'The Year I Officially Became The Bride of Jesus' - My Favorite Songs of 2016
What makes my ninth favorite song of the year slightly better than my tenth favorite song of the year? It’s the question I struggle with year after year—first as just a guy who liked music, then as a radio personality, and now as an internet music writer.
People toil over their ‘best of’ or ‘favorite’ lists, trying to make them both an accurate representation of the times and their tastes, as well as impressive to earn some kind of respect or street cred.
I guess I am no different.
10. “Hostage” by Maxwell
Considering how flawless a run of songs there is on Maxwell’s long gestating blackSUMMERS’night, it was kind of difficult to narrow this down to just one, and seeing as how I already am testing the goodwill of you, the person reading this list, by picking three Nick Cave songs for one entry (we’ll get into that later)—I figured I couldn’t get away with that twice.
From its nearly whispered opening lyric, “You are the harvest—your garden helps to feed me,” “Hostage” commands your attention, and it, of any song on the album, touches on nearly every style/aesthetic Maxwell brings to the table, save for his other worldly falsetto. It’s smooth at times, it descends into a brief moment of psychedelic R&B, and then as it concludes, explodes with an unrivaled raw passion—something you can hear in the larynx shredding delivery of lines like “I’m free inside the cage of your heart of gold.”
Production wise, much like “Lake By The Ocean” (another standout from the album), “Hostage” relies heavily on crisp and well-mixed percussion to drive it, while the rest of the instrumentation adds soulful warmth—something missing from most “modern” R&B, and something that comes as second nature to Maxwell.
9. “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski
‘Precocious indie rock’ is kind of a thing of the past, isn’t it? As an interesting theoretical genre, it didn’t really make it out of the first part of the 2000s, which is precisely why a song like “Your Best American Girl” is so fascinating and important in 2016.
The centerpiece to Mitski Miyawaki’s critical breakthrough, Puberty 2, “Your Best American Girl” snarls through its astoundingly powerful, shout-along refrain—the kind of thing that shows someone writing “indie rock” can craft a song in a traditional verse/chorus/verse structure that is both accessible and thought provoking.
Dressing up the subject matter of race and culture relations within the pitfalls of a relationship, Miyawaki goes for broke and it pays off big time with a soaring, chilling chorus that grows ever more desperate by the end—adding an “I finally do” into the final “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, but I do.” It’s a moment like this that shows there is still some life left in guitar driven music and that Miyawaki, now four albums into her career, is a songwriting talent not to be taken lightly.
8. “Martha Sways” by Andy Shauf
Lonely and sad people desperately trying to make some kind of connection to fill that void inside—that’s the overall conceit found within Andy Shauf’s outstanding The Party. And while a bulk of the album leans toward the kaleidoscopic, Beatle-esq, Jon Brion and Elliott Smith leaning rollicking pop, it’s The Party’s final moment that stands out the most.
Painting perhaps the most evocative portrait of sad and lonely, the quietly strummed “Martha Sways” is about the one that got away, and what someone does to try to move forward, even if it is only a momentary distraction. “Martha’s thin and pretty just like you. I held her close, like I held you,” Shauf mumbles over slow motion acoustic guitar plucking that keeps the song’s delicate rhythm moving. “Martha sways and I follow suit. She fills my glass and I toss it back into the space that once held you.”
Sparsely arranged with some strings and additional atmospherics, Shauf brings the album to a stark and very real conclusion with “Martha Sways,” showcasing what a literate songwriter he is.
7. “Salt Song” by How to Dress Well
Perhaps 2016 was the year of unobvious choices for songs to wind up on this list. In studying Tom Krell’s fourth full-length as How to Dress Well, Care, the album’s first single, “Lost Youth/Lost You” is the obvious choice for a year end list—an accessible song that mixes Krell’s more artistic leanings with his knack for pop songwriting and arranging.
However the song that precedes it on the record, “Salt Song,” is one of Care’s most powerful moments, and of the album’s 12 tracks, one that stuck with me the most.
Krell’s longest original composition to date, “Salt Song” is structured to build until the walls can’t hold it anymore—it all leads up to a breathlessly delivered bridge section recalling a dream wherein he was an old man speaking to his younger self in a room full of flowers. Following this, as you think things are wrapping up, the song takes a dramatic turn, punctuated by the startling hit of a snare drum around the 5:22 mark, ushering in the tumultuous conclusion of the song that breaks down everything around it.
Performing as How to Dress Well, Krell has always remained introspective with his songwriting, but over the course of the last six years, he’s grown out of the lo-fi aesthetics and embraced a larger scale and fearless sonic landscape that, as he puts it, shows the difference between pop music and ‘populist pop.’ “Salt Song” is the sound of someone able to write a song that is catchy, yet will shake you to your core.
6. “Daydreaming” by Radiohead
The obvious choice, when picking a song off of A Moon Shaped Pool to wind up on this list, is “True Love Waits.” It’s already turned up on a number of year-end lists, and many Radiohead fans (myself included) have spent well over a decade waiting for a proper, recorded version of the song.
Is “True Love Waits” the best song on A Moon Shaped Pool? It’s certainly an astounding feat that the album itself stacks the songs in alphabetical order, and that is how the album concludes.
Maybe “Daydreaming” isn’t the obvious choice for a standout on the album. It’s slow burning. It’s also one of Radiohead’s longest—it’s the exact same length as “Paranoid Android,” actually, which is kind of an interesting factoid in and of itself.
Arriving after the highly energetic and chaotic opener, “Burn The Witch,” “Daydreaming” completely changes the pacing and direction of A Moon Shaped Pool. It’s somber and mysterious—with Thom Yorke opting for ambiguous and fragmented lyrics that, according to Genius, make allusions to Allegory of the Cave by Plato.
It’s also percussion-less—powered only through a stumbling piano and additional, elemental atmospherics that take it to the end, when the song takes a dramatic turn with the slowed down and reversed sample of Yorke saying “half of my life”—a possible reference to his split from his partner of over twenty years.
“Daydreaming” may not go down in history as Radiohead’s most memorable song, but it is certainly one of the most stark, haunting, and evocative from A Moon Shaped Pool.
5. “Real Friends” by Kanye West
I understand that 2016 was a relatively bad year for a number of people, but maybe nobody had a worse year than Kanye West. Coming off the birth of his son at the tail end of 2015, the first taste of The Life of Pablo arrived in the form of “Real Friends,” a song that West released via Soundcloud on January 8th. And by released, I mean it was posted and then taken down, and re-posted and taken down again throughout the day until a “final” version was left standing. The frustrating roll out could have been a strong indicator of what was to come from Mr. West—The Life of Pablo was premiered at a bloated fashion show held at Madison Square Garden; the album was then released roughly three days later as a Tidal exclusive—for only about a month—until West issued a slightly remixed version of the album via other digital outlets.
The album itself—a jumbled hot mess—sparked controversy because of the lyrical content (and later video) to the song “Famous.” In support of the album, West eventually launched a massive tour that made it a lot farther through its list of dates than I was expecting before the whole thing imploded after he told an audience he “would have voted for Trump” (then, later, meeting with Trump to discuss ‘multicultural issues.) Following that comment, during another performance, he went on a lengthy tirade covering just about every topic you can imagine before walking off stage, canceling the rest of the tour dates, and then being hospitalized for around two weeks for psychiatric evaluation.
On top of all this, West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, was possibly robbed at gunpoint in a Paris hotel, though the internet was quick to claim this was all a stunt.
But “Real Friends.” How many of us are real friends? It’s a question this song left me pondering for months—I still think about it now, 12 months later. For a while, this was a strong contender for my favorite song of the year. I think West works best when he turns things inward and gets reflective—that’s why “Runaway” is such a powerful song; it’s why 808s and Heartbreak was such an accomplishment for him as an artist at the time of its release.
Based around a simple drum pattern and an slightly eerie, incredibly distant and muddled sounding piano sample, West raps with a personal honesty that few rarely do, tackling subjects that seem so mundane and ordinary that one would maybe not give them a second thought.
How many of us are real friends?
We all get older. We all drift apart. We don’t see close friends as much as we’d like to. Or, in some cases, we will never see them again. My best friend from childhood lives, like, a half hour away from me, but ask me how many times we do something socially with him and his wife. I’ve fallen out of touch with every friend I made in college. All of them are married. Many of them have young children. I couldn’t tell you how old your daughter was. I couldn’t tell you how old your son is. And the hard truth is that I don’t fucking care, because I know that, in return, nobody cares about my life either.
In lamenting the fact that he’s always in a hurry, and is refusing to make the time for both friends, and in some cases, family, with “Real Friends,” West’s inward turn causes the listener to take a long look at themselves. The song itself, with its decaying and near Basinski-esq loop, has no real conclusion or resolution—but that’s how life is, isn’t it? We don’t pick up the phone, we don’t extend the invitation or make the time, and the other person won’t either. We just continue to drift apart.
How many of us are real friends?
4. “Magneto,” “I Need You,” and “Skeleton Tree” by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
It’s kind of bullshit on my part to pick three songs by the same artist and rank them as one thing on this stupid list—but it’s my dumb music site, and I’ve pulled this shit before on a number of occasions. These songs are all so important and incredible, there’s really no way to select just one of them to make it onto this list.
The urge to kill someone was basically overwhelming
“Magneto,” upon first listen, seems like a directionless song. There’s no percussion, and there’s even very little real instrumentation—some acoustic guitar strums, some piano key plunkings here and there—but it is mostly based around a glitchy, unnerving noise sample that propels the action forward. It becomes hypnotic to listen to as Cave’s low, rumbling voice almost speaks the song’s fragile, raw lyrics and the slight rhythm of the song reveals itself slowly as it all unfolds around you.
Allusions to Christianity, heroin addiction and withdrawal, and processing grief, “Magneto” is a quiet, reserved song with a lot packed tightly into it, all wound around the swooning, haunting refrain—“In love, in love, I love, you love, I laugh, you laugh, I move, you move, and one more time with feeling. I love, you love, I laugh, you laugh, I’m sawn in half, and all the stars are splashed across the ceiling.”
Nothing even matters anymore—not even today
One of the two more “straightforward” songs on Skeleton Tree, “I Need You” finds Cave giving one of his most intimate vocal performances. Singing in a slightly higher register, his voice quivers and shakes, and eventually becomes more despondent as the song progresses, unable to process his desperation and frustration as they continue to mount.
The music—it begins slowly and builds gradually. Somewhat chintzy or antiquated sounding synthesizers power a bulk of the song, as the rhythm section comes tumbling in around it all, driving it forward alongside Cave’s raw, visceral pleading.
I called out right across the sea. But the echo comes back empty—and nothing is for free.
Back when I was still working for the paper, I would occasionally wander through the building to a back office that my friend Rich worked out of—he is my editor for the column I contribute to the Southern Minnesota Scene magazine. I would stand in the doorway and we would chat for about 10 minutes or so before resigning myself to the work that I had waiting for me at my desk.
During one of these visits—and I wish I could remember the context—but I’m confident that I said to him, “Always on the verge of tears, yet unable to cry: The Kevin Krein Story,” to which he replied with some nervous laughter.
The thing is, it wasn’t a joke. For someone who spent, like, nine months out of this year absolutely miserable, working a job that was destroying my mental health, all I wanted to do was cry—but I couldn’t. The tears wouldn’t come.
Well after I left the paper, and was much happier with my new job, I was at home, listening to Skeleton Tree, hanging out with my rabbit, and as the record came to its conclusion, its titular track began playing. And that was when I lost it; practically unprompted, I began to weep.
“Skeleton Tree” arrives like an epilogue to the seven songs that precede it. And if there is any kind of resolution to an album that’s about death and grieving, it’s this. Cave, his voice still wavering, has to come to terms with what he’s lost, and this is how he’s doing it—in what is the album’s most honest and most fragile moment.
And it’s alright now…
3. “Cranes in The Sky” by Solange
Where on earth do you start with a song like this? Do you start with the sparse yet hypnotic looping of drums, bass, and haunted strings that run throughout its course? Do you start with its deeply personal yet easy to identify with lyrics? Or, do you start with the way those lyrics are delivered by Ms. Solange Knowles—stepping out from the shadow of her older sister. Yes, there are similarities in their voices, but on “Cranes,” Solange spends the verses showing restraint, only allowing her voice to soar above her sorrows during the song’s simple, yet powerful refrain.
Every once in awhile, a song comes along and knocks the wind out of you. When you really listen to it, it sinks into you and will never let go. It haunts you and gives you chills even when you’re not listening to it. “Cranes in The Sky” is one of those songs. It’s heartbreaking, really, to listen to Solange unloading her emotional struggles, as she attempts to navigate her life as a young African American woman, and rise above it all.
A Seat at The Table is Solange’s third full-length album, but it served as a proper debut for Solange as an artistic talent to be taken seriously, and a song like this shows just how serious she needs to be, and deserves to be, taken.
2. “The Things That We Are Made Of” by Mary Chapin Carpenter
From May until October, this song was a strong frontrunner for my favorite song of 2016, and I knew that it was going to be one of my favorite songs of the year during the very first time I heard it—there was something that special about it.
Arriving as a near whisper, and concluding Carpenter’s masterful 13th studio album of the same name, “The Things That We Are Made Of” is a song so powerful that something like this only comes around once in a lifetime. Almost 30 years into her career, Carpenter will never write another song this fragile and emotional.
The entire conceit of the album is, of course, that of self-reflection, which is what made The Things That We Are Made Of such a charming listen, but more importantly, a thought provoking one as well. Reflecting on her life, road weary yet willing to go on, the song unfolds slowly and deliberately as she devastatingly recalls the past and her attempts to outrun it, and by using vague and alluring sketches of time and place, what almost was and what never could have been, she creates vivid imagery that becomes unshakeable.
1. “I’ve Been So Lost for So Long” by American Football
For the last six years, one of the prerequisites of a song landing at the top of this list was how it impacted me personally. Even last year, I picked two songs by Ryan Adams as my “favorite” from 2015—those were just good ass songs; however, “Only One” by Kanye West arrived at a close second for personal reasons.
Of the ten entries on this list, almost all of them spoke directly to me on an emotional level, which is why they’ve ended up here.
No song spoke to me more, or spoke about me more, than “I’ve Been So Lost for So Long.” Tucked in at the halfway point of American Football’s second LP, it becomes the album’s centerpiece; nearly refrain-less, and almost meandering in its very methodical pauses between lyrics, the song (musically) is shimmering, sweeping, and gorgeous.
Lyrically—this song could be my life. And to some extent, it is my life for a bulk of 2016.
Describing in harrowing, evocative detail the struggles of debilitating depression, American Football’s Mike Kinsella is able to, at least temporarily, transcend the band’s “adult oriented emo” tag as he walks the listener through what can be taken as a bit of a cry for help.
Aside from just how close to home this song hit this year, the truly devastating thing about it is that there is no real resolution. “Maybe I’m asleep and this is all a dream,” he sings in the song’s final moments, echoing the statement of disbelief for denial from earlier in the song—“I can’t believe my life is happening to me.”
Sidestepping some of the more “emo” moments on LP2, on “I’ve Been So Lost” Kinsella and American Football accurately detail an aspect of the human condition that so many others have written about, but so few as bluntly and as successfully as this.