Music

The Best Songs of 2016

From electronic to soul... from American to rock... from hip-hop to rockin' and poppin' indie... 2016 was a stellar year in popular music.

Artist: Yeasayer

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/y/yeasayer-amengoodbye.jpg

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List number: 80

Display Width: 200Yeasayer
"I Am Chemistry"

At the time of their 2007 debut, Yeasayer could comfortably feign relevance -- a quirky trio of Brooklynites folking and progging up the indiesphere. But a decade of musical change has stripped back the indie veneer to reveal the disenchanted, disparate youth of Generation X: crystal minds with no clear agenda. Well, if their debut was 1970, their new record is 1979, and it bleeds the postmodern ironic lifeblood of The Pictures Generation. Yeasayer makes no attempt to the conceal the widening gap between today's electronic studio production and yesterday's live rock performance that leaves our miasmic indie-ness in quite the bind. (After a recent performance of "I Am Chemistry," bassist Ira Wolf Tuton conceded, "Well, that was the Donna Summer rendition of that song.")

Fittingly, the aesthetic of Yeasayer's newest project is pastiche with a capital P: suffocating automatons, Greco-Roman glitch-outs, and disembodied Trump heads [see 1:15]. Maybe "I Am Chemistry" feels ham-fisted -- "It's a gas, a sarin for high tea / A C4H10FO2P puts you on your knees" -- but it burns like niter. The song undulates through three states of matter and concludes with a caustic, childlike mantra, granting us one of the year's most existentially secure grooves, just when we need it the most. Though the general populace has all but dropped Yeasayer in light of their hipster-goes-disco transformation, their subtle arrangements and sonic sculpture should not be tested. -- A. Noah Harrison

 
Artist: Against Me!

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/s/shape_shift_with_me.jpg

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List number: 79

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Against Me!
"333"

The throwback power pop of "Crash Landing" made minor waves as the lead single from Shape Shift With Me, but for my money second single "333" provides the bigger bang. Laura Jane Grace takes what's essentially a throwback Against Me! song and infuses it with the relationship drama that's the hallmark of the full album. A simple, buzzing guitar riff connects all the singing sections of the song, and the lyrically overstuffed verses are a retro pleasure. Shoving too many words into each line is a Grace tradition that goes back to the earliest days of the band but it happens much less often these days. But it's the pounding, intense chorus that brings it all together as Grace belts out "All the devils that you don't know / Can all come along for the ride." Intensity plus catchiness makes for a great Against Me! track, and "333" delivers strongly on both counts. -- Chris Conaton

 
Artist: The Avett Brothers

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/the_avett_brothers-true_sadness1.jpg

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List number: 78

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The Avett Brothers
True Sadness

"True Sadness" has a lot of the Avetts' hallmarks in it. There's the catchy chorus, the singable melody, and a great upright bassline courtesy of Bob Crawford. It also has some of the modern elements that frustrate longtime fans; namely, an electric guitar where there used to be an acoustic, and an acoustic guitar where there used to be a banjo. Regardless of instrumentation, though, "True Sadness" combines upbeat music with sneakily uplifting lyrics in a wonderful way. "Take the time / Peel a few layers / And you will find true sadness" sounds depressing, but the song presents it in an inspirational ‘everyone has their own issues' way. Lyrically the song covers 12-step recovery, Adam and Eve, treating porn stars like people, and carrying on despite depression, which is a lot. But the rock solid music makes the song strong enough to carry this load without descending into self-parody, and it turns out to be one of the year's strongest singles. -- Chris Conaton

 
Artist: Suuns

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List number: 77

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Suuns
"Translate"

Montreal band Suuns take the first half of their third album, Hold/Still, to wind up the tension, and the second half to release it. Right there in the center of it all is "Translate", the point at which all that tension finally breaks. In fact, you can pinpoint the very moment it happens within the song itself: Liam O'Neill's short, sharp drum break three-and-a-half minutes in. Notable mid-album tracks often get pegged as the "centerpiece" on which a record pivots whether or not the characterization really fits, but in this case it is wholly accurate. "Translate", though, also functions as a microcosm of Hold/Still and its dynamic, while standing alone perhaps better than any of the other songs surrounding it. -- Ian King


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Artist: Metronomy

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/m/metronomy-old-skool-2016.jpg

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List number: 76

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Metronomy
"Old Skool"

As far as tongue-in-cheek British synthesizer odes to greed and debauchery, Metronomy's "Old Skool" was the best thing going since Pet Shop Boys' "Opportunities" 30 years prior. Joseph Mount didn't just capture the zest of the best ‘80s synthpop, though. There was also that ultra-funky bassline, and even hip-hop credibility courtesy of Beastie Boys' DJ Mix Master Mike on the turntables. Maybe the Mount's stroke of genius, though, was the sinister synth swoop that suggested a doozy of a hangover, or worse, in the morning. In any case, "Old Skool" was worth it. -- John Bergstrom

 
Artist: Garbage

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/g/garbage-strange-little-birds-album-cover.jpg

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List number: 75

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Garbage
"Empty"

Garbage's post Version 2.0 output has been good, but even the dedicated have to admit it's been somewhat lacking. What that "lacking" constitutes has been hard to pin down, until you listen to "Empty". Steve Marker's aggressive introduction, and Butch Vig's jackhammer-like drumming kick the song into high gear, and it never relents. Shirley Manson draws out each wounded declaration like she's bloodletting every ounce of her misery and self-loathing. The soaring chorus sounds like it was nearly 20 years in the making. And we find out what's been missing from their albums after all these years: an honest to god anthem. -- Sean McCarthy

 
Artist: Clipping.

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List number: 74

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Clipping.
"A Better Place"

Operating at a BPM roughly the escape velocity of this God-forsaken year, Clipping.'s final track on their Splendor & Misery album is a roughly assembled patch of retrofuturism, a Zen miniature, jittery "O Superman" about time and space being too vast to be conquered. Its luminescent synth flickers are like a sound alarm and a beacon concurrently, alerting and converting at once. They're also alternating odd time signatures with a very simple structure, making the track both minimalist hip-hop and prog at the same time. The lyrics too are similarly contradictory. MC Daveed Diggs (who moonlights as a Hamilton actor) drops that dangling stanza like a bomb. "There must be a / Better place to / Be Somebody," he starts off in longing, completing the thought with the brutal "Be somebody else" (the 2016 equivalent of Devo's immortal final verse drop "It's a beautiful world / For you / For You / It's not for me"). The track sets its aims high, at all humankind, whose greatest failing and strength Davis sees as the desire to "keep… pushing through nothing" to escape the self, the weakness of the flesh, the limits of perception, the scope of one's control. "He's demanding the evidence for something / That maybe never was for anyone," Davis harangues. "He's missing the splendor and misery." Let us not repeat these mistakes we're so very likely to repeat. -- Timothy Gabriele

 
Artist: Kano

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Kano
"3 Wheel-ups"

In the year that grime truly announced its return, not just in the UK but internationally, one of the scenes original stars returned and proved he is still capable of delivering genre defining tracks. Joining forces with founder Wiley and UK heavyweight MC, and long time sparring partner, Giggs, Kano delivered a highly charged, bass laden track rich in skittering drums and brass instrumentation. Lyrically it strikes the perfect balance between cultural relevance, social observation and bragavado which defines the best of the genre and whilst it sonically veers close to hip-hop, as Kano has frequently done throughout his career, its most natural home is in the grime nights, where, befitting of its title, it has been getting rewinds all year to the delight of rapturous crowds. -- William Sutton

 
Artist: ANOHNI

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ANOHNI
"Drone Bomb Me"

HOPELESSNESS is one of the canniest and cleverest takes on the "protest album" we've heard in quite some time, and "Drone Bomb Me" is its crown jewel. One could easily look at the title and assume it's all provocation, but the song proves surprisingly elusive to clear, legible interpretation. On one level, ANOHNI acknowledges her own guilt and complicity in the atrocities of modern warfare and urges us to do the same. What gives the track its haunting resonance, though, is how achingly, almost lovingly she sings to the drone bomb in question, beseeching it to "choose me tonight" like a cult member with a bad case of Stockholm syndrome. Buoyed as these complex sentiments are by icy sheets of immaculate synths, courtesy of Hudson Mohawke, the song is unforgettable for its lack of easy answers in the face of fierce, ruthless questions. -- Andrew Paschal

 
Artist: MØ

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"Final Song"

On the heels of her guest vocal performance on Major Lazer and DJ Snake's 2015 global smash "Lean On", Danish singer-songwriter Karen Marie Aagaard Ørsted Andersen, otherwise known as MØ, released the exuberant single "Final Song". Unlike "Lean On", "Final Song" is the sound of a young artist finding her own voice, creating (along with fellow songwriting phenom Noonie Bao) a fireworks burst of tropical house and dance. All the while MØ charismatically carries the track with her playful delivery, not to mention her insistent, empowering lyrics. Her new album can't arrive soon enough. -- Adrien Begrand

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