21 Favorite Songs of 2016
We’re halfway through January, but I’m new around here and I thought the best way to kick off my writing for TBT would be to let you in on my favorite tunes from last year, in no particular order.
- The Avalanches – “Because I’m Me”
I used to jokingly refer to these guys as Paul’s Boutique – The Band, but with the release of Wildflower, it’s even more fitting. The clout they’ve built since the release of their classic debut allowed them to grab some big names for modern day drop-ins to pair with their sampled relics of the past, just as the Dust Brothers did when they collaborated with the Beastie Boys back in 1989. What better way to celebrate you for yourself than in this track, featuring a knockout verse from (not to be confused with the martial artist) Sonny Cheeba.
- Junior Boys – “Over It”
I’m over a decade late to the game on this synth-heavy group from Ontario, but am thankful to have finally been enlightened. “‘Sure’s and ‘maybe’s/Better than a quick ‘alright’” is the kind of on-the-nose restless sentiment rarely heard in electronic music so danceable as this and I love their ability to blend that attitude with digital claustrophobic chic.
- Holy Fuck – “Neon Dad”
Yet another group of electronic noisemakers from Ontario, although these gents aim for a more abrasive angle than Junior Boys. My interest in them was originally piqued after learning that Graham Walsh had worked with Preoccupations in the studio to help create their latest album and previous debut under the name Viet Cong. Walsh’s own band is a far cry from Flegel and company’s brand of synth-tinged post-punk, but retains a similar sense of abandonment and mania, as if Six Finger Satellite veered closer to the pop side of the spectrum.
- Wye Oak – “No Dreaming”
After 2014’s guitar-less turn with Shriek – which was by all means excellent – Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack’s Tween, a collection of repurposed tracks dating all the way back to 2011, was a breath of fresh air. Wasner’s guitar is at its most blanketed in this masterpiece, reviving the warmth she brought to the table on Civilian that Stack’s keys could not always replace in its absence.
- Deerhoof – “The Devil and His Anarchic Surrealist Retinue”
Drummer Greg Saunier stated in a press release for their previous album La Isla Bonita that “the Deerhoof fan is a thrill-seeker.” The band has never made that more apparent than on the opening track from last year’s The Magic. Saunier’s drums maintain an unrelenting stampede while Ed Rodriguez and John Dieterich trade stop-start fuzzy reverb riffs atop Satomi Matsuzaki’s restricted bass. The song only stops twice in the middle and very end for a quick funky coffee break before having to rush out the door and save the day again. This is my new go-to standard for explaining what Deerhoof does best.
- Birthmark – “How You Look When You’re Falling Down”
Nate Kinsella has been involved in his cousins Mike and Tim’s more angsty projects such as American Football and Make Believe, but every once in a while, Nate releases a solo album under the moniker Birthmark to demonstrate his fascination and mastery of orchestral and polyrhythmic compositions. The title track from his latest album offers an anxious look at the act of shaming and its often unintentional nature, set to a locked groove with all sorts of instrumental tricks from Kinsella’s arsenal of talent.
- Mangelwurzel – “I.O.U.”
Cosima Jaala leads the band Jaala currently on Wondercore Island, and while that band promises to make good on a follow up to their eight-song debut in the new year, according to Facebook, her other group Mangelwurzel appears to be pumping the breaks – for now. It’s great news that Cosi’s frenetic guitar compositions continue to thrive, but the addition of a horn section isn’t the only thing that separated Mangelwurzel from her namesake group. The arrangements are just as oddball but a sense of sheer strangeness eludes her current four-piece (see: “Baby Pie”). “I.O.U.” rocks hard and lays out the ground rules of what is rightfully owed and to be respected in a relationship.
- Preoccupations – “Stimulation”
What I love most about this quartet from Calgary is when they incorporate odd time signatures into their music. From their earliest release, Cassette, they were able to make something as difficult as 13/4 time sound palatable and awesome on “Throw It Away”. “Stimulation” appears tame until the final section, wherein the time signature – a formidable 19/4 – rears its head. When I caught their live show at Warsaw in Brooklyn last October, it was obvious before starting the tune that this was a toughie even for them, as Matt Flegel stated, “Alright, we’re gonna try not to fuck this one up.” The off-kilter meter camouflage isn’t as seamless this time around, but it’s the enthusiast for those hard-to-read signatures in me that makes this song a favorite.
- Danny Brown – “Dance in the Water”
This track sticks with me more than most from Atrocity Exhibition probably because it’s the closest sense of relief achieved through its post-debauched-night-confession-booth narrative. Brown’s Joy Division influence is most worn on his sleeve in this moment as he brilliantly pairs “Ungawa Part 2” from Pulsallama with a textbook Unknown Pleasures -esque bass line.
- Solange – “Cranes in the Sky”
For how busy of a music year 2016 was, A Seat at the Table was a special example among the herd, proving that there’s still endless nobility in spending years constructing an album. The result was beautiful and timeless. “Cranes” serves as a voice of compassion when one is faced with problems seemingly bigger than themselves, opening up hedonistic hallways with which to better avoid life’s strife.
- Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – “1959”
No matter how abrasive The Walkmen can get, they always appear antique, thanks to Leithauser’s croon – one that can only be described as “classic.” “1959” caps off an album of many inventive poppy theatrics, which is why it’s so fitting that it sounds like the celebratory closing number in a musical. Special guest Angel Deradoorian’s longing refrain “One day, I’ll start to listen” makes this a tearful goodbye for sure.
- Kaytranada – “Bullets”
Haiti’s 24-year-old Kaytranada is a production dynamo. 99.9% is the work of a whiz kid, and upon my first listen, I legitimately thought to myself that a collaboration with Little Dragon would be apropos… queue the final track. The song itself could fool one into thinking it’s a song from the group themselves, which makes sense due to the full band’s involvement, but Kay’s mixing hits hard in its own right with the percussion, trading out left and right speakers to powerful effect.
- Jeff Parker – “Cliche”
Seeing the release of a couple excellent solo LPs, Parker’s 2016 is reminder enough of why Tortoise is considered a supergroup. The New Breed’s closing track features Jeff’s daughter Ruby Parker on beautiful vocals to accompany an already singsong jazzy number from the guitarist’s roots. It’s a surrealist noir anecdote that sends shivers and breathes nightlife.
- Kendrick Lamar – “06 | 06.30.2014.”
Otherwise known as “the one with Cee Lo Green,” this outtake-later-made-take is Lamar condensed, albeit lossless, into three-and-a-half minutes. It’s another easy pick, not nearly as challenging as other cuts from the EP, but the beat is as undeniable as it gets. That of course is all thanks to A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who lends his tenured production chops to the track.
- Frank Ocean – “Seigfried”
Something about how murky the effect is on the repeating four guitar chords draws me in deeply. For an album so concerned with the introspection of its artist, “Seigfried” really sells the experience of entering Frank’s dream state, laying his desperation bare in those closing lines putting it so simply: “I’d do anything for you.”
- Marcos Balter, Ensemble Dal Niente, Deerhoof – “Meltdown Upshot: No.5, Home”
Balter / Saunier is unquestionably my favorite record to come from 2016. I do believe that its legacy is at least temporarily unsung due to its understandably niche circumstances – it’s a Deerhoof album, in a year where they already released a proper full length, paired with a baroque orchestral group. “Home” is the strongest sampling of the album’s first half, creating music that exercises Deerhoof’s unwavering Ezra Pound-“make it new” philosophy and enhancing their sonic element to new lengths with kismet collaborators Ensemble Dal Niente and composer Marcos Balter.
- Japanese Breakfast – “In Heaven”
This is one of those celebratory/eulogizing songs that never fails to draw tears the more you learn about its components. Michelle Zauner sums up what The Antlers’ Hospice aimed to illustrate in a matter of an album opener. It’s poppy, filled to the brim with ’80s The Cure -esque strings, and begging for you to believe in a place called heaven.
- BadBadNotGood – “In Your Eyes”
IV is the strongest output yet from this young Toronto jazz/R&B foursome. I’m a sucker for imitative production, and “In Your Eyes” sounds as if it were plucked straight from a ’60s lounge. Charlotte Day Wilson gives a passionately resonant vocal performance, listing her sultry woos to another in hopes of a so-wrong-but-so-right tryst.
- Angel Olsen – “Sister”
The narrative brought about by sister raises many interpretive questions: Is the sister related by blood or by metaphor? What is so long lost in Olsen’s life? What is the “change” she has been anticipating? Her meaning may be more personal than we will ever know, but the nearly eight-minute journey she paints for us is one of those songs that a musician dreams for in the span of a career.
- Tortoise – “Yonder Blue”
Yo La Tengo will be forever and always my favorite band. John McEntire of Tortoise produced their last album of original material, Fade. It only makes sense that McEntire would think to enlist YLT’s Georgia Hubley for an exceptionally rare vocal performance on a Tortoise record. This piece is a turn from the group’s usual batch of genres they choose for forays, but it turns out that they wear soul very well, and Hubley’s pillowy vocals are a perfect match.
- Luke Temple – “The Masterpiece Is Broken”
The second coolest thing about seeing Blonde Redhead perform their classic LP Misery Is a Butterfly in full last year was getting to see their opener, Luke Temple from Here We Go Magic. I had never been acquainted with his solo work and quickly found that I was enamored with it. Although how can you lose when you’re playing a nylon-string guitar in the slight echoing chapel of Brooklyn’s Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph? He began his set with this tune and after the show, I could only sit patiently for the month to pass before A Hand Through the Cellar Door was made available.