Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Top 40 Songs of 2016

So here we are, one year after David Bowie's passing and ten days away from Donald Trump's inauguration.  It's easy to view 2016 as a total wreck, the country divided, coupled with a seemingly endless flow of influential artists' deaths.  And I'll admit that 2016 was the roughest year of my life personally as well.  But to discount 2016 as simply "The Year the Music Died" belies that fact that a lot of excellent music came out.  I've made it a habit to create a playlist of my top 40 songs each year, and I'm not going to stop just because it feels like the world is falling apart.  Now that we're ten days into 2017, hopefully we can look back on 2016 and say, "Well, at least there were some good tunes."

Now you may be asking, "Speaking of Bowie, why isn't he on this list?"  Well, I have very strict rules for eligibility.  While Blackstar remains an important album and one that I enjoy, its best tracks were all released prior to 2016.  "Killing a Little Time" from the Lazarus recordings almost made it, however.  Anyway, don't let that stop you from opening up Spotify and enjoying 2.5 hours of 2016 jams.

Top 40 Songs of 2016

40. A Giant Dog - "Sleep When Dead"
This snagged the opening spot in the final week of December while I was returning to NY via the Lincoln Tunnel on a Chinatown bus.  The aggression of the music mixed with the determination in the lyrics makes it the perfect soundtrack to kick those New Year's resolutions into gear. 

39. Animal Liberation Orchestra - "Summer Dream (We Got the Time)"
I wasn't aware ALO had released this sunkissed single exclusively through Amazon until I saw them play it live at Brooklyn Bowl in August.  It's not on Spotify, so you can check out an acoustic version performed by Zach and Steve below.

38. Frightened Rabbit - "Get Out"
I think most of us can relate to this shimmery rock number, wherein lead singer Scott Hutchison compares his love interest to an "uncut drug" that he can't quit and doesn't want to.

37. A Tribe Called Quest - "Movin Backwards"
Phife Dawg's death wasn't a complete surprise to anyone familiar with his battle with diabetes, but what was unexpected was the release of a new Tribe album eight months later.  This song addresses police brutality and the confusions and frustrations of being black in a society where racism has returned to the forefront.  It also features Anderson Paak, who we'll hear from later on down the list.

36. Daniel Romano - "Maybe Remember Me"
Romano expands upon his country sound with this poppy folk ditty stuffed with vivid imagery like the orange bird that rests upon his shoulder.  As if that weren't enough of a stylistic jump, the song's conclusion segues into what feels like an early Red Hot Chili Peppers demo.

35. Billie Marten - "Teeth"
Speaking of birds, you'll hear them chirping in the background of this beautiful performance by Billie Marten.  It's so raw, you can hear the clunks of the piano's foot pedals.

34. The Invisible - "Save You"
I hate to resort to a TV on the Radio comparison, but it's the best TVOTR song they never wrote.

33. Tokyo Police Club - "Not My Girl"
After going solo with last year's All Signs Point to Yes (and talking to me about it on The Next Round), Dave Monks returns with another excellent power-pop number from the first of two 2016 EPs by Tokyo Police Club.

32. My Morning Jacket - "Magic Bullet"
MMJ released this funky plea for peace the Sunday after a particularly brutal week of gun violence in July.

31. Busman's Holiday - "What We Need We Know"
The Rogers brothers hired a 21-piece orchestra to flesh out their DIY acoustic sound on their sophomore record, Popular Cycles.  The result is powerful and organic.

30. Leonard Cohen - "You Want It Darker"
Another legend gone.  Crazily enough, I actually didn't start listening to Cohen until the beginning of 2016.  While I prefer his early folk material, the organ and choir make this song absolutely chilling. 

29. Sturgill Simpson - "Brace for Impact (Live a Little)"
A Sailor's Guide to Earth, Simpson's 2016 major label debut, was conceived as an instruction manual for his son.  Here, he encourages his son to "live a little" before his impending death.  The chugging groove prevents it from being too morbid.

28. The Heavy - "Not the One"
There's some nice, funky guitarwork here, reminiscent of John Frusciante.  I guess it's obvious I was extremely let down by The Getaway and had to get my jollies elsewhere.

27. Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals - "Shine"
If I were to call Ben Harper's 13th studio album, and first with the Innocent Criminals since 2007's Lifeline, what it is, I'd call it a disappointment.  "Shine" is a definite keeper though.

26. Matthew Logan Vasquez - "Personal"
Delta Spirit's frontman may have "struck out on his own," but fortunately, he didn't strike out, as evidenced by this energetic rocker.

25. Beyoncé - "All Night"
So much of Lemonade is about vengeance, but it's on "All Night" that Beyoncé forgives her husband for his infidelities, choosing to salvage their marriage instead of ending it.  As a result, it's the most fearless song on the record.  Obviously not on Spotify.

24. Radiohead - "Identikit"
I don't consider "True Love Waits" eligible for 2016 consideration.  While it would easily be included in the top ten if I did, I feel that having a live version officially released as far back as 2001 disqualifies it.  I say this knowing full well that "Identikit" was performed live in 2012, albeit unreleased.  Ed O'Brien's frenetic guitar solo is a welcome return to what was sorely missing from The King of Limbs.

23. White Denim - "Holda You (I'm Psycho)"
The Austin band went through some lineup changes for Stiff, reigniting that freewheeling energy that seemed in shorter supply on Corsicana Lemonade for this balls-out rocker.
22. D.D Dumbo - "Walrus"
It took me up until the final week of December to decide between four of the tracks on D.D Dumbo's debut LP, Utopia Defeated, which song should be represented here.  I went with the persistent opener that exemplifies Oliver Hugh Perry's multilayered production.

21. The Stray Birds - "Third Day in a Row"
I saw more sunrises last year than any year in my life.  Honestly, I probably saw the majority of the 366, so this one speaks to me.

20. Caleb Caudle - "Tuscaloosa"
One of my good friends used to work with this guy at a pizzeria in North Carolina, which is funny because you'd never a expect pizza guy to be capable of writing a line as moving as "Well, I'm not lookin' to be fixed / Just understand that parts are broken."

19. Aloha - "Faraway Eyes"
I'd heard of Aloha before 2016, but they didn't really demand my attention until Little Windows Cut Right Through, which would surely be on my albums of the year list if I made one.  It was hard selecting just one track, but the lyric "I know you're scared / I'm scared too" resonated with me, even if it was mainly due to a Rory Scovel joke.

18. Bruno Mars - "24K Magic"
While not as infectious as his Mark Ronson collaboration "Uptown Funk," Mr. Mars has returned with another slice of retro R&B to get your ass (and your ugly-ass friends) on the dance floor.

17. Kevin Morby - "I Have Been to the Mountain"
My favorite guitar solo of the year.

16. Bear Hands - "Marathon Man"
I actually discovered this song on Spotify.  It was the first Bear Hands tune I heard, and it inspired me to promptly order their back catalog on vinyl.  Their latest effort, You'll Pay for This, was a bit underwhelming, so my rabid fandom has tapered off, but I still enjoy it.

15. Dawes - "Roll with the Punches"
Its theme of persistence is characterized by the galvanic organ.

14. Will Joseph Cook - "Girls Like Me"
You can definitely hear the Talking Heads influence, but at only 18, Cook has plenty of time to grow.  If he's writing songs this catchy now, just wait until he gets some patina on him.

13. Catfish & the Bottlemen - "Soundcheck"
You could teach a songwriting class with this one, which merges its big pop chorus with esoteric verses, even going as far as to use the term "fag break."  The details paint a fuller picture, allowing the listener to relate.

12. Pop Etc - "Please, Don't Forget Me"
Chris Chu didn't forget the '80s when he crafted the lively lead-off track to SouvenirHear him discuss how the band whittled down literally hundreds of ideas to the album's ten tunes on The Next Round.

11. Honne feat. Izzy Bizu - "Someone That Loves You"
British songbird Izzy Bizu assists electronic soul duo Honne to create the most danceable number on Warm on a Cold Night.

10. Nico Yaryan - "Witch Love"
Yaryan wrote What a Tease while working at a cannabis farm in Humboldt County and spending time with a romantic interest in AmsterdamThe laid-back influence of the weed can be heard in the music.  It's not groundbreaking by any means, but it's refreshing to hear someone crooning so genuinely.

9. Emily King - "Focus"
In July, Emily King released a deluxe edition of last year's The Switch, adding this among the bonus tracks and proving it worth the upgrade.  She discussed the album's expansion on my podcast.

8. Bon Iver - "33 God"
Electronic artists and lo-fi balladeers have been experimenting with sound quality for years, so it wasn't exactly a new idea when Justin Vernon did it on 22, A Million.  In fact, it's often frustrating to have the songs obscured as such.  Be that as it may, it forced the studious listener to question its purpose.  Could it be part of some puzzle to unlock, or is it all just pretentious hipsterism If it weren't so damn melodic, I'd strongly consider it the latter.

7. Eric Krasno - "Waiting on Your Love"
Soulive's guitarist steps solidly into the spotlight on this bluesy funk cut.

6. Esmé Patterson - "Feel Right"
Esmé's hiccups and howls coalesced into my favorite individual vocal performance of the year.

5. Cris Jacobs - "Jack the Whistle & the Hammer"
If you can listen to this without bobbing your head or tapping your foot, stay the fuck away from me.  If you'd like to hear more about the genesis of the titular characters, check out my podcast interview with Cris.

4. Kishi Bashi - "Honeybody"
K. Ishibashi was having quite the slump when he sat down to write for record #3, feeling like he was going through the motions while simultaneously watching his marriage suffer, so it's amazing that such a joyous nugget came out of it.

3. Hero the Band - "Expectations"
I'm not sure why this is no longer available on Spotify, but it was in constant rotation on my iPod in the early months of the year, providing a 4-minute serotonin boost whenever I needed.

2. Francis & the Lights feat. Bon Iver - "Friends"
For this song, Francis invented a special audio codec, dubbed the Prismizer.  The result is similar to Auto-Tune, yet it retains the brightness of the human voiceIt's especially effective when combined with a call for friendship in these rough, divisive times.

1. Anderson Paak - "Come Down"
We may have lost a lot of legends this past year, but hip-hop/R&B artist Anderson Paak has been staking his claim as a star of the future.  I could've picked several of the songs from Paak's fantastic Malibu album to include in this list, but my limit is one per act.  I decided to go with "Come Down" because it's supremely funky and fun despite the complexity of its syncopation and production.  He's nominated for two Grammys, including Best New Artist, so you'd do well to hop in the Paak seat now.