Top Eleven Songs of 2016:
Listen to Best of 2016 on Spotify
Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial
"What happened to that chubby little kid who smiled so much and loved the Beach Boys? / What happened is I killed that fucker and I took his name and I got new glasses."
Last year, I agonized over which album deserved the top spot. And even now, I wish I could have given Kendrick a tie for first. This year was different. I loved this album from the second I started playing it. Track by track, it kept getting better and better. There's no Full Metal Jacket letdown.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
"where were you when I was walkin'? / Now I run the game, I got the whole world talkin'."
Radiohead releasing a fantastic album has become expected. They are unquestionably the greatest band from this century and they still feel light years ahead of so many other musical acts in recording, performance, and distribution. When their album was released with little up-front notice, I wasn't sure what to expect. Hearing that some of the songs had been written as long as twenty years ago worried me: was this a sign of losing creative interest? Absolutely not: Thom Yorke finally found arrangements which he felt captured the sentiment.
David Bowie – ★ Blackstar
"Maybe the stars aligned, or maybe I've just changed my mind."
Holy Hell, 2016 was a terrible year for losing artists. If we knew then what we know now ...
Savages – Adore Life
"I need something new in my ears."
The Mercury Prize has done a great job historically of finding new musical acts, often nominating debut albums. Sometimes of those acts we never hear from again, but not so for this English all-female quartet. A post-punk album that's dark, sinuous, and lyrically responds to some of Morrissey's greatest lyrics.
Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
"Let me photograph you in this light / In case it is the last time that we might / Be exactly like we were before we realised / We were sad of getting old, it made us restless."
I'll fully admit: I didn't pay attention to this album until after Cohen passed. But, oh my, here we have another wonderful coda to a musical career and life. After losing his wife, Cohen offers his farewell: a man who has lived a long and passionate life, ready to cash in his chips and leave the table. The reprise of "Treaty" is absolutely beautiful.
Mitski – Puberty 2
"Your mother wouldn't approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I finally do / And you're an all-American boy / I guess I couldn't help trying to be the best American girl."
Singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawki released her fourth album in 2016, which is an emotional yet restrained record with elements of surf rock and dream pop. Vocally, she's reminiscent of PJ Harvey, and as the tracks crest and fall you see how powerful her songwriting can be.
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
"Only one at a time / So precious, is yours, is mine."
Having released two prior albums and being featured prominently in Dr. Dre's 2015 album, Compton, expectations were high for Paak's next album. Blending a gritty 90s sound with 60s R&B, Funk, and Soul, it's a fantastic album. And if you really want to be blown away, check out his Tiny Desk Concert, where he raps over his own drumming.
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
"Say nothing of my fable, no / What on earth is left to come / Who's agonized and gnawed through it all / I'm underneath your tongue."
Indie Folk frontman Justin Vernon raised eyebrows in 2010 when he collaborated with Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Three more collaborations later, it's clear that he's made the most of his Auto Tune apprenticeship. Vernon takes listeners on his journey for self-discovery: "22" represents himself, with the number entering his life in random moments (e.g., jersey numbers, a discovered two-dollar bill, etc.); "Million" refers to his small representation in the masses. It's a different, "Folktronica" sound that is worth a listen.
Parquet Courts – Human Performance
"I saw a name in the graveyard that I knew / Glowing, like the neon in a lounge light / Spelled just the same as the twinge that crawls through you / As it, passes slowly through a fast night."
Brooklyn-based Indie Rock quartet released three albums since 2012's Light Up Gold, but this took them well beyond their prior work. It was put best by frontman Andrew Savage: "I imagine it's what recording [The Beatles']White Album would've been like, except the whole band was getting along and nobody's girlfriend was there."
Saint Motel – Saintmotelevision
"This man, this dutiful man has got this sense of devotion / One look, one touch of a hand can set the spiral in motion."
For years, I've criticized Chicago television networks for their low-budget coverage of New Year's Eve. Imagine my surprise when I saw this act perform as part of the 2016 broadcast. Best way I can describe this group is picture Dave Matthews Band and The Killers redrafting band members to form a new act.
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
"The fog and the smog of news media that logs / False narratives of Gods that came up against the odds / We're not just n**** rappers with the bars / It's kismet that we're cosmic with the stars."
Phife Dawg was one of many great musicians we lost last year. And as much as the album is a tribute to him, one can't help but hear nods to other visible figures like President Obama. Eighteen years after their last release, this isn't a nostalgia album; they clearly have more to say.
Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo
"I feel like Pablo when I'm workin' on my shoes / I feel like Pablo when I see me on the news / I feel like Pablo when I'm workin' on my house / Tell 'em party's in here, we don't need to go out."
There's so much to be said about Mr. West that I'll tackle that at a different time. I will say this: with guest features by Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, this album performs lyrically better than most of West's albums. It's also interesting to see the similarities of West with a certain President-Elect and their ability to significantly influence the market through a single comment (e.g., West's declaration that the album would be exclusive to Tidal immediately led to Tidal becoming a top iTunes app, whereas the President-Elect's comments about Toyota temporarily destroyed $1.2 billion in shareholder value, etc.).
Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
"That man lived in this town / Til that pig took him down / And have you heard the sound / Of a man stop breathing, pleading?"
Indie rock singer/songwriter's third solo album is a sign of times: even white dudes from Texas are seeing and reacting to social unrest. Race relations and distrust of law enforcement aren't new to music, but he examines it in his own voice.
Warpaint – Heads Up
"You wouldn't know it but you're really in your prime."
This LA-based all-female quartet brings a broad mix of 80s influences, from Siouxie and the Banshees to Depeche Mode, their third album has a great feel.
The Gotobeds – Blood // Sugar // Secs // Traffic
Post-punk trio hailing from Pittsburgh, PA, they not only won best liner notes, but also best tonge-in-cheek stolen album title.
Lvl Up – Return To Love
"Until the city swallows me / And chews me and spits me out / And I'm left feeling jaded, complacent / And filled with a hatred of love."
A lo-fi band founded from where my current employer is headquartered. Seems a fitting way to wrap this year's list.
Guilty Pleasure of the Year
Justin Timberlake – Can't Stop the Feeling
"I don't need no reason, don't need control."
Last year, I admitted it would be impossible to avoid the "middle-aged white guy" title in 2016. Liking a Justin Timberlake song is more encouraged today than it was twenty years ago. And yet, it's the memories of songs past that make me still pause before admitting that I liked a song. I could try to be coy and say something like, "I took my kids to a movie about Trolls. I tapped my feet." But in reality this was the song I listened to all summer, before the movie was released.