This is probably going to be my last post for a while. I feel so empty right now that I’m finding it difficult to write about anything at all. When I’m not here, I’m staring at the blank page on my laptop. Inspiration is gone. Hope has left. My faith in people and love no longer exists. I need to find some sort of footing again.
But here are the songs that might help me find a way back someday. 2016 was a powerful year for music.
20. “One Dance” Drake
It’s the biggest song of the year, with weeks atop the Billboard charts. It’s also the best song on Views, the most uneven of Drakes albums, that isn’t “Hotline Bling”. With its dancehall beat, it screams “Song of the summer”, which it was. A trifle, but a damn good one.
19. “Me and Magdelena” The Monkees
The Prefab Four have never been given respect by the industry as a whole, but in my little world they are kings. The three surviving members (and one lost Davy track) celebrate their fiftieth with a lovely pop album, curated by acolytes like Adam Schlesinger, Ben Gibbard, Andy Partridge, and Rivers Cuomo. But as always, for me at least, it’s the Nesmith moment that stands out. Written by Gibbard, Nesmith’s twang and Dolenz’s smoother harmonies tell us that something were always great, we just need to be reminded of it.
18. “Starboy” The Weeknd
He chopped the dreds, suffocated himself in the video, and teamed up with Daft Punk, but kept the MJ falsetto. He’s a motherfucking starboy and don’t you forget it. Dark and slinky pop beats groove as Abel makes it clear he’s not content staying the same forever.
17. “I Need You” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave has never been one to break my heart. He’s always been the one who made me contemplate gun ownership lest it went bad quickly. But on “I Need You”, he shatters me. The story of his son’s death is the ultimate in parental tragedy, and the ache is real in his voice. It makes you want to reach out and hold him until that awkward normalcy that comes after tragedy finally takes over.
16. “4 Degrees” Anohni
Tackling climate change and the deniers who seem to be winning fuels rare rage in Anohni. The world may be the catalyst, but she doesn’t let herself off the hook. “It’s only 4 degrees… I wanna burn them” she snarls over a strong percussive line. Chilling.
15. “Keep It Between the Lines” Sturgill Simpson
With some funky horns and a bluesy shuffle, Sturgill tells his son not what to do in life. Knowing children as I do, good luck with that Mr. Simpson. But the true inheritor of Merle makes the lecture dance. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and learn to love some boogie-woogie.
14. ” The Sound” the 1975
With a bright 80s-inspired synth line, Matt Healy and gang prove me wrong. If you are going to ape the Culture Club, make it a good rip-off. Saying fuck off I’m sorry to someone should not be backed with such danceable music. That’s all I’m saying. The fact they’re all like, five, means nothing in my earlier bitching about their success.
13. “Angels” Chance the Rapper
In a year where there hasn’t been much to be joyous about, Chance and compadre Saba acknowledge the tough South side Chicago streets and the sheer luck of surviving them. “It’s too many young angels on the Southside” Chance laments, betraying the sunshine of his beats. But, his refrain speaks volumes. “I got angels.” Lord knows we all need them now. The video is fun, too.
12. “Frankie Sinatra” The Avalanches
The Aussie hodgepodge artists returned in 2016 with the beautiful and throwback Wildflower, and the lead off single was a breath of fresh air in a 2016 where death and dismay seemed to rule the music world. Over a bizarre sixties calypso vibe, and some Rogers and Hammerstein thrown in for good measure, the reclusive duo behind everyone’s favourite plunderphonics act brought back fun and gave us fans a slice of cheeriness.
11. “Shut Up Kiss Me” Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen in one song manages to sum up my entire 2016 in seven words. “Shut up kiss me hold me tight” she croons over snappy snares and methed up guitars. With her best 70s snarl, she makes it clear what she wants and what she thinks your dismissal means in the end. Spirited doesn’t begin to describe it. Best of is at the end of the video, where she looks at the cameraman and asks “Um, do I need to give more attitude, or…?”
10. “22 (Over S∞∞n)” Bon Iver
Justin Vernon’s sweet falsetto returns! Granted, te child’s voice intoning “It might be over soon”, droning keyboards, and lone trumpet make for a weird sounding Bon Iver song, but after the sadness of both For Emma and Bon Iver, it’s nice to see Vernon making some beautifully weird noise.
9. “Ivy” Frank Ocean
It’ll will always be a struggle for Ocean to top “Bad Religion” in my eyes, as that song is as close to perfect as possible. He comes close with “Ivy”. A lament to lost young love and the struggle to maintain friendship beyond a broken heart. He floats between wistful memories and sad reality, ending with atonal primal screams, and somehow you feel the catharsis when he’s done. I curl up in bed with a cup of tea when I listen to Blonde, and this song’s woozy loop makes me feel at peace before the squeaky end notes, which pull me out of serenity and make me face the world. Damn you, Frank.
There is no official video and all YouTube uploads are not the songs (one was dubbed over with the Dreidel song. Happy Hanukkah early, everyone! Thanks for the public domain usage!) But if you haven’t bought Blonde yet, you’re an idiot.
8. “Cranes in the Sky” Solange
Solange fascinates me. Her voice is light, airy, with a delicateness to it. Her vibe is neo soul hippie, an earth mother dressed in flowy linen dresses. She is the antithesis of her older sister, but she compliments her in the best way. “Cranes in the Sky” is a song about trying to escape emotional pain with increasingly ineffective methods, set over an expansive, synth driven sound, grounded by a Rapahel Saadiq bass line. It’s prettier than it should be, and the exquisite “away, away, away” hook is everything you need right now.
7. “Black Man in a White World” Michael Kiwanuka
The soul-jazz-folk wunderkind from the U.K. drops an album that compliments albums released by A Tribe Called Quest and Beyoncé. Less confrontational but no less resigned to fact than many of his American counterparts, Kiwanuka on the stand out track describes the never-ending search for understanding as a black man in a world where you are viewed as a threat regardless of your temperament, career, or upbringing. Over a blues shuffle beat, Kiwanuka says much while saying very little at all. Bonus points for a dance video.
6. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” Car Seat Headrest
Will Toledo is quickly becoming an indie hero. On his proper label debut, he continues to build on his low-fi cred and bizarre theme mash-ups with a delightfully catchy single. I said he was one to watch, and a song inspired by both party anathema and the documentary Blackfish is certainly way to catch people’s attention.
5. “Treaty” Leonard Cohen
The world will missed that wine soaked, nicotine ravaged croak so much. But leave it to Leonard to somehow write about my 2016 emotions so succinctly. When the one you see as a miracle, whom you love more than anything, and you, the pathetic wreck you are, cannot come to a détente in the relationship you have because one (probably you) wants more and the other doesn’t want you at all- yeah. “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.” To the end, he somehow read my mind, through the ether, two souls just simply looking for peace of mind.
4. “We The People” A Tribe Called Quest
I have never lost faith in the music of A Tribe Called Quest. It’s the jazzy vibe under the polemics. Jazz is the unifier in my mind. They return after nearly two decades, and the sad loss of Phife Dawg earlier this year, to remind us that it’s not a post-racial society, we are being run by reality TV, and if you are not white, Christian, rich, cis, and straight, forget about it. You are not part of the United States of Trump. The first single off of We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service shows that they are still as relevant as ever.
3. “Lazarus” David Bowie
Eleven months after David Bowie’s death, I still struggle with Blackstar. It’s a brilliant record, but it just leaves me so heartbroken by the end of it. But the beautiful and haunting “Lazarus”, which is also the opening song of the Bowie-curated musical of the same name that was staged this year, is such a worthy send off. Bowie remained an enigma until even at the end, and left us with one of his best songs to muse over.
2. “Formation” Beyoncé
An unapologetic black woman stating that she works damn hard, and fuck the haters. “Formation” has always been a statement piece. Nothing about it is accidental, from the Superbowl performance onwards. Lemonade is emotionally charged, which is why it’s her best album. And album closer “Formation” is a declaration for all black women, too often marginalized by all aspects of society. The best part of course is the end, where Bey insists that no matter what, be gracious. Nothing pisses off your enemies more than refusing to stoop to their level.
1. “Freedom” Beyoncé
As impressive as “Formation” is, both as art and as statement, “Freedom” defines 2016. The underlying theme of Lemonade was the struggles in her marriage, but “Freedom” blows everything wide open. The song falls towards the end of a very carefully crafted song cycle that tells a complete story from betrayal to forgiveness and redemption, and neither she nor collaborator Kendrick Lamar hold back. “Freedom” is about more than forgiveness of a straying husband. It’s about forgiving the unforgivable- a society that refuses to see your personhood, your value, your contributions. “I break chains all by myself, won’t let my freedom rot in hell” she sings in the chorus, a ferocious declaration of empowerment in the face of so many obstacles. In a year that has been so disheartening for so many different reasons, Queen Bey and her Hive strike a note for their people. Civil rights movements do not go quietly. They never have.