The year we’re made privy to silent America’s frightening ignorance is, of course, the year politics truly become family taboo for Millennials, the year prejudice gets the hellish justification on which it’s always thrived, the year pizza is almost ruined for everyone. But thankfully in music it’s also the year BLM finally infiltrates the mainstream, and household writers and performers start using their platforms to increase awareness and promote understanding. 2016 made for quite the bipolar year in pop culture, and my picks for the best songs of the year are expectedly as bipartisan as they come. Because I mean I’m American so what do I know about cohesion?
20. Superstar — A. G. Cook
A. G. Cook’s playground lyrics and bedroom pop production are so nuanced by (for?) the Millennial listener (yeah, definitely for). Crescendos that build to nothing, or even the vocoded, prepubescent choke at the end of the line, “Do you believe I’m gonna make it to the top?” are like sonic translations of finding love in your twenties and getting jobs in your twenties, respectively. “Superstar” exemplifies how pop is evolving from disposable early-00s bangers and twee remnants of New Sincerity and into the fold of contemporary post-irony.
19. Lifted — Palmistry
Palmistry has the same zoned-out mumbling and sensual post-dancehall synth that “Work” pushed mainstream this year, and “Lifted” has that rare, musing cuteness that doubles as performance apathy, which is hilarious and also very much a Rihanna tactic. Here’s hoping Palmistry is inducted as the elite’s new James Blake.
18. Stranger — Paul Simon
“Stranger” is a moody (and gravely improved) revamp of “The Werewolf” from Paul Simon’s summer release Stranger to Stranger. Doing a project with Donnie Trumpet (who changed his name back to Nico Segal after he-who-must-not-be-normalized took the election) makes for an unforgettable symbol of cross-generational collaboration in a time when it feels like old white men just don’t (want to even try to) get it.
17. Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth? — Anohni
This is a stand-out record for me because of its intriguing take on death via a perplexing, double-edged selfishness in mortality (“I don’t want your future / I’m never coming home”) and immortality (“Why did you separate me from the earth? / What did you have to gain?”). I also love the production on Hopelessness (Anohni worked with Oneohtrix Point Never) and generally admire when artists take on loaded subject matter. I wasn’t a huge fan of her writing style initially, it read a little too much like political teen goth angst that could use a lesson in subtlety, but then I remembered that subtlety, like satire and irony in all their beautiful ambiguity, unfortunately doesn’t always compute for the majority, and that sometimes you just gotta cut to the chase, and cut deep.
16. Cookie — Dessert
A charming juxtaposition of mainstream pop vocal styles and highbrow instrumentation reminiscent of The Books. Plus, cover art to warm the loneliest soul.
15. Fish Bowl — Kero Kero Bonito
KKB hits my list for a third year in a row, this time for a surprising 1m45s track about the big, big world. “Fish Bowl” has a shoegaze-y chorus and an adorable last line (“When I see you tomorrow, will you remember this song?”) that speaks to those of us who simultaneously dread and pine for change. Still moving to Canada?
14. Monopoly — easyFun, Noonie Bao
Some distinct moments of production acumen that absolutely slay me: a brief spike out of major key that holds just long enough to throw you, and a lopsided beat near the end that honestly took me a few listens before I could thumb-drum along. “Monopoly” is like PC Music’s version of Marina’s “Primadonna” or Lily’s “The Fear,” a satirical stab at the slippery slope of fame obsession and privilege — and real estate and universitieees and preeesidencieees and…
13. Wings of Love — LIV
LIV (Swedish for “life”) is Lykke Li, two Miike Snow members, Björn of PB&J, and Jeff Bhasker (one of my fave producers), i.e. my most anticipated collaboration of 2016. “Wings of Love” is a buoyant, charismatic debut from the aptly self-described “love child of ABBA and Fleetwood Mac,” and my road trip song of the year.
12. Real Love Baby — Father John Misty
An unpredicted, lighthearted 70s sing-along from an enigma whose game has been that of slowly mastering a lighthearted unpredictability.
11. Your Best American Girl – Mitski
Mitski writes about what it’s like growing up biracial and not feeling any connection to either of her heritage cultures, which is a reality to which I can definitely relate. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I finally do” brings relationship dynamics into the already complex mixed race quandary of how totally real subconscious whitewashing is for young Americans just tryna fit in.
10. Best to You — Blood Orange feat. Empress Of
Couldn’t really access Freetown Sound as a whole, but Empress Of shakes off the New Boring scales in “Best to You,” the album’s flavorful pop highlight.
09. Fade Away — Hannah Diamond
“Fade Away” recycles a vocal manipulation trend of the early 10s that I honestly really liked, it was just such a forthright, transparent pop maneuver. Classic Hannah Diamond lyric: “I always thought I’d be the picture saved on your screen / Now it’s of something else, what does that even mean?” Digital native problems, amirite?
08. Kiss It Better — Rihanna
Tough call on a Rihanna fave this year: the “Love on the Brain”/“Higher” pairing was the first authentic instance of nostalgia I’ve heard in awhile, the “Same Ol’ Mistakes” Tame Impala re-up was just better, the production on “Pose” was straight from the internetherworld. But “Kiss It Better” is probably the most iconic, intimate power ballad on the album. Its flirtatious guitar melodies and mechanistic percussion effects make for an outstanding, Prince-inspired record for the ages. But like maybe not all ages.
07. The Argument — GFOTY
Neo-Dada nonsense plugged into the perfect pop equation, category: duets. It’s like the pop demigods finally saw my mirror signals, then saw Iggy Azalea x Sarah Palin and responded to both with this poetaster’s delight, category: presidential debates, then anticipate your bewilderment and skip the track for you.
06. See Her Out (That’s Just Life) — Francis and the Lights
Francis and the Lights “frontman” Francis Farewell Starlite — the hilarious “real” name of the “curator” (lol) of a pretty obnoxiously idealistic music project that boasts no actual group members (“It is me and whoever else is involved, including you”) but like clearly has a fully functioning elite membership program in tact — is in reality just a well-networked solo artist. Once you get beyond all that white nonsense it’s actually surprising that some of his (our) songs are pretty terrific, or at least really well produced. Let us know when you get your share of royalties from that Kanye cameo, will you? Sincerely, One of Seven Billion of the Lights.
05. Mad — Solange feat. Lil Wayne
I won’t pretend to know what it’s like for truly marginalized individuals, but even the minute instances of racism I endured this year (all post-election day btw) gave me a glimpse into a nuanced meaning of being “mad” that I’ve heretofore never known. I’m not saying I “get it” now because I definitely don’t, but I will say that feeling even a splinter of the struggle brought me a little closer to my lover and my parents and my close friends, and as Solange croons, ”Where’d your love go?” I can’t help but read this as a moment of self-reflection that cloaks a deeper plea to a nation supposedly founded on equality.
04. Treaty – Leonard Cohen
I don’t believe in obligatory plugs for artists that died the year they released an album, but “Treaty” is really an iambic masterpiece, written coincidentally at the edge of death. Romance spent, religious allusion, the war of love — some poetic traditions are still just as powerful as ever. Here’s to some solid covers in the coming decades.
03. Formation/Sorry — Beyoncé
The year’s premier game changer in terms of American ethnoracial dynamics and pop politics was “Formation.” The plantation takeover, the break dance cease fire, the Messy Mya/Big Freedia dubs, the parking lot parade, THE EL CAMINO BRAIDS — far and away the best video concept of 2016. That said, “Sorry” was probably my most-played Lemonade single. Both songs boast such perfectly 2016 additions to Beyoncé’s cult sociolect (not even gonna bother listing them) (also, is it a cult if it’s everyone ever?). A bright beacon for pop-as-genre in its ascent toward pop-as-medium, Beyoncé proves that remaining apolitical is a waste when you have that kind of reach, and that it only takes two decades and a streak of unwarranted deaths to get to that point (sorry for ruining that).
02. Godspeed — Frank Ocean
“Godspeed” is a sweet, sweet record that hits the bricks with an homage to Whitney Houston and that positively inimitable tenor that melts the polar ice caps (jk that’s us). “There will be mountains you won’t move, still, I’ll always be there for you, how I do / I let go of my claim on you, it’s a free world” — it’s honestly nothing short of a hallowed psalm.
01. Intern — Angel Olsen
I guess I knew I’d love MY WOMAN when I heard Justin Raisen was working on it, he’s consistently exciting and it’s the collab that finally got me to like more than just the idea of Angel Olsen. “Intern” covers so much ground for such a short song, it’s difficult to pin it all down.
There’s a subtle implication of internship ethics and the inconsequential nature of unpaid “experience” (“Pick up the phone but I swear it’s the last time”), the uncertainty of subscribing to systems that can’t always promise that for which they were created (“Doesn’t matter who you are or what you do / Something in the work will make a fool of you”), and then there’s this poignant internship:career::devotion:love parallel (I know that’s not how analogies really work) that descends beneath the ostensible, and it’s here where a sort of romantic nihilism emerges, where “lasts” are just inevitably fiction, where the Sisyphean rationale breaks the veneer of life itself.
So I think this is why “Intern” is my favorite song of the year — it’s understated, it’s devastating, it’s complex, it’s absurdist, it’s really more than most songs could ever hope to be.
Access the Spotify playlist here.