Sunday, December 25, 2016

50 Great Songs From 2016

On December 29th, my "20 Favorite Albums of 2016" list drops, but there's so much good music out there that one list couldn't fully represent what the year had to offer.  It's hard to make an album that's consistently great from start to finish, especially in an age where individual songs are given more and more importance.  So this list is intended to pay lip service to some great standalone songs.  All of these come from albums that won't be on my top 20 list, either because it's a great song on a mediocre album, or one on an album that's good but not quite good enough to crack the top tier.  So, without further ado, here's a list of fifty standalone songs, listed in alphabetical order (with one exception, I limited myself to one song per artist):

AlunaGeorge - "Hold Your Head High"
I'm pretty bummed out that UK duo AlunaGeorge went in a more traditional dance direction with their second album, because their first album featured some of most forward-thinking production of the last few years.  But I can't deny that this song is a banger.

Ariana Grande - "Leave Me Lonely" [ft. Macy Gray]
Torch songs are Ariana Grande's sweet spot, and this baby might be her best one yet.  Also shout out to an unrecognizable Macy Gray sounding like an old 70s sample.

The Avalanches - "Subways"
The Avalanches returned this year after a 16-year hiatus with Wildflower, an album that comes close to recapturing the magic of their legendary Since I Left You.  The kaleidoscopic joyride that is "Subways" was a wise choice to have as a single, because its instant gratification makes it the best song on the album.

Blood Orange - "E.V.P."
If there's one critically acclaimed album from this year that I understand the least, it has to be Blood Orange's Freetown Sound.  (Well, Bon Iver's album is pretty high up there too.)  Dev Hynes is a talented guy, and I've liked his work before, but as a whole Freetown is an overlong snoozefest.  Still, the handful of songs that get the blood moving are fantastic.  "E.V.P." is one of them -- it's got a funky strut that would have made Prince proud if he had been able to hear it.

Carly Rae Jepsen - "Body Language"
Carly Rae Jepsen released a series of B-sides to her terrific 2015 album Emotion, and for the most part, you can see why they were left on the cutting room floor.  They're all good, but they're either not quite at the level of the official album tracks or they're too similar to something on there.  With a roller rink vibe that recalls "Boy Problems," "Body Language" falls into the latter category, but a part of me doesn't care, because it hits so hard.  Jepsen has a way of emphasizing certain words or syllables in interesting ways, and I just can't get enough of how she says "Stay me tonight, if you wanna talk it over" in the chorus.

case/lang/veirs - "Best Kept Secret"
The collab album between Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs is total NPR-core, but that's not always a bad thing.  And even though Case is the one whose work I enjoy the most independent of the group, it's Veirs who steals the show on the peppy, sweet "Best Kept Secret."  You won't be able to get that chorus out of your head after one listen.

Chairlift - "Show U Off"
The other day I saw some critics on Twitter making fun of Chairlift for making "indie pop music for car commercials," but I think ribbing like that ignores the tinges of R&B that have always been in the band's sound.  It's most pronounced on "Show U Off," which gives Caroline Polachek an opportunity to show off her fantastic, crystal clear voice.  The little vocal runs on this song sound like something Mariah Carey would've done in the 90s, and it's delightful to hear stuff like that again.

Cleo Tucker - "Fast Dust"

I was a big fan of the solo EPs released by the ladies from the fantastic duo Girlpool this year.  All four of the songs on Cleo Tucker's sound like they could be reworked into Girlpool tracks, but with enough differences that they stand on their own.  Take highlight "Fast Dust," for instance, which evokes the same sense of melancholy and wistfulness found on When the World Was Big, but also feels a little more scuffed up.  I can't wait for another Girlpool album, but this is a satisfying holdover.

D.R.A.M. - "Cash Machine"
D.R.A.M. scored a monster hit this year with "Broccoli," but "Cash Machine" may be even more catchy.  The clash between his slightly off-key voice and that bright, forceful piano melody is so infectious.

David Bowie - "Dollar Days"
While I'm not quite as over the moon about it as everyone else is, it's hard to deny that David Bowie's final album is a powerful collection of songs.  My favorite is "Dollar Days," which finds Bowie confronting death with a beautiful blanket of strings and an otherworldly demeanor.

DIIV - "Healthy Moon"
DIIV's nonsensically titled Is the Is Are is a numbing, monotonous experience, but then comes "Healthy Moon" towards the end to shake you out of your stupor.  With its clean, thin guitars and dreamy melody, it's a gorgeous song that recalls New Order at their best.

Drake - "Too Good" [ft. Rihanna]
Of Drake's "Look at me, I know about Caribbean music" trilogy on Views, "Controlla" and "One Dance" are the two more popular songs, but "Too Good" is the best one.  Drake and Rihanna mind-meld together over this lithe, hip-winding beat for four and a half minutes and it's a real joy to behold.

dvsn - "Hallucinations"
Everybody who Drake signs to OVO sounds exactly the same, and after a while that icy, after-hours vibe gets a little numbing.  But occasionally it's good for a one-off track like "Hallucinations," which just zones out with that minimalist, shuffling beat.  It's chilly, sure, but thankfully not completely frozen over.

Harmony Tividad - "Joseph's Dad Demo"

Hearing the solo output of the two members of Girlpool offered up an interesting insight into their differing creative impulses.  Though I prefer Cleo Tucker's EP, Harmony Tividad's glitchy, electronic tinged work is pretty effective too.  Closer "Joseph's Dad Demo" is the most put together of the EP's four songs, and it's also the best.

Hinds - "Castigadas en el Granero"
Some people are put off by Spain band Hinds because their aesthetic comes off as manufactured in a lab by a music label.  I don't really know too much about their backstory, so all I hear are their sloppy, catchy garage rock tunes that sound great.  This one especially feels like it captures the right balance of forward momentum and appearing ready to careen off the road at any second.

The Hotelier - "Two Deliverances"
The Hotelier are probably the most beloved band in this emo revival that's been occurring over the past few years, and while I don't fully get the hype, I can't deny the power of some of Christian Holden's detail-rich lyrics: "A drapery of clashing fabrics / in every corner of your room / they hung like lace on the whitewashed face / of the walls that are begging you to move."

Into It. Over It. - "Required Reading"
Here's another band in the emo revival movement, but to me this song sounds like a more straightforward Built to Spill with that howling chorus and corkscrewing guitar.

Isaiah Rashad - "Wat's Wrong" [ft. Kendrick Lamar & Zacari]
Isaiah Rashad holds his own on this song, but it's all about that nimble verse Kendrick Lamar drops in the middle.  He sums up when he's in a groove like this pretty succinctly: "Depending on how I feel, I might kill everybody around me / Might heal everybody around me, how the wind blow."

Jamila Woods - "Emerald St." [ft. Saba]
"It's a wonderful day in the hood."  That's the line that sticks with me on Jamila Woods' HEAVN, an album that's all about finding hope and beauty in the midst of squalor in Chicago.  "Emerald St." sounds like a lost Erykah Badu song, its twinkling keyboard and gorgeous harmonies on the chorus blooming like flowers on a new day.

Japanese Breakfast - "The Woman That Loves You"
Overall, Pyschopomp is a bit of an uneven record, but the best songs all deserve recognition on this list.  I'm singling out "The Woman That Loves You" though, because it's the one that kept tugging at me throughout the year.  What a lovely track this is, centering on the aching question of "Don't you think / you should try to do as little harm as you can to the woman that loves you?"

Joanna Newsom - "Make Hay"
On the one-year anniversary of the release of 2015's Divers, Joanna Newsom gifted us this song, a leftover from those recording sessions.  She said she left it off the album because it was redundant, that the rest of Divers had already conveyed what she was trying to say on "Make Hay."  That's true, this is another track that reiterates the central theme of time and our impermanence.  But musically, it's an incredible accomplishment.  I'm always a fan of when Newsom shows off her piano skills, as she does with the note-heavy, almost ragtime melody carrying this track.  Plus, you can never pass up an opportunity to hear new lyrics from the best wordsmith in the game.

Joey Purp - "Girls @" [ft. Chance the Rapper]
This sounds like Joey Purp found an unused Neptunes beat and decided to make one of the greatest party rap songs of the decade with it.  "Girls @" isn't particularly deep, but it makes up for that with how fun it is.  Plus it cedes the floor to Chance the Rapper for a verse that delights me more every time I listen to it.

John K. Samson - "Fellow Traveller"
With its songs about runaway cats, elm trees, and how much of a bleak place Canada is, the latest John K. Samson solo record sounds like The Weakerthans never broke up.  The one downside is that it's a little more sparse than his work with the band, which is a shame because I loved their ability to create full indie rock songs to back Samson's nerdy musings.  "Fellow Traveller" is the one that comes the closest, its jaunty rhythm and "ooh ooh ooh" background vocals lifting the track from the rest of the album's austerity.  Plus, it's about a real life former Russian spy, which is the most Weakerthans thing ever.

Jojo - "Edibles"
If you only listen to one song from former teen pop star Jojo's comeback album, make it this very sensual tune about getting high and having sex.  (The rest of the album is pretty solid too though.)

Katie Dey - "Fear O' the Light"
I have to give major props to Stereogum for turning me on to this weird, haunting, and beautiful Katie Dey record.  When I first heard "Fear O' the Light," I had to listen to it over and over just to wrap my head around it.  Dey stacks all of these garbled tracks on top of each other, making it sound like someone hit play on five different record players at the same time.  It's absolutely wild.

Katie Dey - "Only To Trip and Fall Down Again"
I'm making an exception to my "only one song per artist" rule just because this song is too good to be left out.  I love the blippy, tumbling sound on "Only To Trip and Fall Down Again."  Here Dey goes the opposite route from "Fear," making the production so crisp and clear that you can hear every single pinprick.

Kaytranada - "You're the One" [ft. Syd tha Kid]
I just found out that the video to this song has an homage to the credits for Martin, so it deserves inclusion for that alone.  But also, it's a great team-up with Syd tha Kid.  Together, they make this an indelible, slinky neo-disco song.

Local Natives - "Dark Days" [ft. Nina Persson]
I haven't had the chance to sit with Local Natives' third album Sunlit Youth in its entirety, but I do love "Dark Days," which is a great reminder of how rewarding their meticulous sound can be, complete with a terrific guest turn from Nina Persson of the The Cardigans.

Lucy Dacus - "I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore"
The top Youtube comment on this is "People still make Indie Rock?"

LVL Up - "Pain"
You haven't lived until you've listened to the jam starting at the 3:35 mark in your car on a sunny day.

Margaret Glaspy - "Emotions and Math"
Most critics compared Margaret Glaspy to Elliott Smith and Joni Mitchell in their reviews of Emotions and Math just because Glaspy cited those two as influences.  What I hear all over that record, however, is Fiona Apple.  The title track is a little more rock than most of Apple's work, but the comparison feels apt not only when it comes to vocal similarities, but also their knack for twisting pain and desperation into colorful lines.

Martha - "Precarious (Supermarket Song)"
I'm reminded of Los Campesinos! whenever I listen to Northern England band Martha.  And since Los Campesinos! haven't put out an album since 2013, this song's ricocheting rhythm and power drill guitar riff sounds even more welcome.

Mitski - "Once More to See You"
Mitski's Puberty 2 is a real grower of an album, but the elegant, somber "Once More to See You" made an immediate impression when I listened to it.  On this one, you can really see the St. Vincent similarities that people sometimes throw around.

Modern Baseball - "Every Day"
The boys of Modern Baseball are still churning out that self-examining, emotional dweeb-rock but for Holy Ghost they decided to split the album in half by songwriter.  I prefer Jake Ewald's more immediate, hookier side which features "Every Day," a track that perfectly highlights the band's ability to get contemplative within the confines of a catchy indie rock song.

Noname - "Diddy Bop" [ft. Cam O'bi & Raury]
Chicago produced a generous amount of wonderful healing music, and Noname is near the top of the class. "Diddy Bop" is the highlight of Telefone, evoking a deep sense of nostalgia in lines like "You about to get your ass beat / for stealing that 30 dollars like 'baby just ask me'."

NxWorries - "Get Bigger/Do U Luv"
Nobody owned 2016 more than Anderson .Paak.  Aside from guesting on a million great songs and releasing his own album Malibu earlier in the year, he also teamed up with producer Knxwledge for Yes Lawd!  "Get Bigger" might be the best song .Paak did this year -- exuding that sense of coolness that he's so good at for a track that goes down smoother than a glass of water.

Rae Sremmurd - "Real Chill" [ft. Kodak Black]
Thanks in part to the Mannequin Challenge, the song from SremmLife 2 that blew up was "Black Beatles," but the real gem is "Real Chill."  It's a mid-tempo, gooey synth wrecking ball that features a blitzkrieg leadoff verse from Slim Jxmmi.  He absolutely snaps on this, seeming like he's summoning a demon when he raps "Walked in throwing the cash like Nerfs / Girl you better put that ass to work / Can a nigga hold the cam like Kirk?! / Big diamonds in my mouth when I burp! / Big rims when I SKRT-SKRT!"

Saba - "Bucket List" [ft. Matthew Santos]
Most people simply know Saba as the guy who does the hook on Chance the Rapper's "Angels," but he's put out work in his own right that's worthy of consideration.  The almost-title track from his Bucket List Project album is some of his best work, allowing him to just spaz out over a chattering, soulful beat.

School of Seven Bells - "Open Your Eyes"
SVIIB was last album recorded before member Benjamin Curtis passed away, and the pristine synthpop single "Open Your Eyes" is a perfect note to go out on.

Schoolboy Q - "Ride Out" [ft. Vince Staples]
I've never been able to fully embrace any of Schoolboy Q's albums, but they always have a few offerings that are the best rap songs to come out in that given year.  "Ride Out" definitely fits that description.  It's thrilling to hear him and Vince Staples trade bars over that brutal, classic West Coast beat.

Sioux Falls - "Dinosaur Dying"
Sioux Falls' behemoth 70-minute album Rot Forever seemed to slip through the cracks for alot of people, but don't miss out on it. There are some real jams on this thing, especially "Dinosaur Dying," which feels like it was unearthed from 1996.

The Strokes - "Threat of Joy"
Almost everybody trashed the three-song EP that The Strokes released this year -- each song representing a different time period in the Future Present Past title -- but I absolutely loved it.  Although maybe it's not a good sign that the song I like the most is "Threat of Joy," which represents The Strokes of the past.  Still, it's a marvel that they're able to recreate their classic sound so easily.

The Sun Days - "You Can't Make Me Make Up My Mind"
About 10 to 15 years ago, the indie world was flooded with version of The Sun Days, Swedish bands making music so catchy it felt like the work of some algorithm.  In the current state of things, they sound totally refreshing.  Every time I hear the glimmering guitars and pogoing rhythm of "You Can't Make Me Make Up My Mind," I feel a warm rush of nostalgia.

Tegan and Sara - "That Girl"
Not that I was ever a diehard fan in the first place, but I'm one of those people who isn't crazy about Tegan and Sara's pop transformation.  "That Girl" made me reconsider that stance though.  Its aching, reflective "When did I become that girl? That girl I see?" forms the backbone of the song, getting more powerful with each intonation.

Waxahatchee - "Angeles"
New rule: I don't want to hear a cover song unless it's done by Katie Crutchfield.  This may sound like blasphemy, but I think this version of "Angeles" improves on Elliott Smith's original, keeping the same somber melody but adding intensity with that fuzzy guitar churn.  (Also, don't miss her excellent cover of Jessica Simpson's "With You," of all things.)

Vince Staples - "Big Time"
At first, Vince Staples and James Blake might seem like an odd pairing, but the latter's rattling beat on "Big Time" meshes perfectly with the former's lyrical assault.  Despite the praise Staples has gotten in past few years, he still feels like an underrated rapper.  His lyrics have a sly complexity and craft to them, which you get to see all over this one.

Wilco - "If I Ever Was a Child"
Schmilco was a soporific affair, but "If I Ever Was a Child" manages to still be dynamic despite its sleepy vibe.  It's a difficult sweet spot to find, which is probably why they don't succeed much on the rest of the album.

Wild Beasts - "Celestial Creatures"
Though Boy King will be the first Wild Beasts album to not make my top 20, I still dug it much more than the rest of the internet did.  "Celestial Creatures" is the perfect blend of the band's old, carefully crafted art rock and the Nine Inch Nails aping of the new album.

Wolf Parade - "C'est La Vie Way"
The Strokes weren't the only beloved 2000s band to release an EP as a precursor to a comeback album.  Wolf Parade threw their hat in the ring with a set of songs that turned out better than anyone could have hoped.  The Spencer Krug-led track "C'est La Vie Way" genuinely sounds like it could have been put on their classic 2006 album, Apologies to the Queen Mary.

Yuck - "Only Silence"
Yuck's trajectory is one of the biggest bummers of the last few years.  Their first album is still one of the top five best debuts of the decade but then they fractured, with primary singer Daniel Blumberg going solo and the rest of the band continuing on, but neither party coming close to matching the heights they reached when they were all together.  "Only Silence" is a brief reminder of that promise the band showed on their first album.  It's a five-minute blast of catchy fuzz-rock that burrows into your brain.

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