Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Pop Candy Arcade Playlist: The 125 Songs of 2016, 1-25

This is one of those nights upon which a bout of insomnia find me jolting from my bed, firing up a laptop, and saying - with great determination - alright, let's just fucking do this.  This year has been rough from start to finish, with any number of incomprehensible shifts to our political climate that seem to make the cultural losses resonate all the more.  2016 has been a terrible piece of garbage, if we're acknowledging the obvious. We knew it would be as soon as it kicked in with the loss of David Bowie (or, at least, that was a devastating week for me), and it has continued to pummel us with blow after blow.  As we move forward into the total uncertainty of our collective, dystopian future, it seems all the more important to make a fuss about the small things that do succeed, and, well, there was an awful lot of good music released in 2016.  

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...

 8. ABRA / "Crybaby" It sounds like the solid base of an 80's jam that's been mashed-up with echo chamber, modern vocals recorded on a laptop during a night sulking in a dorm room closet.  I'm into it.

9. Alicia Keys / "In Common" Admittedly, I haven't been paying much attention to Alicia Keys' career in a hot minute, so it was a bit of a surprise when I found myself watching a performance on SNL and knowing, immediately, that I was going to play the shit out of this song for the remainder of the summer. "In Common" moves a bit away from Keys' piano-driven wheelhouse and is a fresh, shiny pop gem that's completely undeniable.

10. Anderson.Paak / "Am I Wrong"  It's still pretty amazing to me that this didn't soar to the top of the charts to become the obvious summer song of 2016. This is the year of Anderson.Paak for anyone who was paying attention to R&B and the rest of you need to get ready for his inevitable mainstream takeover in 2017.

11. Andy Stott / "New Romantic" Andy Stott makes his inevitable return to this list with this bit of golden noise. It's surprisingly airy for Stott, a silky, dreamy bit of electronic music that will - above all things, I'm sure - probably rise to the top of my most frequently played tracks because it's near perfect working music.

12. Angel Olsen / "Shut Up Kiss Me" Here we find Olsen crafting a quick, upbeat rock song with a very short list of demands. If you don't like this, I have a question: WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT FROM A 3 MINUTE ROCK SONG?

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.

 14. Anna Meredith / "Taken" This was the earliest addition to the 2016 list, and one that very nearly made it on to last year's as (if I'm recalling correctly) it was released in the early moments of the year while that list was still under construction. I'm a big fan of Anna Meredith's noisy experimental compositions, generally, but this one is a bit of an anomaly: bright, effervescent, and friendly to the point that you probably won't even notice all the underlying chaos.

15. ANOHNI / "Drone Bomb Me" If we're being really, really honest about this, ANOHNI almost didn't make the cut in part because her album is so thoroughly the political statement we needed in 2016 that I have trouble listening to the blunt lyrics without rolling my eyes a bit.  This one is no exception, as "expose my crystal guts" is one of those lines I can imagine a college student boldly, proudly repeating in a rhyming poem centered on the page -- even if excused by the song's character perspective. And yet, the production and Anohni's voice combine to make something that does become beautiful, weirdly poetic, and yes, even a little upsetting.

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]

17. Ariana Grande / "Into You" Man, I have seen/heard so many "serious music" folks fall into this Ariana track this year. The latter half of 2016 seemed to be a revolving door of periodic social media confessions about how much they loved this silly little ditty by a donut-licking pop princess. And, I mean, there's a good reason for that. It's an A+ pop masterwork that channels all the glorious serotonin of a proper flirtation into 4 minutes that hit all the right notes.

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...

20. Bat for Lashes / "Sunday Love" Natasha Khan's latest Bat For Lashes project was a concept album called The Bride, a chronicle of a doomed wedding that was designed, initially, as a short film. "Sunday Love" is the moment you know the concept works and we find it opening into the audible equivalent of a stylish, star-crossed noir.

 21. Blood Orange / "E.V.P." Freetown Sound never quite came together for me as a cohesive album, but damn is "E.V.P." a hell of a centerpiece. Count on Dev Hynes to bring the disco, count on Dev Hynes to bring a chorus that achieves lift off.

22. Bonnie Banane / "Statue" I suggest you start to vogue now. And faster. And faster. And work. And work. And work. Yas, children, yas.  That covers it.

23. Britney Spears ft. Tinashe / "Slumber Party"  You want to know why this song is here? Because - as is occasionally the case with Britney songs - it achieves the glorious, candyfloss euphoria that is being a soundscape in which everything (Britney's voice, the subject matter, the tongue clicking sounds layered beneath quietly bombastic horns and gloopy beats) comes together to sounds just like a dictionary definition of "pop" music by means of pure, sugary carbonation straight to the pleasure center of your brain. It is the opening of a Cherry Coke at the end of a blissful summer day and if you are not for that I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR YOU.

24. Bruno Mars / "Calling All My Lovelies" I went back and forth on including this song, as (especially right after the Britney track) it seemed to achieve maximum froth. The song won, though. It's a delightful, tongue-in-cheek throwback R&B radio jam that seems to encapsulate exactly the sort of slick likability that makes Bruno Mars a favorite for so many.

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.

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