Tyler covers the best of the best, his Top 15 songs of the year, featuring Frank Ocean, T-Rextasy, P.O.S., Beyonce and more.
The best of the best. The unreservedly excellent songs of the year. You could put these guys on a cd and rock your car stereo system for the entire year of 2017 and still not be that far behind on the best music.
Oh god I sound old.
Anyway, this has been crazy fun. I hope you like these songs, and if you don’t, post your own! Spotify link to the “2016 Best Songs” playlist is below.
15. ROMP – “Come Undone”
In what is unfortunately not going to be the last time I say this about a band on this list, RIP ROMP. The Brunswick, New Jersey foursome were one of the initial bands (of a glut of them) in 2016 to push forward a pop-punk ethos combined with a self-sufficient lyrical thesis at its center. “Come Undone” was the starring achievement of their amazing Departure from Venus, a riotous, pounding pop-punk anthem about trying to break away from co-dependency in the face of desire for ones own self-help. After having “punished myself for you to notice me” trying to get that person to join our narrator in misery, the bridge of the song, simply put “sometimes I like laying on the floor / to see things in a new perspective,” it’s more reasonable where the attempt to break from emotional abuse comes from. “Come Undone” is the song ROMP wrote right after getting up off the ground, newly enlivened with purpose. The break away may be difficult, but its worth it.
Goodbye ROMP, stay tight forever.
14. Frank Ocean – “Self Control”
Blond wasn’t bad, but when you’re grading on a curve like Frank Ocean’s, it’s hard to excuse a “not bad” effort. Yet for every nonsensical sonic experiment that doesn’t go much of anywhere, there’s a “Self Control,” a poignant distillation of Ocean’s entire ethos – swaggering yet fragile, an R&B singer with the heart of an indie musician. Where Drake might posture around being a vulnerable figure, Ocean genuinely seems unsure through all of “Self Control,” lamenting his inability to get out of the way of seemingly happy couples just because he wants a little bit of momentary happiness. Those moments of happiness are fleeting, though, and at the ending Ocean is left alone, wondering if he can find a place in his object’s life in between them and their new lover. As the song transitions to its choral outro, Ocean admitting that summer love is just that, his voice layers on top of itself, sounding like a chorus of the same voice. We know that this has happened more than once, this situation, the come down. For the briefest of moments on blond, Frank Ocean was at his best, and most vulnerable.
13. Joyce Manor – “Last You Heard of Me”
Simply copying Weezer isn’t enough, and most bands today should know that. You have to have a unique perspective – something that sets you apart from being just another Rivers Cuomo circa-Pinkerton or The Blue Album ripoff. Barry Johnson, the leader of Joyce Manor, sets himself defiantly apart from Rivers in the same stanza as he makes Joyce’s biggest play for Rivers’ pop-punk crown on “Last You Heard of Me.” Instead of diving directly into the malaise of relationships, focusing on the intimate details that made Rivers so unique (“pink triangle on her sleeve”), Johnson dwells more in of the moment observational honesty, bereft of humor or emotionality. It’s even an open question as the song ends if the person Johnson is addressing with his pen is a bereaved ex or a bereaved ex to be. And really, it doesn’t matter if the result is the same, does it? This is essential, fatal flaw of Johnson’s confident wandering through a karaoke bar… he can be as calm, collected as he wants to be. But in his brain, there he is – “shivering, lying naked next to you,” and it’s all over. There’s no more to be said. No drama. No messy feelings. Just acknowledgment that this has not or will not end well. Let’s leave it at that. Joyce Manor made a huge play for the big time with Cody; with “Last You Heard of Me” at the center, they will come very close to succeeding.
12. T-Rextasy – “Gap Yr Boiz”
“Gap Yr Boiz” accomplishes something so uniquely rare that I doubt its been done outside the rarefied air of Sleater-Kinney this decade, and possibly all the way back to peak era No Doubt. Their debut, Jurassic Punk, is a bit of a snotty mess, yet “Gap Yr Boiz” stands alone above the fray. A shaggy-dog punk tune with arhythmic drums and completely sloppy shout song, the lyrical content of the song nevertheless amazes in its incisiveness of both the song’s subject, the song’s writer, and the society that generated both. A hilarious excoriation of dudes who peaced out and left our narrator to go on some self-aggrandizing quest to better the world, the verses a beautiful little poems about woke bros. The choruses abruptly shift toward self-assessment, T-Rextasy recognizing that as much as they hate the fact that they’ve been left by all these men, they’re still reading their “gap year blog.” Then, in a final grand “fuck you” to it all, the bridge of the song brings both the self-loathing and the all out loathing together to find the humor in a youth grown up wanted to be a “Vice Vlogger” enrolled at Weslyan. “Gap Yr Boiz” is astounding social critique from a band in its infancy.
11. Yohuna – “The Moon Hangs In the Sky Like Nothing Hangs in the Sky”
I used to relish my night walks home when I was in college in Boston. The winter nights would grant the moon an icy warmth, and Boston University would empty out like a ghost town and a relatively urban part of Boston would suddenly turn ghostly. There aren’t many songs that remind me of those walks like “The Moon Hangs in the Sky Like Nothing Hangs in the Sky,” for obvious and nonobvious reasons. The song directly references thoughtful, reflective walks home, the comfort of repeated similarity in the journeys, flecked with tidbits of romantic anguish. Yet the shoegaze chug of “The Moon” also remind me of those walks – consistent, a paced walk forward full of sensory touchstones (layered vocals, cymbal crashes, little blips of programmed synth, the wonderfully spooky keyboard line). Yohuna crafted a song that perfectly encapsulates a moment, even if that moment is unique to me. Perhaps there’s something else that the song brings out in other listeners; that’s the power of the thoughtful, measured approach that Yohuna take to their best song.
10. Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales”
Far be it for Will Toledo to be standoffish. He’s only spent the last half decade crafting over a dozen albums as Car Seat Headrest, finally settling into an ‘Elvis Costello covers Titus Andronicus’ sweet spot on last year’s Teens of Style that would carry over to this year’s huge Teens of Denial. His insatiable cleverness (“we are not a proud race / it’s not a race at all”) and pervasive palm muted guitar rhythms carry his finest achievement, “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales,” through six minutes of anthemic self-indictment. Ostensibly a song that could be used on “Don’t Drink and Drive” ads, Toledo instead chooses to frame the loss of control we feel when possessed by an inherent, hipster-driven cynicism that is rooted in our quest to be liked as a woozy attempt to drive home. Then, in the songs giant second half, Toledo turns into a screaming gospel preacher, comparing to potential freedom of youth to Free Willy and attempting to move his group of eyes down leather jacketed followers to ditch their preconceived notions at the door and really, god, just enjoy life for what it is. People are free to like what they like – the irony that this is the thesis statement of the biggest song on the biggest indie-rock breakthrough of the year isn’t subtle. Yet, “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales” is unrepentant in its own skin, a quality many songs made among Toledo’s scene are too afraid to possess.
9. PUP – “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will”
Road weariness is a frequent axe to grind for hard working indie-rock and punk bands as they look to make their second, third records. The touring schedule required to make any damn money at all (since nobody pays for the actual music anymore), couple with the interminable miles between shows a night apart, all the while reckoning with the same four people and this same shitty band… it’s enough to give most normal humans thoughts of murder. And PUP aren’t even close to normal – their touring schedule is far more rigorous (at one point they estimated they had played nearly 250 shows in a year, which is NUTS), and the medical condition that afflicted singer Stefan Babcock’s throat to the point that he very nearly lost his vocal chords shows no signs of fading. So what to do? Well, if your PUP, the answer is to double the fuck down a drop a hellish, murderous first track on their similarly aggressive The Dream is Over. “If this Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” is specific in it’s violence (“every line, every goddamned syllable that you say / makes me want to gouge out my eyes with a power drill”), hyper aggressive in its vocal delivery (good god Alexander’s vocal chords) and very, very sure that there isn’t a way forward after this tour is over. Luckily, it’s written from the perspective of an hyper-PUP (if you can imagine such a thing) that actually hates each other. They don’t, and “If this Your Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” leads into one of the most aggressively amazing albums of the year.
8. Pity Sex – “Bonhomie”
Ugh, dammit. RIP Pity Sex. The shoegaze emo-punks were destined for something great; perhaps only I saw it. Still, “Bonhomie” was the absolute pinnacle of Pity Sex, the band firing on all cylinders to deliver a blistering chill of dark eroticism, melding the invasion fantasies of being abducted by aliens to the craven eroticism of desiring sex that soars above all other experiences. The gruesome imagery – “peel the skin back, reshape my face” – couple with the Jesus and Mary Chain children’s romance – “you want me, you want me not” – combine to form something uniquely powerful, relatable and captivating. Pity Sex’s brand of emo-punk wasn’t markedly different from others of their ilk, they just drew their shoegaze references as close as possible to craft something entirely idiosyncratic in a stuffed genre. White Hot Moon was supposed to be a launching pad; instead, we have “Bonhomie,” a stultifying, electric, powerfully sexy song, unlike anything else in the zeitgeist.
7. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – “In a Black Out”
Combining a pastoral country mouse stubbornness with a romantic longing for a more connected age, “In a Black Out” memorializes moments that we often bemoan or seek to get away from. The narrator of the song, covered by the shadow of darkness that a black out provides, remembers the moments when the lights were on, his friends being “paraded away,” or dancing under the “ugly halogen lamps” with a lover. As he muses on the potential of end of humanity, a cleansing wave washing over all the land, church choirs back him up, as if he were a priest reading from the book of revelation. It’s only when Rostam Batmanglij, Hamilton Leithauser’s songwriting companion on I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, brings little ticks of drums and strings that our narrator is allowed to fully envelope himself in the wish fulfillment of this quiet night – that he and his lover might be left alone, to be together for all eternity for him to lift her up. The dream only last moments. She’s in a cab, gone. The black out continues, the dream ends. Our narrator, the Spanish guitar following him down the street, muses how wonderful if must be to disconnect from the possibility of having those dreams. He probably never fully will. And in this black out, there’s only he and his loneliness.
6. John K. Samson – “Virtute At Rest”
Nearly ten years after she ran off to wrestle with the ferals and the tabby, nearly fourteen since she pulled the artist from a depressive stupor, we can almost assuredly say that Virtute the cat is dead. Whether by old age and decay, or from freezing in that abandoned factory, or by some other means, Virtute is no longer among the living, capable of drawing her owner back from the brink, or making incisive commentary on his alcoholism and depression. So it’s surprising, then, to hear Virtute’s voice on the palate cleansing last song of John K. Samson’s wonderful Winter Wheat. All the more surprising that she appears to be home, warm with her recovered other. Taken as standalone, “Virtute at Rest” is a simple meditation on the life and mind of an addict, reckoning with the life stretching out before them. As a child of an addict, it’s disheartening at first to notice how massive, how daunting the road to recovery is – worse so when the realization that “recovery” is not a real place at all. It’s an oasis, if a worthy one worth pushing towards. Thus, Virtute is here, to reassure and push Samson forward, through the moments that are not easy or simple. But taken as the close of a trilogy of heartbreaking songs, “Virtute at Rest” is possibly the most moving, because it is the culmination and breaking down of the artistic lie that Samson has build the trilogy upon. Virtute never spoke. She never really knew the sound that Samson knew for her. She didn’t really hate the TV, or the beers. She was cat, and a companion. The anthropomorphizing of Virtute, then, finally reveals itself as a grand coping mechanism, Samson’s silent sponsor a motivator. She was what he needed her to be, even if, in the process, she was lost, carelessly discarded as other things in an addicts life other than the addiction can so easily be. Now, she is in her warm bed in Samson’s brain, smiling, purring, occasionally pawing into his synapses to remind him that she is there. For the moment, this afternoon as Samson writes this song, that is enough. Perhaps Virtute will take another form someday, but for now, she is safe, happy, unreal and yet ever present. As a singular piece of art, “Virtute At Rest” epitomizes the peaceful moments of an addict’s life, momentarily freed from the bonds of their sickness. As a collective close of a artistic subject’s “life,” the song grants the listener, and Samson, peace, knowing that, no matter what our ends, we can, in any moment, “let it rest and be done.”
5. P.O.S. – “Sleepdrone / Superposition”
Stefon Alexander is many people. He’s a black man, a father, a rapper, a hip-hop producer, an anarchist, a pacifist, and a former hardcore drummer. He’s an icon to a sector of music fans that feel undone by modern, hedonistic hip-hop, holding him close as the Minnesota usurper of everything terrible rap has become. In this year, or eighteen months, or decade, or century, or American Experiment, being someone like Stef is a risk – “Sleepdrone/Superposition” is about the risk of being many people capable of being hated and wiped off the map. Though he didn’t release a full album, “Sleepdrone” is as close to a concise statement of purpose that Stef has put out, persistent, urgent, vitriolic and menacing, yet fearful, gracious and isolated. He lets a few guest spit two or four bars in the middle third of the song, jumping back in to somehow fray his meter further with emotional urgency and anger, spitting about ex-relationships and his inability to hold onto something. “I miss myself without these callouses,” he wistfully sighs in the middle of his third verse, yet he understands that the callouses are necessary to achieve his final goal – self-sufficiency apart from everything that would seek to drain him of all life. The state of superposition refers to the common quantum mechanics thought experiment called Schrodinger’s Cat – you can look it up if you want. But essentially what becomes of Stef if he’s not pushing against the walls of his cage? Is he alive or dead? If they’re trying to kill him, who’s to say he isn’t already? “Sleepdrone/Superposition” is a conflicting meditation on trying to participate and isolate at the same time, to rage and rake in, to burn down that which gives you life. It’s a complex and unsolvable idea, and it yields P.O.S.’s best song ever.
4. Cymbals Eat Guitars – “Dancing Days”
Much of Pretty Years, Cymbals Eat Guitars’ fourth and best record, conflates the desires of a band to reach beyond their current level of fame and attain something greater, while still maintaining the experimental, weird foundation its been built on. The core sun around which this tenuous genre-bending solar system orbits is Joseph D’Agostino, and its his voice and lyricism that propel “Dancing Days” into the rarified air above the rest of the already great album. D’Agostino’s voice vacillates from a sort of speak-drawl into whispering falsetto into, gloriously, shouting catharsis, and then back again in parabolic repetition, drawing clear through-lines to his story of medicated come down from a broken heart and the opportunities missed when grinding one’s personality down with drugs. Coincidentally the calmer portions of the song, sonically, feature D’Agostino receiving his medication, then slowly recognizing that it’s keeping him away from his “dancing days,” his friends and his “pretty years.” The band, traditionally a fairly bare bones indie rock four piece, expand outwear in leaps with flourishes of synth, turning “Dancing Days” into something almost unrecognizable for a band who wrote “And the Hazy Sea.” D’Agostino’s eroded emotionality mirrors the band’s frustrated and nervous move to the center… after he delivers a tender verse and a world-beating chorus, the band’s guitars explode into a skronking, awkward chorus, forever holding the band in its place in the zeitgeist. Frankly, all the better, as Dancing Days” is a weirdo indie-rock gem, the kind that don’t come around but for a few years each decade.
3. Chance, the Rapper – “No Problem”
Like it’s spiritual ancestor, “Touch the Sky,” the second track off Chance’s Coloring Book succeeds because of everything piling on top of Chance himself. From the ebullient production and chirped soul to the “huh huh” or “bih” vocal blasts in between lines, “No Problem” oozes a carefree personality that frankly no one else is doing this well. Chance’s verse is similarly breezy, getting in and out in less than a minute. From there, the song’s second third takes it from being just another massive track off a massive album into the stratosphere of best songs of the year. That’s because of… wait for it… 2 Chainz. Yep, the rapper who could best be categorized as “asleep” on his first guest spots for Kanye West is officially the best guest verse of the year. His Petey Pablo, IKEA, diarrhea and night classes referencing verse is non-sensical and unbelievable, commanding a beat that nearly bests Chance and just sort of glides over Weezy later on. “No Problem” is unstoppable, joyous and infectious, just like Chance himself. In a year this dark, a little let up is welcome.
2. Mitski – “Your Best American Girl”
What longing there is on “Your Best American Girl” is justifiably blown the hell up by the time the chorus hits, and the listener is immediately on the same page as the sardonically dark Mitski Miyawaki on the crowning achievement of Puberty 2. The cultural import of Miyawaki cooing at an “All-American boy” about wanting to assume the role of “little spoon” in his solar system shouldn’t be dismissed as just preamble to the independent and self-reliant blast of noise that is the song’s chorus. There’s a deeper impact to the way Miyawaki, a world traveler as a youngster and the daughter of a Japanese mother, is so willing to accept cis-American value judgments for the lusty desires of youth. Unlike quite a bit of Puberty 2, “Your Best American Girl” ends happy – Miyawaki changing “I think I do” to “I finally do” when reasoning with the way her mother raised her. Startling in its self-sufficiency, especially considering it subtly digs at the cultural white-washing of a certain type of young girl’s doll, “Your Best American Girl” is astounding, a metered mid-tempo folk song that supernovas into the largest, loudest, and most profoundly effective, chorus of the year. Miyawaki voice warbles deeply under the titanic guitar riffs, a Debbie Harry finally emerging from her chrysalis, free of the expectations anyone but her own upbringing has brought her. Perhaps that upbringing detracts in ways that she can’t foresee yet (Puberty 2 certainly indicates that way), but it at least keeps her from doing her best “American Girl” impression.
Beyonce – “Formation”
Songs are moments. They can be temporary reprieve from the grind towards death, or they can be recognition of the grind. They can be moments of defiant social anxiety, bottled up and blasted outward to millions of waiting ears. Or they can be tossed off moments, powerful yet hidden from most. Sometimes, songs are everything. “Formation” is everything – a five-minute thesis on what it means to be Beyonce, a temporary reprieve from those put off by modern hip-hops male-focused leering gaze, an endless stream of female empowerment realities capable of making a good sized dent in a certain patriarchy, and even a moment of hooky braggadocio repping for the destruction of the 9th Ward from someone not from New Orleans. “Formation” is Southern, powerful and raw, featuring spit from the late Messy Mya and the bounce legend Big Freedia and a hook written by Southern hip-pop one hit wonders Rae Sremmurd. “Formation” is a pop song, relentless in its commitment to pushing women forward, commanding attention and asserting control. And the video, still the best way to hear the song, haunting around the edges of a pop movement that seemingly only Beyonce can fully own. Then as the song closes, the camera angling up at a powerful black woman dressed in all black on the steps of a southern plantation home – “always be gracious, best revenge is your paper.” Beyonce would write an album about reckoning with revenge, but nothing she could do will top that moment. “Formation” is the distillation of a movement, and Beyonce was the only one who could’ve made it.