Finally .. only one month late … the Top Songs of 2016

2016 was truly a shit show. It took me until almost two weeks into 2017 to finish listening to the stuff I wanted to check out before finalizing my list.

Then another week just to start getting some stuff posted. I’ll move faster this year, since I’m already three weeks behind.

So … here we go.

In a year where we almost elected a woman president, and then somehow elected … whatever the hell we elected … it’s only appropriate that the majority of my list is ass-kicking women or bands fronted by ass-kicking women. Between the top ten tracks and five honorable mentions, nine are women-led.

Small victories?

This is also a year where a lot of the hip hop didn’t work for me as standalone tracks. It worked better as albums, or in chunks, but individual tracks didn’t really stand out.

Honorable Mentions

WeezerSummer Elaine and Drunk Dori

Weezer made a new album, and it was mostly good poppy fun. Some tracks felt like a bit of a reach to imitate the stranger rhythms of Pinkerton, but mostly, it was just good fun. And Weezer will almost always make my list, because Rivers Cuomo can craft a slightly uncomfortable pop song. This is one of those, and it’s an easy one to imagine singing along to the way you sing along when Say It Ain’t So or El Scorcho comes on.

SolangeCranes in the Sky

In a year that was dominated by the Knowles sisters, Cranes in the Sky is not a big banger, but a sly little song, sparsely instrumented and backed by a simple beat. Solange’s voice and intonation betray the song’s sense of loss and despair.

Letters to Cleo4 Leaf Clover

It’s Letters to Cleo. They’re back. This sounds like their best power-poppy songs. Even better, you could 100% imagine this being a track on the Josie & The Pussycats soundtrack, one of the supremely underrated albums of the early 2000s.

Tokyo Police ClubNot My Girl

Tokyo Police Club put out two nifty EPs this year, with a wonderfully punny name (Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness), and full of great pop music. This is my favorite, a song with a fantastic, sing along chorus, and one of those beats that makes you bob your head or bounce in your seat without even realizing it. A great song to drive around to with the windows down.

Car Seat HeadrestFill in the Blank

On an album full of a bunch of songs that are not always the most accessible, this is the most catchy and accessible. And what an opening line … “I’m so sick of (fill in the blank)”.

Top 10 of 2015: #1 Depreston – Courtney Barnett

DeprestonCourtney Barnett

Our top song is our second resident of Melbourne on the list. Courtney Barnett blew up over the last couple of years, writing songs that tell stories from the point of view of an incredibly likable narrator.

“Depreston”, about looking for a house in the suburbs (and what that means about your place in the world and maturing) is so specific that you can picture everything and place yourself there. It’s just a quiet, rainy day song. And then she flips it, just a bit, with the cutting outro quoting a realtor saying that if you just had “half a million”, you could rebuild it.

I don’t think there’s anyone quite like Courtney Barnett right now, creating these specific little wordy stories with such detail that you wonder how she possibly figured out how to make them melodic. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is one of my favorite albums of the year (check out “Elevator Operator”, too). “Depreston” is my favorite song.

Top 10 of 2015: #2 Should Have Know Better – Sufjan Stevens

Should Have Know BetterSufjan Stevens

After the shiny pop of Carly Rae Jepsen, we move to probably one of the quietest, most heartbreaking songs. Sufjan Stevens song about his mother’s death after their estrangement, and his inability to deal with it, is sparse and beautiful.

I mean …

When I was three, three maybe four,
She left us at that video store

But, it’s not all dark. The song turns a bit in the middle, as it moves into moving on and dealing with the past. Ending with the wonder that comes from a new life, a new generation.

Sufjan Stevens makes gorgeous music, and it’s all the more powerful when it’s clearly coming from somewhere personal. Carrie & Lowell is a really great album, and I think this is the best track on it.

Top 10 of 2015: #3 I Really Like You – Carly Rae Jepsen

I Really Like YouCarly Rae Jepsen

I’m not kidding. This is such a good pop song. Emotion is actually a pretty incredible album, with four or five songs that could be big radio hits.

This is my favorite of them.

There’s magic in coming up with a song that has that hook that gets stuck in your head. She did it with “Call Me Maybe”. She’s done it again here. All set on top of a perfect 80s pop track. The last minute of the song with the speak-sing vocals over the glittery strings blowing up into the full blown chorus (and another 30 reallys or so). Amazing.

Albums like this (accessible, poppy, fun) don’t get made much any more.

Nor do videos like this with Tom Hanks.

Top 10 of 2015: #4 King Kunta – Kendrick Lamar

King KuntaKendrick Lamar

I’m not going to say anything that hasn’t been said about Kendrick Lamar. He’s got one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year, is probably one of the most famous artists on the planet right now, and did it while creating an album that’s not super accessible.

How To Pimp a Butterfly is a really complex, challenging album. “King Kunta” feels like a microcosm of that. The beat is all over the place, with instruments coming in and out, key changes, the horror movie bassline backing much of the song; it’s amazing that it’s a really coherent track. It’s lyrically dense, but completely understandable. Kendrick’s flow is unique but really accessible.

All those tensions and contradictions remind me a lot of Public Enemy of the early-to-mid 90s. Beats and sounds and lyrics that shouldn’t be listenable, that shouldn’t work, forming a whole that bigger than the sum of its parts.

Top 10 of 2015: #5 The Race – Oh Pep!

The RaceOh Pep!

The first Melburnians on the list (hint, hint), there’s a quote on Oh Pep’s website that I think does a pretty good job of describing the band:

‘If Sylvan Esso and First Aid Kit had a musical lovechild, the result would be Oh Pep!’ -IndieX

That’s pretty damn accurate.

This is a folk band. There’s guitars and strings, but it’s all used almost percussively. If you catch a live performance, you’ll see they’re plucking and strumming a fiddle. It’s such a unique sound, and it’s put together in a song that’s paced more like a synthpop song than a song by a “folk” duo.

The Sylvan Esso comparison is spot on—it’ll be this time next year that Oh Pep! will probably be headlining their own big time gigs.

Top 10 of 2015: #6 WTF (Where They From) – Missy Elliott

WTF (Where They From)Missy Elliott

Where you been?

This is 100%, unmistakeably Missy Elliott. The world needs more Missy in it.

That’s it. There’s no way you can’t hear this song and not end up bobbing your head. Missy could have put this out 15 years ago, and it wouldn’t have surprised anyone because she’s always 10 years ahead of everybody else.