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20 Favorite Songs of 2016
—with playlist in ascending order.
20. The Monkees – “Me & Magdalena”
Caught up in the rapture of retirement, the living Monkees of Good Times! decline to chase youth but arrive at many of its associated pleasures from the opposite direction, via sunny old age. Their much younger songwriting contributors, similarly, prove their worth by the extent to which they’re able to dream forward and upward and write lyrics befitting the joys of (certain) 70-year-old men. By that measure Ben Gibbard lends Good Times its centerpiece, and space for reflection on an album of, if the term still fits, party music. It’s his best song in years. Steady and serene and with a few hints of strain and vulnerability, Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz might as well be finding new meaning in a standard, as it drifts from present to past to the undiscovered.
19. The Hidden Cameras – “The Day I Left Home”
Joel Gibb’s decade-in-the-making folk album remains a holy grail, discovered only in fits and starts with Home on Native Land, but this lead single, canny enough to treat R.E.M.’s “Rockville” as a country music template rich as any other, is everything I could’ve hoped for. By the time the song sentimentalizes itself with reverb-heavy vocals (“I’m gone”) and fades out on heavens and oh-oh’s, Gibb’s earned it.
18. Big Thief – “Interstate”
Most of the bands I ever fell in love with, I fell in love with in Montana. This one’s probably the last for a long, long time, so of course it had to happen on the bus between Butte and Helena, with a song called “Interstate” that riffs on the melody of The Amps’ “I Am Decided.”
17. Abra – “Vegas”
Mr. Narrator, this is Depeche Mode to me, which means that Abra is still roughly five albums away from the worlds-conquering precision of Violator. But no matter, because this too is the good part, atmosphere unspooling endlessly.
16. Pet Shop Boys – “The Pop Kids”
Neil Tennant’s characterizations and eye for detail have fallen off a bit since the days of “Being Boring,” say, but “The Pop Kids” drips pathos when I think of it as an ode to music fans and writers in the manner of Saint Etienne’s “Popular,” named after the long-running music blog of the brilliant and dedicated Tom Ewing. Hardly underwritten, “The Pop Kids” wrings new sentiment from overused words: the bridge delineates the difference between loving something and liking it, with a specificity of intonation I haven’t encountered since Luna’s “Chinatown”; the chorus is fluff until that dangling “I loved you” tosses out the song’s nostalgic tone for a deeper regret.
15. Noname feat. Raury & Cam O’bi – “Diddy Bop”
I’m not sure why I’m always surprised when young artists access such rich and vivid memories. They’re the ones closest to the big bang of existence.
14. Tortoise feat. Georgia Hubley – “Yonder Blue”
I can’t imagine a more fitting use of Tortoise’s gifts, instrumental prowess hushed to a whisper. Here’s a song so gentle, so deserving of its evocative title, that Hubley’s presence would be felt even without her vocal.
13. Jamila Woods feat. Lornie Chia – “Lonely Lonely”
Before “Cranes in the Sky,” there was Jamila Woods singing “I’ll be crazy on my own” and creating self-care ultimatums by adding dependent clauses to old Paula Cole lyrics, over a radiant and lonely shuffle of a beat.
12. Field Music – “The Noisy Days Are Over”
Commontime has an album’s worth of ideas in this opening track. It’s weird to think of Field Music’s brilliance as a liability, but I found it hard to move on from a song so itchy and bursting with life.
11. David Bowie – “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
Earlier — Of the seven songs on the deathless Blackstar, this last ever Bowie song “comes closest to signaling an ending. The sweeping grandeur of the music still sounds infinite to me, even as the singer confesses that he’s not.”
10. Rihanna feat. SZA – “Consideration”
Anti ends up no more or less scattershot than previous Rihanna albums, but the narrative it took on, that it’s a definitive album statement from a singles artist known for filler, continues to stick a year later, probably because its first ten minutes (and yeah, okay, 15 seconds) are perfect. Thank the brief, introductory “Consideration” for the momentum it creates, but know that it’s excerptible, too. A duo of high school juniors helped cement the idea, choosing the song for an impeccable beatbox-and-vocals rendition at a talent show last May. My year’s most eventful brush with youth music.
9. DIIV – “Healthy Moon”
Foregrounds the beauty and expressiveness of DIIV’s melodies in an unmistakable way, I think.
8. M83 feat. Susanne Sundfør – “For The Kids”
Earlier — “A morbid fantasy in which the baby doll voice of a dead child reassures a grieving mother. It’s grotesque but also, because Susanne Sundfør gives the best vocal performance ever heard on an M83 album, deeply moving.” What could have been no more than a winking self-critique—Anthony Gonzalez refuses to reanimate his past work, writes a twinkling piano ballad about reanimating the dead—ends up Junk’s most emotionally involving moment.
7. Beyoncé – “Formation”
I miss the video’s patience, its Big Freedia voiceover and repetition of the first verse, doubling the pleasure of the moment the beat unlocks, but for restlessness’ and urgency’s sake, the single version gets to “slay okay” fastest.
6. Katie Dey – “Fear O The Light”
Dey twists her vocals, as fragile-sounding as Jonathan Donahue or Mark Linkous at their most squashed, with humanizing electronic manipulations, then brings the dark or the light crashing down, four notes at a time. But because every sound on “Fear O The Light” represents her voice, she survives the song in triumph even as she ends it with a squeak.
5. The Radio Dept. – “Can’t Be Guilty”
As resonant a political statement as I heard this year, from a terrific pop album enlivened by alarm and despair. The Radio Dept. harness the well-worn idea of sleep as innocence (see Tom Waits, Stephin Merritt, etc.), often a quaint and self-contained notion, to contemplate apocalypse and the question of complicity. The “can’t” is decisive, revealing a kind of desperation to absolve guilt even as the song ticks along like a dream.
4. Pete Astor – “The Getting There”
Earlier — Astor’s Spilt Milk “tracks real terrain. The guitars have subtle, compelling topography; each drum hit lands a few feet from the last. “The Getting There” literalizes this feeling, and ends up a classic of bleary-eyed wandering in the physical world.”
3. King – “Native Land”
We Are King acts as a spiritual home for its duration, so it’s a surprise each time to learn that pilgrimage awaits these artists in the final stretch. I dreamed a homecoming as beautiful as this one once, but never dreamed it would find me again in waking life.
2. PJ Harvey – “River Anacostia”
Take your music theory explainer of non-classical music and shove it, unless you’re using it to tell me how Harvey amplifies the magic of the year’s most magnificent vocal melody with only the subtlest of variations on its second repetition.
1. Mitski – “Fireworks”
If I had to attempt defining the word “song,” this one, the length of a thought, with lyrics that could be written out as one or two sentences, would suffice. No accident that it’s just a few seconds shy of the golden 2:42.