ABBATOIR NOISES: Top 50 Songs of 2016!
In my opinion, a great album and a great song are two very different propositions. An album needs to fit together well for me to consider it great. A great song, to me, is about how well an individual piece of music can move me in whatever way the songwriter intended. And there were plenty of songs this year that I felt deserved attention paid to them individually rather than as a section of the album or EP they reside in.
50. Metallica “Moth Into Flame”
Metallica actually released a pretty good album this year, something I wasn’t really expecting, given that I generally don’t like much of their work past Load, and that album came out in 1996. But on this song they actually do something that gives me some of the genius that makes their first five albums the pinnacle of heavy metal. This is exactly the fast paced thrash metal that made Metallica such a vital force in the first place, and with a much better production job than Death Magnetic had in 2008, the power and melodic heights of the song ring true more than any Metallica song in a long time.
49. Radiohead “Daydreaming”
This song is a prime example of how to use negative space to your advantage. The meat of this song is essentially just a piano and vocal, but the atmospheric swell that swirls around cushions the whole composition in an absolutely beautiful bed of sound. I feel that this is the album that Radiohead needed to make at this point in their career. After all of the experimentation they’ve done on the last four or so records, to return to the a more tuneful sound is extremely welcome in my book. And it wouldn’t be a true Radiohead song without Thom Yorke trying to bum you out, and the opening line of “dreamers, they never learn” is sure to bring you down a couple notches.
48. Every Time I Die “The Coin Has A Say”
This track is unstoppable momentum incarnate. The way this song just rockets forward is nothing short of exhilarating, and is one of the best demonstrations of the riff machine that is Every Time I Die. Metalcore is something that can very reach cringe-worthy levels of angst, but Keith Buckley’s snarky lyricism keeps this all grounded, and the “Metallica without the drugs” bit is probably the most witty line you’ll find in any metal song this year.
47. Purson “Desire’s Magic Theatre”
The title track to Purson’s album of the same name is another song in the tradition of the multi-part epic. “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Paranoid Android”, and “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” are probably the most well known examples. This song is broken into a swinging rock intro, a folky waltz, and a circusy rock out at the end. The band’s bizarre sense of humor shines through with cryptic lyrics that I can only assume is about sex under the influence of some sort of psychotropic substances. Not exactly a new concept in this type of music, but the fun, varied sounds and versatile musicianship bring this above a lot of the other psychedelic throwback bands operating today.
46. Deftones “Prayers/Triangles”
Right away from the first track, one could tell that Deftones were going for something different with their new album Gore. Deftones albums usually go for the gut stab right out of the gate with a big seven-string riff, but on “Prayers/Triangles” they opt to ease into things instead, and the result is a track that perfectly sets up the more ethereal nature of Gore compared to their past work. I’ve heard Gore described as a more successful attempt at the experiments the band took on Saturday Night Wrist, and “Prayers/Triangles” is probably the best example on the album of the band balancing the melodic and heavy aspects perfectly.
45. Frank Ocean “Solo”
Blonde is most definitely NOT a record to focus on individual tracks, but if I had to pick a standout, it would be “Solo”. In keeping with the minimalism of the album as a whole, “Solo” is essentially just a vocal with backup on organ. Similar to “Daydreaming”, the song musically lays low to let the background become the foreground, although here it’s much subtler than the former track. This track also serves as an example of why Frank Ocean is one of the best lyricists in music today, in my opinion. I’ve seen so many interpretations of exactly what the words to this track mean, from simple break up song to things much deeper, and the different levels his writing works on is pretty astounding.
44. King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard “Gamma Knife”
This track is a good gauge of whether or not you will like this band in general. It’s lo-fi, crusty, and angular, but at the same time, contains some of the most energetic music I’ve heard all year. Occupying the more robotic end of the modern psychedelic rock scene, “Gamme Knife” embodies the contradiction in Nonagon Infinity’s essence, in the music is technical and complex in one regard, but sort of knuckle-headed at the same time. I mean just listen to those drums! The dude just clubs away like a caveman beating an animal to death. But over the top of this you have these spidery guitar lines weaving in and out with those weird robotic vocal stylings Stu Mackenzie loves to use. But to put it more simply, this band rule.
43. Death Grips “Giving Bad People Good Ideas”
Now this is how you open an album. Out of all the lead-off tracks on all the albums I’ve talked about this year, I don’t think any of them will make you think “What am I getting myself into” quite like this nightmare of a song. Part of why this track hits you so hard is due to one of the most hilariously disorienting bait-and-switches in music history. The track starts off with a peppy, a cappella vocal hook. Then the actual song starts, blasting away at a million miles an hour and MC Ride sounding as fucking crazy as ever. Even through all the chaos, the group manage to deliver an extremely catchy song, which is probably the most disturbing part about this whole thing anyway.
42. Hatebreed “Looking Down The Barrel Of Today”
Hatebreed albums are essentially forty five minute excuses to mosh the fuck out of your fellow man at a metal festival every year. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s all about the drop, and this one bounces hard. Hatebreed are essentially the template metalcore band, yet certain aspects of their music still keep them head and shoulders above most of the other hardcore-tinged metal bands that try something similar. Most of that boils down to Jamey Jasta, who is pretty much one of the coolest people in the universe. But his lyrical approach stands in contrast with most other metal lyrics, in that they are universally positive in outlook. Yeah, the music is angry and the vocals are screamed, but Jasta focuses his anger towards personal improvement and self actualization. Well that, and spin-kicking some kid in the pit. Can’t forget about that.
41. Ka “That Cold And Lonely”
Ka is one of the smartest emcees in hip hop. This man has a way with words that I think is pretty much unparalleled. Honor Killed The Samurai has bars for days, but “That Cold And Lonely” is the standout track of the album for me. Even more impressive is that Ka was able to make a great hip hop album almost completely devoid of drums. Yeah, all you get on this track percussion-wise is a hi hat and little bits of tambourine and bells. The rest is pianos, standup bass, and flutes, all sampled to brilliantly eerie effect from a Yusef Lateef piece, making this one of the most unique sounding songs of the year.
40. Swans “The Glowing Man”
This is song is just shy of twenty-nine minutes long, and every second of it is frightening. Swans are the masters of tension and release on a grand scale. In my opinion, the real payoff comes after fifteen minutes of build, when, after slithering around and several false climaxes, the whole band launches into a punky backbeat with Michael Gira wailing away about someone named Joseph. It’s just as bizarre as the rest of the band’s work and just as compelling.
39. Aesop Rock “Dorks”
Just as with any of Aesop Rock’s other tunes, it’ll take a couple of listens to really grasp the meaning of what he’s talking about in “Dorks”. When he starts poppin’ off about “Insecurities exploding in emotional code/When braggadocio to go from mostly jokey to gross/Corrode a homie ’til his probity is notably ghost”, I feel like I gotta do one of those sentence diagrams like back in eight grade to extract the meaning of this guy’s complex speech patterns. Regardless, the flow here is expert and the beat is rockin’ so here it is on the list.
38. Kvelertak “Nattesferd”
I think in the title track of Kvelertak’s third record you can find the strongest aspects of their new direction. Old school seventies British heavy metal is the inspiration here, from the Lemmy-esque bass tone to the high flying harmonized guitar leads. This track makes great use of the fact that Kvelertak has three guitarists, building an epic orchestration of widdley lead work in the opening crescendo. The production is equally retro, with everything inhabiting a sort of warm, muddy, acoustic space. I would say the chorus is fun to sing along to but. but seeing as the lyrics are in Norwegian, I don’t actually knowing I’d actually be saying.
37. Darkher “Moths”
Furthering my argument that folk music and doom metal go together really well, this track is a perfect example of how the slow tempos of doom are a great pocket for the folkish melodies and dreary strings of Darkher’s eternally gloomy music. In addition, the extremely low tunings are a great contrast with beautiful higher timbres of Jayn Wissenberg’s voice. I love the way all of the instrumentation sort of blends into one big glob of sound in which you can’t really tell where the sludgy guitars end and the cellos begin. But the real master stroke of this song is how the acoustic guitar driven opening section builds to the point where the heaviness kicks in. It’s almost as if the melody is trying to break free and climb upwards but is then yanked back down by the crushing doom that makes up the rest of the album. A genius piece for sure.
36. Blackberry Smoke “Let It Burn”
One thing that I really dig about Blackberry Smoke is the way they flip traditional country lyrical tropes on their head. Usually, a country song would get all sentimental about the singer’s hometown. Not Charlie Starr, who on “Let It Burn” waxes poetic about how much he hates his hometown and wouldn’t mind seeing the place burn to the ground. “If I had a nickel for every line this town put on my face” isn’t exactly the most glowing recommendation for an opening line now is it? But you might miss the implications of aggravated arson because of just how peppy and fun the song is. This is one of the most joyous, rocking country tunes I’ve ever heard, and it’s infectious to the point of wanting to sing along every time I hear it.
35. Turnstile “Fuck Me Blind”
This is, in my opinion, the best track I’ve heard from Baltimore hardcore heroes Turnstile. Turnstile play very eighties-sounding, Discharge-style hardcore punk, but the thing that distinguishes them is how they’ll just throw random musical tangents into the formula. Take for instance this track, which unexpectedly interjects a pretty standard hardcore song with a really pretty, melodic section with female lead singing, “ooh”ing backing vocals, and clean picked guitar bits, then roaring straight back into the screaming hardcore for the finish.
34. Kanye West “No More Parties In LA”
To be honest, I was really disappointed with The Life Of Pablo. But even though I only like four or five tracks off of the twenty track album, every once and awhile a little bit of the genius Kanye is capable of shines through on several tracks, and “No More Parties In LA” is one of this moments, even if I can’t pin down exactly why. Kendrick Lamar has a guest verse, and it’s pretty good, although it’s not what makes the song for me. The beat by Madlib is bumpin’, but it’s not life changing or anything. Kanye’s verse isn’t even that great to be honst. I don’t why I love this track, I just do.
33. Skeletonwitch “Well Of Despair”
This type of stuff is like musical junk food for me. A well executed slice of Swedish-style melodic death metal is always something I love to hear no matter what type of mood I’m in. One thing that Skeletonwitch have nailed on this song that I find pretty damn impressive is to make a song with no clean sung vocals whatsoever that still has a massively catchy chorus. I guess that’s the ultimate goal of most melodic death metal bands, but everything about this track works well within that style: the slightly baroque guitar harmonies, double kick up the yin yang, and Skeletonwitch’s new vocalist holds his own really well on this track.
32. Periphery “Marigold”
This is by far the best song Periphery have ever done. Everything good about Periphery solidifies into a beautiful whole here. The technicality aspect is woven perfectly with the songwriting, something other prog-metal bands should take careful note of. But that chorus. That needs to be played in an arena sometime in my lifetime. This chorus is one of the best choruses I’ve heard all year. It’s heavenly and absolutely crushing at the same time, and I think this is the song where Spencer Sotelo finally clicked with me as a singer. I always had trouble with him as the band’s vocalist, but he totally nails it on “Marigold”.
31. Puppy “Entombed”
Cruising along with the Metallica meets Weezer approach that I love so much from them, Puppy are one of those weird little bands I think could really go places if they play their cards right, and a track like “Entombed” is a great reason why. It’s brilliant in its simplicity; the main riff is just two alternating notes in a syncopated rhythmic pattern, but crank that shit up and it’ll make you wanna stomp around like a mental patient. Back that up with a massive chorus and you have a massive jam from a band with massive potential.
30. The Weeknd “Starboy (feat. Daft Punk)”
Even though I was sort of disappointed with the Weeknd’s new album, I made a point of emphasizing the fact that there are several outstanding tracks on the record. This is probably the best of those tracks. In fact, I think it’s one of the best pop singles of the year. And it all comes down to that beat. I know it’s sort of a cliche in and of itself to gush about Daft Punk, but they really make this song what it is. While the really electronic production bothered me across the whole album, I think it really adds to the vibe of this song. That’s not to say that the Weeknd’s contribution is insignificant. This type of low-key track really highlights his strengths as a singer; his performance on this is chilling.
29. Beyonce “Sandcastles”
You know me, I like loud, bombastic music. But out of all the tracks on Beyonce’s opus Lemonade, my favorite is probably this quaint little piano ballad. The magic of this song is not so much in the composition but in the recording and performance. Seriously, her vocal performance here is crushing. And the best part is that the producer didn’t fuck with it. I can’t here any of the excessive tuning or vocal comping here that I normally hear on expensive pop records. You can even hear a lot of her breaths in between lines, something that would usually be cut out entirely. And the way the track transition into the “Forward” interlude is brilliant, too.
28. BABYMETAL “KARATE”
Ok, I’ll admit that I don’t even like this band really. This song makes the list for one reason. It’s that riff. That riff is one of the best riffs I’ve ever heard. That riff is perfect. It’s bigger than a T. Rex. It’s heavier than the black holes at the centers of galaxies. It will cave your skull in and make you feel good about it. The use of this riff is considered a heinous war crime by the Geneva Convention. It flattens everything in its path, leaving nothing behind but the charred remains of your mangled, lifeless carcass. This riff will destroy you. Oh and the rest of the song is pretty cool too.
27. Creeper “Valentine”
Be prepared, because Creeper are gonna show up several times on this list. This band has renewed my enthusiasm for pop punk in a way that I never expected, and “Valentine” is just one of several absolutely brilliant songs on The Stranger. It offers probably the best middle ground as far as the material on that EP goes; it isn’t the most poppy of the tracks, but it also isn’t quite the most dramatic. It rests somewhere in the middle, but it’s just as brilliant.
26. Pup “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will”
Another example of a fantastic bait-and-switch, the opening track on Pup’s The Dream Is Over is the perfect way to introduce audiences to the way Pup do things. Opening with a non-threatening folky verse, the song then just explodes with a distorted scream and barrage of harsh guitars. The band’s musical M.O. is to hide insanely catchy and poppy melodies underneath an absolutely deafening wall of searing white noise and neurotically self-aware lyrics. This is certainly one of the loudest songs on this list. I’d almost venture to compare this to the early, pre-MCR emo bands of the nineties if it wasn’t so self-deprecating and sarcastic.
25. Sturgill Simpson “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)”
In keeping with Sturgill Simpson’s habit of taking country music textures and warping them into something that has the feel of country but doesn’t quite fit, this is a truly epic song that encompasses a whole gaggle of musical timbres, with the beautiful piano and strings of the first half to the rocking horns and organ on the second half. But like I said in the album countdown, the real standout is Simpson’s powerful voice. One thing I was shocked to learn was that Simpson produced the album himself, which is pretty impressive given the variety of musical textures captured on the record as a whole, let alone this one song.
24. Wilco “If I Ever Was A Child”
Wilco’s new album is almost unbearably sparse and quiet, and while that fact sort of turned me off the first time I listened to it, I realize now that the muted response is completely intentional. You need to let this sit for awhile, and when you do, you’ll probably find (as I did) that these songs have creeped their way into your brain without you realizing it. And for me, this effect was most evident on “If I Ever Was A Child”. I think what attracted me to this musically was a sort of resemblance to a Beatles For Sale-era John Lennon songwriting style, in that it wraps a winding and unconventional chord progression and wraps it in a folky Americana package with the lightest shade of country and western influence.
23. Kanye West “FML”
I mentioned earlier that despite The Life Of Pablo’s massive inconsistency, shades of Kanye’s genius show up here and there. Barring the stupid “tribe called Check-A-Hoe” line, I think this might be the most honest look we’ve ever gotten into Kanye’s psyche. The emotional distance of the lyrics is cleverly worked into the production as well, with the main musical backing being a keyboard chord progression that sounds like it’s being played in another room. In addition, I would like to say, this is how you use a feature to add to a song. The Weeknd’s bit is used sparingly and fits really well into the song. In addition, Kanye’s compositional skills are brilliantly showcased on an amazing build near the end of the track that doesn’t quite pay off but is very cool in and of itself.
22. Lady Gaga “Million Reasons”
When I reviewed Lady Gaga’s album Joanne, I think I should have waited a week or so before posting it. I really loved the record when I first heard it, but it really cooled on me after the first few weeks. That said, this track is one of the cuts from the album that I still play regularly. This might be the best song Gaga has ever written, and despite my general dislike for overly conventional song structures, I think the traditionalist approach actually helps this one. I basically was able to predict the chord progression as I was listening to it the first time. But the song’s appeal lies in its hymn-like simplicity. The musical weight comes not so much from the melody or harmonic structure, but from the dynamic swells and performance. “Million Reasons” looms over the rest of the album like the centerpiece that it is.
21. ScHoolboy Q “Groovy Tony”
If I had to give a shout out to the best beat I heard in a hip hop song all year, the award would go Tae Beast for “Groovy Tony”. If there existed a more perfect backing for thuggin’ gangsta rap that would scare white parents in the middle America, I haven’t heard it. The far-off keyboard line snakes it’s way around the screwy drumbeat, but I think it’s the eerie female backing vocals that really make this what it is. It’s ScHoolboy Q’s track, though, and he makes a big impact, basically hitting every bit of the gangsta rap lyrical checklist: guns, drugs, confrontations with the cops, and hoes, and crime. It’s all here, and boy does it bump in the whip.
20. clipping. “Wriggle”
“WRIGGLE LIKE A FISH, GIRL.”
19. Creeper “Black Mass”
For the second Creeper song I have on this list, “Black Mass” seems like the most obvious single of all time. This song, musically if not lyrically, is sunshine incarnate. It’s got a tried and true pop punk chord progression, massive sunny chorus, and youthful energy for days. But Creeper are a band to throw some weird offshoots into even the most catchy of songs, and this songs stops dead in the middle for a fifties style doo-wop waltz section with Will Gould going all Meat Loaf with his singing, before the song kicks into the final chorus. And it all wraps up in less than two and a half minutes. It’s pretty much a perfect song.
18. David Bowie “Lazarus”
This is the dirge to end all dirges. Out of all the crazy experimentation on David Bowie’s Blackstar, “Lazarus” is probably the most traditionally Bowie. While this may seem overly depressive for a casual listener upon first hearing it, the song doesn’t wallow in its own self pity. The dark quiet intro serve as a way to set up the melodic heights that the rest of the song reaches, and Bowie’s vocal performance on this is magical. He sounds frail, but he still reaches for the sky in his delivery, and he sounds almost sounds like the raving madman on the street corner screaming about the end of the world. But the most depressing part of the whole song is how it breaks out of its initial darkness towards a beautiful upward swell only to be slowly brought back down to the dirge, ending with the same brittle guitar line that started the track off.
17. PARTYBABY “California”
“California” by PARTYBABY may be the most hedonistically joyous piece of music I’ve heard all year. I mean, everything about this track is absolutely euphoric. The “hell no, you’re breakin’ my heart” bridge into the second chorus gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. And this is crazy, because if there’s one thing I hate more than songs about New York, it’s songs about California. It’s one of the most hacky lyrical tropes in pop music. But this is an exception. I can almost feel the sunshine on my skin when I listen to this.
16. Danny Brown “Really Doe”
A bangin’ posse cut featuring Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt, and Kendrick Lamar, this is probably the most traditional sounding track on Danny Brown’s twisted opus Atrocity Exhibition, but it’s just as fucked up as the rest of the album. All four emcees on the track bring different flows to the same beat, but Danny Brown’s verse is still the highlight.
15. The Dillinger Escape Plan “Limerent Death”
“Limerent Death” kicks off The Dillinger Escape Plan’s schizophrenic masterpiece Dissociation, and all in all, it’s everything you love (or most likely hate if you’re not into this type of music) about a TDEP song: jerky rhythms, winding structures, and more time signature changes than there are pages in a short novella. But directing this choir of madness is the one and only Greg Puciato, who is at perhaps the most unhinged we’ve ever heard him, which is saying quite along, given how long Dillinger have been going for. His vocalizations during the “accelerando freakout” section of this song in particular make me wanna just bring him off to the side and ask “you gonna be okay dude?”
14. Creeper “Astral Projection”
And here they are again. I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one, just another masterstroke of pop punk fury. Special mention goes to the climactic breakdown that sees Will Gould at his most operatic. It crushes. That’s all you need to know.
13. Weezer “L.A. Girlz”
This is another perfect song in my opinion. This essentially takes a fifties doo-wop formula and cranks it to eleven. A lot of people find Weezer to be really corny, and while that may be true, especially of some of their recent releases, Rivers Cuomo just seems so sincere with his love for old fashion pop music on this song that I can’t help but sing along. There’s a certain classy nature to this that you don’t get a lot in this corner of rock music. The waltz metre, the old school chord progression, and soaring melodies make this a classic in Weezer’s catalogue, and I even think it stands toe-to-toe with some of their best material.
12. Tiger Army “Firefall”
I don’t really know what it is about this track, but I find this song incredibly rousing. There’s just something deep about this that I feel an emotional connection to. It’s not the lyrics, although they do sound cool as hell. If I had to guess, it would be how this song musically evokes Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, which, in addition to being my favorite movie of all time, contains some of the best music ever composed, period. The wailing soprano vocals during the chorus especially remind me of the “Ecstasy Of Gold”, one of the most stirring musical achievements in history in my opinion. Anything that can effectively tap into that emotional core for me is gonna get a spot on this list.
11. Childish Gambino “Redbone”
“Redbone” is soothing on a level few songs can ever reach. I’m serious. Sonically, this just caresses my ears in the most amazing way. I feel content with everything while this is running. I already gushed at length about the production of “Awaken, My Love” on two separate occasions, so I don’t think it need to repeat it here. Just know that if you need a song to chill out to, few will do it better than this.
10. Thank You Scientist “Mr. Invisible”
I only recently realized the extent of this song’s genius when I saw it played live at a Thank You Scientist gig in Nashville. While this is still an eight minute prog epic, Thank You Scientist are amazing songwriters, and for a couple of minutes a room of about of about two-hundred people felt like a goddamn arena. This chorus somehow manages to make the six instrumentalists all playing complex intersecting lines and sync up in a strange way for a transcendent refrain that everyone in that room was singing along to.
9. Radiohead “Burn The Witch”
This was our first taste of new Radiohead music since 2011 when this came out back in May, and it did not disappoint. It’s those strings, isn’t it? We always knew Johnny Greenwood could come up with some great arrangements, but he really outdoes himself on A Moon Shaped Pool. His string arrangement hits this fragile middle ground between the sweeping melodies of a John Williams score and the jarring, percussive stabs of Bernard Herrmann’s infamous Psycho shower scene theme. But the core song itself is great, apparently having been floating around in various forms in the band’s live set for quite a few years now. But this song sort of represents a more melodic, gentle Radiohead compared to all of the nightmarish digital experimentation they’ve been doing for the better part of 2000s.
8. Black Peaks “Glass Built Castles”
Who would’ve thought that one of the master works of heavy music in 2016 would come from this little U.K. band on their first album? But it’s true, this is classy, succinct, grandiose, and anchored by top class musicianship. But Will Gardner. Just Will Gardner. The dude is a powerhouse singer, and one of the most versatile in this genre of music. He’s a guy who can croon just as well as shriek. “Glass Built Castles” is crushing yet supremely melodic, basically everything you want in a classic metal song, and I could see this becoming the anthem that everyone associates with this band. The best part is that this band is sounding this good on their first album. I wanna see these guys go far.
7. Car Seat Headrest “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”
With this six and a half minute nerd rock opus, and with the rest of their album, Car Seat Headrest have introduced something that I haven’t really heard before with this type of poppy alt-rock. There’s a sense of adventure in this song as it traverses multiple feels through a couple of main motifs. But really, the whole thing really serves as a setup for the brilliant “Killer Whales” section of the song, which for my money is one of the most brilliant musical moments of 2016. I think this song might be considered an alternative rock classic a few years down the line, and I really mean that. This song and album have that intangible brilliant unnamed quality that makes classic music resonate for so long after it’s initial release.
6. Vektor “Charging The Void”
“Holy shit.” Those were the exact words out of my mouth the moment this song ended upon my first listen of Terminal Redux. And I still have that reaction listening to it now. Throughout most of 2015, I was sort of losing my faith in heavy metal. Outside of a few outstanding releases from the likes of Baroness, Napalm Death, and Cattle Decapitation, I felt like there weren’t many new metal records that really impressed me like when I first fell in love with the genre. This standalone song changed flipped that on its head. Not in awhile have I heard something that so brilliantly captures the feel of classic heavy metal while being thoroughly modern and uncompromising. From that opening whammy bar harmonic dive bomb all the way to the orgasmic melodic break near the end of the track’s nine minutes and eleven seconds, “Charging The Void” feels like a short album unto itself and it never drags for one second.
5. David Bowie “Blackstar”
The way David Bowie’s Blackstar starts almost sounds like the album is trying to sneak up on you. It has this awkwardly short fade-in which the sinister opening notes sort of just slithers up like a serpent offering you the fruit of knowledge. All in all, it’s a pretty low key way to start such an ambitious record. But perhaps it’s what makes the album’s overall flow such a journey. The first track, “Blackstar”, is very much the centerpiece of the whole project. I talk a lot about songs that are “mission statements” for the records they inhabit, and this track is a prime example for that, in that it introduces the largely experimental aspects of the record while at the same time giving some of the traditional Bowie style songwriting that most people know. The lyrics are some of the most cryptic in the man’s career. They seem to be commenting on the legacy artists leave behind, but there are also these vague references to seemingly occult things and a bizarre shout out to The Villa Of Ormen. It’s strange that I have so many long songs in my top ten, but I think 2016 sort of upped the ante for some of these artists who wanted to go above and beyond and create really ambitious works. And for as much as the world lost this year, we seem to be seeing a changing of the guard in music.
4. PARTYBABY “I Don’t Wanna Wait”
I gushed over the debut PARTYBABY album more than anything else this year. My appraisal of that record is the definition of fanboy hyperbole, and that’s saying something for a band I’ve only known about for a couple of months. The Golden Age Of Bullshit was gonna be near the top of my albums of the year list from the first time I heard it, and a lot of that is down purely to “I Don’t Wanna Wait”. Some songs are perfect for making you feel totally alive in the minutes that you’re listening to it, and this track has become one of those for me. Like I said earlier in my review for the album, this song does everything that rock music does better than any other genre. I feel like running a marathon every time I hear it. The album cover, depicting some girls having fun on a beach with an atom bomb going off right behind them, is a perfect visual metaphor for the music. It’s forcefully joyous and sunny, and will beat the crap out of you until you feel amazing about it. And no other punch to the gut sounded better this year.
3. Swans “When Will I Return?”
If I had to give one word to describe “When Will I Return?”, it’s harrowing. This is one of the few songs I’ve ever heard that makes me legitimately uncomfortable upon listening to it. The lyrics, sung by Jennifer Gira, deal with a vicious sexual assault. As a man, sexual assault is generally something that I thankfully don’t have to personally deal with in general, but the lyrics to this are so viscerally descriptive as to shove it your face and force you to confront the horror of the situation from the perspective of the victim. The hardest hitting aspect of all of this is the reveal that the experience still sticks with the narrator long after it’s over: “I still kill him in my sleep”. That’s not to say anything about the music itself though, which is just as nightmarish. The tentative first half leading into the militaristic march of the second half in which Gira continuously chants “Oh I’m alive” leads it to a stirring conclusion. But it’s not a victorious finale. It’s angry and vengeful, as it should be, given the inspiration behind the song.
2. Ghost “Square Hammer”
Ghost are one of the best rock bands in the modern era, and “Square Hammer” is the very best song these Satanic Swedes have ever written. And I said that exact thing last year when they released “Cirice” as the first single from their album Meliora. I thought that was their best ever song when that came out, so you can imagine how impressed I was when they released something even better just a year later! To see one of my favorite bands top themselves twice in a row like that is nothing short of amazing, and this is yet another track that I hope to whatever higher powers watch over us will be played in an arena sometime before I die. The craziest thing is that this was just a little song they released to promote one of their tours. This wasn’t even for an album, they just threw this together so they could have a new song in their setlist for a tour. Ghost, if you guys are reading this, good on you, you magnificent bastards.
1. Creeper “Misery”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re sick of me raving about Creeper, but if you listen to just one song from this list, listen to this one. I heard “Misery” for the first time back in February, and throughout the entirety of the year, I have not heard a single song more perfect than this. I’m having trouble even describing exactly why this just blows everything else out of the water. This band haven’t even released an album yet. Think about that for a second. They’ve reached a level of genius most bands will never get close to achieving, and they did it a year before their first album is due to come out. But really, I have to focus the majority of my praise on Will Gould. This man pours so much emotion into his singing on this. I get the feeling that the situation he’s singing about is very much based on personal experience. You can hear it in his voice. There’s a sort of unstable tremble to his voice on this, and at points he almost sounds like he’s just gonna break down. I can’t think of many other singers who show this level of vulnerability in their art. But that’s not to say he sounds wimpy. Not at all. If anything, he embodies all the power of every great rock singer in history especially as the track swells near its victorious finale. And to be honest, the lyrics to this could so easily sound horribly cheesy in the hands of a lesser vocalist, but Gould means every single word of what he says on “Misery”. The final chorus though, is what makes this one of the most moving pieces of music released this year. It’s a cliche, but if you don’t get urge to hold your lighter in the air for that finale, you probably hatched from an egg and are incapable of feeling emotion, so you may as well just not even bother listening to music in general. I’m not gonna deconstruct the structure of this like I did with the other songs on this list. Just listen to it in a dark room with your headphones on. And it may not hit you like it hit me, but I can only speak to my own honest response to the music I hear, and “Misery” by Creeper is without a doubt my favorite song of 2016.