Some folks are album people. I’m a song person. In non-classical music, I’ve always obsessed over individual songs. I sometimes have a hard time keeping my attention focused through entire LPs: if I’m not engaged with what I’m hearing, I don’t want to continue. That, or I’ll fall head over heels for a song that I just want to hear over and over again, and I’ll put it on repeat. This is why I am not a pop music critic, and these are not intended to be reviews.
In writing this list, I take my cues mostly from Said the Gramophone, one of my favorite blogs: some of these are associated memories, others pure reactions, others journal entries. I haven’t written any microfiction yet but maybe that’ll show up on the 2017 list. Here are my favorite songs released in 2016. I’ve posted YouTube and Bandcamp links with each, and a Spotify playlist is linked at the bottom.
I went through a bit of a crisis of motivation, so this took a while, but it’s finally here, published later than I’d like it to have been, but better late than never.
50. Kjartan Sveinsson – Teil I
Layers upon layers, lifting up and rising through blankets of clouds, wondering if the sun will ever emerge.
49. The Lazy Lies – Dangerous Game
These jaunty handclaps, skipping guitars, and Sonny and Cher vocals might have made me think I’d been kicked back fifty years. Then I noticed their Spanish accents and their Bandcamp profile.
48. David Bowie – Lazarus
I first voiced my theory earlier this year that David Bowie was the Jenga-block that held this world together. Nothing has happened to disprove that.
47. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
His voice greets the gravel like an old lover, seeming to welcome the notion that soon he and it will be one. If any songwriter was going to win the Nobel Prize for literature, it should have been him. We are ugly but we have the music.
46. Jessy Lanza – VV Violence
Delicious, tart bubblegum that never loses its flavor.
45. Grumbling Fur – Acid Ali Khan
This peaceful psychedelic comet of a track appeared on FACTMag the day that my old job told the entire customer service and claims departments that they were about to be gone in a few months. It was music like this that distinguished one day from another in the uncertain summer of 2016, when nothing seemed to be stable except my love for a dark-haired boy in Queens and my insatiable thirst for distraction.
44. Maggie Rogers – Alaska
Maggie Rogers came to school to make straight-ahead folk music, and she made something with the same straight-ahead, unpretentious spirit but entirely original. I’ve never heard a song like “Alaska.” Some folky whimsy remains – “oh me, oh my, I thought it was a dream” – but it’s cut with crisp, luminous synths, and the moonlight shimmer of her wordless chorus. If you haven’t yet, watch Pharrell’s face as he hears the track for the first time. “I love the music most when it makes me feel human,” she writes on her Facebook bio. She reminds us that the only time a human belongs in a box is (possibly) if they’re dead.
Completely differently, the slouchy jeans she sports in the “Alaska” video and the video for “Dog Years” are wonderful, not because they say “I don’t care how I look,” but because they say “I care more about wearing what I want than subscribing to someone else’s view of what looks pretty.”
43. Angel Olsen – Never Be Mine
The Big Ears Festival in Knoxville this March was my first dedicated trip to cover a festival. It was a wonderful weekend where the experimental sides of classical, folk, pop, jazz melted together into an intoxicating witches’ brew, feeling like a cool glass bottle shining in my hand in the early morning light, tasting like soy chai and loving intentions.
Angel Olsen performed and I didn’t get to see her, and I can’t recall why. Either I was at one of the classical concerts I had to review, or I was holed up in the cafe on Market Square scribbling away in my notebook, or I was just too tired to haul myself the mile it would have taken to get to her venue, and if it was the last one, shame on me.
42. Pleasure Model – Bealichtbach
41. Margaret Glaspy – You and I
Snap, crackle, and pop. I hear this, and I see myself getting out of a stranger’s bed, sitting at that stranger’s breakfast table alone and eating their cereal, pulling my coat on and leaving, forgetting to put the milk back in the fridge. I’ve never done anything remotely like that, but until the song ends, it doesn’t seem too unlikely that it’d happen.
40. Pinegrove – Old Friends
It’s kind of amazing to me that the world took this long to wake up to this sound on which I cut my wisdom teeth, the sweet, electric, innocence-experience paradox that lives in certain basements of Essex County.
39. Lindstrom – Closing Shot
When my only co-worker at my old job was out for a whole week and I was covering the work of two and a half people, Lindstrom swooped in courtesy of a kind music-recommending violist to push me into a flow state. Isolated, in my corner away from the rest of customer service, I rode the current with these blue beats and waited to escape. If I was a Gym Leader this would be my fight music.
38. Japanese Breakfast – In Heaven
“In Heaven” is dreamy and detached as the first stage of grief, and keeps its sonic feet ever on the ground. Rose-colored glasses don’t always mean you’re blind.
37. Mannequin Pussy – Emotional High
There really aren’t enough songs about female friendship and I’m very happy this one exists. Also, there’s nothing like realizing one of the cool kids who almost never talked to you from your teen music program is in your new favorite punk-pop band.
36. Valley Queen – My Man
Sunwashed. Have you ever overslept your alarm, and then everything for the rest of the day feels slightly time-displaced, too early and too late at the same time?
Video contains brief, unsexualized female nudity.
35. Andrew Bird – Roma Fade
Andrew Bird has rearranged his molecules so many times I can’t count them anymore. I wouldn’t say he necessarily improves with every new iteration, but he’s never bored me.
34. Sarah Neufeld – A Long Awaited Scar
I dived deep into the novels of China Miéville in 2016 after falling in love with the pockets of fire-forged friendship that pierce the creaking, decaying dystopia of Perdido Street Station last year. No one writes decay as beautifully as him. The Scar was the first book of his I read this year, in late February just as The Ridge was coming out. In a scene near the end of the book, the floating salmagundi citadel of Armada, pulled by a mind-controlled gargantuan whale, approaches the titular Scar – a fissure in the ocean that could provide an limitless but volatile source of power. If you want to know what happens to it, you could read the book, or you could listen to “A Long Awaited Scar,” or you could do both at the same time. If you read at normal speed, things should sync up.
I don’t know whether or not Sarah Neufeld has read The Scar. Going by that chain of coincidences – the title of the song as it relates to the book’s plot, the arc of the music as it relates to the action in that scene – it seems improbable that she hasn’t. Synchronicity is a strange animal sometimes.
33. Sia – The Greatest
Maybe it’s the winter. But this song feels like a relic from a different, more hopeful time.
32. Heron Oblivion – Your Hollows
You step out the door thinking the path will be clear, walking past familiar sights, then you pass into a shadow and everything is covered in black ice. No grass or traction in sight. The wind comes from every which way. Will you reach the bottom without falling? Too late to turn back.
31. Daniel Woolhouse – Map of the Moon
Low-gravity psych-pop for crowded commutes. Breathe along. The others don’t exist if you don’t touch them.
30. Bombino – Timtar (Memories)
Bombino is another artist I missed at Big Ears, found later, and deeply regretted not seeing. I’m willing to bet that primary colored guitar riffs and tangy handclaps will bring the summer around quicker.
29. Wild Nothing – Reichpop
It seems to be the rule that at least one song on my list each year must feature a marimba…
28. Morgan Delt – Some Sunsick Day
Journal excerpt, [DATE REDACTED] 2016
So much ice and slush and a treacherous traverse down the hill to the T. Couldn’t concentrate, sleepy all day. I was talking online with [REDACTED] and not doing enough work, and as I stood in the vestibule pulling my gloves on, my pocket dinged and there bloomed a message that cast my mind off spinning into all the wrong places and made me almost drop my phone. Am I an eternal optimist or an insufferable hedonist? Are the two extricable from each other?
I blasted Morgan Delt’s dreamy, warm “Some Sunsick Day” as I walked out of the building, the darkness wrapped around me – my head buzzed, I turned what I thought was southwest, raised my paper cup to the vanished sun still sliding down [REDACTED]’s sky, and sucked down the last drops of my coffee, cooling fast but still dangerously sweet.
27. The Shondes – Holding Out
My visits to the city where I was born have separated into family visits, friend visits, and S[REDACTED] visits. On a friend visit to New York City, D[REDACTED] took me out to Brooklyn for the Shondes’ album release show, and I got up front and danced like I almost never do at shows. I felt safe up front. Somehow I knew I wasn’t going to get pushed to the ground. All I saw in the lights around me, and the band in front of me, was love.
Louisa Solomon’s smoky contralto colors most Shondes songs. The cancer-surviving trans violinist, Eli Oberman, takes a solo turn in front of the mic about once an album, and he bares his heart on “Holding Out.” I stopped dancing and listened.
26. Pascal Pinon – 53
Stop cutting onions with your guitar strings, you two. My eyes hurt. My heart hurts. Everything hurts.
25. Frank Ocean – Ivy
I thought that I was dreaming too when I heard this album was finally coming out.
24. Little Scream – Love As A Weapon
Prince is dead, but Prince will never truly die. There will always be the falsetto and the funk. “Love As a Weapon” is a punchy, peppy clarion call to your feet, wherever you are, whoever you are. The words may describe a mess, far be it from the carefree seductions of “Kiss,” but the beat never falters.
23. Ilya Toshinskiy – Red Grass
Every year, I know I haven’t listened to enough music. And then Ted Gioia’s best albums list comes out, and I KNOW I haven’t listened to enough music. I don’t know how, where, or when he actively listens to so much music of so many different genres, but I’m very happy he chooses to share his picks with me so I can see just what I’m missing. If not for him, I wouldn’t have known my life was missing this Russian banjo virtuoso. (Yes, you read that right.)
22. 4 Degrees – Anohni
“CCDS (CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL SYNDROME)
NOW EPIDEMIC IN THE U.S.
CCDS is a homicidal/suicidal mental illness with grave consequences for the wider community.
Though often in denial, those suffering with CCDS actively seek the death of their fellow humans and the collapse of the entire biosphere. They wish for the destruction of their own homes, for mass extinction, and most tragically, for the demise of all future generations. The psychological spawn of apocalyptic fundamentalism, slavery and unregulated capitalism, CCDS poses an unprecedented threat to humanity and the planet.
You may personally know someone who has this disease.”
21. Cherry Glazerr – Nurse Ratched
Splatter pop. That exists now. I declare it.
20. Vagabon – Fear and Force
Magic for brokenhearted introverts, music for sweeping up the shards of something that can’t be glued together and farewelling it into the garbage with a thank you.
19. Mitski – Your Best American Girl
“Even as I write this, I’m aware of the countless Mitski profiles and reviews already framing her as the non-white savior the fallow genre of indie rock needs. But she deserves the press simply because she’s making some of the best music right now, not because she can easily be slotted as a vehicle for vapid enlightenment. “I talk about being Asian and then that becomes the article,” she says. “All the white people reading the article feel good about themselves because they are reading about this person of color being an artist. It stops there and everyone goes back to their day. When other young Asian girls hit me up about what it is like or what my music might mean to them, then I talk about it all day. For me, now it’s just a matter of doing it when it counts and not just servicing all the time.”
Kristen Yoonsoo Kim for Complex, interview with Mitski
Video not technically NSFW but you probably don’t want to watch it at work.
18. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – Existence in the Unfurling
No. 1 on the Feywilds Billboard Chart for ten years straight!
17. Sammus – 1080p
Her more nerdcore songs like “Perfect Dark” and “Mae Jemison” smashed my perception of the genre as full of jokes about Mario’s “warp pipe” by reedy-voiced white dudes. “1080p” falls outside that genre, confessional, vulnerable, and human to the last word, laying down her everyday struggles (being a black woman in a department full of white men, sharing a Netflix with your ex, imposter syndrome) that don’t look sexy on paper but are so important to air. Have you ever heard anyone rap about going to therapy before?
16. Kishi Bashi – m’lover
Fireflies flash into fireworks in this limerent track, the balance of hope and uncertainty and Catherine-wheels of unleashed, almost desperate longing for reciprocation. Hearing it for the first time, it felt like a headlong, blind rush towards a new possibility of happiness. Knowing the story behind the song reveals a hidden layer: born of a marriage stretched to its breaking point, the desperation is more palpable. “I questioned everything about what it means to love and desire,” he said to Stereogum. “The difference between loving someone and being in love.”
15. PJ Harvey – The Wheel
I heard it was 28,000. 28,000 what? It’s never explained. It’s another big number, something signified with no signifier to point at: another crisis with no context, just catastrophe, provoking emotions that fade and fizzle just as quickly as the next disaster takes its place. The wheel is a rusting fairground toy in an abandoned Kosovo park, chairs hanging from a metal frame, a reminder of better days. The wheel is also the constant, grinding, news cycle, feeding on these numbers, chewing them and spitting them out and demanding higher. The wheel is the world, which spins us into darkness and back into light and back into darkness again, and we hang onto our chains and hope our chairs will not be empty when it reaches the other side.
14. Formation – Beyoncé
This might not be my formation to get in. It’s certainly not my formation to lead. I’m happy to stand in the back here, cheering on this radical explosion of witchcraft and womanhood by Black women, for Black women.
13. Solange – Cranes in the Sky
“That was kind of the turning point in the transition for me writing the album that is now A Seat at the Table. I began to think a lot about that conversation and replaying it, and it haunted me. And it haunted my mother to hear someone telling her daughter ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’ And also the racial subtleties — are not so subtle — of what that encompasses when you say that to a black woman. Then you connect it by saying ‘Do you know who’s buying your records?’ – Solange, on Helga
She sings about her pain, and all the things she did to take her mind off it. Drinking, changing her hair, shopping, work, sleep, sex. These are solitary things, or things that can become internally isolating when you’re trying to use them for escape. But in the clouds of repeating “away,” the answer is there – togetherness, solidarity, healing with others.
12. LA Salami – No Hallelujahs Now
Sometimes, a lone man with a guitar can still surprise me.
11. Swet Shop Boys – Aaja (feat. Ali Sethi)
Three men beckon from behind a dizzy curtain of sitar and drums, painting in bright, sticky-sweet desire. First Ali Sethi whirls into view, with his smooth honey hook. Then Riz Ahmed, “That’s you! On your fucking green dungarees!” He’s crowing, getting with your lady when your back’s turned, spitting a video game pun* with swagger like he never shows in Rogue One. Then Heems comes in, adorable and morose, Blue Oni to Riz’s red but no less intent. When the music fades and Qandeel Baloch gushes about a charming man in her breathy, sincere giggle (charming, could you get more innocent than that?) it feels like a dead drop, a crash with a breaking glass, a ghost hand touching your shoulder. These men still live out and express their desires in their art. She no longer can, because a man decided it dishonored him. A bitter, potent end to the sugar rush.
*Second Mario pun in this countdown.
10. Cold Weather Company – Wide-Eyed
If I were fifteen, I knew, I’d have listened to that soaring, lush, unashamed sentimental song on repeat all day. I’m not fifteen anymore, so I just listened to it about ten times in a row. I could die in your arms, I could die.
9. Kristin Kontrol – Show Me
Fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen are really critical ages for the development of musical taste. In my everyday life those years, music sometimes proved a more reliable companion for comfort or expression than my fellow humans did. Much of the music filling up my series of iPods (I could never seem to stop them getting stolen) was new wave, post punk, shoegaze, and pop from the 80s and early 90s such as Depeche Mode, the Pixies, Kate Bush, New Order, the Smiths, the Talking Heads, and that kind of crowd. I walked to and from school, and turned my iPod on and let the world slip away. When I wanted to convince myself that the cute person who looked at me in the hallway wanted to talk to me as much as I wanted to talk to them, these songs amplified my euphoria and colored in my dreams, real or not.
The signatures of those songs – guitars like arcs of light, bright sultry synths, reverb and fuzz and sometimes glitter – show up so much in the new songs I am drawn to now. “Show Me” had all these things, and “Show Me” amplified my euphoria and saturated my reality earlier this year. I heard it on a Monday, trawling the music blogs for working soundtracks on a Monday morning while, in another window, a dark-haired Queens transplant was showing me what he was made of, and I suspected it was love.
7/8. Hannah Epperson – Iodine (Amelia) / Iodine (Iris)
The same story differs when told by different people. Your mother read your favorite bedtime story differently than your father, or your grandma, or your babysitter. But the same person’s story also changes in different houses, in different beds, in different seasons. These two songs follow the same melody, curl around the same words, flow through the same voice, but they wear different colors, different expressions. Amelia slinking in her tight blue dress, and bangles, and gong earrings, Iris slowly whirling in her cloak of snow and strings.
6. Someway – Julianna Barwick
I’d first fantasized about a double bill of Julianna Barwick and Explosions in the Sky in 2011 Blues. Julianna’s pillowy layering and looping seemed an ideal appetizer to Explosions’s coruscating eight-minute flights. When I saw that my dream team was performing in Boston, I couldn’t hit the buy button fast enough.
Since 2011, Julianna’s music has ascended to a new plane of dappled beauty and multihued vapors that make my tongue snake out of its mouth, trying to taste the sound. “Someway” spells safety, languidity, the embrace of imagined arms. In the meantime, Explosions seems to have lost much of its potency, particularly on recording. I tried to find a song I loved enough from “The Wilderness” to put on this countdown and realized there wasn’t one.
5. Yeasayer – Half Asleep
Journal entry – April 21, 2016
Strange dream last night. I was in the Oberlin conservatory library working, and then I saw that Yeasayer had released a video for “Half Asleep,” my favorite song off their new album. It was set at a swanky minimalist house on a lake, like the house in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Pygmalion (who seemed to be played by V[REDACTED]) was carving Galatea (played by T[REDACTED.] ), Pygmalion prayed, and Galatea came to life, her face moving in marble, and sang the first chorus. He dressed her in a shiny gown, taught her how to kiss, had her read out loud to him, lay awake next to her, showed her off at a party where she ran away and he threw her against the wall, breaking one of her marble arms off. Later, he was sitting down by the dock, Galatea sneaked up on him, whacked him over the head with her missing arm, then rolled him up with the arm in some sheet and pushed him off the dock. She looked at the sky, and her arm re-grew. Then she walked back into the house, took off the ridiculous fancy dress, and put on his blue plaid shirt and dusty pants. Then she put on his glasses, but smashed them instead of taking them with her. I woke up and Googled the video, and was very disappointed to find out it didn’t exist. T[REDACTED] would probably be into it.
4. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down – Nobody Dies
A fact, true and accurate: if you walk down the street to this song with your sunglasses on, the world will click into slow motion for the duration of her first “Not to say, not to say, not to say….” Try it! Or not, because it’ll only click for you, and not anyone around you, so you may look silly. If you don’t care, try it anyway. You’ll feel like you can take on the world, every step a little earthquake, and that’s sometimes all that matters.
3. Moses Sumney – Lonely World
I don’t have the words for why this song is so important, but it is. My hands have been enchanted as if by a strange void, and words seem to make no sense. Read a single word over and over again and let it melt down into its phonemes, then its letters, than the individual particles of ink or graphite or pixels that make up its smallest units, and you’ll understand how I feel every time I try to write about this song.
2. Lucy Dacus – I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore
I debated whether or not to include this song on the countdown. Not only did the song actually come out in late 2015, in advance of the album’s first release in February 2016: I heard it for the first time in the earliest days of 2015.
I have to include a disclaimer: I am very much in the tank for Lucy Dacus. My housemate at Oberlin was working on an album with his friend Lucy from Richmond, and using the sound system we all shared to tweak the recordings. Lucy herself came through during commencement week to play a show with my friend Hayden. I was going through one of the worst emotional experiences of my life to date that week, and Lucy’s music was the embrace and the encouragement that I needed to power through. I stayed up late sleepily talking with her and Hayden in my living room. (Hayden also appears in the video below.)
Six months later, working overtime at Hachette, I put on Maura Johnston’s show on WZBC and almost fell out of my chair when I heard Jacob’s guitar riff pounding through my headphones. I watched as her Facebook like count shot up and passed five digits, and record labels fought over her, and she opened for Andrew Bird. I missed her show in Boston because I was on Globe duty. She’s coming back in February, this time to the Sinclair. I’m not going to miss this one.
The title of the album – No Burden – speaks to me because no burden is what I, and so many other women, are told to be. We’re socialized to not have needs or we’ll be unlovable, we’ll be alone, as if being alone and being lonely were synonymous. No one can be no burden. The burdens of life will place themselves on you regardless. Being unashamed of your burdens, and the burden that is you, is essential and impossible.
1. Radiohead – Burn the Witch
Stay in the shadows
Cheer at the gallows
This is a round up
Harsh snapping strings, relentless, rapid. The more things move, the less they change, the less effect you have. With each pulse the notifications flood your screen, the tweets scroll endlessly, your blood pressure rises. Zoom out on a time lapse of a day in the cycle and realize how inconsequential the individual clicks will prove to be. A year when all the news is breaking, and everything is a special report – when everything is an emergency – when the news has broken –
this is a low flying panic attack.
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Exodus 22:18, King James Bible.
The word “witch” appears nowhere else in Exodus. The definition of “witch” is nowhere in the scrolls. The definition is ours to manipulate.
“Estrogen + giving 110% = the glass ceiling” – Cards Against Humanity, Su[REDACTED], December 10
Burn the witch
Burn the witch
We know where you live
My blonde co-worker gets placed on a neo-Nazi’s online list of Jewish writers.
I put the echoes back around my name on Twitter. My last name is as Catholic as can be, because the convention is to name after father’s father’s father’s fathers.
Here. I am here. I am me. – journal, November [REDACTED]
Red crosses on wooden doors
If you float you burn
My old home state of Ohio passes a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks except to save the life of the mother. This is unavoidably seen as a relief – the bill banning it after six weeks, which crossed the governor’s desk the same day, could have been . My woman’s body is inherently politicized.
Loose talk around the tables
Abandon all reason
Shape note singing offers me some comfort. I tear my voice to shreds on the alto bench, trying to dissolve myself into the blood-streaked harmonies. Someone calls 183 Greenwich at the Berkshire Foothills all day sing, four days after the election. Everyone sits up a little straighter.
I talk with B[REDACTED] about the divisiveness that has sent virulent cracks through so many relationships of all types. He tells me about an authoritarian conservative friend who has made an attempt to completely withdraw from politics and live as authentically as he can. I wonder how many people have the ability to do this who are not white males. I wonder if it’s possible to stand up for one’s beliefs, while still nurturing human connections with those who don’t see political eye to eye with you, anymore.
Avoid all eye contact
Do not react
October 5. I walk up to the bus stop listening to “Burn the Witch,” my 25 pound accordion on my back. Usually I walk to Davis but today it’d be hard to carry. A grizzled, skinny older man in a torn T-shirt looks at me as I waddle up to the station, makes a fist, and mimes jerking off. I look away. I put two people between me and him when the bus pulls up, and he and his friend fill the old tin can with gleeful shouts about how in their Army days their officers didn’t care who they shot as long as thye looked like the enemy, and how people like the soft-eyed young man with the Latin American accent next to me will all get sent back where they came from in a few months.
Everyone keeps their headphones in, looks at their phones, looks out the window, says nothing. The bus is nearly full.
They scream at two young woman who get on at Jay Street, “Just walk there, you lazy c***s.”
Shoot the messengers
This is a low flying panic attack
Sing a song of sixpence that goes
“Far more than the content of faith as such, what makes religion religion are the images and rhetoric loaded with atavistic and esoteric archetypes (chaos; order; Kek; frogs; a “God Emperor,” to use a common 4chan appellation for Donald Trump) that tend to propagate virally, independent of a centralized source, because they tie into the cultural zeitgeist or answer some cultural need. They allow for a collective affirmation of identity that puts self-creation in dialogue with metaphysical questions about the universe. Religion often functions in this sense as a kind of dictionary: a compendium of symbols and their meaning that also allows for shared communal discourse: a “language” of stories we tell one another about our selves and our world.
From this perspective, it doesn’t matter whether Kek is “really” a chaos god. Sociologically speaking, he might as well be. Likewise, meme magic, to the extent that that it serves as a record of cultural engagement, is real too. So too the “reality” of ubiquitous fake news sites, which, while being wildly inaccurate propositionally, nevertheless govern events — just look at the controversy over “Pizzagate” — to an extent that renders them functionally significant: narratives, no less than an account of the Fall or salvation, that govern who we are.”
– Tara Isabella Burton for Real Life, “Apocalypse Whatever”
Burn the witch
Burn the witch
We know where you live
December 30. They’ve come for someone I know. My Facebook profile is locked down tight.
There is no resolution. The strings careen forward, whitening, increasing in density, galloping towards a cliff from which we never hear the fall.