1. “Fill in the Blank,” Car Seat Headrest. In future years, when I think of 2016, I will think of the final chorus in Will Toledo’s sardonic rejection of life on earth.
I’ve got a right to be depressed
I’ve given every inch I had to fight it
I have seen too much of this world, yes
And it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts
To be alive this year was to be in a state of constantly seeing too much of this world: its animal rages; its better angels overtaken by armies of shitlords. “Fill in the Blank” is a personal song that sounds more political to me all the time. We enter 2017 jaded, broken, and defiant. What next? Toledo again: I hold my breath, I hold my breath, I hold my breath.
2. “All Night,” Beyoncé. No record nourished me more this year than Lemonade, the best work yet from one of our most important artists. To listen to this record is to experience a a narrative chain reaction — love interrupted by infidelity, brokenness transmuted to rage, and rage, finally, giving way to reconciliation. On one hand “All Night” is Lemonade at its most sentimental; on the other, which of the record's song is more affecting? Beyoncé’s partner has shattered her trust, but she's determined to find a way forward — on her terms. When I saw her in concert this year, she mentioned that this song was her favorite, because it was about hope. In a year where hope was in too short supply, I turned to “All Night” again and again.
3. “Joey,” Agua Roja. The rise of streaming music gave rise to an ongoing argument about which approach delivers superior recommendations. Ia it the curatorial hand of the expert, as is favored by the editors at Apple News, or is it the data-mining robots at Spotify? Well score one for the robots: “Joey,” by obscure French newcomers Agua Rosa, bubbled onto my Spotify Discover playlist this spring, and I listened to it more than any other song this year.
“Joey” is a song about lost love and a desire to return to the past, buoyed by a looping New Order guitar riff and the ethereal vocals of its lead singer, who is known only as November. The final chorus, which finds November howling inside a maelstrom of keyboards and harmonies, reliably brings me to ecstasy.
4. Old Friends, Pinegrove. A few days after the election, I took two of my most depressed friends to see Pinegrove play at Slim’s. Pinegrove is the sort of act that has fallen so far out of fashion it’s almost cool again: an Americana guitar band from Jersey playing emo-inflected alt-country. But Cardinal, the record Pinegrove put out in January, gradually carved grooves into my ears. Bright, literate lyrics, as sung by a melancholy Evan Stephens Hall, kept landing their punches.
Between songs at Slim’s, Hall spoke repeatedly about the election, and our collective need to come together and preach the gospel of tolerance and inclusion. His songs sounded better than ever — none more so than “Old Friends,” a shambolic lament about growing older and wiser that sounds both like a tune you’ve heard before and something that cuts much deeper. I left Slim’s feeling something like normal for the first time since Nov. 8th, and a Pinegrove fan for life. A few days later the band put Cardinal up on Bandcamp under a pay-what-you-want license, and announced it would donate all proceeds to Planned Parenthood.
5. untitled 07 (Levitate), Kendrick Lamar. Few artists speak to current events more credibly than Kendrick, who followed up last year’s essential To Pimp a Butterfly with this year’s jazzier, more interior untitled unmastered. In eight tracks Kendrick investigates the world with characteristic wit and a spectacularly elastic voice. On “Levitate,” which is maybe as close as untitled comes to pop, his voice dances over a woozy beat. I recoil at the idea of speaking for untitled unmastered; what I can tell you is that I spent much of this year meditating on it.
6. U-Turn, Tegan And Sara. The Quin sisters’ sometimes-lamented pivot from folk-rock to pop yielded another bag of bubblegum this year in the form of Love You To Death, which followed the formula of their earlier hit Heartthrob to only slightly diminishing returns. If there was nothing to quite match the sugar rush of “Closer,” I’m still beyond grateful for the end-of-album standout “U-Turn.” Backed by towering synths, the twins apologize for taking an ex for granted, and promise to write them a love song to make up for it. If an ex ever played “U-Turn” for me, all would be forgiven.
7. 33 “GOD,” Bon Iver. 22, A Million is a more challenging listen than Bon Iver’s previous work. But the more I listened, the more I found to admire. Justin Vernon’s often cryptic lyrics have never had a stranger home, and yet the soundscapes they inhabit are deceptively rewarding. Nowhere was that more the case than on “33 ‘GOD,’” where distorted vocals finally bring a sense of order to the atmospheric clatter around them. Vernon could have made a lot of money just re-making “Skinny Love” for the next decade, but instead he indulged his strangest impulses. We're better off for it.
8. “Native Tongue,” Gang Of Youths. Another gift from Spotify: this indie band from Sydney, Australia, whose members met at an evangelical church. But Christian rock this isn’t: “I still align myself with Jesus, I’m just not a great poster-boy for it,” frontman David Le’aupepe says. “I’m a fornicating drunkard who swears a lot and listens to a lot of black metal." He certain swears a lot on “Native Tongue,” an off-kilter love song that ends in a riot of F-bombs. Indie rock couldn’t be more in the wilderness in 2016, but I feel better knowing guitars this muscular are still throwing off melodies and wreaking havoc somewhere.
9. “Burn the Witch,” Radiohead. In 2016 there was simply no getting around how old Radiohead are. The band formed an astonishing 31 years ago, and released their first single when Bill Clinton was president. But they remain, as Alex Ross’ incomparable New Yorker profile once termed them, the searchers, and this year on A Moon Shaped Pool the band found fertile new ground to explore. To the haters it was either dressed-up dad rock or audio Xanax, but even the most casual fan would have to admit there is invention here. My favorite element of the record is the wicked string section on "Burn the Witch", which open the record on a tense note and spends the length of the song intensifying it. At 1:49 the strings twist together a single time in magnificent harmony, and the entire track is momentarily turned onto its ear. A low-flying panic attack, indeed.
10. “From A Soon to Be Ghost Town,” Fruit Bats. This is often the sort of AM country gold I usually rely upon Blitzen Trapper for, but this year Fruit Bats came back to life, and the band delivered maybe their best song to date. Pitch-perfect harmonies over rambling Americana and lyrics that seemed to presage the end of time. I give myself over to it every time.
11. “Anthem,” Alana Yorke. From a gentle, elegiac piano riff, Yorke develops a song worth of the song’s title. “We’ll just try and we’ll try and we’ll try and we’ll try again,” she sings, and I carried her words with me all year.
12. “Judey On a Street,” Okkervil River. Coming after the pop riot of 2013’s Silver Gymnasium, Okkervil River’s meandering Away hit me as a disappointment. Will Sheff’s lyrical insights are as sharp as ever, but matched with mostly new bandmates — Away is essentially a solo record supported by session players — his songcraft suffers. The stunning exception is “Judey On A Street,” where the narrator sees an aging woman on the street and meditates on her life, her death, and his own mortality. At 7 minutes this is one of Sheff’s longest songs, and yet thanks to a sparkling piano, the time flies. A song that feels like a cathedral.
13. “A 1000 Times,” Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam. The rare dream collaboration that sounds as good on wax as it did on your head. Principals from two of my favorite bands, the Walkmen and Vampire Weekend, brought their best selves to this year’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, which takes its title from lead single “A 1000 Times.” Leithauser’s old whiskey howl sounds more urgent than ever, and Rostam’s production is a slow-burning marvel. Here’s hoping these two come together again.
14. “You Want It Darker,” Leonard Cohen. The man wrote his own damn obituary, and then sang it alongside a goddam choir. RIP.
15. “Happiness,” Wilco. “Happiness depends on who you blame,” Jeff Tweedy sings on this highlight from Schmilco. It’s a minor gem on a lesser album from one of my favorite bands, but you can still hear most of what I love about Wilco in these three minutes.
16. “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye West. I can’t say exactly when West became untethered to reality — 2016 seemed to be a very hard year for him — but The Life of Pablo found him less relatable than ever. I could enjoy it only if I tuned out the meaning of Kanye’s words and instead focused on the sound. He remains one of our greatest producers, and when that choir comes in at the end of “Ultralight Beam” the world around me stops, every single time.
17. “Lean,” VHS Collection. VHS Collection are the rarest of bands: the kind that, when opening for the act you paid to see, wind up outshining them. A friend had invited me to see a Powers show earlier this year; I went despite being almost totally indifferent to them. But two songs into the opening set from these scruffy ‘80s revivalists, I was saving their entire catalog to Spotify. My favorite of their songs is “Lean,” a technicolor dance floor fantasy that would liven up any prom. The clear highlight of my summer mixtape.
18. On Hold, the XX. Gone are the hushed adolescents falling in love for the first time; in their place are confident club kids taking their place in the world. This track belongs to Jamie XX’s rousing production; it gives the band the pulse they’ve needed since the comatose Coexist landed in 2012.
19. “They’ll Take Everything You Have,” How to Dress Well. Critics hated the follow up to What Is This Heart, and it’s true that the record lacks a masterpiece at the level of “Repeat Pleasure.” But I liked it all well enough — particularly this track, a gentle ballad about how the world gradually bleeds you dry until you’re dead. I actually didn’t know the song was about that, until I just read the lyrics right now. I’ve decided to leave this song on my list, even though it includes the lyric “When they walk off looking at their phones.”
20. Who I Thought You Were, Santigold. On one hand, Santi White never seems to have evolved into the alt-pop icon that “L.E.S. Artistes” set her up to be. But her records always contain a gem or two; this New Wave number off this year’s 99 Cents sounds like a movie-soundtrack hit waiting to happen.
21. Cranes in the Sky, Solange. A big-hearted, mature ballad from an inventive artist who has finally and completely emerged from her sister’s shadow.
22. A Change of Heart, the 1975. More 80s revivalism, this time as a heartfelt lament. Worth listening to for the extremely 2016 lyric “you took a picture of your salad / and put it on the internet.”
23. Misery, Gwen Stefani. MORE 80s revivalism. I didn't even think I liked 80s music! But I like this.
24. Drag, Day Wave. Melancholy indie rock for a rainy day that was somehow among my three most-listened-to songs of the year.
25. In The Name Of, Basia Bulat. A deceptively powerful ballad from an underrated singer-songwriter.
You can find these and 15 other of my favorite songs of the year, minus Beyoncé because she is a great businesswoman, on Spotify.