In Part I of my review of the music of 2016, I assessed the state of our musical culture – the good, the bad, the trends, the overrated superstars, the surprises, and the let downs.
While the year was filled with social media hype-driven bullshit, there was undoubtedly classic material released throughout. And in the face of such a music culture that embraces cheesiness, cliches, derivative trends, and minimal original ideas, the artists who are making authentic, genuine art shine even brighter.
Instead of ranking all of my favorite songs of the year numerically, which I think is kind of stupid, I have compiled a list of my favorite songs of the year, with only one song per artist. Following the best songs of the year, I have ranked the best albums of 2016.
Best Songs of 2016
- All Night – Chance the Rapper – Chance is like a litter of puppies; something that everyone loves unless they’re just a miserable human being. A catchy hit rap song that you can dance to, doesn’t take itself too seriously, AND it doesn’t offend anybody? You’re a wizard, Chance.
- “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest – A young, talented songwriter using real instruments to create compelling music? I thought they were extinct.
- “Lazarus” by David Bowie – Because, damn.
- “Identikit” by Radiohead – I first heard this song in 2012 when I saw Radiohead live in 2012 in a stoned delirium. I subsequently watched live performances of it on Youtube, praying to Thom Yorke that it’d someday be released. And here we are four years later, the “Identikit” gets its proper release and is nothing short of a sonic masterpiece.
- “Three Sides of Nazareth” by Nicolaas Jaar – Remember the exhilarating, heart-pounding rush of blood and alertness you felt the first time you ever drank coffee? Yeah imagine that while stumbling around a dark South American ghetto and finding your way into some sort of weird dance club. Raw tension.
- “Real Love Baby” by Father John Misty – This is the song that should play at the end of a rom-com while the happy couple that we all knew would end up together drives off into the sunset in a convertible before the credits roll.
- “Ain’t It Funny” by Danny Brown – If you were listening to this song while pregaming for a night out with a bottle of liquor in your hands, you probably wouldn’t make it out. You can just picture Danny Brown’s crazy ass railing lines of coke between each maniacal verse, one moment laughing about his excessive drug use while the next saying, “staring in the devil’s face, but ya can’t stop laughing” and “pray for me”.
- “Golden Gal” by Animal Collective – While Painting With was disappointing as a whole, this song nails the style they were going for. Avey Tare’s vocals give what sounds like watching Nickelodeon on acid a sense of realness. It’s infectious.
- “Girl in Amber” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – A legendarily spiritual, dark artist with one of the most powerful voices ever recorded lamenting to the point of tears about the tragic death of his 15 year-old son? Fuck.
- “If I Was a Folkstar” by The Avalanches – Wash the harrowing taste of the previous song out of your psyche with this four minutes and fifty-two seconds of audible ecstasy.
- “I Feel it Coming” by The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk – Here’s your best pop song of the year. All hail those French duo who turns everything they touch to gold. The Weeknd is cool too.
- “Enth” by Crystal Castles – Amnesty (I) is definitely not Crystal Castles’ best release, but “Enth” summons some sort of hypnotizing electronic evil spirits that sounds like “The Exorcist” meets EDM in the year 2030.
- “Threat of Joy” by The Strokes – Like having some beers and laughs with old friends, “Threat of Joy” is like a cool wave of nostalgia. It blows my mind that something sounding so completely effortless off of an EP is one of the best rock songs released in the year. Keep on keeping on, dudes of The Strokes.
- “Redbone” by Childish Gambino – A rapper in 2016 taking on Parliament & Funkadelic is the sounds disastrous, but Donal Glover makes it work, big time. Now, why did he have to name the damn song “RED BONE”… I mean, come on.
Now, for the main event… the best albums of 2016 stand with the best albums of the decade. While we weren’t given quantity or large numbers of awesome albums, the quality of the great albums we DID get ensures that we never had a lack of music to listen to in the past year.
- Underworld – Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future
- Pj Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
- Chance, the Rapper – Coloring Book
- Wilco – Schmilco
- Bon Iver – 22, A Million
- Nicolas Jaar – Nymphs
Soze’s Top Nine Albums of 2016
9. James Blake – The Colour in Anything
James Blake’s third official LP finds him further exploring the smooth, icy world of sound that he created with the first two albums. I wasn’t in love with the record like I was the first two, but it was solid enough and filled with the typical James Blake sonic beauty we’ve come to love, so it sneaks into the top 10. While at times bulky, the highs display the signature sound of one of the 21st century’s most exciting young musicians.
Highlights: Radio Silence, Choose Me, I Hope My Life, Timeless
8 . Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
To be completely honest, I was interested, but didn’t have incredibly high hopes for an Iggy Pop album in 2016. Got damn, was I pleasantly surprised. With the help of Josh Homme, Dean Fertita, and Matt Helders, the legendary crooner paired his punk snarl with some unforgettable melodies. On the opening, “Break Into Your Heart”, you’re hit with the pleasant comfort of Iggy Pop’s distressed voice in a way that invokes some sort of weird nostalgia. “Sunday” shows Iggy’s ability to carve catchy melodies into simple guitar tunes. The album is like smoking a cigarette while driving down an American highway with the stars twinkling above, comforting and strangely spiritual.
Highlights: Chocolate Drops, Gardenia, Sunday, Break Into Your Heart, Paraguay
7. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Good album? Yeah. Saviors of rock music? Get the fuck outta here. The critical praise of Car Seat Headrest was initially a turn-off and marred the actual charm of the album, but once I settled into it, Teens of Denial proved to be a rewarding listen. Make no mistake about it, Will Toledo is a talented dude. The beauty of the album lies in the Will’s mournfully bored singing – kind of like if Julian Casablancas had grown up a nerd. But his songwriting and lyrics are carefully constructed and brilliant. I’d insert an example, but do yourself a favor and listen along while reading the lyrics. While melodramatic at times, Toledo’s ability to capture his spite and scorn in his songs is something to marvel at. I initially condemned the album as a Weezer + The Pixies rehash, but once I dug into Teens of Denial, it grew on me. No, there are no new tricks here. No genre bending experimentation. But Teens of Denial takes a common style and fucking owns it.
Highlights: Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales, Vincent, Drugs With Friends
6. David Bowie – Blackstar
We knew we were in for something pretty damn special when we initially saw the title track music video – the absurdity and hypnotizing jazz rock showed that the late Bowie was holding absolutely nothing back for the last record of his vaunted career. And the prospect of David fucking Bowie at his most experimental is something to get excited about. Personally, I’m a big fan of his 2013 record, but Blackstar has it beat. To me, the moment on the album that truly blew me away was opening guitar riff of “Lazarus”, sentimentally trudging through before descending into a swooning saxophone piece, setting the tone for Bowie to sing, “look up here, I’m in heaven”, followed by a crunching, eerie guitar. If that doesnt give you the fucking chills, you are not human. You can hear it in his voice. He was dying. And this was his final gift to the world – one of the best musicians ever, raw, unfiltered, ambitious, and as vulnerable as ever.
Highlights: Lazarus, Blackstar, ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, Girl Loves Me, I Can’t Give Everything Away
5. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
“On the count of three everyone jump! Okay.. 1..2..3.. Go!” *cue bass drop and lasers and fist pumps and awkward MDMA fueled jerky dance moves as the DJ presses play on his Macbook while jumping and throwing his hands in the air* – talentless, unoriginal, bland bullshit. This is the epitome of electronic music in 2016.
However, Nicolas Jaar is no such artist – my man is like the Jimi Hendrix of the synthesizer and drum machine – he’s a savant. While everyone else is recycling the same bass-heavy redundant formulas which propel them to the top of festival lineups, Jaar incorporates jazz and dance with his Chilean flare. This is the smoothest electronic shit you’ll hear. No sound is out of place or unecessary – it’s this precision that makes a technology-driven album feel so organic. Groove out to the centerpiece, “No”, which to be straightforward, is fucking sexy. Proceed to “Three Sides of Nazareth” for a line of musical cocaine.
Highlights: The Governor, No, Three Sides of Nazareth, History Lesson
4. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
If you’ve read my writing on music, you know I value genuine artistry and inspiration above all. There’s a difference between making a product and making art. You can tell when a song was written to appeal to a crowd versus a song that came from the soul. Nick Cave is one such artist who undeniably writes from the soul, singing verses like a pissed-off preacher quoting scripture with a bottle of bourbon in his hand. He’s a man who has never been short on inspiration, so when tragedy struck in the form of Cave losing his fifteen year-old son, we knew we were in for something special, although almost entirely unlistenable. Death and darkness have long permeated throughout Cave’s music, but never before has it been so personal.
The music is powerful and subdued, leaving the stage free for Cave’s vocals to rip your heart out your chest. “Rings of Saturn” floats like a funeral procession into the emotional burial of “Girl in Amber” where we hear the 59 year-old man struggle to sing, “I knew the world it would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone” while choking back tears.
On Skeleton Tree, Cave captures the essence of the most harrowing of tragedies known to the human condition – the loss of a child – and audibly bleeds his anger, his pain, and his sorrow onto record. While it’s not an easy listen, and not something I find myself coming back to very often, Skeleton Tree stands out as one of the greatest artistic achievements of one of music’s greatest talents of all time.
Highlights: Rings of Saturn, Girl in Amber, I Need You
3. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
From the man who once rapped, “Had virgin Mary doing lines in the pick-up, make Sarah Palin deep throat til’ she hiccup”, I present to you, Atrocity Exhibition, a peak behind the curtain of one of music’s most twisted and deranged minds. Actually, this is more than a “peak behind the curtain”, this album is so personal that it makes you feel like you’re in a dimly lit basement of a Detroit shithole, clouded in Newport smoke with punk rock posters on the walls, as Danny Brown rails a line of coke off of a girl’s tramp stamp before contemplating whether to hit the club or swallow a handful of Xanax bars in hopes of never waking up again. Paranoia and despair bleed through the record as Danny clings to substances and music to deal with his obviously deep-seeded issues:
“Feeling like I’m not alive
But I know I’m not dead
Living lies but can’t hide
Deep inside, the truth dies
Bought hope, can’t get change
Lost my brain, going insane
Self-medicate is how I cope
Leave my body, soul go afloat”
In contrast to 99% of rappers who glorify their drug use, Danny brings a sense of realness to his music exploring the dark side of the lifestyle, at one moment on a euphoric high and the next on a harrowing comedown. From his maniacal voice to his unorthodox, trap-meets-punk-rock beats, you never know where the hell the music is going to take you.
Certain musicians have a sense of style and aesthetic with their art that puts them leagues above their competition. Danny Brown is one of them. Just look at that album cover. Listen to the instrumentals. Read his lyrics. Watch his videos “When It Rain” and “Pneumonia”. Instead of sticking to formulaic trends, Danny carves out his own lane as hip-hop’s premiere artist, someone who goes wherever his fucked up mind takes him without giving a damn about what’s popular at the moment. For once, we can hear an album and say that this is music that has never been made before. Danny Brown is a bonafide rockstar, and Atrocity Exhibition is full-tilt insanity.
Highlights: Rolling Stone, Ain’t It Funny, Golddust, When It Rain, Today
2. The Avalanches – Wildflower
David Bowie… death. Nick Cave… death. Danny Brown… drug addiction. The majority of 2016’s best music seemed to focus on the bleaker aspects of life, but one album stands out like a freakin’ DOUBLE. RAINBOW. amidst a catastrophic hurricane of shitty EDM music, the Indians losing in game 7 of the world series, the death of an iconic gorilla, and the multitude of terrorist attacks that topped the horrific happenings of 2016. That album is The Avalanches’ sophomore album, Wildflower, the aptly titled sprawling musical collection of beautiful colors, euphoria, and childish joy.
The Avalanches released an undeniably classic debut in 2001 before reclusively hiding away in Australia for nearly two decades before blessing the world with new compositions. As you have probably figured out, in music, I highly value something DIFFERENT from the rest of the music world, which conforms to trends and stays inside the boxes of certain genres. You go from “Frankie Sinatra”, a goofy tune christened with rap features (including none other than, Danny Brown), to the hypnotizing textures of instrumental joint, “Subways”. The peak of the album comes with the fluttering “If I Was a Folkstar”, which somehow makes you feel like you’re floating on a cloud dancing with angels who look like Victoria Secret models while rose pedals fall through the air like confetti.
Colorful, earthy, and stoned, Wildflower sounds like it could be the soundtrack to running through a daisy-filled prairie on a sunny day, or a late night MDMA infused dance party in an open festival ground in which you look at everyone and think, “Man, I LOVE YOU”.
Highlights: Because I’m Me, Subways, If I Was a Folkstar, Colours, The Wozard of Iz
1. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
No surprises. Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool is the best album of 2016. From the onset of the piercing, paranoid strings in the opener, “Burn the Witch”, it was obvious that we were in for a fucking treat. It’s Radiohead. At their best – a progressive rock orchestra of gorgeous melodies, chilling soundscapes, sounding ethereal yet incredibly personal at the same time. This isn’t simply another album put out just because they had to – Thom Yorke sings with a certain rawness that draws us even further into Radiohead’s ethereal sonic realm.
While A Moon Shaped Pool is less experimental than previous outputs, it is a culmination of the recording genius that the group has captured over the years. The centerpiece “Ful Stop” is raw tension, brooding and pulsating like a black cloud of technology before erupting into a downpour of carefully-constructed mania. “Identikit” is otherworldly, smoothly flowing down a river of electronic drums and Yorke’s hypnotizing until he eventually delves into madman cries of “broken hearts make it raii-aainn” before the ethereal synth breakdown, culminating in an electrocuting Jonny Greenwood guitar solo that tickles your eardrums and makes you press “replay” as soon as the last note is finished. “Present Tense” stands among Radiohead’s most beautiful, mature songs (i.e. “Reckoner”), trickling with ambient guitar plucks, as Yorke takes comfort in the sorrow and madness above a backdrop of haunting harmony.
After the mild disappointment of The King of Limbs, Radiohead smacks doubters in the face with a sledgehammer, delivering one their most musically potent, yet accessible albums to date. Every last detail is perfectly arranged, grabbing you by your ears with the opener, bleeding with tension throughout. At one moment you feel trapped in a thunderstorm of electronic chaos, and the next you’re left serenely floating down a river of tranquil darkness.
In 2016, Radiohead again set the bar for which just about every artist could dream of musically achieving. Sadly, that bar may be too high for most mortals. It’s the clear dichotomy of their ability to make you feel anxiously paranoid at one moment and completely calm in the next. It’s a sense of… the whole world is going to hell, but we’re okay with it. The album is about finding comfort in despair, as Yorke sings, “As my world comes crashing down, I’ll be dancing”.
Highlights: Burn the Witch, Decks Dark, Ful Stop, Identikit, Present Tense, True Love Waits
With that said, I hope you enjoyed reading the list, and I hope I have introduced you to some new music that you may enjoy.
If you haven’t checked it out yet, read my first post in this series – The Music of 2016: A Year in Review (Part I)