Modern music takes a lot of shots from almost everyone I associate with on a daily basis, both from those I interact with casually and those I know extremely well. Even many of my friends and family members who have a deep connection with the art form typically can’t help but feel that music has lost something over the years, and a result they turn their backs on new content in favor of the familiar.
Look, I get it. Streaming services have rendered all of us helpless when it comes to plumbing the depths of everything available, so why not just shrug and crawl back into OK Computer or Blood on the Tracks or Either/Or? It’s common to say that being a music fan in the technology age is much easier than it was 20 years ago, but I kind of disagree. Sure, I’m no longer having to learn of records by hearing them at a friend’s house, and I don’t have to buy something to know anything about it. Gone are the days of ripping CDs, strict word-of-mouth, and dial-up connections. And yet popular music gets safer and glossier by the day in large part because the ease of discovery gives people too much to deal with in the context of overly-busy daily lives.
I’ve been very fortunate (as a music nut, at least) in that my job has allowed countless hours to comb through new music while I’m getting paid. I likely touch more new stuff than your average person anyway, but those extra hours make a difference in terms of what I can get to between January and December. I heard more new music than ever in 2016, which means I’ll go ahead and expand this very list to 80 songs rather than the 60 I covered a year ago.
Before I get into the meat of this post (the list, of course; this post will contain no actual meat), I have to do a bit of housekeeping. Because ranking individual songs seems a bit too unruly a task for me, every track on this list will appear alphabetically by artist. I will rank my favorite albums of the year, as the sample size makes doing so something about which I am much more comfortable. No artist will appear on the song list more than once so as to provide a much wider snapshot of my year in music; for instance, listing every song on my favorite album or two of the year feels like it would defeat the purpose of writing this.
Lastly, I’m writing this as someone who loves music. Everything I present in my year-end lists is here because I’m really into it. Music is as subjective and personalized an art form as exists, so I’m not going to pretend I possess the right to proclaim one song or album “better” than another. This is simply my favorite stuff released over the past calendar year, and I’m thrilled to get to share my enthusiasm for it. Below this paragraph, you’ll see an embedded Spotify playlist of these songs. Let’s do this shit!
Aesop Rock, “Mystery Fish”: Bubbling in with a purpose, “Mystery Fish” finds Aesop Rock at the top of his game, rapping about peg legs and terraforming in the first verse alone. This is one of those Aesop songs with so much puffed-up determination that it’s impossible not to want to put on a pair of sunglasses while listening to it.
Against Me!, “Crash”: As with almost all Against Me! songs I end up liking, there isn’t anything particularly new about “Crash.” This is just a catchy, over-produced rock song with a very straightforward progression. Still, it hits its mark solidly, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and gets stuck in my head.
Alcest, “Eclosion”: French metal vets Alcest open the entire toolkit up for the explosive “Eclosion,” a beautiful song that features something like a chorus at its heart and aches the whole way though until a perfect ending sequence. Never punishing but always yearning, Alcest seem to have perfected their take on melody-heavy black metal this time around.
Angelic Milk, “Some Boys Are Beautiful Girls”: Here’s a catchy-ass rock song with a big chorus that comes to us courtesy of a Russian teenager. I’ve never typed that exact sentence until today, but I’m pleased that circumstance allowed me to do it. Never deviating from its verse-chorus formula and never delivering on the promise of becoming the trans-anthem its title might suggest, this is still an excellent listen thanks to the sonic pathos it provides in its biggest moments.
Animals As Leaders, “Arithmophobia”: As you may have guessed from the prefix of the word, arithmophobia means a fear of numbers. It’s a strange but knowing title for a song written by a band of cyborgs capable of doing virtually anything on traditional rock instruments, as the spastic tonal shifts and masterful work of each player on “Arithmophobia” indicates that the band continues to embrace math with open arms. As an added bonus, Animals As Leaders even bust out a little bit of sitar to lend charm to the proceedings!
At the Drive-In, “Governed by Contagions”: We still don’t have that new ATDI album just yet, but we do have a taste of what it might be like thanks to the late-2016 release of this single. I wish the production was a bit less clean, but the band’s chops are stronger than ever in this math-emo display of emotion and power. There’s even this theoretically cheesy part of the song during which Cedric Bixler sings “that’s the way the guillotine claps” to cue actual clapping, and I can’t help but somehow love it anyway.
Banks & Steelz, “Giant”: How did I not even know this existed? “Giant” is my favorite song on a collaborative album between Interpol singer Paul Banks and Wu-Tang’s RZA. Yeah, you read that right. The song sounds just like you think it would, and it works against all odds. RZA brings the hot rage in the verses, Banks brings the cool charisma in the choruses, and we all win along the way.
Lou Barlow, “The Breeze”: Older, heartbroken, and pouring back over his dalliances with love, former Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. star Lou Barlow brings his outsider edge to a moving acoustic ballad. Barlow breaks my heart every time when he croons “you resisted me like you resisted everything, I can’t take that on.” Barlow remains effective and interesting as he heads into his 51st year as a human being. (I’ll assume he was a pretty cool animal before joining the ranks of us.)
Bent Shapes, “New Starts in Old Dominion”: Jaunty, short, and catchy, “New Starts” is the best encapsulation of what I like about Bent Shapes. Mastermind Ben Potrykus is honest, self-deprecating, and insufferable in equal parts when it comes to his lyrical content. This works well in contrast to his sunny guitar pop, heard here with horns and a whole lot of charm.
The Body, “Wanderings”: The Body have been pretty hit-and-miss for me, but I’m captivated by the concept. This is a duo of musicians dedicated to melding the sludgiest metal landscapes with pop nuance, dedicated to making a car wreck just colorful enough that it’s impossible to look away. “Wanderings” accomplishes the band’s goal easily, using a dirt-covered riff to underscore vocals both beautiful and raving like a lunatic.
Broods, “Free”: I’m not really a fan of Broods or this kind of obvious electro-pop, but “Free” features lurching synths in a darkened verse and plenty of charisma in a danceable chorus. Then there’s Georgia Nott, who remains such a reliably excellent singer that I can forgive the general lack of personality in her voice.
Danny Brown, “Ain’t It Funny”: Welcome to Danny Brown’s Carnival of Fucked-Up Dreams, a sideshow where you can experience his tales of unchecked drug use and general debauchery by actually feeling it yourself! Brown pulls out all the stops here, his nasal voice rapping frantically over a track that sounds nothing short of possessed by a thousand Satans in clown wigs. It’s a daring and hard-hitting song that reasserts Brown as one of the most inventive artists in rap today.
Camp Cope, “Song For Charlie”: The debut album from Australian songwriter Georgia Maq is a sparse and intimate endeavor despite its occasional fits of noisiness, so it makes sense that its bleak-but-beautiful final track remains my favorite despite some strong competition. Maq is a uniquely affecting vocalist, and her pain shows through just as much as her shimmering guitar on “Song For Charlie,” a song riddled with memories of lives since ended and lives that must still continue.
Car Seat Headrest, “Destroyed by Hippie Powers”: Teens of Denial is unquestionably intended to be a full album experience, an hour-long trip through the head of Will Toledo. Picking one song off the thing feels weird, but I submit to you “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” as my final choice. Joyous and raucous, this is Toledo’s catchiest effort. Toledo stays calm as long as he can before humorously detailing his descent into becoming an identifiable type of snarky hipster with an untamed yelp: “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.” That’s pretty hard to beat.
Cymbals Eat Guitars, “Finally”: I’ll admit it; I’ve been in love with Cymbals Eat Guitars for a long time now. Pretty Years certainly does nothing to change that, as it opens with the mountain-scaling “Finally,” a song that probably starts out as well as anything released this year. Those guitars, man! It’s almost too much joy for me to bear when singer Joseph D’Agostino’s bleary wails make their way into the mix, and it’s definitely too much for me to bear when the song reaches its outsized climax. I guess this band is just going to bowl me over every two years and I’ll just have to be okay with it.
Deftones, “Doomed User”: I’m on record as being totally fine with Deftones treading water, as they’ve been content to continue doing well the things that they’ve always done well for over a decade now. That said, the dynamics of Gore are refreshingly more difficult to get a handle on. “Doomed User” mines the depths of ’80s metal in its verses, achieves aching beauty where it can, and still includes a scathing riff of epic proportions. This is still the same Deftones, but the band seems off autopilot for the time being.
DJ Shadow (featuring Run the Jewels), “Nobody Speak”: Let’s say you’re DJ Shadow and you’ve written a song that is basically the sonic embodiment of walking away from an explosion after having successfully stolen $1 million and Scarlett Johansson’s heart. What could you possibly do to put a cherry on top? Call in El-P and Killer Mike, that’s what! With swagger and replayability to spare, “Nobody Speak” is an unassailable winner.
Dowsing, “Wasted on Hate”: Much improved after three release-less years, Dowsing came back with a nice punkish record in 2016. “Wasted on Hate” leads off Okay like a mission statement, as the band instantly seem full of propulsive riffs and limitless energy. While the lyrical content may seem a bit overdone at times (“they built you up just to tear you down”), I swear it works well in a song like this.
Explosions In The Sky, “Tangle Formations”: It’s been half a decade since Explosions In The Sky dropped a full album of their own creations on the world, but not much has changed when it comes to the post-punk band’s considerable sprawl. “Tangle Formations” takes its time building to a jittery pace, and things only get more exciting from there. The song is hopeful, dour, and then hopeful again. You know, like all the best songs in the Explosions catalog.
Future of the Left, “Back When I Was Brilliant”: And here’s the sneering Welshman Andy Falkous back to make another appearance on one of my year-enders. This is Falkous through and through, occasionally shredding his vocals chords over the top of a gut-stomp riff of which he doesn’t want to let go. While FotL albums may have more (for me, anyway) filler than they used to, there’s comfort in knowing there will always be a couple of real gems like this one.
Glass Animals, “Life Itself”: This was the year that the weirdo percussion ‘n blips style of Glass Animals led the band to a whole lot more exposure. Already gathering steam, the band struck gold with this single, having the gall to add melody to the thumps and burps of what 2014’s Zaba had to offer. This is as infectious a mainstream single as I heard all year, and I particularly enjoy the sleazy lines singer Dave Bayley manages to sneak in.
Grimes, “Medieval Warfare”: Claire Boucher dominated my 2015 year-end lists thanks to releasing the maniacal Art Angels, and she had the decency to give up the sinister pop nugget “Medieval Warfare” in a non-LP year. This song was created for Suicide Squad, a movie I have no desire to see, but that didn’t stop me from seeking out Boucher’s work as soon as I knew it existed. There are a few Sleigh Bells trademarks here (scraping guitars and thumping beats) to go along with typically interesting vocal melodies and really distinct drums in the chorus.
Happyness, “Tunnel Vision on Your Part”: For six-and-a-half minutes, “Tunnel Vision” ambles along like a lazy summer day, all simple chords, gentle piano, and pleasant harmonies. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but it sure is soothing. It’s the kind of unrushed song we don’t hear as much these days, but it still has a place as some sort of sonic anxiety pill.
Hard Girls, “Dulcet Tones”: A band I’ve kept a close eye on for a couple of years now, Hard Girls make the kind of sharp, abrasive, and fun indie rock music that I can’t ever deny. “Dulcet Tones” got its own EP in 2016, as the band didn’t enter the fray with another full-length, but the song sure is good. Punchy and scrappy, “Dulcet Tones” promises a more focused version of Hard Girls going forward.
Honeyblood, “Gangs”: More assured and writing tighter indie rock songs than ever before, Honeyblood have always had a knack for essaying simple but catchy tunes. The band leveled up in 2016 with Babes Never Die, and “Gangs” finds its stride in its prolonged ending.
The Hotelier, “Soft Animal”: When we last saw The Hotelier, Christian Holden was laying bare his soul on the outstanding Home, Like NoPlace Is There, an album that dealt with loss in a startlingly honest way. Goodness, 2016’s entry from the band, is just as great, but in such a different way. “Soft Animal” offers rays of hope in its shimmering emo, with Holden urging his subject, “make me feel alive, make me believe that all my selves align.” His earnestness is quite refreshing to say the least.
Japandroids, “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life”: I can’t fucking wait for the next full album dose of Japandroids, my favorite ramshackle rock band going today. The lead single from the album delivers a cleaner version of the band, but the thematic elements and life-affirming pomp remain just as alive as they’ve always been. Brian King regales us with stories of his choice to give up everything to rock, while drummer David Prowse smashes his kit up like he literally might not make it one more day. So, in other words, it’s like Japandroids never left.
Special note: I somehow just now realized that David Prowse shares his name with the dude in Darth Vader’s suit for the original Star Wars trilogy. How did I miss this?!
Japanese Breakfast, “Rugged Country”: I was taken with Japanese Breakfast’s laid back indie rock right off the bat. This is the first song I heard off 2016’s Psychopomp, and it remains my favorite. The band meld a memorable chorus and occasionally percussive guitars with a dreamlike quality that reminds me of trying to recall an important conversation you had with someone years prior.
Johnny Foreigner, “Undevastator”: The songs of Johnny Foreigner’s Mono No Aware feel like they’re all cracked sugar canisters, spilling out big guitars, weird interludes, and spastic bursts with reckless abandon. “Undevastator” adds in some really cool vocal harmonies and a memorable chorus to form a song that is the strongest on an album of stuff I really enjoy.
The Joy Formidable, “Radio of Lips”: The Joy Formidable often careen through rock concepts and passages I find interesting only to fail in making something that’s ultimately compelling. That same sentiment applies to much of this year’s Hitch, but “Radio of Lips” finds its hook and never lets go. The song would feel overly long if it weren’t for the endearing nature of the chorus and the exhilarating breakdown right when things seem to be winding down.
The Kills, “Doing It To Death”: The Kills probably already have their best albums behind them, as their brand of bluesy stomp-rock hasn’t changed a whole lot over the years. When the band hits on all cylinders as they do on “Doing It To Death,” the sound is undeniable, though. Jamie Hince is the background star of the song, establishing a fantastic central riff and then playing it with all the swagger he can muster the whole way through.
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, “A 1000 Times”: In case you were wondering, Hamilton Leithauser hasn’t lost any of his magic vocal powers over the years, a fact you’ll believe just seconds into “A 1000 Times.” This is a collaboration between the former Walkmen frontman and ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij, and while the “band name” has all the creativity of last year’s Cloud Nothings/Wavves mashup, the songs aren’t lacking in energy or imagination. A simple acoustic framework opens this one up for a punchy bass line and a whole lot of wailing from the ever-gifted Leithauser.
Look Mexico, “Ice? Yeah, You Could Chisel Some Off Your Heart If You Could Find It”: The smart and versatile stylings of Look Mexico are there, you just have to get past some Minus the Bear-level song titles first. “Ice” is subdued and even calming for a while before shifting gears in time for a moody ending. The rhythm section shines on both this song and the whole record.
Los Campesinos!, “I Broke Up In Amarante”: Because 2016 famously sucked as a specifically denoted period of time, we didn’t get a new album from Los Campesinos!, one of indie’s very best and catchiest bands. That’s fine, though, as this single arrived in advance of an album due in 2017’s first month, and it’s good enough to tide me over for now. The vocal interplay dazzles as always, the band’s weird tendencies working in lockstep with its pop sensibility.
Fun fact: Singer Gareth Campesinos still loves soccer!
Martha, “Goldman’s Detective Agency”: Do you like shiny, churning, poppy guitar music? I sure do, so Martha’s 2016 output struck a chord (pun!) right away. This is a deathly infectious song loaded down with hooks and fun extras, and yes, it’s seriously about anarchist Emma Goldman as a detective. Do you need to be further convinced that this song is worth hearing? What if I told you that high-five of an ending prominently features the term “gumshoe”?
Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”: I’ll confess to being much less of a Mitski fan than many music enthusiasts who share many of my tastes. That doesn’t mean Puberty 2 doesn’t have its delights, however, as “Your Best American Girl” is so calming and delicate that it’s almost shocking when the whale-sized power chords of the chorus ease in. Mitski does lyrically right by her music, mournfully detailing a love derailed by the stupid external factors we’ve all encountered before.
Modern Baseball, “Just Another Face”: On what is easily the best-written Modern Baseball album to date, “Just Another Face” finds a way to stand out as a truly excellent final song. This collection of songs was penned after struggles with addiction and depression nearly sank co-frontman Brendan Lukens, and he has openly cited his bandmates as a gigantic reason why he’s still here today. So when Lukens belts out “I’ll be with you the whole way” in the massive chorus of this song, it’s easy to get goosebumps imagining those words being the mantra his friends chanted to see him through the darkness he didn’t think it was possible to pull through.
Mount Moriah, “Calvander”: On “Calvander,” Mount Moriah capture the breezy comfort of the best alt-country. Even better, the band also manages to squeeze in useful horn parts and a few little structural surprises to flesh things out along the way.
Muncie Girls, “Gas Mark 4”: Upbeat and insistent, “Gas Mark 4” is the most surging song on the mostly-straightforward From Caplan to Belsize. This is the best thing Muncie Girls have managed so far, and the triumphant uptick in energy near the song’s conclusion is further proof that simple indie rock remains a powerful form of expression.
Nick Murphy, “Fear Less”: Murphy’s atmospheric electronica crackles when he finally explodes this song from the inside out, thus making it an excellent choice for driving in a car after the sun has exited the sky. “Fear Less” is packed with ideas, and if I have a complaint, it’s that the song could actually stand to be longer in order to let it all breathe.
Muscle and Marrow, “Black Hole”: “Black Hole” encapsulates all of the things I like about the band’s debut album Love. Equal parts eerie and aching, the song conveys the kind of dangerous sex appeal we don’t often get from bands like this. Echoing drums, droning progressions, and distorted segments combine to lend singer Kira Clark even more creepy grace than she normally possesses.
Nada Surf, “Rushing”: Nada Surf continue to impress as a particularly thoughtful Dad Rock band, churning out quality work every couple of years largely by tapping into a mid-aughts indie formula that is mostly in our collective rear view mirror by now. “Rushing” is another confident pop song stuffed with sweet melodies, dancing basslines, and assurances that almost any type of music can be effective in the right hands.
Nails, “Violence Is Forever”: Nails are an angry bunch of hardcore enthusiasts with little interest in slowing down. “Violence Is Forever” is a fucking assault on the ears, with thunderous guitars and drums chopping away at the senses for over three minutes. The length of the song is notable, as Nails typically turn out exceptionally short compositions. The extra time buys the band the ability to turn “Violence Is Forever” inside out and break it down entirely.
Oathbreaker, “Being Able to Feel Nothing”: Given my affection and appreciation for Deafheaven’s last two albums, it makes sense that I love what Belgian band Oathbreaker are doing these days. “Being Able to Feel Nothing” is an excellent showcase for the band, as beauty, grime, and power are all on display throughout. Singer Caro Tanghe works her hardest to show why it might be a good thing to actually sing on songs like this, offering a girl-like quality at times and curling her lip to unfurl noises that surely can’t be human the next. She’s a big part of why Oathbreaker are a new and important voice in melodic black metal, not just an imitation of the sub-genre’s better known practitioners.
of Montreal, “it’s different for girls”: Kevin Barnes has been doing this shit for a very long time, long enough to create a masterpiece (see: Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?) and then release an endless string of albums varying from “pretty good” to “I hate this.” This song is the best on the “pretty good” Innocence Reaches, pedaling an irresistible combination of funk-riddled indie rock and half-feminism.
Okkervil River, “Okkervil River R.I.P.”: It makes me sad that I probably won’t ever again get to hear the version of this band that delivered Black Sheep Boy, an album that 12 years ago proved indie rock with folk leanings could be devastating and potent in the right hands. That doesn’t mean Will Sheff lost his ability to write a song, though, as the sprawling folk number “Okkervil River R.I.P.” manages to feel huge and important despite being a lot less urgent than the band’s older material. Sheff’s status as a top-notch lyricist certainly doesn’t hurt anything, either.
Peaer, “Sick”: I don’t know how firmly I can stand behind a song I like almost exclusively for its vocal melody, but let me go ahead and try. “Sick” exists as a weirdly pretty list of things Peaer singer Peter Katz is, well, sick of; it’s not as grating as it sounds, and the song exits stage left before wearing out its welcome.
Pinegrove. “Then Again”: I really have no clue which song from the excellent Cardinal I should include here, as it functions so well as a complete album that I feel remiss in not just discussing the whole thing (that part comes in a future post). “Then Again” gets the nod for its unrelenting pop sensibility, smashing together alt-country with jaunty pop and no shortage of memorable and vivid lyrics. It’s a song that shows the most hopeful version of Pinegrove amid a sea of heartbreakers.
Pinkshinyultrablast, “Initial”: “Initial” is such a perfect introduction to what Pinkshinyultrablast do these days. The Russian shoegaze band incorporate plenty of electronics into their work, but not without giving up their guitars. “Initial” touches on dream pop along the way, and it always leaves me feeling a bit wistful after it’s over.
Pity Sex, “Burden You”: Pity Sex are still Pity Sex, meaning that your agreement with the band to receive large doses of mid-tempo indie wrapped in shoegaze is still fully intact. Even better is that the band seems unwilling to settle in at its established level. “Burden You” showcases some of the finest vocal interplay the band has recorded so far, as well as better songcraft and production.
Pkew Pkew Pkew, “Kathie Lee + Hoda”: In general, I’ve had it with pop-punk bands sporting unbearable names and song titles, but once again I came across a song so infectious that I refuse to let any of that bother me. “Kathie Lee + Hoda” is a petulant little teenager, serving as a fight song for anyone who would really rather just exist to party but manages to find a way through to maturity anyway.
PUP, “My Life Is Over and I Couldn’t Be Happier”: Sometimes I get worn out from listening to the fiery and breathless The Dream Is Over. “My Life” will show you exactly what I mean, as it comes in with a bang and never lets up for its 150 seconds of pop-punk fury. Everyone plays fast all the time, hooks are easy to find, and the lead guitar is endlessly fun.
Radiohead, “Daydreaming”: In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a longtime Radiohead fan who a) was never bothered by the inevitable hipster backlash against the band, and b) didn’t enjoy King of Limbs very much. Still, I was kind of surprised at the overwhelming beauty and imagination of A Moon Shaped Pool upon first listen. Radiohead once again seem concerned with writing fully-realized songs that hew closer to rock music than anything else, and the ethereal “Daydreaming” sounds exactly like its title.
Ricky Eat Acid, “Fucking to Songs on Radios”: An electronic song with soul to match its samples, “Fucking” is smooth and warm as it gains momentum. Given that Ricky Eat Acid isn’t playing things straight with the title of this song, it’s something of a surprise that these three-and-a-half minutes have a hint of melancholy to them in between the verses.
Jeff Rosenstock, “I Did Something Weird Last Night”: I love Jeff Rosenstock, and that love only becomes stronger with each new release and each new fact I learn about the guy. A longtime D.I.Y. punk musician, Rosenstock obsesses over rock music, not only to the point of enjoying virtually every trend it has encompassed over the past 40 years, but to the point of incorporating that rabid fandom into his own work. On this song, J-Rose details the awkwardness of young, drunk love to joyous and bittersweet effect. It’s an extremely catchy song on an album loaded with them, and Rosenstock continues to improve as a rare lyricist able to capably combine personal details with bigger issues.
Run The Jewels, “2100 (featuring BOOTS)”: Run The Jewels 3 was supposed to drop on January 13, 2017, but instead the rap duo pulled the trigger on Christmas Eve. While this early release makes things weird for my list making, I couldn’t have asked for a better gift. “2100” is a staggering anthem, and it’s one of my very favorite songs of the year. On the eve of a Donald Trump presidency, of course RTJ are here to make me feel a little better (or worse?) by bracing me for the upcoming clusterfuck (or worse?).
Emma Ruth Rundle, “Real Big Sky”: Playing metal music means something so much different in 2016, or at least it means you don’t have to play anything the average person would even consider metal. Emma Ruth Rundle is alone with her down-tuned acoustic guitar on “Real Big Sky,” a breathtaking and haunting song that careens from despair to reserved hopefulness easily and naturally. It breaks my heart every time I here Rundle sing, “I don’t want to be awake when it takes me” at the beginning of each chorus, almost as if she was singing it to me directly.
Russian Circles, “Vorel”: Perhaps my favorite of the more aggressive post-rock bands, Russian Circles keep finding ways to feel fresh by refining their dance between beauty and chokeslams. “Vorel” is a sneering beast of a song, technically solid and aesthetically menacing, but it’s the bass line and thunderous drums halfway through that makes it my favorite of another excellent batch of Circles earscapes.
Sad13, “The Sting”: Sad13 is the pop solo project of Speedy Ortiz mastermind Sadie Dupuis (see below!), one of my very favorite artists working today. Dupuis brings her oddball charms to a more accessible form (for most), but that doesn’t make “The Sting” anything resembling a song you’d hear on the radio in 2016. The verses have a distinct swagger, the choruses offer rare clear hooks from Dupuis, and the bridge is appropriately disjointed. I just love her so much, you guys.
Sheer Mag, “Can’t Stop Fighting”: I’ve been wanting a full-length Sheer Mag release for a while now, but I’m fine with the band’s barrage of excellent EPs. “Can’t Stop Fighting” takes on “the man” and unsolved murders to the soundtrack of Sheer Mag’s trademark broken take on ’70s electric guitar rock, and what results is an instantly memorable sign of the band’s growing awesomeness.
Sioux Falls, “McConoughey”: Now known as Strange Ranger after learning that the term ‘Sioux’ isn’t considered a favorable one by many Native Americans, this group of fence swingers clearly listened to a shitload of ’90s indie rock before arriving at the songs included on their debut album Rot Forever. “McConoughey” (the band misspelled the actor’s name for some reason, and Oscar winner’s former show True Detective is referenced lyrically) embraces these tendencies in a number of different ways, mostly by channeling early Modest Mouse. This track reaches past six minutes effectively by building tension and then eventually releasing it with force, so it’s basically right in one of my most-prized wheelhouses.
Sleigh Bells, “I Can’t Stand You Anymore”: I have a definite soft spot for the Jock Jams bombast of Sleigh Bells, and I still hold the band’s first two albums in very high regard. I might have been disappointed by 2016’s Jessica Rabbit, but this is a hell of a pop song. Big beats and bigger guitars bring home a genuinely radio-friendly chorus I didn’t think to expect in a song that could serve as a true crossover hit if this were a better world.
Speedy Ortiz, “Death Note”: Speedy Ortiz released something this year, so it shouldn’t be too surprising to see the band make an appearance on this list. Somehow, “Death Note” was an omission from the very good Foil Deer despite the fact that it might have stood as the best song on the album should it have been included. Dark, angular, and foreboding in equal parts, “Death Note” continues Speedy’s mission to slightly expand an already distinct and dynamic sound in new directions.
Strand of Oaks, “Radio Kids”: Tim Showalter will get a chance to follow up his awesome HEAL in 2017, and if the woozy ephemera of “Radio Kids” is any indication, he’ll do just fine. An ode to simpler times when there were common bonds to be had in music and we were all closer to being on the same wavelength, “Radio Kids” is a showcase for Showalter’s emotive guitar and voice.
Tender Defender, “Hello Dirt”: Armed with a stupid band name, a mostly surface-level approach to pop-punk, and a knowledge of just how hooks work, Tender Defender deliver big with the anthemic “Hello Dirt.” You’re going to want to (I did), but you won’t be able to resist the group shouts, palm-muted leads, and soaring ending of this one.
Touche Amore, “Skyscraper”: If I may be blunt for a second, I’d like to tell you that I don’t like Touche Amore. As the band continues to garner support from critics in all circles, all I typically here is relatively bland modern rock couple with a singer who might just belong in a more aggressive band. “Skyscraper” is a different story for me, though, as its poignant tale of large-scale loss is made doubly effective with a group chant chorus at the end, post-rock elements, and a necessary sense of solemness all the way through. It’s almost enough to make me re-investigate all these other songs from the band I didn’t care for despite multiple attempts. Almost.
Vince Staples, “Big Time”: Maybe we didn’t get another LP from Vince Staples in 2016, but he sure crammed a whole lot of big ideas on his abbreviated Prima Donna EP. Staples is definitely not feel-good rapper, his lyrics and delivery often abrasive and caustic, but the thunderous beat and rapid-fire delivery of “Big Time” might be enough to convert some of his genre’s mainstream fans over to his side.
Sumac, “Will to Reach”: With the excellent discography of Isis in the past, Jacob Turner formed Sumac as a means to unleash his chugging desperation through the lens of sluggish doom metal. “Will to Reach” does a lot in its near 10 minutes of length, but its chief strength is feeling impossibly thick and painfully hopeless. It’s the Feel Gross Hit of the Year!
Tegan and Sara, “Boyfriend”: Tegan and Sara make unabashed pop music with an ’80s bent these days, but they sure are good at it. “Boyfriend” possesses many of the qualities that drew me to Haim’s debut record a few years back–think viral vocals, cocksure bass, and synths for punctuation. It’s a short, fun song sure to get stuck in your head.
The Thermals, “Into the Code”: Maybe the Thermals won’t ever feel as vital for a full album as they did on their masterwork The Body, The Blood, The Machine, but I’ll be damned if loose production and sharp songwriting don’t bring the band’s rougher edges back to the fold for “Into the Code.” This is a killer three minutes and one of my favorite intro tracks to an album in 2016.
A Tribe Called Quest, “We The People…”: Luminaries of the alternative hip hop world, A Tribe Called Quest shockingly returned to action after nearly two decades of silence. Given the American political landscape in 2016, the group’s renewed hunger is doubly welcome. Even better is that “We The People…” is a fucking great song, fusing hip hop with funk, jazz, and melody without missing a beat. When Q-Tip comes in for a chorus naming minority groups that “must go,” it becomes quite evident Tribe knew the right time to reappear was right now.
Weaves, “Candy”: There are many exhilarating moments on Weaves’ self-titled debut album, and “Candy” is no exception. This is a corkscrew of a song with bursts of noise, strange production choices, and patently tilted vocals from singer Jasmyn Burke. You’re bound to read comparisons to Deerhoof or Dirty Projectors when it comes to Weaves, though I’d argue “Candy” and the band’s other songs are a bit more accessible.
Weezer, “L.A. Girlz”: This Weezer Return to Credibility thing isn’t without its warts, but I’ll be damned if “L.A. Girlz” doesn’t make me feel like I’m 12 again. Rivers Cuomo busts out a vintage chunky riff that lurches along powerfully enough to make me forget we live in a world in which “Beverly Hills” exists. Then there’s the broken-up solo, a thing of true majesty that leads us back to the well for one more fist-pumping chorus. So maybe Weezer isn’t back back, but songs like this are good enough to make me think so for a few minutes.
Kanye West, “Real Friends”: How annoying was Kanye West in 2016? I’m not even talking about his always-grating public persona; most of that can be attributed to drumming up attention for whatever he chooses to do next. I’m talking about how The Life of Pablo was constantly tinkered with to the point that I have no idea what version of the thing the artist even wants me to hear. Whatever, though. “Real Friends” features West talking shit on himself to no end, guiding us through the many ways he has turned his back on those around him as he became larger than life. It’s a real palate cleanser, and it doesn’t hurt that the song is gorgeous to the point that its ending coda feels like it should lead to the back half of a seven-minute epic.
Wild Beasts, “Tough Guy”: Wild Beasts got a bit more poppy with their soulful electronica in 2016, and I like the approach. “Tough Guy” has clutter-free verses that make the rolling fun of the chorus all the more effective. The song also serves as a nice takedown of misguided masculinity even if there isn’t a whole lot of subtlety to it. Then again, given the title, maybe that was the point!
Wolf Parade, “Mr. Startup”: Busy with nearly countless side projects, Wolf Parade masterminds Spencer Krug and Dan Boechner finally found the time to return to the band that gained them some level of fame in the first place. The most immediate song on a quick revival EP, “Mr. Startup” offers a bass line that kills, the brief tale of a wide-eyed dreamer, and an eclectic feel that makes clear how much chemistry these guys have.
Wreck and Reference, “Powders”: Metal means a lot of things in 2016, and sometimes I don’t know if it’s fair to include Wreck and Reference among the genre’s members. “Powders” is the perfect example of this dilemma, as it is comprised mostly of haunting piano and foreboding drums until halfway through its run. It’s right about then that we get Felix Skinner’s vocal unraveling and a skyscraping lead guitar part to punch home the emotional promises the song had been making all along. So yeah, this is metal, it just isn’t very obvious.
Wye Oak, “If You Should See”: I’ve been a fan of Baltimore’s Wye Oak for a while now, long enough to watch Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack grow more and more restless with staying in one place. “If You Should See” lets the duo go in every direction they want, combining the electronic tendencies of Shriek with the guitars of their previous work for a whole new dream pop angle. This band is goin’ places, I tell ya!
The xx, “On Hold”: Following the critical success of Jamie xx’s first solo effort in 2015, I couldn’t help but wonder if the next proper xx release would follow its lead and step more clearly into the land of electronica proper. “On Hold” suggests this is the case, and the results are stunning. At turns somber and uplifting, “On Hold” feels like typical xx fare on HGH. That’ll work for me.
Yeasayer, “I Am Chemistry”: Yeasayer bring the versatility in the eclectic electro-romp of “I Am Chemistry,” shifting moods in multiple phases across five wonderful minutes. The groove of the song’s simmering build gives way to a child-like acoustic guitar interlude before the chorus is brought back one more time. It’s a fun exercise in structure without a weak link to bring it down.