Year End Music Countdowns #15: 2016

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you’re alive. Unless you are accessing this page from heaven which I hear has great wifi.

Speaking of being alive, the music industry isn’t. It’s a massive trainwreck. But let’s save the really fun stuff for later and get right down to what you’re here for: this list.

The Top 25 Songs of 2016

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25. Somebody ElseThe 1975— The 1975 are weird. Just very weird. They’re an unexplainable anomaly in any music climate, but especially this one. They’re simultaneously an overnight success with millions of fans and yet…still kind of nobodies. They don’t have any breakthrough hits, and you’d be hard pressed to find a casual radio listener who knows of their existence. But when they come to town they play arenas, not clubs. And then they play a mix of jangly funk pop and…ambient instrumental interludes??? Shoegaze jams??? It’s actually kind of comforting to see a band that is unabashedly reaching for the limelight and yet refuses to ditch the more ethereal parts of their catalogue. Like this weepy 5 minute electro ballad that (audible gasp!) acknowledges that sadness and jealousy still happen in relationships in 2016. And that takes guts.

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24. LMHYPlaitum— Imagine if Marilyn Manson and Lana Del Rey had stayed together and had a child, and then that child quickly grew up so she was a young adult in 2016. In this bizarre scenario, that child’s music would sound like Plaitum. A neon-lit, sometimes garish take on Del Rey’s soul-noir, it also resembles what Sleigh Bells might sound like in 2016 if they’d stayed relevant.

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23. Red Earth & Pouring RainBear’s Den— You’ve gotta be careful when approaching bands with animals in their name, but especially bears. Because a lot of the time you get bands like Bear Hands or Bear Mountain. Both of whom take the most overused, gaudy parts of the 80s to fashion their sound. Bear’s Den on the other hand, take the best parts. New wave’s sweeping melodrama, the heavy reverb, the sunset-drenched guitars- that’s what you’ll find in the title track of their latest album.

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22. The HermitT.O.L.D— A cursory listen to this band gives one the impression it’s yet another zeitgeist-grabbing pastiche of soul, pop and dance. But then, nestled deep in the album there’s this black-as-night anthem about some sort of nightmarish river. It’s entirely unexpected and kind of terrifying, drawing on both the power of a massive gospel choir and subtle accoutrements like conga drum flourishes. It’s bleak and harrowing and totally deserving of the unsettling album art.

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21. He The ColossusWild Beasts— Imagine an R-rated take on Muse‘s hit “Madness” and you’ve got an idea of what this song is like. The lyrics and message are a little muddled, being cloaked in layers of irony and subversive intent; in the end you really don’t know what the actual point the band is trying to get across is. If you can get past that though, you get a swaggering monster of a song with one of the best outros in recent years.

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20. 715 – CR??KSBon Iver— Oh man, the lyrics guys, the lyrics. There are so few people nowadays who write with the same eloquence as Justin Vernon, and it’s an absolute treat to hear the man play around with folk poetry and A-Team references. It’s like Imogen Heap‘s “Hide and Seek” for a new generation.

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19. New AtmosphereNZCA Lines— Chillwave is back! Except probably not. But it’s so good to hear that familiar rhythm and tempo, and it’s still baffling as to why the genre’s prominence was so short lived. It’s the quintessential sound of summer all wrapped up into one hazy, Balearic package.

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18. Save Your BreathFinger Eleven— If you’d told me in high school that Finger Eleven would be on my year-end BEST OF list, I’d be like “Yeah man of course they are! They ROCK! Nu-metal forever!!” If you’d told me the same thing anytime after 2010, I’d scoff and dismiss you as some sort of philistine. It’s come to the point where bands that were once the most likely to show up on these countdowns are now the least likely bands to show up, unless it’s on the “regrettable music” list. But I’ve gotta give credit where it’s due- Finger Eleven have written a great song. It’s miles away from their 2010 AOR stinker of an album, a throwback to the aggro-riffs that made them huge. And the band smartly realizes that the haunting pre-chorus is the best part of this song, blowing it up for a suitably huge conclusion.

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17. ConradSOHN— If crossover breakthroughs were still a thing that happened in the music world, it would be SOHN‘s turn. But they’re not, so we’re just gonna have to be satisfied with this song for what it is: a big, hook-based electro-stomp anthem that recalls the best of Peter Gabriel‘s work in the 80’s.

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16. HardSo Below— It’s almost as if fellow New Zealander Madeline North got tired of waiting for a new Lorde album and said “hey, I’m gonna make my own music, and it’s gonna be even better!” A dark, skittering take on goth pop, the song goes big in all the right ways and sets the stage for a (hopefully) massive debut album in 2017.

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15. The Winds of ChangeSt.Lucia— A song that goes above 120 BPM! In 2016? Yes we have a uptempo jam here, and it’s another new wave revival that mines all the right influences to create a sound that’s simultaneously an ode to 80s production and unmistakably modern.

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14. We Stay TogetherKaiser Chiefs— It’s crazy to think that this band’s heyday was over a decade ago now, and the garage/mod scene they sprung out of is long gone. Fortunately they’ve been quietly amassing quite the catalogue in the ten years since, and although they haven’t been in the spotlight they’ve still managed to write consistently solid records. This time around they completely ditched their old sound, but traded it for a massive set of hooks in every part of the song. The intro, the verses, the pre-chorus, the chorus, the bridge- they’re all loaded with so many earworms it’s almost too much of a good thing.

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13. DrunkViola Beach— How do you respectfully write about an up-and-coming band with a strong debut album…who all tragically died in a car accident before this album was even released? It’s a sad situation, and it’s not hard to imagine them making it big alongside Catfish & The Bottlemen or Two Door Cinema Club based on this solid, prickly, four-to-the-floor jam. It’s a major loss for the UK guitar revivalist scene.

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12. Do it, Try itM83— The new record from Gonzalez and co. was a complicated affair. It was bizarre, and sometimes aggressively uncool. But at the same time it had a lot of strong, strong moments, including this lead single. For all the talk about the band’s changing direction, this is still undeniably an M83 song. It’s steeped in pitch-shifted vocals, popping funk bass, and ragtime piano, but at it’s core is still very much a banger in the vein of “Midnight City”. It’s like that song thrown into a room of silly string, play-doh, and lasers.

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11. Lost on YouLP— If Gwen Stefani turned folk troubadour, or if Elle King actually wrote a good song, it might sound like this big city take on a decidedly rural genre. Laura Pergolizzi takes the feel of her hometown New York and perfectly distills it in this sweeping, orchestral ballad.

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10. Don’t You Give Up On Me– Lissie

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Lissie‘s been kicking around for a while, and it’s surprising (and strangely comforting) that she didn’t make the jump to electro pop alongside everyone else. That’s not a slight against that genre, but the fact that she stuck to her country-pop roots while her peers all jumped on the more popular bandwagon shows strong resolve. It paid off, as this song really only works as a wistful country pop track. Equal parts Shania Twain and Neko Case, Lissie splits the difference between the two singers’ style and combines the former’s pep with the latter’s plaintive mood. It’s tonally dissonant, but results in a classic pop hit that begs for more recognition.

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9. Water– Ra Ra Riot feat. Rostam

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It seems like every three years Ra Ra Riot become exponentially better songwriters. This time around the New Yorkers grab a rickety drum track and adorn it with the sort of soaring chorus alternative radio hasn’t heard in years. It’s the very definition of an indie gem, a brazenly big tune that demands to be on top 10 lists. Well, here you go, Ra Ra Riot. In 2019 I expect to see you chart even higher.

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8. Walkway Blues- M83 feat. Jordan Lawlor

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Anthony Gonzalez relays lead vocal duties to guitarist Jordan Lawlor on this sneakily powerful track that turns 80s lite-rock into a force to be reckoned with. What initially sounds like a cross between ELO and George Michael gradually transforms into a darker, more confident tune, and culminates in a theatrical, world-shaking guitar solo that plays the song out.

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7. Black Honey– Thrice

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Thrice’s career trajectory is a strange one. They started off big in the emo/screamo scene of the early 2000s. Released an absolutely amazing album in 2005. Released an ill-advised QUADRUPLE album in 2008. Followed it up with a series of increasingly poor releases. Broke up. Got back together. Released a really, really good comeback album out of nowhere, with this devastatingly crushing beast of a hard rock tune as a highlight. Singer Dustin Kensrue‘s voice has become tough and grizzled, and when he launches into a vicious chorus the new tone accentuates the anger behind the song. Who’d have thought that environmental issues would be the catalyst for reinvigorating an old hardcore act?

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6. Bring me the Head– Operators

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Dan Boeckner is a busy man. He’s got like…a lot of bands, and they’re all good. He doesn’t treat any of them like side projects, and you can always count on him to bring his A-game to the table. Not only did he reform Wolf Parade this year, but he went into full frontman mode with Operators and neither project suffered from the split attention. In fact, Operators’ debut record Blue Wave was kind of really great. This track is a particular standout, with its queasy synth line slowly morphing into a full-fledged hook over the course of the song. The motorik beat changes too, hitting full stride during the chorus and along with the keyboards and Boeckner’s singular voice turning into a dark, confident strut by the time the final refrain rolls around.

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5. Dear to Me– Electric Guest feat. HAIM

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You’d think Electric Guest were aiming for some sort of stardom with this song, right? This is one of the most well-written melodies in recent memory, and the song has all the ingredients of an instant classic. And then you’ve got the talented and buzzworthy Haim sisters on the hook. And this is just the promo single! So hey, music industry, maybe you should kind of pay attention to what’s going on right here. If 2017 doesn’t see this band turning into a household name, music industry, we’ll know you’re really actively trying to destroy yourselves.

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4. Lost Youth / Lost You– How to Dress Well

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There’s a heartbreaking plainspoken nature to this song, and whether frontman Tom Krell intended it that way or not, it entirely makes the track. From the deceptively simple but intensely specific lyrics to the almost sardonic attitude Krell has towards his experiences, the song manages to stay heartfelt but realistic. It’s melodramatic yes, but it doesn’t lose itself in starry platitudes. It’s actually three words at the very end that sum up his juxtaposition of blind optimism and grounded realism. After singing “I guess there’s no peace / ’til I’m in my grave”, Krell follows it up with a spoken, sarcastic “well that’s great!”. An audible shrug as he realizes that after all the big cinematic moments, life goes on.

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3. Factory Flaws (Radio Edit)– Young Galaxy

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Last year Grimes surprised everyone when the album version of “Realiti” ended up taking everything good about the critically acclaimed demo and improving on it in every way, resulting in a sigh of relief from her fans.

It’s sort of the reverse situation here, but one that also has a great result. The album version of “Factory Flaws” was decent, but it sounded weak and underfed. It didn’t have any sort of drive, and for something on an official album was woefully underproduced. The single version of it though- now here’s a song.

From the first five seconds of the song you can tell it’s been fully realized. It pops in all the right moments, it’s clean, it’s concise. It sounds like an indie interpolation of Carly Rae Jepsen‘s “Call Me Maybe”. And it makes you wonder why the band didn’t put this version on their album. Regardless, the fact that it even exists is a boon, and we’re all the better for it.

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2. Into You– Ariana Grande

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If you’re gonna be a corporately produced and owned multi-million dollar popstar, you ought to have some pretty great content to back it up. It hasn’t seemed like that lately (more on that later), with very few singers-including Grande– delivering any sort of memorable product. On this track, however, the Grande and co. pull it off. The hooks are platinum plated, the production immaculate. The aesthetic is fairly unique too; a dark pop song with no atonal dance bass, and an actual melody (!) in 2016 is a rare thing. I’ll forgive them for blatantly cribbing Kate Boy‘s style, but only because they put it to good use. It begs the question though- if this kind of straight up old school type of pop song can still be written….why aren’t there more of them???

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1. Lawless– Colours

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The iTunes “review” section above every album is very seldom a useful tool. In 90% of cases it’s just bland PR, empty bits of positive fluff with no real value that are most likely written by Apple‘s interns. However there was a line in the write-up for Ivory that compared Colours to “Drake meets Deftones“, and it’s a description so apt that I feel compelled to mention it. This song is essentially if Drake had real actual woes and joined an electronic Deftones cover band.

Pairing ethereal, moody verses with thunderous wall-of-sound choruses with a strictly electronic palette, it’s a fresh new breed of EDM-rock that earns the top spot not for being the most melodic or most well-written song but because it’s so sonically different from everything else out there. If there’s any justice in the world, this sound will spawn imitators and we’ll finally get some sort of new dark electronic genre to shake up a scene that desperately needs shaking.

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The 5 Best Albums of 2016

Here are the most well-rounded efforts taken into consideration as a whole piece of work:

5. [Tidal Wave]- Taking Back Sunday

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(Choice Cuts: “You Can’t Look Back”, “All Excess”, “Tidal Wave”) 

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4. [Blue Wave]- Operators

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(Choice Cuts: “Bring Me the Head”, “Space Needle”, “True”) 

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3. [Integrity Blues]- Jimmy Eat World

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(Choice Cuts: “Get Right”, “You With Me”, “It Matters”) 

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2. [Boy King]- Wild Beasts

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(Choice Cuts: “He the Colossus, “Dreamliner”, “Ponytail”) 

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1. [These Systems are Failing]- Moby & the Void Pacific Choir

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(Choice Cuts: “A Simple Love”, “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?”, “Erupt and Matter”) 

It’s strange that in a musical climate where anything goes and nearly everyone is taking a polyglot approach to their craft that there’s any sound that would remain unused or rare. But the truth is you don’t hear too many industrial techno acts around, in any capacity. So that’s why hearing former new age/dance dabbler/Bourne franchise mainstay Moby going super hard is kind of funny, very WTF, and pretty awesome. It’s not the most fully realized of concepts, but it’s a creative risk that pays off simple just because Moby goes all in.

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THE WORST OF 2016

My favorite part!

I feel like I’ve said this same statement for the past five years, but here it is again: how can I criticize what’s not there? It feels like now that the music industry is effectively dead, pop acts have nearly stopped trying altogether. Bands can get massive cult followings (see: The 1975, Five Seconds of Summer) without any hits. The biggest names in music are rappers who have made their careers on association alone, with radio success not even factoring in to their aspirations. It’s about branding now more than ever, and legacy artists are the only valuable commodity in the broader world. But how do you make legacy artists for future generations when nobody’s developing a legacy?? Who’s gonna headline Coachella 2026?

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Let’s drive this thing home. Every year there’s about 5-10 massive pop hits that grab everyone by the ears. Here are last year’s:

Uptown Funk– Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars

What Do You Mean?– Justin Bieber

Can’t Feel My Face– The Weeknd

Hello– Adele

Hotline Bling– Drake

I was surprised last year that there were only five– imagine my shock when this year we had ONE!!!!!

ONE big hit.

Rihanna’s “Work”.

Nothing else from any corner came close to the ubiquity of that song…except for a few novelty viral hits about Pandas and Pineapple Pens (??).

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But okay, let’s delve a little deeper and look at some charting songs that weren’t necessarily huge definitive hits but still made some sort of impact. Usually we get about 20-30 of these a year. This year we had:

This Is What You Came For- Calvin Harris feat. Rihanna

Let Me Love You- DJ Snake feat. Justin Bieber

Closer- Chainsmokers feat. Halsey

Treat You Better- Shawn Mendes

Into You- Ariana Grande

One Dance- Drake feat. Rihanna

Starboy- The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk

Pillowtalk- Zayn

Work From Home- Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign (note- lol ripoff of Rihanna)

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And there you go! In total about ten second-tier songs (not even monster hit singles), and I’m being extra generous. The average person is not going to be able to tell you who Fifth Harmony or DJ Snake are. And every other pop song from this year, regardless of quality, was disposable filler that’s already forgotten. Did you know that oneRepublic released an album this year???

But hey, let’s SAY I’m some sort of out of touch buffoon that doesn’t know what’s actually hip and trending (note: I’m not). Isn’t it pop music’s ONE JOB to make sure that us plebs know the big names?! They are paid billions to shove them and their songs in my ears so that, even if I absolutely loathe them, I still get that they’re a big deal.

Yet, after 4 years I still have no idea wtf Rita Ora is, what she does, what she sings, or what she looks like?

It’s almost as if we’re supposed to take the pundits’ word that these artists are huge just because they say they are huge so they must be huge. It’s the logical extension of the piggyback method used to launch Nicki Minaj and Charlie Puth (and unsuccessfully launch massive failure Skylar Grey).

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We’re being forced to like songs by proxy. They’re just there, might as well take them at face value and accept them as hits because there’s nothing else. It’s the same attitude hipsters employ when they say this year was great for music just because a bunch of legacy artists all released albums. Never mind that all those albums were utter trash, but the fact that all these long-awaited “gems” finally dropped means they were good by default!

So, was there anything at all that music in 2016 can be remembered for? Other than werk werk werk werk werk?

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Well, the sound-du-jour seemed to be dancehall; everyone wanted in on the Caribbean vibe this year. In second place there was a mix of old school soul, indie-R&B, and low-key electronics, although that sound is already a few years in the making. Analog and back-to-basics recording annoyingly loomed over a lot of releases- hey guys it’s 2016, use good equipment.

Oh, what’s that? You’re going to do the opposite? You’re going to make your instruments sound really bad??

Yeah, that was a trend. The overblown, almost unlistenable- and shockingly intentional- method of recording instruments really hot and dry. See the drums in this Temper Trap song. Or the acoustic guitar lead in Local Natives‘ “Masters”. It literally hurts to listen to in headphones. It’s the residual effect of Kanye West‘s excessively raw Yeezus, and it’s self-sabotage that ruins some otherwise decent songs.

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The anti-chorus, my least favorite thing ever, was less prevalent but still around. “This is What You Came For” uses the technique, building up the song only to reward the listener with a wimpy “BUT SHE’S LOOKING AT……….you ouuu ouuu ouuu ouuu ouu”.

But really the worst thing was just the lack of things. Lazy lazy artists. Let’s call them out. Tool. Taylor Swift. Lorde. Brand New. Neverending White Lights. HAIM. If you guys don’t all have albums out by next year, you’re banned from being listened to forever. okay. the end.

if you have a different opinion please feel free to fight me. okay. the end.