STAFF LIST: Eli’s Top 10 Songs of 2016
Posted: by The Editor
Over the next few weeks, The Alternative will be publishing numerous EOTY staff lists leading up to our site-wide ‘Top 50 Albums of the Year’ article. Why so many lists? Well, we believe in giving as many bands/artists exposure as possible, and with so many great releases in 2016, more lists will cover more ground. Our goal is to help you find something new. Thank you for reading.
As difficult as it is to review a year’s worth of albums, it’s even more of an impossible task for 365 days worth of songs. These are the ten from 2016 that have stuck with me most.
Last year’s polarizing Fueled by Ramen debut Back On Top saw the notoriously heart-on-sleeve band trade many of their detailed narratives for enormously catchy pop-rock songs. Longtime fans were generally turned off by the cleaner production and movement away from their punk roots, but it’s hard to deny the band stepped their songwriting game up—cranking out the best riffs, melodies and arrangements of their career. “Joanie,” one of the two songs from this year’s Needy When I’m Needy seven-inch, is a B-side from the record that’s just as hooky and fun.
Clearly Brian Sella isn’t interested anymore in spilling every embarrassing detail of his life over semi-acoustic instrumentation. He’s a much more cryptic lyricist on his recent releases and I can see why that may turn some fans off. However, I think once you take a step back and realize what TFB songs have always been made for—singing along—you’ll be able to appreciate their unashamedly sugary new direction. I think Sella’s communicating that pretty clearly in a line like, “You ever think that maybe / I could be one of those things that you hate at first, but eventually learn to love?”
Although Cody felt lackluster compared to their previous work, “Last You Heard of Me” is the best pop-punk song of the year. Clever, observant, early Weezer-ish pop-punk by the way, not the whiny, melodramatic Warped Tour brand. Every aspect of this tune is power pop mastery: the bouncy rhythm, the bassline melody, the muscly guitars, and the gradual buildup that keeps you sucked in until the very last second—never overdoing itself. Whereas many of the songs on 2014’s Never Hungover Again felt like they ended too soon, “Last You Heard of Me” goes down like a nice can of seltzer: perfectly satisfying. So much so that you can go back in a couple hours and enjoy it all over again.
If Childish Gambino’s new record Awaken My Love was as good as its lead single it’d be AOTY hands down. Unfortunately, the album struggles to contend with its own intro track and ultimately feels tame in comparison. The strikingly progressive “Me and Your Mama” covers a massive amount of sonic ground within its six-minute runtime: psychedelic neo-funk, West Coast trap and sensual R&B each make welcomed appearances. It’s the rapper-turned-funkmeister’s most untamed vocal performance of his entire musical career, as well as his most exhilarating song instrumentally. Although it’s a shame the rest of the record can’t compete, this track alone is intriguing enough for me to already be anticipating his next project.
Although her other single “Your Best American Girl” has received glowing reviews by nearly every critic and fan who has anything to say about Puberty 2, I actually hold the unpopular opinion that “Happy” is the better song. Mitski proved on 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek that she knows her way around a guitar-based rock song—which is what “Your Best American Girl” is. On “Happy,” she showed she can set a mood just as powerfully emotive with a drum machine and a saxophone. The crunchy riff is still there, but it’s the buzz-saw bari sax arpeggio and the unsettling percussion that really leave the most impact on this one. It’s also a better representation of Puberty 2’s expansiveness and experimentation with new instruments and sounds.
2016 was another year without a new Brand New album. However, their latest single “I Am a Nightmare” was a grand display of melody and pep that the band has steered clear of since 2003’s Deja Entendu. A single like this should be fun for Brand New fans since it points to yet another direction the band may be heading in with their impending, and supposedly final, record. Though despite its upbeat nature, the track still carries the supernatural theme that’s become such an integral part of their songwriting since the seminal Devil & God. “Do I have to die to see the other side?” sounds like a line out of the same notebook that “Jesus Christ” was penned in, but the earworm hook on this track would’ve felt foreign if placed against “Limousine” and “Luca.”
Yes, these are technically two different songs. It felt unfair to just include one on this list though since the two of them together produced the most unbelievable transition of 2016. “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” begins like an unassuming Modern Baseball cut before exploding into a wildly catchy punk chant of, “Why can’t we just get along,” that begs to be jumped along to.
Right as the last note rings out, the brutally fast “DVP” shreds into the speakers and scrapes away the notion that you’d be sitting still throughout the rest of this record. “DVP” is the more impressive song, but the one-two remains one of the year’s most memorable music moments.
“Thick Skin” is the poppiest song the Brooklyn-based Bellows has ever produced. Despite its explicitly hopeless lyrics (“I’ve grown so thick skinned lately / but I wanna cry”) the song has an extremely uplifting ring to it that puts you right into the gorgeous Catskill landscape that songwriter Oliver Kalb is singing about. Kalb’s layered vocals float above the mix as a swath of glitchy synths, plucky keys, and colorful percussion (drum machine, drum set, xylophone) play out below him. For something to come out of Bellows’ characteristically modest, bedroom-pop scene, “Thick Skin” is commendably ambitious.
As a record that deals with the aftermath of her mother’s passing, “Everybody Wants to Love You” is understandably the brightest moment on Japanese Breakfast’s debut record Psychopomp. The whole album is engulfed in a heavenly haze that would make it fitting elevator music during one’s ascension to the pearly gates. Although it doesn’t coincide with the record’s order, this would be the song that plays once those doors swing open and you realize you’ve made it to the mecca of all that is holy. The jangly guitars, Michelle Zauner’s celestial falsetto, the call and response chorus, and of course the ripping guitar solo are each effortlessly weaved together into an angelic gown of pure, sonic bliss.
Although LVL Up’s magnificent Return to Love is stuffed with fantastic songs, “Pain,” the record’s lead single, refuses to grow tiresome. I’ve been listening to it on a near-weekly basis since its release in July, and the buildup that eventually cracks into a thick, fuzzy, driving indie rock song—sliced in half by that razor sharp lead—is the most pleasing instrumental section I’ve heard all year. On top of that, the dark narrative about wanting to hurt the person who hurt your loved one adds a whole other layer of intensity. When a band that traditionally writes really great short songs writes a long song, and that song ends up being their best song, that speaks to the band’s abilities.
Consequence of Sound boldly wrote on their year-end list that this song “may go down as the indie rock song of the decade.” That’s an audacious statement to make, but I’m not going to disagree. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” was essentially indie rock’s anthem in 2016. Car Seat Headrest, the genre’s new posterchild, affirmed that introspective, messy guitar rock still has an audience in today’s generation of music fans and critics. Who knew it would take a hard-rockin’ ballad about the guilt of driving drunk to reassure us though? I think that’s what makes this track a fitting reflection of our era, and a line like, “There’s no comfort in responsibility,” the millennial catchphrase.
Eli Enis | @eli_enis