What a year, right? The first months of winter in a new year are usually absence of major release, but 2016 seems to be breaking the paradigm. Rihanna, who’s running from her annual cycle of releasing new album, is back with her best work so far, ANTI, a solid proof that you undeniably need to chill and relax for few years to gain those Euterpe‘s muses back. This year also marks the comeback from veteran artist, aside from the Barbadian singer. Radiohead, for instance, guns their followup of 2011’s The King of Limbs, and Queen Bey pulls another Beyoncé and surprises her fans with Lemonade, the most arguably personal album of hers to date. The long awaited Drake’s latest album, VIEWS, finally views some shed of light as he releases this album which reigns Billboard 200 for weeks, another feat for him this year.
But, 2016 is fair and square. It gives an equal chance for rookies to shine out. Whitney, hardly a rookie though, offers Light Upon the Lake which sounds impressive and mellifluous. Canadian producer, Kaytranada, drops his outstanding debut album, which features collaboration with AlunaGeorge and Craig David, two of many collaborations in 99,9%–which ironically is given all of his 100% in making this fine album. These two artists are just only the tip of the iceberg of debutant this year.
This year becomes the hardest year to pick some of the year’s best songs in my whole entire career. But, the job has to be done, and I have to pick some of the best so far to make my life easier by the end of the year when I compile the real shit. So, let’s just get this torture started. Enjoy the ride.
1. White Lung – “Below”
Compared to their work in their 2014’s album, Deep Fantasy–which has wacky art album, something that adds more obscurity to the band–“Below” is definitely much more easily listenable. When we think they can’t get wackier in the art album department, White Lung’s Paradise decides to fuck us all. However, despite the wackiness of the cover–which is actually intriguing to be honest, “Below” is probably the poppiest song that this Canadian band has ever recorded from this third album. Mish Way’s androgynous voice begins the song with “Part the tide”, soaring above the layered guitar riff. In around three minutes, Way shouts the transience of beauty, a kind of ephemera that weirdly we all value. “Below” becomes a social criticism that sounds so punk and grungey at the same time.
2. Mitski – “Your Best American Girl”
Mitski Miyawaki is one of the few artists who’s able to make an emotional song so effortlessly, as she’s proven in “Your Best American Girl”. Star-crossed relationship is always an interesting topic–and an eternal one–and in “Your Best American Girl”, Mitski tries to spice some things up by emphasizing the cultural differences of a couple, that’s conspicuously relatable with most of young couples these days, especially supported by the fact that interracial marriages are increasing each year. Mitski, who lives in multicultural environment herself, indeed isn’t brought up in the most American way, so that’s why she emotionally proclaims, “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/ But I do, I think I do,” underlining the differences until she realizes that she’s fine the way she is now.
3. ANOHNI – “Drone Bomb Me”
Written from the perspective of a young girl whose family is killed in a drone attack, “Drone Bomb Me” is the most heart-wrenching and powerful song this year. Formerly known as Antony Hegarty, ANOHNI explains that “Drone Bomb Me” is about a girl who longs to be killed in similar fashion, as she sings, “Blow me from the mountains/and into the sea”. This song, produced by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, is heavily synthesized as ANOHNI’s haunting voice soars above the synth drop. She reminds us that war brings nothing but devastation and forlornness.
4. The Range – “Florida”
5. Kaytranada – “Glowed Up (feat. Anderson .Paak)”
6. Whitney – “Light Upon The Lake”
Whitney is a supergroup actually, formed by Max Kakacek, Smith Western’s ex guitarist, and Julien Ehrlich, the ex drummer of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Their debut album, Light Upon The Lake, sounds nothing like Smith Western or UMO. In lieu of sounding more rock or psychedelic, Light Upon The Lake sounds much sweeter where acoustic guitar predominantly can be heard throughout the album. It’s no surprise that the title track of the album is the most gorgeous song of the album. “Light Upon The Lake” may be a song of contemplation. “Fire across the planes/ light upon the lake lonely haze of dawn/ when old days are gone,” Ehrlich speaks tenderly. Between the strings, Ehrlich continues in chorus, “Will life get ahead of me?” The chorus may only contain one sentence, but it’s the sentence efficaciously makes us think about our life.
7. Frankie Cosmos – “On The Lips”
Frankie Cosmos’ Greta Kline knows there’s no point in making long song when you can manage to pour out your feeling in less than two minutes. “On The Lips” is not an exception. Its length is only less than two minutes, but it is impactful. It first appeared in im sorry im hi lets go, a collection of her songs released in 2013, hence, this reference on the lyrics. They are followed by powerful lines of “Sometimes I cry cause I know I’ll never have all the answers”. She sings it plainly, but it’s what makes the song impressive. She started the song by seeing David Blaine, the street magician, starting to believe in anything, asking the significance of kissing people, and crying by the end of the song.
8. Preoccupations – “Anxiety”
When Viet Cong chooses name Preoccupations as the band’s new name this April, they do not carry Viet Cong’s torches on. While Viet Cong is known by their vigor–Mike Wallace’s drums are ferocious as well as Munro and Christiansen’s guitar riffs–Preoccupations’ latest single “Anxiety” is much more somber. The first seconds of the song are filled with lulling noise that can faintly be heard. However, as the guitars and drums start to kick in, “Anxiety” proffers the same “Continental Shelf”‘s vibe. The peak is when Flegel’s studly voice begins the song, “With a sense of urgency and unease”, showing the ominousness of the song. It may not be a perfect summer jam, but Preoccupations’ “Anxiety” brings the new taste of summer: a portentous and bleak one.
9. James Blake – “I Need A Forest Fire (feat. Bon Iver)”
“I Need A Forest Fire” combines two things we miss the most in this world: James Blake’s narcotic musical virtuosity and Bon Iver’s versatility. Taken from Blake’s third album, The Colour in Anything, “I Need A Forest Fire” explores vulnerability of a human being. It starts with a droning sound until a distant call saying “another shade/another shadow” can be heard throughout the song. Vernon’s voice, still as haunting and mesmerizing as ever, soars above the call. “To burn it like cedar/ I request another dream/ I need a forest fire”. Blake’s distinctive voice follows as he sings, I’m saved by nature/ But it always forgets what I need/ I hope you’ll stop me before I’ll build a world around me”. The structure of the song is recurring until the climax where Blake and Vernon’s melodiously speaks together in the final chorus, the quintessence of the gloominess of the song, despite the fire title.
10. Rihanna – “Kiss It Better”
For someone whose name is as big as Rihanna, familiarity is a good thing. In her eighth album, Anti, Rihanna changes her direction, giving her fans a surprising and novel sound. Some of her fans complain that this isn’t Rihanna they know, who makes ear-wormy songs, who reaches number one of Billboard Hot 100. Like it or not, Anti is Rihanna’s best albums, where every songs are structured and cohered perfectly, with “Kiss It Better” and “Higher” are the highlight of the album. “Kiss It Better”–that can easily be put in Loud–is the old Rihanna, the Rihanna that her fans always hear. This R&B ballad, written and produced by Jeff Bhasker, with help from Glass John and Rihanna herself, elaborates Rihanna who lusts for her former lover, but it turns out wrong as Rihanna sings, “Man fuck your pride/just take it on back boy take it on back boy.” “Kiss It Better” showcases us her talent and the reason why she’s one of the greatest pop R&B singers in this generation.
11. Beyoncé – “Formation”
Despite many good songs in her surprising latest album, Lemonade, “Formation” still remains one of the best tracks, not only in Lemonade, but in her entire career. It may probably sound exaggerating, but when you’ve heard “Formation” for the first time, you must murmur to yourself, “Holy fuck!”, blown away by the structure and the overall theme of the song. In “Formation”, Queen Bey celebrates her African culture, “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”, between the thumping beat produced by Mike Will Made It. “Formation” is like a concoction of everything you love from Beyoncé: breathtaking music video, strong political lyrics, and her sass that slays everything.
12. Radiohead – “Burn The Witch”
After wiping out Radiohead’s online persona, we all know that it’s just counting days before they release new music. It is predictable, but it somehow still shocks us when the prediction becomes truth. “Burn The Witch”is first released in a form of stop-motion music video which depicts Orwellian universe. The unique structure of “Burn The Witch” is highly noticeable, with the sawing string combines with bass and electronic ubiquitously dominating the whole song. Taking references from witch-hunt events that occurred in Europe and North America around 15th-18th century, “Burn The Witch” describes what it feels to live in the era. “Burn the witch/ burn the witch/ We know where you live,” Yorke sings in the chorus, playing as an authority figure who forces people to turn into dissident. It’s just creepy, yet still relevant till now.
13. The Avalanches – “Colours (feat. Jonathan Donahue)”
Sixteen years is the time that Australian electronic band, The Avalanches, needs to release their sophomore album, Wildflower. Even if NME condescendingly says that Wildflower sounds “meh” for something that takes so long, the fact that “Colours” is the most impressive come back of the year is undeniable. A child-like voice that shouts “Oh, colours!” in full of awe kicks in the song, and it’s followed by reverse sampling of The Sandpiper’s “Where There Are Heartache”. Donahue’s vocals are faintly heard, hidden beneath The Sandpiper’s sample, pondering about playing under the sun with sea mermaid. It sounds like a cacophonous hot mess, but in a good way, “Colours” is a tripped out rock and roll, a remnant of Empire of the Sun’s Luke Steele and Tony Di Blasi’s side project, and the sign of The Avalanches’ return.
14. Cymbals Eat Guitars – “4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)”
The title of Cymbals Eat Guitars’ second single, “4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)”, is a reference to Bruce Springsteen’s song. But, the resemblance just stops there. Cymbals Eat Guitars’ “4th of July” is a uptempo song and weirdly fun. It’s hard to hear what D’Agostino says in “4th of July”, as proven by how many times the lyrics in genius.com have changed. D’Agostino’s voice may sound slurry here, but it doesn’t stop the spirit of 4th of July celebration in Philadelphia, where they begin their journey as they “step down the SEPTA”, “make plan with Alex G”, and riding a van “full up of fireworks and drunk people”. The adventure just gets more exciting in chorus as D’Agostino screams at the top of his lungs, “My life is sliding by”. “4th of July” reminds us of the fieriness in LOSE, and the fact that they are Alex G’s friend just makes this song cooler.
15. The Hotelier – “Soft Animal”
The Hotelier’s latest album, Goodness, is their best, which marks this Massachusetts-based band’s maturity, with “Soft Animal”, is arguably the highlight of the album. The dynamics of “Soft Animal” is remarkably well-structured. Holden sings softly at the beginning of the song, “We were cloaked in the awning of night or early morning”, perfectly using matching figurative speech about nature and greenness. As the tempo scampers and the drum grows louder, the song hits a boisterous chorus, bolstered by gang’s vocal on chorus which accompanies Holden’s wail, “Make me feel alive/ make me believe that all my selves align.” They use deer as a metaphor of caprice that comes and goes, but eventually it goes no matter how much we hold on to it (“In attempting to keep you to stay/ I am raising no alarm) and the show must go on.
16. Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”
Teens of Denial, Will Toledo’s follow up of his 2015’s Teens of Style, is the first album of his to be recorded in a proper studio and alongside a producer and full band, and it’s really exciting, as proven by “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”. “In the backseat of my heart/my love tells me I’m a mess,” Toledo sings as he can’t get his shit together, until he reaches the chorus when he wails, “It doesn’t have to be like this.” The same sentence that’s repeated so many times in the song, This six-minute track talks about post-party sadness, about “going home alone, in poor condition”. The killer whales is inspired by Blackfish which according to Toledo, “is a depressing film”. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” may be not the most effective song to remind people not to DUI, but this song’s able to make us reflect our life.
17. dvsn – “Do It Well”
The best part about R&B musicians is their aplomb to turn lasciviousness into something beautiful and artful, like what Miguel did last year in “Coffee”, for example. Indeed, sexual desire is something natural, but good artists will concoct this naturalness into something arty, without sounding corny and salacious. dvsn’s “Do It Well” is another example, where it’s basically a song about–well–stripper. Jefferies-produced thumping drum that starts the song sounds like a heartbeat as if it marked the birth of something. Daley’s whispery voice begins the song, “You’re the only one I can talk to/And I ain’t gotta talk to you”. “Do It Well”‘s downtempo showcases Daley’s voice as he unravels more about the stripper, celebrating her bodies, “I’m feeling fucked up, still love fucking/I ain’t throwing money in the air for nothing”, before he finally admits that the stripper is “the only therapy I know”.
18. Big Ups – “National Parks”
It’s really interesting that two of best punk songs contain the word “national park” in their title. Oxford Collapse’s “Please Visit Your National Park” still remains one of the best punk songs ever in spite of their one-hit-wonder-ness, and Big Ups’ “National Parks” is not so far behind. Big Ups, a Brooklyn four-piece band, releases their second album, Before A Million Universes, and the track titled “National Parks” is easily the standout track of the album. While Oxford Collapse’s “Please Visit Your National Park” is more youthful, Big Ups’ “National Parks” is more hip-hopp-y at the beginning of the song. Its dynamic is up and down, it starts with Joe Gallaraga’s spoken voice, before being followed by his scream. It’s like the palpitation of human hearts. This kind of structure ends in second part of the song, where they go all-out and pour everything they’ve contained in the first part, a moment of triumphant for them.
19. Parquet Courts – “Outside”
Despite its short duration, Parquet Courts’ “Outside” feels so compact and infinite. Andrew Savage begins the song, “I saw a name in the graveyard that I knew/ Glowing, like the neon in a lounge light”, a symbol of the omnipresence of past relationship that cannot be escaped. Savage’s tone may not up and down; it tends to be indifferent, instead. However, “Outside” is clouded by regrets, as he sings in second verse “How do i blame all my carelessness on you/ Tell me, taking is mostly what it sounds like”. It’s really arduous to wipe all the past mark of a breakup, and Savage helps us to embrace it.
20. Porches – “Be Apart”
In “Be Apart”, Aaron Maine writes from the perspective of a solitary man who finds moving body is so “physical”. It’s what Maine feels when he’s anxious and antsy inside his apartment in New York, having been raised a small town and the complicated life of the city worries him so much. But, “Be Apart” also marks Maine’s departure from his established indie rock sound where decides to make music that he really wants to listen to. “Cause I wanna be apart/ I wanna be a part,” he sings in his gorgeous tenor voice in the chorus, spewing his frustration of the desire of being accepted and finding the balance of participation that works for him, between his heavily-synthesized beat.
21. Chance The Rapper – “All Night (feat. Knox Fortune)”
Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book leads the race for this year’s best album, and “All Night” is definitely this year’s best summer jam (Bye, “One Dance”). What could go wrong for him? It’s no surprise, though, with all this sick beat and club banger rhythm, to know that it’s produced by Kaytranada. Knox Fortune, who admits that it’s kinda random to end up in Coloring Book, rapidly chants, “All night, I been drinking all night/ I been drinking all night, I been drinking ay ay”, being reckless and careless. But, “All Night” indeed becomes Chance’s chance (ha!) to be who he really is, oblivious to what others people say about him, now that him being famous and all.
22. Kristin Kontrol – “X-Communicate”
Dum Dum Girls’ Kristin Welchez’s solo project’s debut as Kristin Kontrol embraces the 1980s sounds that have influenced her. If Dum Dum Girls uses louder and harsher approach in their music, Welchez decides to use something that’s more pop and electronic. “X-Communicate” begins with a synthpop beat as Welchez sings, “I’ve been waiting so long with the ghost of our love/ She’s as impressive as she is inspired”. With a sharp songwriting, Welchez describes the past relationship when in chorus, she roars, “Should we excommunicate our love?/ Or should we wait?”, between the Kurt Feldman’s genius production beat, soaring above her transformation from garage-band-y Dum Dum Girls, into a queen of synthpop.
23. Angel Olsen – “Shut Up Kiss Me”
In Angel Olsen’s music video of “Shut Up Kiss Me”, Olsen seems really sassy, showcasing another side of hers that we’ve rarely seen. But again, “Shut Up Kiss Me” is also something that we’ve rarely heard from Angel Olsen. It’s a pop-rock song with a ragged and brisky guitar riffs dominating the song. Unlike her first single, “Intern”, from her upcoming album, My Woman, “Shut Up Kiss Me” is much more livelier where Olsen describes a woman’s infatuation that’s courageous and bold, that woman can also get what she wants. “I could make it all go away/ Tell me what you think/ Don’t delay.” “Shut Up Kiss Me” becomes a sweet and brave romantic song that potentially becomes a kind of anthem.
24. Blood Orange – “Augustine”
“My father was a young man/My mother, off the boat/My eyes were fresh at 21”, Hynes recalls the life of his parents who both are immigrants. His father moved from Sierra Leone to London when he’s 21, as her mother moved from Guyana. At the same age, Dev Hynes moved to New York City. But, “Augustine” is much more than a song about origins. When he quotes St. Augustine’s scripture, the man who spread Christianity in Africa, in chorus, “Saint Augustine/ Late have I loved and chose to see”, “Augustine” becomes something that reflects the influence of our faith in our life. Hynes states that the Christianity weaves his life, whether it’s good or bad, but in “Augustine” Hynes comes to the state of acceptance. In the end of the song, he talks about Nontetha, a South African woman, who’s put in mental institution because she built church for black people which scared the government. He sings in Krio, the native language of his father, as a proof that he never forgets his root, that he begins to understand himself a little bit more.
25. Savages – “Adore”
In “Adore”, the first single of their sophomore album, the quartet British band, Savages, decides to slow it down. It may not be as ferocious as “Husbands” from 2013’s Silence Yourself, but it isn’t Savages if it doesn’t convey some message. “Adore” is structured like a poem, containing three verses, in where each verses, Jehnny Beth questions the life choices and their compromises, starting each verses with “if only” and closing it by asking, “Is it human to adore life?” “Adore” is quiet at the beginning, mostly hypnotic, where the instruments are faintly heard and Beth seems like talking to us personally before the hook. In the hook part, “Adore” beams like a pulsar, so emotional as Beth sings, “I understand the urgency of life/ In the distance there is truth which cuts like a knife”, solemnly understanding the shortness of life. It’s no surprise if Savages ends the song with more question, “I adore life. Do you adore life?” The question is not trivial, it questions the fundamental source of human’s strength.
26. David Bowie – “Dollar Days”
The great David Bowie’s last legacy, Blackstar, is released in his 69th birthday, two days before his death, juxtaposing these two most important life events accurately. In “Dollar Days”, Bowie also juxtaposes the regrets and success of his career life, contemplating what he may be or not be in the afterlife. As Bowie repeats, “I’m dying to” over and over, it becomes clear that “Dollar Days” contains the secret message of Bowie who wanted to say, “I’m dying, too,” clandestinely, especially as no one knows Bowie secretly battled cancer. “Dollar Days” represents the life of his as a palmy superstar which he regretted sometimes. He thought of everything he’s done, his eccentricity, his life choices, but he realized that those kind of things shape him to be who he really was and paved the way to where he really in: an eternal superstar. David Bowie may be gone, but his legacy may remains with us all.
27. School of Seven Bells – “This Is Our Time”
“Our time is indestructible,” says Alejandra Deheza in “This Is Our Time”, taken from School of Seven Bells’ (ostensibly) final album, SVIIB. The album’s nuance is dreamy and peaceful since it is intended to be a tribute for late Benjamin Curtis who passed away in December 2013 after losing the battle with his lymphoma disease. Alejandra Deheza–the only member of School of Seven Bells–finishes this album with the memories of Curtis that spark and burn inside her mind. SVIIB is the School of Seven Bells’s most personal album, where most of the album is filled with farewell. In “This Is Our Time”, Deheza sounds scared as she has to depart with Curtis and her fans. “No one can say we’re too young/to decide that we’re gold,” Deheza sings, reflecting Curtis’ death in such young age. But, after she truces with herself, she says that her memories of Curties, her memories of School of Seven Bells, and her memories of her fans are all “eternal”.
28. Woods – “Sun City Creeps”
Throughout around a decade of their journey, Brooklyn folk-rock band, Woods, have steered their music in different direction, as proven in their first single of their ninth album, “Sun City Creeps”, which is a seedy and seductive folk song–if it’s deemed as folk song, but honestly it sounds much more like jazz, and a little bit reggae infusion. The subtle blow of the horn that begins the song gives warm and beautiful nuance, like a crepuscular ray that slips between the clouds in the sky. It opens their ninth album, City Sun Eater In The River of Light, as a statement that after making music for decades, they’re not worn out yet, they can still offer something new. They prove that there’s something new under the sun.
29. Kamaiyah – “Come Back”
When I first listen to Kamaiyah’s A Good Night In The Ghetto, my mind instantly jumps to Dej Loaf, who both have androgynous voice. If you only listen to Kamaiyah’s song and never look up her pictures, you’ll be surprised that this heavy voice comes from a female rapper. In terms of musicality, Kamaiyah is like the reborn of Missy Elliott. Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape, A Good Night In The Ghetto, gives us nostalgic feeling of 90’s hip hop song, where female rapper is strongly influential. “Come Back” may not be the best song in her mixtape, but it’s indeed the most fun one. In “Come Back” recalls her ex boyfriend who wants to come back, but she doesn’t want to. “Your bullshit, I don’t want that,” Kamaiyah states boldly that she’s sick of her ex’s bullshit.
30. Maxwell – “1990x”
“1990x”, the second single from Maxwell’s long-anticipated album, blackSUMMERS’night, is a sleek R&B song, adding another nod to the revival of R&B songs this year. Compared to his previous breakthrough, “Pretty Wings”, “1990x” may not share the same eclecticism, but indeed it sounds much more modern. In “1990x”, Maxwell still flaunts his falsetto voice, talking about love, the universal theme of all song in this world.“There’s no song that defines it/ There’s no music behind it/ There’s no lyric to read from/ It’s just you and the moment,” Maxwell flirts in the chorus part–somehow it feels ironic, especially his “1990x” can be the song that defines the perfect condition of love. “1990x” is an evocative song that turns people, and this is why we miss Maxwell at the first place. The wait for blackSUMMERS’night is over, and it is indeed worth the wait.