2016 was not the easiest year – for me or for anyone. Physically, it was far from demanding – I’ve been at home on my third gap year, and been able to sleep and wake whenever I like – but mentally it was often exhausting, largely due to external worldly events I don’t need to mention. Still, as always, my constant consumption of music and movies in preparation for making year-end lists – a tradition I’ve upheld for many years with the best songs in particular – has been upheld, and I’ve been waiting excitedly to put words to the songs that most shaped my musical year (for the all of you that don’t know – I do this every year; it’s kind of my main yearly hobby-project, one that I work towards and look forward to completing from January 1st).
I’ve had the chance to diversify my musical tastes this year more so than ever before – though I’m far from patrician yet – and therefore it was harder than ever before to cram a limited number of songs into a “short” list. That I’ve reduced my number of included songs to 50 doesn’t help, but I wasn’t doing 100 this year.
This year I discovered K-Pop, became a member of Death Grips meme groups, followed YouTube music commentators (mainly Fantano) more closely, found a new group of personal favorite artists, and listened to more albums than ever before. What follows is a subjective selection of songs that had the biggest impact on me – both immediate and lasting – throughout this turbulent year. To others there are no doubt some questionable picks on the list, and certain songs missing, but it’s true to my own tastes, and I hope an interesting window into what excites and empowers me – aesthetically, artistically, emotionally, thematically. [Scroll to the very bottom for the ranked Spotify playlist]
50. Street Sects – “And I Grew into Ribbons”
Both my first exposure to Street Sects and this noisy-as-hell-style industrial rock in general, but certainly not my last. Mainly including it on this list (and in this introductory position) as it was one of those songs that completely redefined for me what music could be when I first listened to it, though with re-listens there are most likely other songs later in their album, End Position, which I’d retrospectively put in the spot.
49. Sia – “Reaper”
Grandiose power ballad from today’s power ballad-est power ballad-ess, which I think I might like even more than “Chandelier”. Maybe cringey in a few years, but no baby, no baby, not to-daaay!
48. Charlie Puth ft. Selena Gomez – “We Don’t Talk Anymore”
Puth has put his name to some right crap (let’s not Marvin Gaye and get it on), but this elegant duet with the continually-surprising (i.e., now just plain good) Selena Gomez is a mini-masterpiece, capturing the wistful longing of lovers past their communicative prime with enough heat you’d half believe the love’s for real. What is for real is the purity of those vocals, gliding over a smooth arrangement of scratchy acoustic guitars and snapping percussion. These are two of the best singers in the pop game, but never have their voices been put to as good a use as this.
47. Miguel, Kacey Musgraves – “waves – Remix”
Speaking of two of the best in the game, here’s two more singers playing harmonic chess a couple dimensions higher; Kacey’s been a favorite since “Merry Go ‘Round”, and I’ve come to appreciate Miguel this year as well. Bringing together voices from different walks of life for a match made in musical heaven, this blissfully unsubtle bit of aural imagism turns the ebbing and flowing of waves into the sex jam of the year. That year’s been a good one for surfing – you’ll see The Shallows on my favorite films list too – and an even better one for revitalization of older music. In this case “older” of course isn’t much older, but “revitalization” is much revitalization.
46. A$AP Ferg ft. ScHoolboy Q – “Let it Bang”
There’s prolly a better musical term for it, but this quick boast track has that sound (“Bugatti” / “Fight Night”) that reminds me both of boxing matches and crime scene investigations. That thumping synth sound of bravado, of intimidation, of pure punching physicality. It’s also got two of the catchiest verses of the year – certainly not surprising from Q, whose appearance on Danny Brown’s “Dope Fiend Rental” remains an all-time favorite (ScHoolboy won’t appear again on this list, but expect his latest LP to at least get a mention on the albums one).
45. Brand New – “I Am a Nightmare”
A later addition to this list – meaning, I haven’t listened to it near as frequently as most of the others (the above A$AP Ferg track was in my top 5 most-listened on Spotify) – and therefore also a shaky addition, one I’m including at a bit of a risk (yes, I know this is a low-stakes, low-read blog post, but I take this seriously). But I like the loudness, the no-frills transitions between each of the sections, the energy of the guitars. It’s a simple rock banger (at the risk of using the term “banger”).
44. New Order – “Singularity”
Well that came out of nowhere. I won’t claim to be a big New Order fan, though I like the obligatory tracks like “Blue Monday” and “Bizarre Love Triangle”, but I was as positively delighted as that Dunkirk extra when I saw this bomb drop. It’s got that classic new wave feel, with a simple-yet-effective combination of quick synth notes, buzzing electric guitars and relentless drum machinery, yet feels fresh as ever. An epic progression through wide-sweeping poetic humanity, this song continues to surprise – both within itself and through repeat listens.
43. Digitalism – “Battlecry”
I can’t believe this isn’t on FIFA 17; it reminds me fondly of the sort of thing they’d put on those games back in the mid-2000s (and do note that one of their songs is on FIFA 17 – I just discovered that while fact-checking this to make sure I wasn’t second-guessing myself). It’s not a song that I think has much meaning beyond what its title implies, but that’s fine – it’s one of the catchiest, most commercial-ready rock songs of the year. The loud, clashing guitars and basses and drums and screams are top notch.
42. Solange – “Cranes in the Sky”
Both Knowles sisters were on top form in 2016, surely the greatest individual output of musical siblings in my lifetime. To compliment Beyoncé’s energetic, lively expression of individual and communal identity, Solange dropped one of the most elegant, angelic R&B albums of the year (both, as you can guess, will feature prominently on my year-end list). This is as close to a consensus on the album’s best song we’ve gotten, and I can definitely buy into the love. But it’s a love I have for pretty much every song on A Seat at the Table.
41. Jessy Lanza – “VV Violence”
My first ever exposure to Jessy Lanza; hardly my last. Funky, airy, vocally textured – it’s a mesmerizing statement of intent, Lanza mixing blurting synths with persistent drum and bass while her high-pitched voice provides sassy commentary addressing an unsatisfactory, uncommunicative lover. Interwoven with moans and grunts, and varying from melodic to direct, it’s a haunting vocal performance, built over a head-bangingly catchy beat structured with stops, starts and switches.
40. Laura Mvula ft. Nile Rodgers – “Overcome”
An expression of a timeless sense of community, telling of God’s children running round the mountain, Mvula’s echoing chant leads an epic hope-myth over thumping drums, rising strings, harmonious backing vocals and Rodgers’ continuous funk guitar riffs. It’s the sort of stupendously big motivational anthem to make you question the need to bother with any “smaller” kind of art, if only for a short 3 minutes. I love profound, grandiose songs like this, and indeed seeing myself ranking this even higher with revisits to this list (decade-end?).
39. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Cry”
Most of Carly Rae Jepsen’s recent songs have hit home for me (more on that later), but this was perhaps the most directly probing. A heartbreaking tune about living with an emotionally aloof partner – one who is unable to cry – “Cry” didn’t quite make me cry, but that’s kinda the problem. I’ve not always been the most outwardly emotional person, but this song, along with other 2016 changes, has encouraged me to address that. Separated from that, this is one of many goosebumps-inducing pop tunes on Jepsen’s EMOTION B-Sides, featuring one of her most passionately otherworldly vocal performances to date.
38. Mark Pritchard ft. Thom Yorke – “Beautiful People”
A trance-inducingly lush ambient track accentuated by your typically melancholy Yorke croons, this was my favorite song off of Pritchard’s surreal Under the Sun, and, indeed, it seems to be the most famous as well (I haven’t yet seen the noted music video as of writing this blurb, though descriptions of it evoking loneliness on an epic journey match the feeling this song evokes very well).
37. YG – Still Brazy
I only listened to the album Still Brazy for the first time this week, but it’s got that instant classic feel, and I knew immediately that either this or “Why You Always Hatin?” would be featuring on my list – for having two of the catchiest beats of the year alone. I’m picking this one as the catchiest, but the whole album is chock-full of bangers.
36. Robbie Williams – “Party Like a Russian”
When I first heard this song (read: album), I thought it was the cringiest thing I’d ever heard – it still is – and that’s coming from a hardcore Robbie fan since early childhood. An ostentatiously orchestrated guided tour through blatant stereotypes about Russia and the hedonistic party habits of its oligarchy, it’s Robbie’s reaction to playing in the nation a few years back, and has rightfully received widespread criticism for its uncouth generalizations – some even say racism. On the other hand, it’s also one of the maddest, most interesting songs of the year – and a very intrigued part of me can’t stop listening (I especially love the repetition of “put a doll inside a doll” in the chorus, and the meme-worthy chants in the background). For better or for worse, Robbie’s proved himself a master showman – the absolute madman – even if what he’s showing isn’t in the best taste. Call this my musical equivalent to ranking Gods of Egypt as one of the best film of the year.
35. Anna Meredith – “Nautilus”
First off, I’m instantly reminded of the League character Nautilus, which in turns reminds me of Big Daddy from Bioshock, who was a favorite character (and inside joke) on Playstation All Stars: Battle Royale back when that was the game my friends and I played in high school. No doubt that personal connection intrigued me about this song before I’d even listened, but I stayed for the suspenseful synth melody (is it even synths? I know next to nothing about music – I just like appreciating it). It’s the most infectious track on Meredith’s brilliant Varmints, which will also feature on my albums list. (Note: this song was technically released in 2012, but I’m counting it as 2016 because of the album’s release).
34. Frank Ocean – “Nikes”
I could see some being put off by the high-pitched vocal distortion, but what others may hear as annoying I’m mesmerized by. At least, I haven’t been able to get this slow-burning wander through Ocean’s inner workings out of my head since I first heard it, which was in the context of Blonde – another acclaimed music video I haven’t seen yet. A thoroughly unique song, totally of its time yet, I’m willing to bet, with a chance at timelessness as well.
33. Kero Kero Bonito – “Lipslap”
Tough to pick a favorite from Bonito Generation (besides “Picture This”, which is one of my favorite songs from last year), but I’m going with this, a fun, bubbly bit of blabbering banter about slang and communication that is Kero Kero Bonito at their Kero Kero Bonitoest. Accompanied by a glorious music video, it’s the song of theirs I had on repeat most often in their biggest year yet.
32. Dumbfoundead – “Harambe”
Best (new) meme song of 2016, bar none. Harambe was the meme of 2016 – though “We Are Number One” is a close call – and I’d have hit the play button on any song about him. Luckily, the gorilla’s definitive anthem is a great song in its own right. Smooth flow, strong beat, lots of variety, and top-tier memery. #32 is a possibly too conservative a placement for this one, but it is hard to separate the music from the meme.
31. Red Velvet – “Russian Roulette”
Another conservative placement, since this was the song I played the most consecutive times this year – probably over 20 in one sitting – though I haven’t listened to it quite as much the last month. Nevertheless, it was one of 2016 K-Pop’s most colorful offerings, with the p-p-pushes and the b-b-beeps chirping themselves into a sugary succession of radio-ready bliss that catapulted Red Velvet right up the top of the list of my current favorite K-Pop acts (it’s still a genre I’m new to, though one you’ll see many more examples of on this list). It’s best accompanied by its vivacious music video.
30. case/lang/veirs – “Atomic Number”
The highlight from this supergroup trio’s self-titled album, “Atomic Number” is a beautifully enigmatic track about purity that features just about my favorite musical thing – vocal harmonies – to moving effect. Hearing these voices build on each other over flowing guitars, smooth strings and steady percussion through a heartwarming succession of symbolic metaphors is a sound to behold. Elevation-tier line: I am the spark / of this machine / purring like the city bus.
29. Chairlift – “Moth to the Flame”
Stunningly-produced dance track that has been spinning around my head ever since I’ve heard it – and barged its way up this list in the process, against my will. If nothing, Chairlift can make a catchy chorus, and this was the catchiest of them all on their enjoyable album Moth. It feels important, elevated, timeless – a difficult-to-describe quality that all my favorite songs seem to have.
28. Angel Olsen – “Shut Up Kiss Me”
The simplest chorus of 2016: Angel straightforwardly belts “SHUT UP KISS ME HOLD ME TIGHT” in quick succession in an empoweringly no-bullshit manner, catapulting an already-stunning rock track into unforgettable glory. It’s a song of such strength and purpose that its inclusion felt obligatory – in the best of ways. This one’ll still be fun to listen to decades from now, I reckon.
27. Bruno Mars – “24K Magic”
When I saw this gilded mess for the first time I just had to smile. Bruno Mars has entered that phase of his career – and his music is faaaaar for the better for it. A gross, hedonistic, glorious stunner that continues to surprise with every second of its constantly-evolving runtime, it’s the realization of the style “Uptown Funk” hinted at, an unapologetic, autotune-laden funk tune that explodes with the sounds of casinos and does whatever the hell it wants. It’s one to shake your head at, but the unhinged energy of it all is irresistible. Best thing Bruno’s ever done.
26. The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey – “Closer”
The sort of nostalgia-tinged commercial bollocks I fall for easily. Hit me with a celebration of youth and a Blink-182 reference or two and I’m sold. Note that I was a staunch defender of “#SELFIE”, so it wasn’t much of a leap at all for me to jump on the hype train for this one, which is just about my favorite (western) #1 hit of the year. It’s a whitewashed #firstworldproblems love song blindfolded to any kind of wider edge or reality, yet it also taps into something real – and however unreal, that realness hits me hard. I don’t think this song is ever getting older (might be wrong – see this article about the “pop-drop” trend).
25. The Avalanches ft. Danny Brown – “Frankie Sinatra”
Off his rocker. I didn’t want to like this ridiculous song when I first listened to it – ew, it thinks quirky 50s stylization and whimsical farting horns and “My Favorite Things” makes a fun #a e s t h e t i c – but goddammit, I can’t stop listening to this beauty. It’s silly as all hell, but with a pitch-perfect Danny Brown feature, it’s hard not to fall in love with. You win this time, Avalanches.
24. D.R.A.M. ft. Lil Yachty – “Broccoli”
Everyone and their dog is putting this on their best of the year list, and for good reason. It helped that I watched the music video before I’d listened to the song separately; D.R.A.M.’s wide smile is infectious. This is such a bright, sunny summer rap track, keeping things minimalistic with a repetitive succession of piano chords and the most ingenious recorder melody I’ve heard all ever.
23. Danny Brown – “Ain’t it Funny”
Re: my previous mention of “Dope Fiend Rental” – Danny Brown has been one of my favorite rappers for a while, and his latest album didn’t disappoint. Noisy, razor-sharp, hyperactive – it was, for me, the most inventive rap album of the year, and amongst the best. “Ain’t It Funny” was the closest I could get to a favorite track, its blaring horns crashing over a dark, violent reflection on cocaine abuse and living fast that both captures and redefines Danny’s idiosyncratic sound. But it damn near tied with half the damn album to get this spot.
22. Chance the Rapper ft. Lil Wayne & 2Chainz – “No Problem”
This is only this low because I haven’t been listening to it as long as the other songs on this list, but this loud, multilayered rap track is absolutely blowing me away right now. Phenomenal verses from each of the rappers on display, and the perfect vehicle for Chance’s distinct gospel-tinted sound: it’s an immense, sweltering ray of sunshine.
21. ANOHNI – “Drone Bomb Me”
Such a statement of a song on so many levels, with ANOHNI taking the idea of drone bombings and turning it into a haunting sex anthem – drone bomb me…blow me from the mountains and into the sea. At once atmospherically hollow and overwhelmingly deep, it’s a complex, hard-hitting explosion (huehue) of love, lust, loneliness and devastation (synonym search: no similar word beginning with “l” for the latter) that also happens to have, I’d say, the best song title of 2016 (#28 on this list comes close).
20. Radiohead – “Burn the Witch”
A horrific twanging of anxious rising strings that matter-of-factly warns of an abandoning of reason in an age of surveillance, populism, confirmation bias and witch-huntery, this is just about the most aesthetically on-point song I can think of from this year. It’s only this low because I haven’t listened to it all that many times – it’s one I have to be in the right mood for – but in those situations, it’s a bone-chilling experience.
19. Tegan and Sara – “U-turn”
I loved a lot of the songs on Love Me to Death, so narrowing it down to just one for this list was a difficult prospect (see me breaking that rule for another artist next). I’m picking this as the most memorable of the bunch (other contenders include “Boyfriend” and “Stop Desire”). It’s a sentimental apologetic love song about giving a partner the respect and affection they deserve, with a tantalizing drop-reverse into its final chorus that ranks as one of the greatest momentary pleasures in 2016 music.
18. Carly Rae Jepsen – “First Time”
Jepsen’s my favorite currently-prolific singer. There’s a magical quality to her voice and its energetic, somewhat-anxious, boundlessly cheery excitement that lends to perfect pop vocals, and she’s proven her strengths as a distinct artist again this year (EMOTION was one of my favorite albums of ’15; SIDE B will rank in ’16). “First Time”, in which she gushes over loves and heartbreaks that always feel as powerful as the first time, has her at the pinnacle of her wide-eyed passion. Buoyed by bouncy funk guitars, it’s the perfectly-produced sentimental pop single.
17. Shura – “Nothing’s Real”
I can’t believe I almost didn’t put this on this list, misplacing it amongst my selected songs last-minute. That’s been fixed – I couldn’t not include a song so overwhelmingly funky I tweeted about it, amongst the best solo dance tracks in a year that was a highlight for solo dance tracks (and not much else). Over thumping drums, blockbuster strings and a head-bangingly groovy bassline, exciting newcomer Shura makes a definitive statement on hypernormalisation in the digital age (watch Adam Curtis’ documentary of the same name – my film of the year – for more on what I’m talking about). A sweeping, cinematic soul-searcher that takes on everything from TV to medicine and the illusion of reality in the most damningly upbeat indictment of modern life I’ve heard all year (I might be reading into that too deeply; this was just a “damn catchy song” until today, when I really started looking at the lyrics).
16. Brandy Clark – “Soap Opera”
Ain’t we all the stars of our own soap opera? Brandy asks in this witty, revelatory ditty that highlights one of the best albums of the year – Big Day in a Small Town. A singular concept-within-a-concept, detailing the daytime TV-esque lives of the people of – you guessed it – a small town, it provokes the sort of wide smile from me that goes along with that reassuring feeling of “oh well, that’s life!”
15. LUNA – “Free Somebody”
I almost didn’t put this on this list – it’s not that good, is it? – but a constant urge to return to it combined with audiovisual memories formed from love of the music video earlier in the year (I watched the video multiple times, forgot about it and the name of the song, and desperately combed for it a few weeks ago – finally finding it hidden deep in my Spotify playlist of 2016 releases). In all honesty it’s quite generic, especially in the choruses, but there’s something about the piano in those verses that I can’t shake.
14. Maren Morris – “My Church”
I’m not even religious, I’m British-born, and I live in the suburbs spending most of my time on my electronic devices, yet pretty much everything about this cheery commemoration of the likes of Hank and Cash speaks to me. I’m hooked on the way Maren screams her heart out in those choruses – the catchiest in all of 2016’s country offerings. This song is…my church.
13. Common ft. Stevie Wonder – “Black America Again”
I’ve gone back and forth on Common, but this proves he’s a master activist-storyteller and songwriter, giving 2016 a sweeping ballad about the injustices against Black America and a celebration of its heroes that masterfully mixes rap and R&B through moments of empowerment, terror, reflection and hope that is as gripping as it is powerful and important. It’s a song that feels like Common’s destiny, but it had a wider purpose this year – “we are rewriting the Black American story”. I’m white; this wasn’t made for me, and thus I don’t feel qualified to say much more. I’ll leave with this: it’s essential.
12. Beyoncé – “Formation”
Ditto @ “wasn’t made for me”, ditto @ “essential”. This was the song event of the year: a downright groundbreaking statement of power and purpose that immediately cemented Beyoncé as the most vital artist of the year. Songs I have a more personal connection to top it on my list, but if only one song could be saved from 2016 – a record of history, culture, musical evolution – we’d have to pick this one.
11. Maxwell – “Lake By The Ocean”
Tough call for that bittersweet 11th spot – I’ve tested multiple songs there before settling on this one – but don’t let that get me wrong: this is one of the best of the year. Maxwell’s relentless voice glides over a smooth, relaxing R&B tune with rises and falls that are absolutely addictive. Like many of my other favorite songs of the year, there’s a sense of fluidity here (see: “Ocean”) that draws us to ride on its graceful wave. I don’t drink coffee, but methinks this is prime coffee shop relaxation material. Oh, why didn’t I just say tea? I like tea.
10. Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales”
Comparing the plight of captive orcas to the trappings of drunk-driving youth, this conceptual masterpiece was one of those “big” musical moments for me in 2016. Thrashing guitars, growing tension, interwoven themes and metaphors – what’s not to love? My favorite rock song of the year takes two seemingly alien experiences and makes them universal, the cries of singer Will Toledo forming the perfect climactic crescendo as the song builds to a full-on conclusion.
9. Gallant – “Bourbon”
I Google this song to get a bit more information on it before writing, and there it is: “majestic”. That about sums it up; this heavenly synth-pop soul tune is soul-tinglingly elegant, Gallant taking us on a vivid journey of melancholy love, one tinged shaded by a dark addiction akin to needing “bourbon in my coffee cup” (his words, not mine; I detest coffee – but not this song). “Champagne quicksand” is my favorite combination of words in a song all year. Hell yeah, that’s art right there.
8. EXO – “Lucky One”
“Monster”, which was my original favorite from Ex’Act, was the better seller, but “Lucky One”, a song of such incredible production, has won me over in the end. Like their 2013 hit “Growl”, it’s a song that feels definitively confident, a display of greatness and domination of K-Pop boy-bandery that is simply not to be matched. Note that I was only really introduced to K-Pop this year by a friend far more educated on the goings-on, so I have no idea what I’m talking about writing this. What I know is this sounds damn monumental, with the most positively sublime pop production out there.
7. Margo Price – “Hands of Time”
Talk about a signature song: this is Margo Price’s life story, all her journeys and struggles condensed into 6 minutes of staggering personal mythology that reflects on strife, tragedy and grief and mixes stark realism with good-ol’-fashioned romanticism effortlessly. A heartfelt, personal poem about the “cruel hands of time”, Price’s achievement here is staggering – a real song for the ages, not just within its own folk/country sound.
6. TAEMIN – “Drip Drop”
Accompanying my favorite K-POP video of the year, this vivid sensory experience is a hard one to shake, TAEMIN tantalizingly pattering out the titular words to the desired effect: it’s a trance-heavy pop song about little teasing moments, and everything about the breathtaking production accentuates that. Also check out: “One by One”, from TAEMIN’s great debut album Press It, for the most stunning guitar riff of the year.
5. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Everywhere You Look (The Fuller House Theme)”
I’ve been cringily excited to write this very paragraph ever since I decided on this cover’s greatness 10 (25? 50? 100? 200?) listens in, and all the way to it unsurprisingly finishing first in my Spotify Top Tracks list it’s been my year’s greatest pick-me-up. You’ve heard enough about my appreciation for Jepsen – more on why the hell I selected a cover of a cheesy 90s sitcom theme tune for my top 10 songs of the year. First off, while I’ve never really been a fan of the show, besides watching a few reruns on Nick at Night before leaving for high school in the morning, I’ve always loved the theme, which joyfully captures a good-ol’ uplifting suburban spirit that, however naively idyllic, always scoops me up in the schmaltz. Jepsen was no doubt perfect for the material, herself cornering the market on ecstatic, cutesy pop, and she turns one of TV’s greatest introductory ditties into the ultimate cornball escapism. For me, this is seriously a cover of the caliber of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” or Gary Jules’ “Mad World”: an inspired revitalization of a classic by an artist who seems born to convey the message. THERE’S A HEART!
4. Muncie Girls – “Respect”
Straightforward punk rock with a sharp feminist edge, this was my big political message song of the year, one that went as far as heavily influencing my thematically murky short film Captain Cringe (a film that ended up conflicted, as I evolved politically mid-edit). Harsh words directed at a disrespectful male (made clear through witty imagery in the music video), “Respect” is a stark middle finger to patriarchal objectification of women and rape culture, one that (punk) doesn’t beat around the bush in getting to the point, with words like “misogyny” thrown out almost immediately. It’s an angry song about not turning a blind eye to bullshit – something I’m not always the best at doing (see: some of the questionable politics within songs on this very list). It helps that “Respect” is effortlessly catchy – quick, to the point, simplistically-structured, a song that’s gone before you know it but immediately leaves its mark – and, in my case at least, sticks with you.
3. Sturgill Simpson – “Sea Stories”
I love the ocean. I love sailing. The latter I haven’t done much of, but whenever I do do it, it’s a life-affirming experience. The former must come from my ancestry – on both sides – being largely from seaside towns in the UK and Ireland. I love Moby-Dick, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, SpongeBob (who doesn’t?), and anything to do with pirates or seafaring adventure. As Sturgill asserts in this incredible country shanty, “I have salt running through my veins”. Loving this was a no-brainer, but I was astonished the first time I heard it in the context of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth; how could a song as good as this exist? A tidal wave mosaic of Sturgill’s naval experiences, port-to-port adventure, sagely advice, poetic imagery and references to king cobra fights, drugs and N64s, it’s pretty much my personal aesthetic, wrapped and packaged in an organic, bobbing production straight out of the salty depths.
2. The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk – “Starboy”
Now look what you’ve done. Shame the rest of the album was shite, because “Starboy” was 2016’s thunderbolt single, coming out of nowhere and zapping me into immediately buying into the Weeknd hype train (I did like a lot of his songs from last year, but none of them as much as this). With patrician (ahem) production from the gods themselves, the last two days of the week asserts his dominance of the music game, smoothly steering through the dark excesses of money, fame and cars while humorously boasting of the power it’s given him (“bought momma a crib and a brand new wagon…now she hit the grocery shop lookin’ lavish”). It’s all god-tier, but what I love most about this masterpiece is it never stops – instead of giving us pillows of reflection space we plebs don’t need, Saturday and Sunday moves right on to the next verse – one totally different from the last – when he’s done with the very minimal first chorus. When I heard that transition for the first time, I knew I was listening to something special – a song for the ages.
1. GFriend – “Rough”
Here it is: the pinnacle. In the year I fell in love with K-Pop (or, at least, the cross-section of K-Pop I’ve been exposed to), this was not only my favorite example of that genre, but my favorite song, period. Ordering the rest of this list was a chore, but this position was so set (as top spots often are) that I didn’t even bother including it in preliminary deliberations. It’s simply on a higher level, a song that connects with me in such powerful, pure, subconscious ways that it’s impossible to look at it with any modicum of objectivity (I don’t do objectivity anyway, but if I tried, I’d fail with this one).
At its core it’s simple: a loud, harmony-heavy girl group pop song about nervously going into the “rough” with the one you love, barging on through life with optimism and hope no matter the challenges it throws at you. It’s sentimental, cheesy, romantic, cutesy, sugary sweet, and passionately sincere – one hard to separate from its warm, eye contact-heavy music video (as is the case with most mainstream K-Pop).
I love hearing different voices combine together in harmony, and here that’s done with such unremitting intensity it’s irresistible, constantly carrying us along in its overexcited passion until it releases ever so slightly for the year’s most dreamlike pop guitar solo, before breaking right back into the magical noise. It’s overwhelmingly orchestral, textured with high-pitched violins, exuberant drums and firm piano chords, creating the effect of floating through the air after launching off of a ramp with great speed (not something I’ve ever done – though reminiscent of the only dream I remember clearly from early childhood, in which I fly down the street on a tricycle). It’s such a warm, fuzzy song – and for a year that was anything but warm and fuzzy, it was the perfect antidote.
And that concludes my list – one I’m very proud of (though I can still improve on actually describing songs’ production, meaning, and effect on me). Were my picks patrician, pleb, cringey, cool, mid tier, god tier? What are your picks? Let me know in the comments.
-ALBUM AND MOVIE LISTS COMING NEXT WEEK-
- Obviously I couldn’t listen to every song released, and there are still a couple dozen 2016 albums I’ve got on my “to-listen” list that I simply couldn’t get to in time (the new Swans, for instance). I still plan on listening to them, and indeed 2016 songs I haven’t heard at this point might make their way onto my decade-end list.
- I couldn’t pick between the 7 or 8 songs I really liked on The Life of Pablo, so all the Kanye tracks kind of canceled each other out. Ditto for everything on Bottomless Pit by Death Grips and on Bowie’s Blackstar. Those three albums will get their fair dues on my albums list.
- I could’ve picked multiple songs by Kero Kero Bonito, TAEMIN, case/lang/veirs, Brandy Clark, Danny Brown, EXO, Tegan and Sara and Sturgill Simpson for this list, but stuck to one each for the sake of variety. Couldn’t do the same for Carly – those three songs were all too individually memorable to not include (and “Roses” almost made the cut too).
- No doubt I’ll look back at this list and reeeeeeeeeeee at the order; I could see many of these songs growing with age, and others getting a bit old after a while. I could see a good half of these working their way into my decade-end list, with the current order being my best attempt at predicting that likelihood.
- I listened to a lot of this music because I’d seen it reviewed by either Fantano* or Allmusic. I’m attempting to diversify my music sources now, but that was my base of recommendation this year (besides the K-Pop, of course).
- Mainstream hits that I thought were mega catchy but didn’t quite make the cut: “One Dance” by Drake ft. WizKid and Kyla / “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake / “Taste the Feeling” by Avicii ft. Conrad Sewell (yes, the Coke song) / “Whistle” by BLACKPINK / “Write on Me” by Fifth Harmony / “Work From Home” by Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla $ign / “Cake by the Ocean” by DNCE / “Cold Water” by Major Lazer ft. Justin Bieber & MØ / “Needed Me” by Rihanna / “Money” by Lawson / “Panda” by Desiigner / “My House” by Flo Rida
- Other honorable mentions: “Penthouse Floor” by John Legend / “INTERMISSION: fLoWer” by ZAYN / “Black Stars” by Xenia Rubinos / “Feel Dis Shit” by Sizzy Rocket / “Devil Side” by Foxes / “Dark Necessities” by Red Hot Chili Peppers / “DAZED & CONFUSED” by Die Antwoord / “Change of Heart” by The 1975 / “The Sound” by The 1975 / “I Don’t Know” by Dog Chocolate / “Wow” by Beck / “Vroom Vroom” by Charli XCX / “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” by Lucy Dacus / “Make Me Like You” by Gwen Stefani / “Everybody Wants to Love You” by Japanese Breakfast / “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms” by Let’s Eat Grandma / “Take it From Me” by KONGOS / “Pep Rally” by Missy Elliot / “Small Bill$” by Regina Spektor / “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd ft. Gucci Mane / “Neighbors” by J. Cole / “Redbone” by Childish Gambino