My Top Songs of 2016

(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. SamsonPostdoc 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

My Top Songs of 2016

Weezer’s The White Album is an absolute blast

Pretty much everyone agrees that Weezer took a pretty sharp nosedive as a band at some point over the twenty years since their initial one-two punch of their pop-defining The Blue Album and the defiantly weird Pinkerton, but it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what changed. The lyrics have always been eye-rollingly cheesy with the cadence of an aunt trying to be hip, whether on their best songs (such as “I’m the epitome of public enemy/Why you wanna go and do me like that?” from Pinkerton’s “El Scorcho”)  or worst (“Just follow the smoke; they’re bringing bottles of the goose/And all the girls in the corner getting loose” from Raditude’s “Can’t Stop Partying”, probably the worst Weezer song of all time). Partially the difference comes from interpreting their cheesiness as a weak, uninspired attempt at creating memes and quirky videos (a la “Pork And Beans”) or just something natural out of the brain of Rivers Cuomo (a la “Buddy Holly”), and their more recent work has definitely skewed towards the former. Partially due to less-inspired lyrics and partially due to a simple lack of the distinct pop hooks that define them, Weezer’s losing streak is the stuff of legend.

That turned around a fair bit with 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright In The End. It had its share of cheese, sure, but rather than trying too hard by bringing in Lil Wayne, Cuomo just got weird, with power-pop songs about punk-ass redcoats (“The British Are Coming”) and Stephen Hawking (“Da Vinci”), while revisiting his relationship with his father as a muse in the most effective way since “Say It Ain’t So”. If that was a promise that Weezer was trying again, The White Album is damn sure fulfillment. Nearly every album since Pinkerton is described (at least in the moment) as their best since Pinkerton, but The White Album truly forgives Make Believe, Raditude, and Hurley with half an hour of the most exciting, involving, and distinct power-pop Weezer has ever made.

More than perhaps any other Weezer album, The White Album feels very much like an album rather than a collection of jams. While a summer album isn’t the most surprising thing for the band, they stick to the concept, vaguely tracing a summer fling from start to the inevitable decline, from the its-gonna-be-alright hopefulness of the opening cut “California Kids” to the acoustically driven closer “Endless Bummer”, which proclaims “I just want the summer to end”. It helps that the album is a tight 34 minutes, and perhaps outside of single “Thank God for Girls”, every song feels immediately at peace with what comes before and after it. Whenever it seems to be approaching overt happiness, it is immediately undercut. On “Girl We Got a Good Thing”, a Beach Boys-inspired sunny-day song about lovebirds is suddenly interrupted with a sharp power chord and the declaration “You scare me like an open window”.

Mercifully gone are talks about homies trying to front, and The White Album continues Everything Will Be Alright In The End’s trend of eclectic (although not necessarily obscure references), ranging from hare krishna love of “Girl We Got a Good Thing”, Mendel’s peas on “Wind In Our Sails”, and Dante’s Inferno on “L.A. Girlz”. Even lead single “Thank God for Girls”, the redheaded stepchild of the album, is a neat play on gender roles, the ostensible love interest being praised as big, strong, and “energetic in her sweaty overalls”. Most importantly, the songs are just catchy and memorable in way that harkens back to The Blue Album. “King of the World” is an arena-ready anthem, “L.A. Girlz” is the “Buddy Holly”-esque power-chord driven blast we’ve been missing for twenty years with the , and “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori” is wonderfully woven mix of key changes and guitar crunch. “Do You Wanna Get High” would’ve been absolutely at home on Pinkerton, and “Endless Bummer”s hey-heys conjure memories of the hip-hips of “Island in the Sun”. It’s definitely familiar Weezer, but it feels fresh all over again, and tracks like the piano-based falsetto jam “Jacked Up” show that their new tricks aren’t all misfires.

It’s hard to call The White Album a great album per se, as it surely isn’t an innovative masterpiece like it would have been 20 years ago. However, it clearly shows that there is gas left in Weezer’s tank, and that they’re still capable of sounding fresh by simply being themselves. It’s a hugely enjoyable album, even if mostly a throwback. If it can’t get out of the shadow of Blue and Pinkerton, it should at least be able to get out of the shadow of what came after. The White Album is not just a good album by post-2000 Weezer standards; it is legitimately front-to-back recommended listening.

B+

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Weezer [The White Album] (2016)
By Weezer
34:05
Available on Spotify, Google Play, and other services

Best Tracks: Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori, L.A. Girlz, King of the World

Weezer’s The White Album is an absolute blast

Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book is a muddy, self-important disappointment

Expectations could not have been higher for Chance the Rapper third mixtape, Coloring Book. His last mixtape, Acid Rap, was a masterpiece, 13 fantastic tracks that have held up in the three years since. His work since has been sporadic but memorable, taking a backseat role on Donnie Trumpet’s Surf which still gave him ample spotlight on great tracks like Wanna Be Cool and Sunday Candy, and stealing Ultralight Beams on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo with sixteen bars of fire, which included a promise that he’d do a good ass job with Chance 3. Throughout all of this, Chance has maintained his image as just a really nice guy, backed up by his bandleader approach to Surf and propensity to write cheer-up songs like Wanna Be Cool and Everybody’s Somebody. On Chance 3, the streak of goodwill ends for me. It’s a safe album where Chance lets go of most of what made him unique to fit the styles of his mentors and new, more famous friends, and where his all-around decentness finally starts showing signs of self-righteousness.

If there’s one thread that absolutely works at keeping Chance’s nice guy cred alive, its his treatment of his ex-girlfriend and daughter’s mother, which is the polar opposite of the Kim Mather’s treatment. “Man my daughter couldn’t have a better mother/If she ever find another he better love her,” he raps on opener “All We Got” without an ounce of sarcasm or defensiveness. But he spends more time on Coloring Book professing the evils of record labels and patting himself on the back for remaining unsigned and putting out a free mixtape (nevermind that it’s a timed exclusive for streaming services). It would be one thing for this to show up in a couple of lines, but it forms the hook of two separate tracks (“No Problem” and “Mixtape”). While the principle is a good one, his repeated mention of it makes it seem like he’s doing it specifically for the cred rather than any moral or personal stance. Repetitiveness of the message hurts the album overall: for example, “Same Drugs” starts off with so much promise, but runs out of new tricks twenty seconds in.

The biggest problem with Coloring Book is the mixing and production, which has some great beats that don’t fit its star whatsoever. Chance’s cadence has always been unique in the field, and while he can tongue-twist side-to-side with giants, he can’t command a beat like Kendrick and Rick Ross, for example. Acid Raps’ piano-based, relaxed jam band approach was the perfect fit, and while I like that Chance is trying new things, he gets lost in the beats that show up here. Particularly in “No Problem” and “All Night”, both of which have fantastically catchy beats that leave no room for the MCs to breathe. Even vet Lil’ Wayne gets completely lost in “No Problem”, and while “All Night” is worth listening too due solely to Kaytranada’s fantastic beat, Chance himself adds nothing at all. Chance apes Kanye throughout the album, particularly with over-indulgent gospel pieces which work in small amounts but become thematically and musically overbearing. Notably, on Future-featuring track “Smoke Break”, Chance apes Future’s delivery to awkward results, while the more relaxed beat gives Future’s rasp no favours.

It’s not all for naught though. “Juke Jam” is a touching laid back track, with Chance reminiscing on young unrequited love. “Angels”, which was previewed almost a year ago, feels most like old Chance, and remains the clear album standout, with Chance feeling alive and energized over trumpet and steel drums. It’s likely not a coincidence that this i the oldest track on the album, and one of the few to not feature a megastar. As Chance broke into the mainstream, he seems to have internalized the influence of the giants he now walks among. No good art exists in a vacuum, but on Coloring Book, Chance has lost the individuality that usually gives him spark. The result is unmemorable and infuriatingly unoriginal, but I’ll still eagerly anticipate what Chance does next.

C-

chance

Coloring Book (2016)
By Chance the Rapper
57:20
Available on Apple Music

Best Tracks: Angels, Juke Jam, All Night

Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book is a muddy, self-important disappointment

The Modern Classics: Grimes – Oblivion (2012)

In The Modern Classics, I’ll examine songs from the 2000s and 2010s that I think will be remembered as the classics of our time. What makes them different than the other songs we love, and why do I think they’ll resonate years down the line? 

#1. Grimes – Oblivion
From the 2012 album Visions

Deep cuts do not make a modern classic, and I’m hardly alone in my love of this song; Pitchfork named it the best song of the 2010s so far. The rest of that top 10 contains songs I love like Kanye West’s Runaway and Frank Ocean’s Pyramids, as well as songs some that don’t work for me like Drake’s Hold On We’re Going Home and Ariel Pink’s Round and Round, but Oblivion is the only track that I am positive will hold up years later as an emblem of its time.

So why this one? First and foremost, that bouncy synth bassline is unfairly catchy. Grimes’ lyrics are fairly mumbled, so the hook had to come from another source, and a rhythm as active as that bass works in spades. It’s immediately recognizable and omnipresent throughout the song; hearing any five seconds of it having ever heard it before identifies it immediately. Compare it another great Grimes track, Realiti, which similarly has tremendous texture but doesn’t own its rhythm quite as much, relying more on the melodic hook in the chorus to distinguish itself.

But Oblivion isn’t a banger by any stretch. At its heart, its beat poetry, telling a story of sexual assault and the scars it carries. The fact the lyrics are difficult to parse on a first listen allow it to survive as great groove music outside of its context, but its depth gives it a lasting appeal. It’s topical to today’s movement against sexual violence and the taboo inherent in it, and its forwards politics will surely give it lasting appeal to future generations. Grimes has released plenty of great music before and since, but Oblivion remains her crown jewel.

The Modern Classics: Grimes – Oblivion (2012)