Among all the bad, 2016 had *some* good. Here's a year-end list to get you through your own long list of resolutions. — KT
16. Troy Ave – “Rikers Island”
It has been fashionable to complain about how terrible of a year that 2016 has been, but for Troy Ave, aka Roland Collins, it has had an especially difficult year. He was shot in the leg. He was charged with attempted murder. And he was recently blackmailed by someone wanting $20,000 to not release a sex tape that was stolen from him.
Troy’s problems are fresh on “Rikers Island” where Troy is down but not out, in jail and unable to walk but somehow with a sense of humor about it all. With an uptempo beat and dub-sung chorus, he reports from jail, where he misses his two sons and gluten-free cinnamon chex. He speaks with heat about his innocence, about the awkwardness of his wheelchair being too wide for his jail cell, and about trying his best to be polite to his corrections officer.
He relates a life that many people can’t relate to—the album cover to his mixtape is a cropped photo from his court arraignment, showing him handcuffed to his wheelchair. It’s all absurd, and Troy wants to make sure that someone—anyone—hears that his story is also absurdly real.
15. Jeff Rosenstock – “We Begged 2 Explode”
Jeff Rosenstock has had his own record label for almost a decade, and has led irreverently juvenescent acts with names like Bomb the Music Industry and Arrogant Sons of Bitches. On the first track of his new self-titled effort, Rosenstock decries the maturity that has been asked of him as an aging adult. He questions the inevitable side effects of growing up: “Friends will disappear after they fall in love and get married . . . isn't that shit like crazy?” Rosenstock sings.
The song begins lightly, with a laid-back piano melody and Rosenstock’s tumbling croon. And then, wonderfully, the song turns into a cathartic shout-along. With a backing crew, Rosestock yells sarcastically for someone to save him from all the good times he’s been having. Please save him so he can join all of the adults doing adult things, like getting promotions and divorces. Getting older is inevitable, Rosenstock concedes, but succumbing to its platitudes is not.
14. Kweku Collins – “Stupid Rose”
Kweku Collins, still a teenager on “Stupid Rose,” is already tired of how quickly and nonsensically he falls in love. Upon meeting one woman, he recalls, almost instantly his “curiosity coiled like a snake around a finger.” He remembers another girl from school that he fell for, and he now questions whether they would have even been a good match.
Collins laments how his roses keep dying before he has a chance to give them to someone he can be with long-term, and how this doesn’t keep him from continuing to buy more. Then the song fades into a tripped-out hymn, a meditation where Collins is still waiting to find the spiritual connection he keeps looking for, no matter how many times his attempts prematurely fade.
13. Kamaiyah – “How Does It Feel”
The video for Kamaiyah’s “How Does It Feel,” a song from her debut album, shows her sleeping in a park and dreaming of wealth, which she imagines as a night of drinking champagne and playing Nintendo 64 in a 1990’s-fashioned home. She’s been broke her whole life, always had to work, so it’s fair for her to wonder, “how does it feel to just live?”
And while she’s confident about her talent, she never guarantees her own financial success. Her swagger, and the song’s appeal, is independent of what achievements may come. “How Does It Feel” with its California hip-hop synths and Kamaiya’s sing-song delivery make for a terribly fun time. Sometimes it is just nice to wonder what else may be out there.
12. Moomin – “Woman to Woman”
Moomin is the DJ name of Sebastian Genz, from Berlin, who has been making his own mixes since he was just a kid using a tape recorder in front of the radio. On “Woman to Woman,” Moomin takes the intro to a 1970’s country music standard by Barbara Mandrell and spins it into a House music meets Saturday Night Fever dance track. The effort is hypnotic. A trance track infused with a steady hip-hop beat, and a snare drum that kicks against the shiny source material. The sample is stretched and pulled and spun into itself, until it finally fades away.
11. Sturgill Simpson – “Breakers Roar”
Sturgill Simpson’s now Grammy-nominated album is filled with unconventional flourishes, like crashes of blues piano and a stripped-down Nirvana cover. But on “Breakers Roar” the Kentucky Country singer drops no sleight of hand, other than maybe having a guitarist from Estonia play pedal steel with haunting effect, and offers a straightforwardly elegant, string-filled stunner about heartache.
“Breakers Roar” is about the first steps after loss, when simply “breathing and moving are healing.” Simpson’s voice gently hops from nasal, high lofts to low, buzzing warmth. It is a punch-in-the-gut, beautiful performance; almost physically able to “sooth[e] away all the pain in life holding you down.”
10. Bombino – “Ashuhada (Martyrs of the First
Bombino, or Omara Moctar, grew up in the African Sahara. Part of the Taureg people, he and his family moved around, trying to ride ahead of the next wave of drought or political upheaval. They didn’t always leave in time. Moctar lost two band members who died during an uprising in Niger.
On his new album, Bombino creates a style of music he calls “Taureggae” in which he tries to infuse Caribbean beats into his native sounds. The result on “Ashuhada (Martyrs of the First Rebellion)” is stripped-down. Multi-tracked harmonies and hand-claps back his gorgeous acoustic guitar picking that floats through the song’s bridges. He sings in his native language, in tribute and memory, for friends who died during the rebellions.
9. El Perro Del Mar – “Kouign-Amman”
El Perro del Mar, the stage name of the Swedish Sarah Assbring, is a reference to a dog that was kind to her when she was feeling depressed on a Spanish beach. Assbring’s music has often had a similarly somber quality. On her new album, however, her first in motherhood, found her starting over musically, and finding completely new musical references.
The track “Kouign-Amman” takes its name from a french pastry, and it is upbeat and sweet. It has the sound of a 1960’s girl pop group, infused with a splash of Asian chimes and flutes. On it, Assbring sings about hope, about how “we can all become free and really happy,” and it sounds like she believes it.
8. Bon Iver – “22 (Over S∞∞n)”
For Justin Vernon to follow anything at all after Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma Forever Ago, could have been impossible. It was a deeply personal, emotionally exhaustive work that still inspires tattoos eight years later. Its significance was immediately cemented liked a closed up well, and could not have been explored any deeper.
So Justin Vernon moved on, to vocal effects, to 1980’s adult contemporary, to Kanye West, who inspired him to make Bon Iver music again. His new album opens with sounds that have literally never been made before—with a hardware/software hybrid instrument called the Messina, named after the creator and Bon Iver band member. The Messina tunnels and tightens the word “soon” and dismantles it until it resembles Vernon’s favorite number, twenty-two, a number he decides to wake each day to as he sets his alarm clocks to the twenty-second minute. Vernon’s voice is warped almost to cartoon pitch as the song stays sparse, with a few guitar strokes with horns and backing vocals—placing him very far from where he has been before.
7. The Field – “Monte Verità”
Monte Verita is a small, Swiss mountain. In the 1800’s, it was a “utopia” for “unconventional loners.” Making the comparison to The Field’s music, techno minimalism from the Swedish DJ, Alex Willner, is almost too on the nose. The Field’s music is cerebral, solitary stuff; a kaleidoscopic overlapping of loops that are difficult to share simultaneously with someone else.
“Monte Verita” is the centerpiece of The Field’s fifth album. It is a throbbing, 10-minute ascension of swirling synths and choir vocals. Moments of the song are almost terrifying in their seriousness, like calls to worship in a futuristic, religious hymn. Then, in the remaining four minutes, the song deconstructs, flashing hints of what lies behind the long, dark curtain.
6. Frank Ocean – “White Ferrari”
Frank Ocean’s latest album was part of a triptych, of sorts, a huge effort that included a coordinated magazine release and a 45-minute video. It is a large concept, with a great amount of effort put into each of its parts. On “White Ferrari” Ocean uses one of the most wildly expensive samples that exists, The Beatles, utilizes songwriting help from Kanye West, and hires lo-fi indie sweetheart, Alex G, to play guitar for just the final seconds.
“White Ferrari” despite its grandiose production, is a stark, personal essay about teenage love. Ocean sings about being “primal and naked” and “free to roam” but the song is in the past tense; this is all gone. “It’ll be over in no time,” Ocean sings, “And that’s life.” But Ocean hasn’t let go, even now, the moments past but not gone. He sings “I care for you still, and I will, forever.”
5. SALES – “Ivy”
SALES started as a duo from Orlando, Florida, made of Lauren Morgan and Jordan Shih. They began by making bedroom recordings with two guitars and a sampler supplying the percussion (They now have a full-time drummer). They make, roughly, DIY versions of the bass-heavy serenades that The XX have made famous a few years ago. Or dark ruminations similar to early Portishead, with more guitar and without the vinyl scratching.
Their debut full-length, simply called SALES LP, is filled with complimentary songs, less like book chapters than a group of interesting people who are all at the same party. “Ivy” isn’t a standout, necessarily, but an exemplar of the band’s natural chemistry. Morgan’s voice and guitar picking loft along like smoke rings, while Shih’s bass keeps their sound grounded, firmly to a sound all their own.
4. Dyan – “Days Upon Days”
Alexis Marsh and Samuel Jones are two musicians who primarily work to make scores for films and television. Dyan is their pop-rock debut, originally a collection of overruns that didn’t make it into TV or film. To record, they met a college friend of Marsh’s, Dan Dorff, at a studio in Louisville, and produced the album in a week.
“Days Upon Days” is about the lingering vulnerability after a breakup. Marsh sings about how, despite her best efforts, the feelings from a prior relationship won’t go away. Fueled by a chug-along rhythm, with synths and crystal-clear guitars, she attempts to power through, one day at a time.
3. Chance The Rapper – “Summer Friends”
Chance The Rapper had a good year. He released one of the best albums, and did so without a record label. He appeared prominently on Kanye’s album, on a track Pitchfork called the best of 2016. He also performed at the White House. GQ Magazine called his life “perfect.”
The third track of his album, “Summer Friends” plays like a film reel of memories Chance made while growing up in the south side of Chicago. He recalls friends he kept and lost—both casually and to the city’s out-of-hand gun violence. Chance has been a frequent advocate against the amount of shootings in south Chicago, through advocacy and social media. He even hosted a festival this past summer at the south side’s White Sox stadium, which had not held a concert in thirteen years.
Guest stars Francis and the Lights’ and Jeremih offer a soulful burnish to Chance’s verses. The song, despite whatever homage it makes to Chicago’s troubles, is also as warm as the summer nights it describes. In addition to shootings, it is filled with ice cream trucks and fireflies, mowed lawns and rented movies, and more friends than Chance can remember.
2. The Range – “Florida”
The Range’s James Hinton finds collaborators without ever meeting them at all. Sitting in his Brooklyn apartment, he scours YouTube for videos of amateurs and undiscovered singers—non-viral, heartfelt performances that he believes YouTube intentionally leaves behind. Hinton thinks that finding these honest, unknown gems “elevate what I do, just as much as my record brings their work somewhere else.”
On “Florida,” Hinton takes a bedroom cover of Ariana Grande and adds to it a club beat and steel drums. He texturizes the sampled vocals, making them ghost-like and ethereal. A moody, dub bass line carries a dark current rumbling underneath. The song feels like a windows-down highway ride on a night where the warm wind funnels in more quickly than you can breathe it. When it hits, all that seems to matter is that it is taking you somewhere else.
1. Whitney – “Golden Days”
I always think of the final song on these annual lists as the one song I get to take into the next year. It’s, as much as it can be, an objective choice. But it is also a diffused one. Among sundry media outlets, various social media platforms, and different music streaming services, I did not find a diamond in the rough, but instead glimpsed a star from where I stood against the sky.
With this test, Whitney’s “Golden Days” was an easy choice. If I could take only the confident, rolling kick to the second stanza, a start strong enough to jump off a 1970’s AM gold hits radio hour, I’d feel all right about 2017.
Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich had spent years in other bands before the fall of Smith Westerns and a rough winter kept them inside writing. The band’s sound was something that came almost inadvertently while working on other ideas: “[W]hen me and Julien made that first song, I started playing in a different style and it fit his voice really well. It kind of purged the shitty ideas we had in other projects, and we got lucky together coincidentally,” said Kakacek in a Vice interview.
Whitney’s guitars are dusty, their falsetto singing sun-kissed. It’s a feel-good affair, even if the project began after breakups. “Golden Days” is one of their more straightforward songs, an acknowledgment that a relationship just can’t work. “It’s a shame we can’t get it together now, ‘cause I’m searching for those Golden Days,” Ehrlich sings, before melting into a finale of na-na-na’s, washing his hands of everything he couldn’t fix before, everything he couldn’t take along with him.
Listen to the full playlist below.