, again, is that ever present verve to continue on, in the chorus – “hey sunshine… don’t you want something more?” It sends Griffin back into discussions of “gender neutral toilets” and bi-sexuality, all backed up with Martha’s trademark excellent guitar work. This time, the band shifts time signatures across their verse, chorus and bridge, giving the song an off-kilter playfulness that buys back into the central lyrical premise. Martha are at their best when they’re as playful as possible without sacrificing punk.

44. PUP – “DVP”

“YOU’RE SISTER THINKS THAT I’M A FREAK!” Imagine yelling that to… I dunno, anyone? Yet PUP, the vitriolic messes that they are, open the second half of the murderous first couplet of their second album The Dream is Over with a screamed lament that doesn’t get any better from there. The coo’d “woooh”s of the chorus give little respite as PUP plunge headlong into those bothersome drunkards habits – slobbering confessionals, speeding down the highway, morose nihilism. It’s all in a vicious package of riffage and cymbal crash – just like the momentous rest of The Dream is Over.

43. The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – “Even More Forever”

Though they didn’t release a proper LP this year (their re-recording of their debut Formlessness unfortunately doesn’t count), TWIABP (as they’re succinctly known) remained an ever present guiding force for the bleeding edge of emo, guiding a generation’s worth of bands through potential pitfalls and leading indie rocks new ruling class toward something bordering on transcendent. Yet, even as their lofty status continues to rise, “Even More Forever” presents the band as a frail group of young misfits, eating McDonald’s as substitute for actual food, and imagining what the sunrise may look like. Such are the downfalls of being a band this high on the qualitative spectrum. That TWIABP can define this problems with such appropriate drama and immediacy in one song is testament to their greatness.

42. Muncie Girls – “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It”

Dammit white dudes. I mean, just dammit. Recognizing the inherent bass-ackwards nature of a white dude delivering a qualitative rundown of the “Best” music of the year all the while excoriating white dudes for beleaguering bands like Muncie Girls into songs like “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It,” it’s still unbelievable that the perspective of over 50% of the population is still viewed as somehow less than anything. Yet Muncie Girls still get roped as less than their pop-punk peers, and their female fronted-ness continues to decrease their cache, instead of the other way around. Those paradigms are changing, largely thanks to Muncie Girls and songs that deal directly with the problem, such as “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It.” Thanks Muncie Girls.

41. Nothing – “Fever Queen”

The opening, titanic salvos of guitar on “Fever Queen” are unlike any shoegaze or post-rock that’s been put out since the glory days of My Bloody Valentine. The rest of the song itself is a beautiful, late period Jesus and Mary Chain mid-tempo rocker, but the onslaught presented in those first seconds is jaw-dropping for its ballsy, enormous noisiness. There wouldn’t be an opening of a  song as immediately surprising or flooring the rest of the year (maybe other than one we’ll discuss later).

40. The Avalanches – “Frankie Sinatra”

Re-introducing yourself with a The Streets-level UK garage song featuring two wonky verses from Danny Brown was a massive “fuck you” to the establishment of people who have been waiting on The Avalanches to charge back into the public sphere. The carnival sounds surrounding the warbling vocal hook lending the whole song the feeling of a meaningless lark, The Avalanches nevertheless exploded preconceived notions about what their comeback would look like, in no small part thanks to the weird, goofy horniness of Danny Brown.

39. Lydia Loveless – “Midwestern Guys”

Oh my god another great song about how awful dudes are. I understand that I created this list, so I am fully responsible for crafting a song list that (rightly) gets at all the different facets by which men have been generally terrible to woman, but this one is just another killer. Mid-tempo and full of barroom snarl, Lydia Loveless combines her sardonic wit with a plucky, poppy chorus guitar line to craft a brutal song about how truly, truly, selfish and terrible guys from a certain part of the country can be. “You wanna lock me in the kennel and then leave for Myrtle Beach at five / all right / Midwestern Guys” gets at the heart of it, but other subversive lines like “oh you sure know the way to my heart, honey” achieve a dark comedy accosting the faux-sensitive male for his bullshit.

38. Anderson .Paak – “Put Me Thru”

It starts simply enough, plinking piano and bluesy guitar that resembles a bit more authentic version of awful early Maroon 5 songs. Anderson’s bluesy rasp is a nice cut against what could come off as an overly saccharine verse structure. Then huge synth comes into the mix and completely wrecks the song structure, reminding the listener exactly how special Anderson’s voice in the soul sphere is. A willingness to play with and chop up traditional soul-pop structures and come out with something original hints at a vibrant future for Anderson, as well as anyone who works with him.

37. The Menzingers – “Lookers”

Snuck in what otherwise turns out to be a pretty standard, if energizing in a way only The Menzingers can be, return single is a fantastic little detail that most rock bands post-Springsteen sometimes eschew. “Lookers” is a clever pivot from traditional boozy sad bastard memory to something close to sense memory; body consciousness as fixation on old times. Channelling a truly terrible Nickelback song filtered through Gareth Campesinos’ clever knack for noticing little differences in the past and present, Greg Barnett crafts a soulful lament for the way our bodies always fail us over time, no matter what circumstances surround them.

36. Lucy Dacus – “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”

Lucy Dacus’ combination of brash straight guitar rock, her sweet, lilting voice more traditionally laid over alt-country acoustics and lyrical taking charge of her own story make No Burden, her debut, a revelation. Her best song, the dominant “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” distills all three of these things down to their simplest pieces – the guitar line is simple, yet powerfully effective, the vocals are sleepily delivered but push across Dacus’ message of “you know what, I’m kind of sick of being shoved to the side all the time dudes.”

Oh my god it’s another song about how awful dudes are. Dudes really are awful.

35. Joey Purp – “Girls @”

For the first minute or so, “Girls @“ is bog standard horny rap, if magnificently hooky. Joey Purp puts on his best Big Sean impression, slurring his vowels through a mildly impressive first verse as the percussive beat bangs beneath him. And then… well, what to say about Chance? That he comes in and sets fire to anything Purp has ever done or will do? Sure. That he somehow gets Ta-Nehisi Coates and SpottieOttieDope to rhyme inside an otherwise frivolous party rap single? Also yes. That he somehow manages to rescue a generic anthem about thick, sexy women from seeming blandly misogynistic, turning it instead, however briefly, into a marvelous display of body positivity? Hell yeah. Chance would have better overall songs, and maybe even better flow on his own record. But instead of playing along with Joey Purp, Chance showed him up, and “Girls @“ is way better off for it.

34. Johanna Warren – “There is a Light”

Unlike many of Johanna Warren’s hyper-personal freaky folk songs, “There is a Light” is prescriptive, and confident. For most of its running time, the song plays with Warren’s voice over a simple organ chord progression, pleased enough with itself and Warren’s vocal gymnastics to carry across the mystical self-sufficiency its peddling. Only when the drums and secondary synth arrive to fill out the stereo does Warren’s focus fully bloom – “Well I know the world is in all kinds of trouble / But you can’t live your life in some aseptic bubble / So don’t lose sight of your work and the infinite wealth of gifts you’ve been given / open your mind to the world and the intimate well of truth that lay hidden.” Rendered calmly, the sermon means much in the face of challenges presenting Warren and her listeners. A gentle respite and reinvigoration, the kind that “There is a Light” trades in, is most welcome.

33. P.O.S. – “Wearing a Bear”

Any freewheeling rap that shouts out podcast all-stars Roman Mars (99% Invisible) and Manoush Zomorodi (Note to Self) pretty much is guaranteed a win in my book, yet P.O.S. somehow makes his hyper-indie friends list one of the last ear-catching moments of “Wearing a Bear.” Before that, Stef gets into it with political commentary (“hashtag black lives, some of y’all don’t give a shit (yup!)”), candy gobbling (“hammer in the right / hella snacks in the other hand”) and loose flow drafting (his second to last bar he has to go back over three times). Stef’s ice cold hilarity recals the best P.O.S. song pre-2016, “Get Down,” in its anarchic joy. That the beat is one massive synth blast punctuated by oddball percussion only strengthens the mixture. But wait… we haven’t seen the last of Stef.

32. Cloud Nothings – “Modern Act”

Dylan Baldi has a knack for coming in and wrecking the end of the year with unbelievable songs. His last two records as Cloud Nothings have both been released early in the year, with their first singles (“I’m Not a Part of Me” and the perfect “Stay Useless”) arriving late in the previous year. Just so, “Modern Act” is the first single from Life Without Sound, and it recalls Cloud Nothings’ earlier, lighter fare, instead of the something deafening intensity of the band’s last record. “Modern Act” is suitably tightly crafted, the band having honed their indie-punk ethos down to an easily generatable form. Yet “Modern Act” is a more easy listen, and finds Baldi in an unfamiliar place – the desire to commune with others, to find common ground among fights like “whose war is this? / what god is that?”. It’s an interesting turn from one of the best bands rocking today, and bodes well for the first part of 2017.

31. Jay Som – “I Think You’re Alright”

“I Think You’re Alright” begins so sweetly… but turns pitch black so quickly that it’s hard to remember what romantic feelings the listener might have had when the melody first kicked in. The violent, abusive narrative contrasted with the sweet slow dance of a rhythm section is genuinely disquieting, and lends Jay Som’s best song an added heft that her other releases this year couldn’t match. “I’ll be your cigarette ashtray / come back when it’s too late / worship you till morning comes” pushes against romantic devotion with the brutal language of a Stokholm Syndrome relationship. That the song is alt-rock beautiful to consistently come back to, despite its heavy weight, is testament to the serendipity Jay Som found on “I Think You’re Alright.”

30. PWR BTTM – “Projection”

Queer Core royalty PWR BTTM are masters of changing up their punk pace and crafting melodies that work as subtle diatribes about the baffling lack of acceptance experienced by  queer culture in the mainstream. “Projection” works as longform metaphor, inflecting the softcore punk proceedings with vicious guitar lines while Ben Hopkins croons about his “skin.” It’s a clever narrative feignt toward a social problem that many cis white kids listening to PWR BTTM might have felt at one point – the reluctance to go outside because their pale skin might get them burned or ostracized. As punk-rock, PWR BTTM are maintaining a cutting edge immediacy to their guitar/drum attack; lyrically, the band can’t help their incisive verse from infecting hearts and minds. Good.

29. Paws – “No Grace”

It’s so easy to give up. So many bands are out there on the highways of America, or the United Kingdom, or anywhere else, with little hope of succeeding even in the small way that Paws have succeeded. Yet that millennial drive to complain about the reality that your amazing band hasn’t succeeded is precisely the lazy entitlement that Paws rails against in their best song to date, “No Grace.” Propelled forward by a full-throated wall of pop-punk guitars, Paws posit less a world in which that lackluster complaint should be silenced and more that those complaining should consider their relative newness in the cycle and the reality that yup, shit’s super hard. It’s a road-worn song that rings true for anyone who has had a dream of making it big-time, and it opens Paws’ album No Grace in a huge way.

28. Radiohead – “True Love Waits”

It’s hard for me to parse exactly why this version of “True Love Waits” is so special. The song has taken on a deific atmosphere as the pinnacle of Radiohead’s unreleased work, taking the title after Radiohead released “Nude” on In Rainbows. Yet “True Love Waits” isn’t a better song than “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” the unbelievable closer to Kid A, and in fact suffers compared to some of the more recent Radiohead ballads, like “Videotape.” Yet as it closes A Moon Shaped Pool, it’s hard not to feel as though “True Love Waits” represents the official end of something for Radiohead and their fans. A song so universally beloved for being hard to find (and even rarer to hear live), now, finally, exposed to the light, is a fitting way to signal a sea change in what Radiohead might be in the coming years, whether that be complete disappearance or metamorphosis into another kind of band completely. Everything about the ghostly piano plinks, cascading around Thom Yorke’s still gently haunting voice, casts the history of Radiohead in a kind of past tense, as if Yorke is looking forward and seeing a blank canvas. Perhaps he sings “don’t leave” to the historical idea of himself, and his band. Perhaps he’s asking the listener to hang around and see what’s next. Or perhaps, he’s just singing about someone he’s wants to keep around, subsisting on lollipops and crisps. A simple, true love, perhaps gone.

27. Camp Cope – “West Side Story”

Being left behind to watch your surroundings gentrify and explode must be a startling sight, or so it’s conveyed on the alternating ballad-punk accusation of Georgia Maq’s “West Side Story.” Left behind by a lover going on tour, left to her medication, hospital visits and malaise, Maq begins to watch her surroundings morph and change into something unfamiliar to those better days. Her anarchic punk ways have seemingly gone away with her partner, until she gets up on stage to rail against ticket prices, trains and rent. All she wants is a “little house the government doesn’t know about,” but her punk soul and her romantic longing keep her rooted in place, watching the Empire build itself up around her.

26. Kanye West – “Real Friends”

For one moment, things might’ve been different. Built up as the return of G.O.O.D. Fridays, the ephemeral fun months before the release of Kanye Wests third masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And why not try to return there? Since the release of MBDTF, West’s music has taken a steep drop, resulting in the nearly unlistenable The Life of Pablo. His monumental tours notwithstanding, Kanye West has seen better days. Which is why “Real Friends” is such a breath of all too brief fresh air. Blissfully light on the autotune nonsense West can sometimes get completely lost in, even more blissfully light on West bragging about how raunchy is sex life is, “Real Friends” is the most ostensibly personal song West has crafted in years. The West of “Real Friends” looks like a man walking out of a mansion, holding his child, knowing that he’s made the right decisions for his children wellbeing… and yet feeling doggedly unsure about his life choices. “Real Friends” is painfully soulful, a quality almost every Kanye West song since “Lost in the World” has lacked.

25. Drowse – “Break”

Drone gets a bad rap. It’s associated big name acts (Sun O))) or even EMA) all have a way of creating barriers between the mainstream indie listener and the genre. There are breakthroughs – EMA’s “California” being the prime recent example. Drowse aren’t really trying to break through, yet “Break” is a convincingly fragile folk song that contains the bones of breakthrough success within its echoing, introverted framework. Gang vocals and hauntingly strummed guitar lead to a gorgeous chorus combining Kyle Bates’ voice with other ghostly specters. Bates instructs the listener that “Break” should be listened to either lying on your back, going to bed, or on the biggest speakers possible. The first half of “Break” represents the former, the second half the latter. That Bates manages to combine the two into a revelatory and pacifying whole is quite the achievement.

24. Gordi – “So Here We Are”

For all we know, “So Here We Are” takes place underwater. At least that’s all that I can assume from hearing the ethereal, cavernous amounts of echo and reverb all over almost all the instruments on the song. It’s a trancelike reworking of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Gordi working to the possibility of reckoning with the end of a long journey of a relationship, knowing that someone else doesn’t feel anything while she feels so much. In a way, this drowning feeling of losing control of emotionality in a relationship is mirrored in the subterranean beat burbling from under Gordi’s heavily processed voice. As the song rides out, it’s amazing to think of this as Gordi’s first EP, her emotional compass already near full formation.

23. Sturgill Simpson – “Sea Stories”

Sturgill Simpson’s issues with the military make him a very unique figure in the world of modern country. While the Bush-era flag waving of men like Toby Keith never really passed to the alt-literati of country like Wilco, Simpson’s cowpoke drawl and rebellious streak keep him closer to the mainstream than most. Which is why “Sea Stories,” the most infectious song from A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, rings the most true. As an opening diatribe about his time spent as a lost soul first in and first out of the Navy, the barroom country twang of the tune serves a crucial purpose as guidebook for Sturgill’s newborn son. In the process of crafting one of the better alt-country records in years, Sturgill Simpson wrote a pretty weighty anti-military screed disguised as life advice to his next generation.

22. Moses Sumney – “Lonely World”

Moses Sumney should be given some sort of award, because it is really difficult to write the Best Radiohead Song of the Year in a year when Radiohead actually released a full album. Yet here is “Lonely World,” a haunting vox/guitar ghost story that blooms (or rather explodes) into full Thom Yorke madness in its last two minutes. Sumney’s incisive knack for crafting immediate, captivating soul blended with indie rock should not be understated – nobody is doing what he’s doing, even his ancestors, Jonny Greenwood and company. Saying nothing of the icy loneliness Sumney so powerfully brings to bear with his astounding voice, “Lonely World” is a marvel of both descendant songsmanship and original thinking.

21. Pinegrove – “Aphasia”

The illusive monster that is creativity never abides by set rules. As someone who once considered themselves a budding screenwriter can attest, it’s impossible to find that perfect rhythm. How some authors are so prodigious, I have no idea. They likely couldn’t tell you either. Just so, Evan Hall, songwriter for Pinegrove, rejoices as his aphasia, a disorder that prevents the afflicted from expressing thoughts, verbal or written, disappears for a moment and he can “unfurl” in the street. Everything seems easy until… well… where’s it gone? Hall’s alt-country ballad that could easily be mistaken for a cry for a woman succeeds because it guides through a series of emotions – elation, obsession, depression, mania, and finally weary catharsis. “One day I won’t need your love” hits like a brick, especially when considering Hall is speaking of a part of himself.

20. Case/Lang/Veirs – “Best Kept Secret”

I feel like things have gotten pretty dark around here. Rightly so, but still. So it is with a great exhale that I come to “Best Kept Secret,” a breezy 70s soft rock anthem that sounds straight out of the early New Pornographers catalog. A simple ode to a genuinely good person (oh my god I missed those people), “Best Kept Secret” rides on a good wave, introducing elements of trauma just so they can be meditatively and thoughtfully dealt with – “I told you about my misery / you called it pain of pain.” Led by the inimitable Neko Case, “Best Kept Secret” is a charming song about somebody in Silverlake who just wants to sit and teach guitar to children, and who has probably seen enough to help other people in trouble. Would that we could all have one of those people in our lives – “Best Kept Secret” is a good holdover until then.

19. Bon Iver – “8 (circle)”

Nothing will top the Bruce Hornsby ripping greatness of Bon Iver’s closing track “Beth/Rest,” yet “8 (circle)” manages to do something arguably more incredible – build upon Hornsby’s hyper-90s soft-rock framework into something defiantly experimental, yet still gorgeous. Using a machine that Vernon and collaborators built to artificially modify the sound of a saxophone with what essentially amounts to a vocoder, “8 (circle)” is swathed in mysterious horn flourishes, choral cries into the darkness and, finally, Vernon’s powerful tenor, bubbling artful near meaninglessness like “we galvanized the squad of it all” into the ether. The loneliness of “8 (circle)” isn’t lost on the listener either; inasmuch as Vernon is surrounded by instruments, he’s so sonically off in the woods that it’s hard to imagine anyone on the planet being in his particular headspace. Which is what makes “8 (circle),” the best track from the astounding 22, A Million so singularly wonderful – it manages to draw us into Justin Vernon’s heart (“I’m standin’ in the street now / and I carry his guitar”) while keeping his mind at a safe distance.

18. White Lung – “Below”

Moving from the fringe to the mainstream is always hard. Often it involves rinsing and fading what made your art special to merge with a zeitgeist that likes some of what you do, but only under certain circumstances. There are precious few examples of artists breaking through without changing anything, and many more of those artists changing far too much for popular adulation. Such a lengthy intro just to say… what White Lung accomplish on “Below” is nothing short of spectacular. Caterwauling, screeching walls of fuzzed out guitars, furious drum work, menacing, powerful female vocals and dark hard-rock lyrics all combining into this masterpiece of just sanding off the jagged edges of White Lung’s brutal punk attack to accomplish what amounts to a master thesis on romantic hard rock.

17. Jawbreaker Reunion – “Cosmos”

In the span of around 100 seconds, Jawbreaker Reunion and their expansive, wonderful brand of bedroom pop-punk manage to write a fitting anthem about the romantic relationship between the earth and the moon as metaphor for those sometimes co-dependent relationships that we know will last the test of time. Trading off vocals in a unexpectedly obvious way, the band’s output has never seemed as cohesive or put together as “Cosmos,” especially when the relatively placid underpinnings of the song go supernova for about thirty seconds towards the end. It’s a moving tune about love that seems as grand an immovable as planets, wandering through a universe that shifts and consistently throws reality into chaos.

16. Japanese Breakfast – “Everybody Wants to Love You”

Michelle Zauner, aka Japanese Breakfast, and Sam Cooke-Parrot, the leader of Radiator Hospital and leader of a bedroom pop-punk rebellion rapidly growing in cliche, are quite the pair. While the rest of Japanese Breakfast’s debut is a suitably cathartic emptying of Zauner’s songbook, including numerous songs about the loss of her mother, “Everybody Wants to Love You” is a perfectly encapsulated pop song right in the middle. Cute and unpretentious in its millennial silliness, Zauner coos for her lover to make her breakfast (twice!), marry her and also give her lots of morning oral sex. Washed over with energetic chillwave and a surfing guitar that gets its own mini-solo, “Everybody Wants to Love You” is proof positive of Zauner’s pop bonafides, while the rest of Japanese Breakfast is a strengthening of her indie cred.

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