I usually offer some State of the Music Union thoughts when I share my favorite songs of the year lists. 2016 got off to a great start and then kind of cruised to the finish. Most of my favorite albums of the year came out during its first six months. There were some albums I was greatly looking forward to that I never connected with. To me, 2016 was a better year for singles than albums. And, because of that, I’m offering my biggest Favorites list ever.
A week ago I was toying with doing a Top 50 list. But I did some whittling, and then some more, and then one more round, and finally ended up with 33 songs. Thirty-three songs? Yep. Partially because I’m throwing out one of my core rules for year-end lists by including two songs from two bands. It was just too hard to pick for each of them. And since all four songs in question were Top 10 material, I figured why keep trying to distinguish between the pairs. Plus, 33 is a magical number when it comes to music.
This year also continues a trend where more and more female artists are on the list. I always wonder why that is. Is it because I have three girls? None of them listen to this music, but perhaps I’m either channeling what I hope they listen to as they get older, or I just want to constantly project an acceptance of strong, independent women to them. Or maybe there are just more great female indie/alt rock artists now than ever before, and my preferences just reflect what is going on in the music marketplace. Or, maybe, women are rocking a little harder than men these days. I continue to be frustrated by how the various indie rock channels – be they blogs or SiriusXM stations or over-the-air radio – have been dominated by more synthy, dances music in recent years. I can handle some of that. But I’m a guitar guy first. I’m thankful at least the women aren’t afraid to rock.
Or maybe it means nothing at all. Probably that.
I would also add that the numbers attached to these songs are a little looser than normal. I don’t know that there’s a huge difference between song #32 and #17. If I did the final list tomorrow instead of today, the bottom 23 songs could be shuffled in an number of different orders. If you listen to them in order, though, you will likely find some songs belong next to each other, whether because of title or sound.
They’re all good songs, though. Which is the important thing.
I’ve included both a Spotify playlist of all 33 songs and YouTube videos for each song. As always, keep in mind these videos aren’t always safe for work.
33 – “For The Weak” – Lily & Madeline. This sister duo, from the north side of Indianapolis, got some positive national buzz for their album Keep It Together. I listened to it a few times and didn’t love it. But this song was the notable exception. And worthy of making the list for more than just being a local act.
32 – “Ludlow Expectations” – Butch Walker. Nostalgia gets a bad rap. Too many art critics dismiss it, for one reason or another. I can’t deny I’m a nostalgic dude, though. And every time I hear this song, it doesn’t just recall the sound of the mid–80s, but it touches something inside me that makes me physically feel like I’m back in that time, listening to music on a Panasonic Boombox while playing Atari and daydreaming about the cutest girls in my middle school.
31 – “Cleopatra” – The Lumineers. As I said when I shared this song earlier this year, I’m not a huge Lumineers fan. But I did come to love this. Probably my favorite song that got a lot of radio airplay this year.
30 – “Too Soon” – DMA’S. It can be tough to draw the line between influence and rip-off in music. These guys, for example, sound straight out of Manchester circa 1994, every element of the nascent Britpop movement packed into their music. Hell, they even dress like they’re from that era. The first time I heard one of their songs, I would not have been shocked to have been told it was an early, lost Oasis song. But when you go all-in, and are totally faithful to those roots, it works. Their album is an absolute joy to listen to, with most of the tracks barreling along unapologetically as this one does.
29 – “Open Your Eyes” – School of Seven Bells. We thought SVIIB was gone with the passing of founding member Benjamin Curtis late in 2013. But surviving member Alejandra Deheza took tracks left uncompleted before Curtis’ death and turned them into finished pieces. Knowing their history – they were friends and musical partners, then lovers, then just friends and partners again – this song, and the rest on SVIIB, have an extra level of emotion attached to them. Deheza’s tribute to Curtis is powerful and touching.
28 – “Dorothy” – Kevin Morby. A) Morby makes the list because he’s the only new Kansas City artist I discovered this year. B) He had a handful of great songs and a generally fine album. C) This song has an infectiousness that you can’t ignore. D) Dorothy was my paternal grandmother’s name. E) Songs about an artist’s instrument of choice are always great.
27 – “Twentynine Palms” – Carter Tanton featuring Sharon Van Etten. A song for contemplative moments on warm, summer nights. Or maybe those hours when summer nights are becoming summer mornings.
26 – “Sleepy Lagoon” – Carl Broemel. The epitome of lazy, summertime music.
25 – “Anxious Animal” – Syvia. There’s a little Metric, a little Fleetwood Mac (the drums), a little glam, and a little shoegaze in here.
24 – “Fading Lines” – Amber Arcades. Swirly, jangle/dream pop goodness. And she’s an internationally respected expert on war crimes. Talk about range!
23 – “Edge Of Town” – Middle Kids. I had been digging this song for awhile when I came across a blurb on a music site than commented on how it sounded like a Frightened Rabbit song. I have no idea how I missed that the opening notes of this song mimic the opening notes of my favorite FR track, “The Modern Leper.” Because once you hear it, you can’t un-hear it. I guess it helps that the rest of the track goes off in a very different direction, and is wonderful in its own way.
22 – “Queens” – La Sera. Just pure, indie rock joy.
21 – “Called You Queen” – Haley Bonar. Bonar’s been making music for a long time, but I just discovered her this year. This terrific rave-up harkens back to all that was good about female, singer/songwriter, rockers of the mid–90s like Julianna Hatfield and Tonya Donnelly.
20 – “Empty” – Garbage. I’m usually pretty skeptical of reunions by once-great bands. It’s one thing to tour. It’s another to make a “triumphant” return to recording music. Usually bands that go away and then try to come back end up sucking. That’s why this song just blew me away. It’s fan-fucking-tastic, arguably as good as anything Garbage did in their mid-late 90s prime.
19 – “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” – Phantogram. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if Phantogram wasn’t a natural progression from Garbage. Although they aren’t a perfect match, there are enough common threads to connect them. Phantogram has been making great, dark, electro-dance pop for years. After collaborating with Big Boi in 2015, they tweaked their sound ever-so-slightly to reflect some of his influence. But, at its core, their music continues to plumb the depths of the darkest sides of romance. I bet life with Sarah Barthel is a wild, wild ride, man.
18 – “My Man” – Valley Queen. A big, rootsy, ass-kicker of a song, filled to the brim with soul.
17 – “Masterpiece” – Big Thief. A massive, clunky – yet beautiful – beast of a song.
16 – “Can’t Understand the News” – Big Search. Such a great song for the melancholy part of the summer, when it’s coming to an end. The line about not understanding the news in a foreign city feels a little more relevant as we begin the Trump era.
15 – “Fountains of Youth” – Local Natives. LN songs are always kind of hit-and-miss with me. This one hit in a big way, as it builds and pulls back and builds and pulls back and finally crashes gloriously.
14 – “Shut Up Kiss Me” – Angel Olsen. I loved, loved, loved Olsen’s 2014 album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Although this year’s MY WOMAN got glowing reviews as well, I did not connect with it the same way. That’s fine, because it still offered up this scorcher as a single. It is a huge change from Olsen’s previous sound, which was often dark and somber and vulnerable. This song, however, is loaded with sass and confidence and is completely undeniable.
13 – “Personal” – Matthew Logan Vasquez. Fuzzy guitars, a quick tempo, and a catchy chorus. All you need for a great driving song.
12 – “Antony” – Twin River. Combining 80s pop with War on Drugs guitars? Hell yes! For about 10 days last winter, I thought this was maybe the greatest song ever.
11 – “Same To You” – Lydia Loveless. One of the most honest and powerful singers in the game right now. She has the classic “Midwestern” sound. If you clicked it a couple notches to the right, it would be country. A couple notches to the left, it would be straight indie rock. She’s perfected that space right in the middle.
10 – “Watching The Waiting” – Wye Oak. From their Tween album, which featured tracks recorded between their previous two studio albums, this sounds like nothing else in the Wye Oak catalog. Buoyant, light, happy, and delightful. Sometimes it’s the exception to an artist’s main body of work that most proves their genius.
9 – “Pale Kings” – Shearwater. The single greatest musical moment of the year is the stretched out “RIIIIIIIIGHT NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWW!” that closes this song. And the two choruses just slay me every time I listen to it. The song is the centerpiece of an album that the band described as summing up the discomfort of wanting to protest in an age of relative peace and prosperity. Little did we know…
8 – “Seasons Change” – Nadia Reid. One of the most exciting and promising young voices in music. The depth of this song – and the rest on her debut album Listen To Formation, Look For Signs – is almost shocking given she wrote most of the album while still in her early 20s. I just love the gradual fade-up, which builds to a gentle swagger that demands your complete attention. She just released the lead single off of her next album, which will drop in March, and it’s another stunner.
7 – “Run” Eliza Shaddad. I do love dark, turbulent, cinematic songs. And this is an absolutely epic example of that from this amazing new artist. The song’s slow burn to massive crash is astounding.
6/5 – “Never Going Back”
“80 West”- Caveman
These were two of the three singles Caveman released in advance of their Otero War album, and I absolutely loved them. “Never Going Back” treads awfully close to The War on Drugs’ “Red Eyes,” but it does so respectfully. That would have been something, had it been my favorite song of the year, as “Red Eyes” claimed that honor two years ago. “80 West” is a gorgeous piece of synthy pop. Sadly the rest of the album didn’t match up to these two songs. I saw Caveman open for Frightened Rabbit in April, and they put on a fine show.
4 – “Valleys of the Young” – Andrew Bird. Bird has landed on my year-list at least twice in the past, and I’m a big fan of his more rock-based songs. This might be the best song of his career, though. Written after getting married and having a son, it’s a long rumination on all the responsibilities, pressures, and fears that come with being a parent. It’s brilliant lyrically, musically, and emotionally.
3/2 – “Break”
“An Otherwise Disappointing Life” – Frightened Rabbit.
This was the year I finally got to see my favorite current band live. And twice! Painting Of A Panic Attack shifted FR’s focus a bit, but most of the songs were still centered on difficult relationships. They just weren’t always dying romantic ones.
On “Break,” Scott Hutchison seems to be singing to his brother and bandmate with whom he’s had several public tussles in recent years. I love his acknowledgement that he’s fucked up, and that he is fully capable of repairing the damage, but still leaves it uncertain as to whether he’s going to try to mend what is broken.
“Disappointing” is, to me, the centerpiece of the album. Here Scott sings to his partner, who has become the one, steady, certainty in his life. Everything else might be a mess, but at least he’s done right with her. And, on an album which producer Aaron Dessner intentionally dialed back FR’s signature build-build-crash sound, the explosion of sound in the final 60 seconds is both jarring and reassuring.
1 – “To Know You” – Wild Nothing. For an assortment of reasons, 2016 will not go down as one of my favorite years. I think some of that is reflected in the music on this list. Not necessarily sad songs, but certainly ones that are more inward-focused and layered with tension and/or melancholy.
This song, though, was a big, shiny point of hope that never went away. It first popped up in very late 2015, when I was mostly avoiding new music to listen to holiday tunes. But, still, I noticed it on SiriusXM and it quickly dropped into my high rotation listening list when the holidays ended. Over a year since it debuted, I’m still hearing it a couple times a week on satellite. For nearly six minutes you can set aside whatever ails you – whether it’s the state of the world or something more personal – and get completely lost in this song’s swirling, welcoming layers.