Michael’s Favorite Songs of 2016

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Music is fun! This is what I’ve told myself these past few years at Hearing Double, in between bouts of prolific writing and the dry spells of Springsteen and Kanye, and this is what ultimately brought me back to the Hearing Double fold after another school induced drought. That, and the prospect of sharing my amateur musical opinions with a handful of complete strangers. Speaking of which…

List season has basically passed, but I have a couple albums and songs I’d like to share with the hope that someone out there can find something they might have overlooked, or maybe rethink that pop song they’ve heard just a little too much, or forget about that headline and give that Kanye song the earnest chance it deserves.

So here’s a couple songs that made sense of 2016’s loss and confusion, the songs that got me through the ruts and crested the highs. There’s pop hits! Warm guitars! A Dido snippet! And maybe there’s something for you, too, anonymous reader. <3

11) Drake feat. Wizkid and Kyla – “One Dance”

“One Dance” is brief but somehow incredibly patient. Drake might be more melody than flow on “One Dance,” but his words wind into Kyla’s sampled hooks and evolve into a dancehall-copping gem. It fits the same minimalist mold of Views and its bona fide monotony, but comes with the added bonus of actually being a fun song.

Drake undersold himself as a rapper in 2016, but he nailed it as a pop star. I was sold the moment I heard that middle break, and it’s been on repeat ever since.

10) Car Seat Headrest – “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”

There’s a moment, about halfway into Car Seat Headrest’s “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” where singer Will Toledo interpolates Dido’s “White Flag” for four lines. It was one of the most dramatic left hooks my jaded sense of nostalgia has ever been dealt.

But that’s only a tiny moment. “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” is eleven whole minutes of tears-on-sleeve guitar rock sprawled across tone changes, revolving hooks and the greasy shimmer of a banged up guitar. Toledo and company encompass years of indie rock apathy and empathy into “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia’s” millennial rock love letter, topping it off with a rock gusto of a man who shouts refrains of “I give up!” and means the exact opposite.

9) きのこ帝国 – “愛のゆくえ”

I found myself slowly-but-surely disappointed with きのこ帝国’s latest album. It lacked a certain dynamic that made past albums like Fake World Wonderland and 渦になる the beautifully distorted messes that won me over on J-gaze and helped renew a now permanent love for that region of the world.

“愛のゆくえ,” meanwhile, didn’t shirk on those dynamics. There’s the soft, almost tearful voices. There’s the gentle guitar strums that break into shattered riffs. And then there’s that god damned wall of sound that spills over the song’s coda like a monsoon. I don’t care about the calm after the rainfall – it’s that eye’s torrential wall that I want.

8) Whitney – “No Matter Where We Go”

Forgive me for referring to a song as “cute,” but Whitney’s “No Matter Where We Go” is that kind of adorable, heart-on-the-sleeve indie pop song. It’s the sound of an endless summer and an endless road with that person you’re smitten for, built around a full-bodied garden of guitar riffs and horns.

For many, 2016 seemed like a downer. For those people, I subscribe them these three-minutes of guitar pop bliss, courtesy of a couple of Smith Westerns ex-pats.

7) Kero Kero Bonito – “Trampoline”

I had some reservations about Bonito Generation. It felt insincere to some extent, as though they were childish J-pop songs made by British PC Music maestros meant to parody childish J-pop songs made by people who aren’t British PC Music maestros. I might be wrong, but I can’t shake this feeling of Kero Kero Bonito sneaking a sly wink into “Trampoline’s” 64-bit chords every eighth note or so.

That said, I can’t argue with “Trampoline.” It’s a downright banger, from Sarah Midori Perry’s cheeky bilingual rhymes to the lush pop tones of a tailored PC Music arsenal. It’s the kind of song that’ll jump into your head at a moment’s notice and leave behind a cloud of party favors and DDR-tinged nostalgia.

6) Drive-By Truckers – “What It Means”

Race politics are a messy business, and their musical voices tend to be channeled either expertly by those on the margins or awkwardly in the majority. The list of vital albums from the former is incredible, and the list of albums from the latter is… well… remember how there was a Macklemore album this year?

Yet, there’s places where those voices essentially go ignored, due to the form (cue the calls of “rap isn’t real music” comments) or simply dismissal of the artist as “biased” (as though racism wasn’t personal). Enter Drive-By Truckers, a gang of burly white dudes from Alabama who grew up knowing there was more to “Sweet Home Alabama” than a Confederate flag. Their take on racism is incredibly plain-spoken, sung over a few country chords and a four-four rock beat.

But they sang to the Southern rockers who forgot that Confederate flags meant more than just rebellion. They were a Southern voice singing in solidarity for the Kendricks and Beyoncés at the front, translating the DBT’s distant view into something readable by those who think they’re too busy to read into halftime shows.

As someone loosely tied to the South of Stone Mountains, it was nice to hear that homegrown voice finally singing out. It helps that “What It Means” is also a damn fine rock song, too.

5) Japandroids – “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”

There’s a memory I have of high school. It’s a little hazy, but the parts of it that stand out are pretty clear. I was driving a friend home from school one day, with Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” groaning over the radio and solid inches of snow caked against my windshield. After two spin-outs and about a foot of visibility, I made the executive decision: “Fuck this snow, I’m pulling over for a second.”

Neil Young had just started the first of his solos, and I decided to mime along. A few seconds later, said friend began belting the lyrics in his worst Neil Young impression. It was one of those moments, you know? An embarrassing, nerdy shit-show akin to that scene from I Love You, Man with “slappa da bass,” but also one of the sincerest moments from the twilight year of high school.

While waiting outside of my brother’s elementary school, the second-to-last pit-stop on the trip home, I turned to my friend. “Hey, want to start a band?”

That’s the memory that flashed behind my eyes when I heard “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” for the first time. We never made that band, but it doesn’t matter. There was a spirit in that snowstorm that was hard to relive. Japandroids let me relive it, if only for a few minutes of grimy anthemic rock music. Genuine anthems seem faux pas these days, but I’d sell my soul for an album of spirited rock purism like “Near to the Wild Heart of Life.”

4) Chance the Rapper feat. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne – “No Problem”

The inevitable “Chance the Rapper in 2016” blurb. This was the year for Chicago’s acid rapper, whether or not Coloring Book was or wasn’t your album. He kept a noticeably positive presence in the music industry, delivering one of the year’s best verses for Kanye and, in the case of “No Problem,” bringing two forefathers out of the woodwork for an outright banger.

The most prominent complaint I heard directed at Coloring Book was that it was too preachy. It dwelled way too much on Chance the Righteous, and neglected the acid wash party songs that made Acid Rap such a fun record. “No Problem” has none of those problems. It’s just a fun song. That backing track springs. That hook, well, hooks. Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz are both there! The Chance the Rapper of 2016 sounds absorbed in some kind of unobtainable contentment, but “No Problem” shows he can still set that aside, take a breath, and cut loose.

3) Drive-By Truckers – “Ever South”

Even at the level of college, where people tend to have a better understanding of regionalism in the United States, I’ve been chastised for being Virginian (a state I left when I was three). But then I look at the news, where stories of gutted education and voting suppression become Southern in design if not in execution. The narrative remains: The South is home to illiterates and racists.

But there’s another side to that South, where people take a small sense of pride in the livings they’ve carved into Appalachia, and Drive-By Truckers spin their yarn with a military cadence and a celebratory twirl on the keys. It’s a story people don’t really talk about in the narrative of Dixie, save for those who might try to bury slavery below Irish brows.

The Drive-By Truckers are smarter than that, though. “Ever South” is an opus with more nuance than the average “Southern pride” displays of God, guns, stars and bars. There’s images of hung heads by Confederate cemeteries, and Southern drawls that follow you North. Like singer Patterson Hood says, “With decadence and charm we’ll take it into town/tell you stories of our fathers and the glories of our house/always told a little slower, ever South.”

2) Kanye West feat. Ty Dolla $ign – “Real Friends”

The Life of Pablo is a strange and complex record. I’m not looking forward to the moment where I have to somehow make sense of it. Kanye West isn’t a simple man, and The Life of Pablo is a monument to his sprawling and contradictory ids and egos.

What I can say right now is that “Real Friends” is easily one of those deepest cutting moments, where West lets a moment of weakness drip into a beat that feels as warm as it is distant. West, backed by Ty Dolla $ign, brings in the jaded impersonality of celebrity and runs with it, creating a song that sounds more disappointed than the public persona might let on.

Rap sounds like such a hungry genre, with everyone vying for a place at the top. West has been at the top for almost a decade now, and he sounds starved for something that even success can’t buy.

1) “Lazarus” – David Bowie

David Bowie allegedly had something else planned before he passed; he also allegedly knew, at the time of writing “Lazarus,” how close his own mortality was. Thus, in “Lazarus,” the centerpiece of Bowie’s swan song Blackstar, we have the sound of a musical titan staring down his own death.

It’s a little abstract in its approach, but there’s a weird sensation when you hear Bowie cry “I’ll be free.” It sounds almost reassuring, that bassline rumbling along with those horns as Bowie details some trip to New York to chase some feint muse. I almost want to feel good for our aging hero… but I can’t. There’s desperation behind “Lazarus” that ultimately proved real; Bowie’s death is entirely inseparable from “Lazarus’s” neo-jazz dirges and the sharp seizures of its music video.

Death is some kind of muse that’s impossible to know without the haunting prod that overcame Bowie in those final moments. It pulled our icon into oblivion, and Bowie made sure that final pull was channeled into a haunting final song. His final words were a death song that only he could have written, and that fadeout at the end sounds more real than anything else produced this year.