(There’s a Spotify playlist at the bottom if you want to skip ahead)
2016 has been pretty universally panned as a year of despair, and if any industry other than the political landscape has something to mourn, it’s the music business. Sure, people die every year, but the loss of Leonard Cohen is major particularly in Canada, and the loss of Bowie seems so utterly world shifting that I’m sure it’s a sign of the apocalypse. As such, it ended up being an overall downbeat year for music, with no clear heir to hey-everything-is-great radio throne of last year’s agreeable Uptown Funk (on one hand, maybe Cake by the Ocean, but on the other hand, ughhh). But there were some great songs out there, and some absolutely fantastic albums. Listing them would be pretty arbitrary, but here are ten that really stood out for me this year, in no particular order except for the following Song of the Year:
Song of the Year
John K. Samson – Postdoc Blues [from Winter Wheat]
John K. Samson has made songs about modern academic struggles before, but Postdoc Blues pulls off the impressive feat of making it all sound natural despite lyrics about PowerPoint presentations and dongle trouble. Having been through it himself, Samson brings keen insights to the mindset that keeps one in the academic circuit in the final verse, how one can convince themselves that their work has importance beyond reality (“Recommit yourself to the healing of the world”). “Pursue a practice that will strengthen your heart,” he encourages at the end, at odds with the rest of the verse. Admittedly, I’m biased towards this song given that I’m starting my first postdoc at the start of 2017, but Samson has created a sad, hopeful, and relatable anthem for the over-educated masses.
Twelve More Picks
AJJ – Small Red Boy [from The Bible 2]
AJJ (formerly Andrew Jackson Jihad) have always been an introspective band, but rarely have they married that tendency with storytelling. Small Red Boy, from the fantastic The Bible 2, is the perfect marriage of the two, telling a parable of caring for your own inner demons with vivid imagery (“His tongue became a staircase/His uvula the knocker”), building to a powerful ending. At the end, singer Sean Bonnette proclaims “No more shame/No more fear/No more dread,” accepting his demons as part of himself and encouraging us to do the same, releasing his emotions and reclaiming his self-esteem. And it’s a hell of a crescendo.
Car Seat Headrest – The Ballad of the Costa Concordia [from Teens of Denial]
For the uninitiated, Vincent or Fill in the Blank make for better Car Seat Headrest introductions, but his 11-minute epic The Ballad of the Costa Concordia is the magnum opus of his latest album, Teens of Denial. Its one hell of an ambitious track, using the failure of the captain of the Costa Concordia (which cost 32 people their lives) as a metaphor for failing to grow up perfectly. The song changes structure at least four times over its runtime, but follows the many ways we try to avoid taking responsibility for our own actions, most notably in its extended breakdown (“How was I supposed to know how to ride a bike without hurting myself” morphs into “How the hell was I supposed to steer this ship?”). He even manages to find a way to interpolate Dido’s White Flag, changing the hopeful “I’m in love and always will be” to a confused “I am lost, and always will be.” As a person, aren’t we all, but as a crafter of songs, Car Seat Headrest is perfectly in control.
Desiigner – Panda [from New English]
The first time I heard Panda, as a sample in Kanye West’s Pt. 2, I really thought the hook was “Legacies/Family”, not “Black X6/Phantom.” While Panda isn’t the rumination on immortality I initially took it to be, it’s fucking fierce. The beat took over the world over the summer, and Desiigner’s unmistakable flow announces himself as a talent to watch (even though he’s only 18 years old). It’s the most memorable pure jam of the year.
DJ Shadow ft. Run the Jewels – Nobody Speak [from The Mountain Will Fall]
While the sudden release of RTJ3 in the waning days of the year was more than welcome, I’m having a hard time picking a favorite track from it (its something of an embarrassment of riches). Maybe its the distinctness of their early-year collaboration with DJ Shadow that makes it stand out, replacing El-P’s normal scratches and mixes with guitar scales and trumpets. It’s a very different sound for an RTJ track, but El-P and Killer Mike make the most of it, trading verses back and forth every four bars and laying in some of their best absurd boasting in careers full of it (“I will walk into court while erect, Screaming yes/motherfuckers, I am guilty, I am death” and “I don’t work for free/I am barely giving a fuck away” stand out). Even outside their home zone, Run the Jewels are still killing it.
EL VY – Are These My Jets? [from 30 Days, 30 Songs]
The terrifying rise of Donald Trump dominated the conversation in 2016, and maybe its too early to go back to enjoying culture that assumed he would never win. EL VY’s Are These My Jets? clearly didn’t think a Trump presidency was in the cards, portraying Trump as aloof and a bit ineffectual. The barbs are there, and they are potent (“I like to mix ladies’ drinks with my fingers” and “I was rocking back and forth/feeding on the fear, of course”), but it occasionally ascribes a Dubya-esque sympathy to the person, painting as someone incapable of understanding the damage he’s causing (“I like to tell him my stories from college/And how I was so lonely”). But this song, and the others from the 30 Days 30 Songs project, will serve as cultural artifacts of the esteem in which the majority of Americans held their future president, and is buoyed by the soothing delivery of Matt Berninger (most famously of The National) and the absurd and hilarious references to walrus dick jewelry. Yes, it’s a real thing.
Greg Laswell – Play That One Again [from Everyone Thinks I Dodged A Bullet]
This is the maybe saddest song ever made, a meditation on the passing of time and the ever-growing remove from the past, with all the joy it once held. Listen to it and weep, for we all are mortal saps.
Kanye West – Wolves [from The Life of Pablo]
The Life of Pablo was a bit of a mess, and Kanye West’s tour to support it certainly hasn’t gone as planned. But he’s still capable of putting together a killer track, whether it be the amazing soul drop on Famous, the Madlib-backed frenetic rapping on No More Parties in LA, or the downbeat majesty of Wolves. The beat is enticing, the Kanye verse is full of Kanye-isms (“You left your fridge open/Somebody just took a sandwich” and “What is Mary was in the club/Before she met Joseph/With hella thugs?”), and Sia and Vic Mensa add just enough flavour to the proceedings. It ends with a grainy, ear-piercing howl, relieved by (in the original mix) a lullaby from Frank Ocean, proclaiming “Life is precious, we found out,” ending the album with maybe more poignancy than it deserves, but its fitting for Wolves itself.
The Lemon Twigs – As Long As We’re Together [from Do Hollywood]
While it starts of a bit jangly and off-the-cuff, As Long As We’re Together builds into the type of garage jam that makes you want to stand on the nearest table and shout along. It’s kinda sweetly romantic, even if it really seems to end up being about falling in love too quickly (“We’ve only ever talked/For what seemed like an hour”), and its chorus riff and synth breakdown are Beatles-esque in the best possible way. And as long as it sounds this good, I don’t see what’s wrong with that.
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker [from You Want It Darker]
The title track of what turned out to be Cohen’s final album made it crystal clear that he know the end was near (“I’m ready, my lord,” the refrain of the song goes). With the knowledge of the end in hand, Cohen addresses a potential God with wonder and criticism. In response to the world’s atrocities, he sneers “I didn’t know I had permission/To murder and to maim”. In response to fighting against a God, he yields “If you are the dealer/I’m out of the game”. Is it regret that plays into the line “If thine is the glory/Mine must be the shame”? Cohen’s last music is as thoughtful as it ever was, and his voice is as deep and potent as his younger days, with a perfectly minimalist accompaniment. His loss is a tragic one, but he left the world with a fantastic parting gift.
Mitski – Your Best American Girl [from Puberty 2]
Your Best American Girl is a deeply emotional song with a wallop of a drop in the chorus. Mitski unburdens her soul, discussing the difficulty connecting with men given a different cultural background, and her difficulty in accepting those differences in herself (“Your mother wouldn’t approve/Of how my mother raised me/But I do/I think I do” is the best line of the year, hands down). The raw honesty of the lyrics is mirrored in the pared-down verses and the wall-of-noise guitar in the chorus, showing that you can effectively communicate internal strife in a non-sardonic manner while still making one of the best damn rock songs of the year.
Sharon Van Etten – Not Myself
There are a lot of sad songs in the top group, it seems. A non-album single, Not Myself was released by Van Etten as a charity single in wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting. “I haven’t been this overwhelmed with sadness and disbelief in a long time,” Van Etten said of the song, and that melancholy is precisely conveyed through her near-wailing delivery, and her solidarity in lines like “I want you to be yourself around me.” It’s the kind of song that makes you stare off into the distance and, however briefly, consider the strife of others, and while its not always comfortable, its a cathartic listen.
Weezer – Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori [from The White Album]
The White Album was a big return to form for Weezer, and Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori stands as its best and most fun track. Its a straightforward jam, but has the old Weezer self-deprecating charm and a solo right from the best parts of the late 90s, and even sneaks in an obligatory lyrical oddity in “I feel it in my molecules.” It plays nicely into the album’s summer-romance theme (“You made me believe in God/When I finally awake/Both girls are gone”), and as a bonus, is the subject of the hands-down best episode of Song Exploder.
Rounding Out the Top 30ish
Album of the Year
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Teens of Denial made the guitar fun again. Over 12 often-long, often-meandering tracks, Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo has created a stone-cold classic, injecting navel-gazing lyrics with soaring chorus and character. There’s not a stinker on the album, from the rocking opener Fill in the Blank, the dreamlike Vincent, the earnest Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales, or the heartbreaking 1937 State Park (“I didn’t want you to hear/That shake in my voice/My pain is my own”). This is Toledo’s thirteenth album, and he’s only 24; I’m excited to see what he comes out with next, but he’s already created a masterpiece.
Runners Up: AJJ’s The Bible 2, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Run the Jewels’ RTJ3