“Lazarus” – David Bowie & “You Want It Darker” – Leonard Cohen
I find it impossible to remove emotion from these two songs. Is each as good as I think? The swan songs from two of our most legendary musical artists, bowing out as only they could — with some of the most emotionally turbulent songs of their storied careers. You cannot distance either of these songs from the death of the artist. Therefore, I’m putting them here — technically outside the countdown — and yet bigger and more important than the countdown itself.
“Who’s Got You Singing Again” – PREP
The mid-tempo soft-funk burner comes from London’s PREP, who released their debut EP this year. Three words: Sincere. Jazz. Flute. I treat my countdowns like massive mixtapes. “Who’s Got You Singing Again” comes out of those David Bowie/Leonard Cohen tearjerkers with a much needed sense of hope.
“Mercy” – Eric Bachmann
The doo-wop-wop-wop intro gives way to a songwriter crooning melancholy existentialism, but with a catchy little hook. “Take your idols and fables / trick your mind so you’ll be able / to deal with pain and death and loss of those you love.” Despite all the song’s talk of emptiness and senseless pain, Bachmann makes your heart grow two sizes.
Neo-soul begins its global takeover — or at least it’s relative omnipresence of this particular countdown — here. Funky falsetto backed by some Stax-era orchestration encourages random acts of unfortunate sing-along.
Self-assured pop debut that channels Janet Jackson and Madonna at the most pop-forward points in their career. Shura, aka 25yo Alexsandra Denton, strikes right to the heart on this ultimatum song — is it forever or is it never? she asks, nay, she demands in the most danceable way ever.
U.K grime vet churned out one of the best rap records of the year and earned a Mercury Prize over sentimental favorite David Bowie. “Man” stands out as the highlight. Skepta’s tireless, persistent delivery found a fan in Drake, who pushed the record stateside. Therefore, Skepta’s Konnichiwa is also the best thing Drake’s ever done.
It’s only an Khan-brand (TM) earworm if it’s not good. Lucky for us all, Australia’s female duo Oh Pep! lives up to their exclamation point. You won’t mind when this bounces around your noggin for a few days.
Psych-pop Amsterdam-based band featuring a Norwegian singer and producer weened on Radiohead and Sigar Rós and inspired of late by Alt-J. They fall squarely in between all of those bands to become something else — something immediate, atmospheric and accessible. “Hostage” may have been the more widely accessed cut, but this is the one that represents, in my mind, the band at maximum potency.
It’s not because I have the slightest of indirect connections to this band that they keep popping up on my countdowns — lead singer Alaina Moore’s my former and longtime dental hygienist’s younger cousin — it’s that they have an uncanny talent for channeling a lazy, retro, mid-tempo vibe. And that lazy, retro, mid-tempo vibe seems to be my preferred frequency. On this particular track, the lyrics “Tell me what can I give / If all my work is bleak and abstracted / Tried to build a legacy / That will not complicate the future of your own progeny,” feels very now and 2016 necessary.
“Branches Break” – GoGoPenguin
You may not have noticed but this experimental jazz trio was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize back in 2012. I could have picked a number of songs to represent GoGoPenguin, but I chose “Branches Break” as a fine intersection of classic three-part jazz composition and glitchy experimentation. If you fancy the experimentation more, check out “Protest.” If you fancy classical jazz, give “GBFISHYSIH” a listen.
“Genghis Khan” – Miike Snow
Stockholm’s Miike Snow’s solidified their place as a reliable indie-pop chart-topper with their 2016 album iii. This, their second single from the record, relies on a slick hook that could have come from a better, more electric version of Maroon 5. It’s pronounced “Mike” Snow, by the way. The two “i” thing helps with Google searches I’d imagine.
“Degraded (Edit)” – Preoccupations
The Band Formerly Known as Viet Cong. People call this “art-rock” but I have no idea what that means. I’ll call it scuzzy, cynical post-punk. The album version of “Degraded” takes ages to find its groove; this “edit” gets the point, stays there, needles you some more.
“Hands of Time” – Margo Price
Every year I seem to champion one “country” artist. This year, the 30Hz Recommended banner hung from the back of Margo Price’s pickup. This Emmylou or Loretta for the 21st century spins short stories through her songs, and this heartbreaking ballad oozes nostalgia for shattered ideals, childhood freedoms and a bygone era of country music.
“Can’t Let Go, Juno” – Kishi Bashi
Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist K Ishibashi toured as a violinist for Sondre Lerch, Regina Specter and Of Montreal before going solo under the monicker Kishi Bashi. His 2014 sophomore record Lighght is an eclectic morsel of sonic pop-experimentation and “Can’t Let Go, Juno” picks up where that record left off. If you have a chance to see him on tour, likely opening for someone less talented, do so. And get a front row seat.
“Kismet Kill” – Haley Bonar
Canadian-born singer/songwriter Haley Bonar unfairly occupies a less visible indie strata than the similarly-styled Aimee Mann but also inspires comparisons to Mazzy Star with intermittent walls of guitar — as on “Kismet Kill,” her standout track from the 2016 album Impossible Dream.
“Crying in Public” – Chairlift
Just yesterday I learned that after ten years, Caroline and Patrick, the electro-pop duo known as Chairlift, has called it quits. Caroline will begin a solo career, and Patrick plans to focus on producing. That their final record, Moth, may have been their finest, most accomplished collection of music is a bittersweet send off. And this track, this soul-wrenching ballad about unrequited love, also happened to be the very first track I selected — way back on January 23rd — for a spot on this Best of 2016 countdown.
“Triumph ’73” – The Felice Brothers
These brothers from New York City via the Catskill Mountains channel a raw blend of folk music and Americana and clearly have a thing for Bob Dylan and Uncle Tupelo.
“Atomic Number” – case/lang/veirs
The indie-folk supergroup of Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs sing like angels. Hell, maybe they are actual angels. I wouldn’t be surprised. Their voices envelop you with sweet, sweet comfort indie-folk. Like sitting in a chair of marshmallows drinking a glass of straight whiskey.
“Silly Me” – Yeasayer
Tossup between “Silly Me” and “I Am Chemistry” for Yeasayer representation on the Best Songs of 2016 countdown. Yeasayer occupies the 201x role of the Talking Heads. Constant experimentation, mid-tempo pop sensibility with an eye towards album construction and identity. Plus they called me out on Twitter when I said I wasn’t entirely sure about their latest record after an first listen. The band told me to be patient with Amen & Goodbye; they were right.
“I Don’t Want to Be Funny Anymore” – Lucy Dacus
Singer/songwriter with a streak of punk — but the punk elements imbue her music with a warmth and relatability. She’s an everygirl, making cutting and purposeful observations about social mores and the burdens of being young, smart and female in the 21st century.
“Below” – White Lung
An infectious ballad from loud, infamous punk rockers. At face value, “Below” is the most un-White Lung track in their entire catalog. Take another listen to the blistering drums and driving guitar that propel this ersatz “power ballad.” This is punk, melodic and intelligible, but punk rock nonetheless.
“Gamesofluck” – Parcels
Australia’s new wave disco act calls themselves Parcels and dislikes spaces in their track titles. They haven’t yet released a full LP or even an EP, but they’ve teased us with two excellent, highly danceable daytime disco tracks and I need more. We all need more happy-time.
“Bum Bum Bum” – Cass McCombs
Low-key guitar, tempered vocals, organ, bits of synth and understated greatness. I’ve never been a big fan of Cass McCombs but this song and his latest album Mangy Love have caused me to re-evaluate all of my old opinions regarding McCombs’ AM-radio sonic thoroughfare. Quite simply — I was grossly mistaken about Cass McCombs.
“Sun City Creeps” – Woods
Even a lesser Woods record deserves your ears. Wah-wah guitar, psychedelia and a smattering of Ennio Morricone bring out a more melodic side of Woods… and then the guitar solo — a playful, sure-fingered groove that could have only come from this lo-fi Brooklyn indie/freak folk/psych/jam institution.
“Love & Hate” – Michael Kiwanuka
The title track from Michael Kiwanuka’s brilliant second album serves as a testament to the UK neo-soulster’s growing isolation and disillusionment. The son of Ugandan emigrants, Kiwanuka presents sincere retro-styled tracks in the mode of Bill Withers and even Van Morrison. The lyrics will crush you, and the familiar orchestrations will sooth you — leaving you somewhere in the grey purgatory between the lines.
“Electric” – Brett
For their latest album, the electronic art-pop outfit claims to have been influenced by Jean Luc-Godard’s latest film Goodbye to Language. I don’t know how that informs anyone’s listening experience, but I can say that Brett’s album Mode allows listener identification and proximity whereas their 2014 debut stressed colder, synthetic isolation. I much prefer this direction. Also check out “Dans Un Autre Reve,” another standout track that just barely missed the final cut.