In a moment where everyone I know is struggling with anxieties and shaking themselves out of a constant cycle of existential crises, I have decided - selfishly, maybe, though it's almost more work for me - to extend the year-end music round up in an unconventional way. As someone who uses music in part as a means of regulating their brain chemicals, I'm of the opinion that we just need more songs this year, so, why not expand?
So it is that this will be a song list, but not the usual collection of 100, and not always as concretely oriented as in past years. There are a couple major changes here.
First: there will be points that feel like "cheating" or inflation because multiple songs by an artist will be listed under a single number. You can hate on this if you want, but in a year marked by so many major artists releasing album or concept-centric works, the fluidity of these individual songs is sometimes bettered via a pairing or clustering of their kin. Deal with it.
Second: In past years I had made a separate "Pop Capsule" for the pure pop songs that I loved - at times guiltily - but didn't feel warranted a place on the official chart. We're done with that. The purest pop has been integrated in here, and while there are certainly tons of honorable mentions in all categories, I stand by its value. Pop music is healthy for you, people. Get over your weird pretensions and embrace the power of the earworms.
Without further ado, let us begin with getting the heavy-hitters out of the way. This part may seem a little homogeneous and boring at first, but so it is, presented in no particular order and with minimal commentary, Part I of the 125 tracks of 2016.
At the list's conclusion I will include a playlist with as many of these songs as possible.
1. Beyonce / "Formation" Let's get this out of the way right now, ok? If you want to tell me that you don't feel like you need every list on the internet to insist that Lemonade was a great album, or if you don't agree that it was a great album, you are flat out choosing to ignore its significance as a cultural event...
2. Beyonce / "Hold Up" / "Sorry" / "All Night" ...and I have no time for you, really. Watching Beyonce is exciting. She's an artist in her prime, at the peak of her powers, and using those skills in tremendously interesting and endlessly impressive and engaging ways. Where "Formation" is considered here as a single apart from the concept album - an instant rallying cry for women, especially black women in a moment where voices need to be heard - these are the standout tracks from Lemonade as personal or, at least, narrative excavation. There's so much that could be written about Lemonade, and, thankfully...it has been. Everywhere.
3. David Bowie / "Lazarus" / "Dollar Days" Let's also rip the band-aid off on this one, as anyone who has ever met me knows it's hard for me to not just drop the entire album on here and then launch into a stream of consciousness tear on what this man meant to me. Last year's list basically kicked off with the title track off the as-yet-unreleased Blackstar, so the fruit of this album crosses over two years, or - really - a short month. It's an album that proves Bowie was a vital artist to the last, and I'd be lying if I said that for all the times I have listened to the album, it is still really hard for me to do it on the wrong day. These two songs are a pair, as I see it. They are reconciliations with death written by a man who is already immortal.
4. Radiohead / "Present Tense" My reaction to Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool was a strong one, and picking a song or two off such a unified return to form is no easy task. That said, while many will endorse "True Love Waits" as their underdog, non-single pick from the album, "Present Tense" is hands down my personal favorite. There's just something about using that bossa nova rhythm to underpin Thom Yorke's wailing reminder to himself to "keep it light and keep it moving" that works in that melancholy way the best things do.
5. Radiohead / "Burn the Witch" / "Daydreaming" Yep. This lumped posting happens a few more times, too. Cut your eye-rolling. These two acted as our lead-in to this album, and, as Radiohead tracks go, they're a world apart. "Burn the Witch" is the fevered announcement of the band's return, as political a soundscape as ever there was. "Daydreaming" meanwhile, was the pool you fall into directly following the hook, a sleepy, gorgeous ballad that builds to the lush bouts of instrumentation and electronic glitches that makes this band rank high among contenders for the ultimate headphone candy. Basically, though you don't need to get to that fever pitch of the first song to really fall into the second, they really do their job as a pair.
6. Kanye West / "Real Friends" / "No More Parties in LA" / "Fade" First off, until all of Kanye's artistic output becomes politically reprehensible (and really, lay off the dude, he's clearly going through some serious stuff), I'm going to continue to treat him with the respect his music production to this point deserves. To that point, The Life of Pablo is a fascinating, endlessly entertaining and exceptionally odd case in the album round-up this year. For one, it's a constantly evolving object, with variations on tracks constantly changing and existing, simultaneous, to new mixes and versions changed post release. While "Ultralight Beam" is a lovely and - perhaps - extremely revealing song for the moment (and certainly an honorable mention), this trio (and "30 Hours") speak most effectively to the most dominant themes on Kanye's assemblage of anxiety, ego, and displacement. Kanye is brilliant at voicing an id without qualms, at releasing a bunch of ad libs and rants and having it become valid, viable pop art. And these are just that. But like, also, if you can't find a way to jam to "Fade" than what is your problem? I HAVE LISTENED TO THAT SONG SO MANY TIMES. IT IS A VERY ENJOYABLE EXPERIENCE.
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds / "Magneto" / "Rings of Saturn" Nick Cave's songs have always been dark. He has a back catalog of murder ballads and narrative driven songs chronicling all matters of death. But Skeleton Tree is, of course, a wholly different variation on that as it is, after all, an album completed while Cave mourned his son's passing. There's a through-line to the album as a whole, one that chronicles an artist struggling to find words or melodies or the right way to go about tasks they've done for a very long time. On "Rings of Saturn" the answer is a minimalist, pretty instrumental that serves only to draw more attention to Cave's strange, crumbling spoken word. "Magneto" is the slowed down twin, when Cave stops rambling and really sinks into a moment of reflection. It's a tough listen, I'm not going to lie.
Ok, now let's get out of the multiples and run this alphabetically...
13. Angel Olsen / "Not Gonna Kill You" If your answer to the question above was "more words" or "a breakdown with real good drums" here is the song that you want.
16. Aphex Twin / "CHEETAH2 [ Ld Spectrum]" This is stripped down Aphex Twin, yes, and probably pretty boring by the standards of true fans, but it just works. And, uh, brings up a problem I'll be running up against more often than in past years: the fact that I just don't know enough about electronic production to have the vocab to explain why some of these bare bones beats are as functional as they are... [note: this is not an invitation for well-meaning folks to comment and clue me in]
18. Babyfather ft. Arca / "Deep" It has a bass that stumbles ever-forward beneath a twisted, wailing hybrid of off-kilter strings and sirens heard underwater, packed with all the drama of a night out gone south.
19. Baikal / "Pelican's Flight" One of those glittering, multi-layered electronic tracks that makes you want to push a pair of ear buds into your doubting friend's ears and insist that somehow this music is a balm for their overheating brain. When the loop is right, you can listen to it sustain itself and ride its wave for a damn long time...
25. Burial / "Young Death" Burial knows how to make event music on a small scale. He drops a 12" about once a year and - lo and behold - we gobble it up and at least half of it winds up on a good portion of the year end lists. "Young Death" is more of what William Bevan does best: moody, crackling ambient noise rich with atmosphere and haunted by breaths and voices from somewhere just beyond the record.