This is an imposing task. Make no mistake about it: Sitting down to write about what transpired in the span of 12 months in the world of music is daunting and actually has produced in me a form of hyperventilation for the last 10 to 15 years – however long it has been now that I’ve been attempting, as feebly but as adequately as possible, to boil down the huge heap of records released in a given year to the creamiest of the creamy.
Greil Marcus, the great music critic, for many years has done a column called “Real Life Rock Top Ten” (GreilMarcus.net), and it comprised 10 moments of his life each month where music was involved or had an impact/impression on the moment and subsequently left him something behind to scratch out with words. These were mostly the ways that we all experience music in our lives – a wide array of active and passive listening and participation. It could be that a household dance party breaks the hell out in the living room, with the Sonos speakers blaring hot, or it could be that the background music strikes you lightly, just barely registering, leaving the faintest of residues.
I don’t know about you all, but I’m a glutton for these year-end wrap ups. They’re fascinating and ultimately demoralizing because as you’re reading all of them – taking that finger down the rankings – it doesn’t take you very long at all to see a pattern, and you wonder why everyone’s lying. You know damned well that there can be no consensus for this activity – especially across so many publications and outlets. But there is almost always a consensus, and I call BS on it. Don’t fall for these lists. Each one should be startlingly different and ranging. They should be the result of tightening the beautiful shambles that music does to you and your daily life. We all make our own lists.
Here’s my humble list (it’s the first one I’ve been able to do in more than 10 years that’s been able to take into account everything, not just the recordings I was personally responsible for putting out into the world), and the reader’s companion for this list should be something like this: Your list might be the right one, but you should listen to this one, too. I’ll listen to yours.
LOLO, In Loving Memory of When I Gave a Shit and a tornado warning. It was a landslide this year, and it’s not always like this. Typically, a record will hit me hard and I take it in deep for a week and then something else strikes me and takes over my attention. LOLO’s debut album was captivating from the first moment I heard the lead singles from it, even before the full thing was out in the world. When a publicist first reached out to me about her late in 2015, her record label was banking on her being the next Janis Joplin. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Lauren Pritchard is something entirely different. She is a beast and an alien form, full of piss and vinegar, overflowing with passion, empathy, and complex offerings of broken love and hard-assedness. I couldn’t stop listening to this record this year if I wanted to. She’s as special as they come, and you’ll get it if you listen or see her perform live, but you’ll also get it if she shows up to soccer games in her fur coat, leaves happy-birthday voicemails for you and your kids, rides out storm warnings in your basement, downs endless Miller Lites in an Austin, Texas, backyard, or calls you up in tears at 1 a.m. on election night.
Campdogzz, “Healer” and a summer night in Rock Island. Songs that make you completely batty and drizzly and dizzy are the absolute greatest. These can best be described as the ones that just grab you and lick you to claim you only for themselves, as if you were a coveted last doughnut in the box with sprinkles on it and no one else was gonna get that doughnut. “Healer,” by what I think is easily the most promising young band I came across all year, is a thousand times over one of those songs that gets you in its clutches from the rip and just hypnotizes you into 14 compounded listens. Campdogzz will own you. They will make you feel it deep in your chest, lunging for you, plowing into you with abandon. Just you try to get away from them.
Chainsmokers, “Closer” and Analog’s one-year anniversary party. As you move down through this list, you’ll see a few more Top 40 radio songs noted, and there’s a good reason for that. Hits are undeniable and I think, even if we hate to admit it, none of us – even the staunchest of the indie, Pitchfork-leaning dudes and dudettes – is immune to their effects. The thing about this Chainsmokers song that cuts more than some others that were ever-present on the radio this year is the genuine personality that springs from it. This is a real story. It’s not the paint-by-numbers construct that is typical in pop songwriting. It’s not a blah guy-wants-girl phony come-on, but rather a short story with all of the details packed into the dance-y narrative. There’s the Rover that’s being ridden in (I cringe every time I hear that word in the song, but it has to stay because it matters), the Blink-182 song that these two lovers used to love, and the lustful mention of a shoulder tattoo being tenderly bitten into. And here’s the other thing about pop songs and how you know they’re good: When I had the honor of DJ-ing at the one-year anniversary of Analog in late October, I got a request to play this song, and the girls loved it – dancing through it right in front of my beloved pop-a-shot machines.
Whitney, Light Upon The Lake and the afterglow of a birthday party. We woke up on a mild Sunday morning in mid-September worse for the wear. The rusty windmill had been vocal all night, but the boys from Whitney were already cracking Miller High Lifes early on, and they were riding golf carts down dusty roads, with puppies on their laps. The night before they’d taken the stage right in the heart of the night, and they’d proceeded to old-school-AM-radio-bomb the hell out of everyone. We may as well have all been wearing Members Only jackets and acid-washed jeans, because we were blissfully teleported to a fictitious time when the 1980s had the privilege of knowing not only who Bread and the Doobie Brothers were, but also Bill Callahan, My Morning Jacket, Bahamas, and The Shins. Those hairs of the dog tasted great in that bright morning light.
Major Lazer w/Justin Bieber & MO, “Cold Water” and understanding that everyone grows up faster than we give them credit for. It was a year for full-blown unraveling (see Kanye West’s nutty hospitalization as a start) and just as much for total redemption. However you feel about Justin Bieber (he’s still the butt of plenty of jokes by late-night comedians), that Kate McKinnon-looking kid turned his roll around in a big way this year. He made absolutely no wrong moves. Everything he released and everything he guested on – especially this song that might as well just be his – was brilliant. If you’d written this little squirrel off as a goober when he was smashing cars and smuggling animals between countries, do yourself a favor and dive into these blazing hot waters. Justin Bieber will not let you down in 2016. Now 2017 could be a different story, but he’s on a hot streak for the time being.
Margaret Glaspy, Emotions & Math and turning everyone into droopy-jawed, rubber-limbed devotees with the snap of a finger and the coolest frog in the coolest throat. The tail end of the year had me calling the Starbucks on Middle Road my office most days of the week, heading home with the stench of roasting beans set into my clothing. The unassuming Margaret Glaspy was the person that I heard as much as anyone else in that Starbucks this year, with Sara Watkins’ great new solo record a close second. Glaspy wasn’t on any radar before this year began, and then she goes out and releases a collection of songs that is extremely difficult to put into any established box. She’s an exquisite writer and a phenomenally sneaky-good guitar player, and the combination of the two is quite thrilling. These songs never get cute. She drops F-bombs and she cuts to the quick about love and longing in ways that are unexpected and raw. The ways that she manipulates her words, phrasing, and groove are drinkable. They make you woozy.
Lucy Dacus, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” and the good ones with red puckered lips winning for a change. This song starts the Richmond, Virginian’s dynamite debut full-length, No Burden, and you could stop right there and feel like you got a good one, even if the following eight songs weren’t as formidable as they happen to be. Dacus wrote a record that should have her being talked about in the same breath as Courtney Barnett. There are a lot of genius, observational outlooks sprinkled throughout this album, and they’re self-conscious and pointed. They bark and they bite, all while maintaining a back-bar tone – back there where any vagary or dodged subject gets teased out – “Come on buddy, spill it. What’s really eating you? It doesn’t leave this place.” Dacus spills and spills, getting at her fears and phobias in a meaningfully vibrant way.
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book and having Miller Lite brunch stuffs in bus land at Bonnaroo. It’s a record that takes us down a number of beautiful and inspiring paths, but one of the highlights of Chance’s latest is a song titled “Same Drugs” that sounds like a gospel version of the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi if it were besieged by summer dandelions and the wine that comes from them. It’s a song about returning to a time that can never be returned to, and it’s about people changing and maybe never recognizing them again, even if that seemed impossible.
Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, “The Dirt, The Bells & I” and a man who never stops, but knows the day will come. Some people get asked what song they’d like played at their funeral, and when I read or hear these answers, I never really pay them much mind. They aren’t the songs I would have played at my funeral and, frankly, I haven’t been spending much time planning mine out. Hopefully the clock’s not ticking so fast that I’m going to be stuck sucking the hind teet. Luckily, my buddy Justin here might have checked this issue off the to-do list. I picture a shade-tree-heavy cemetery and a simple patch of green grass, with a simple stone nested atop it. There might even be a copy of Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman stuffed in a Ziploc bag sitting on it. It would be quiet and it would be tucked back on the grounds so that it would take a bit of a stroll to get to it from any road. It would just be there – we could just lie there – and be at peace. I think this is the one for me. Don’t let me forget.
Maggie Rogers, “Alaska” and sudden ubiquity. Without warning, everyone knew about Maggie Rogers on the very same day this year. It never happens this way, but they weren’t wrong to know her, and as the year went on, this young songwriter proved her chops with the very strategic release of three hot electro-pop singles that will be remixed gobs of times and thrown up at dance clubs around the world. I’m calling it now: The melancholy bangers and whatever’s coming after them in the form of her full-length debut – due in early 2017 – will be hard to avoid in nearly every setting this coming year. Maggie Rogers will be a less-seedy Tove Lo, and she’ll be all over the radio by the end of the year and likely well before that.
THEY., “Rather Die” and having that funny feeling that you might be onto something. We all do it: We take a glance in the mirror or just look ourselves up and down and realize that we’re just cool enough, but we’re definitely not that cool. When I discovered this Los Angeles band late this year, it made me feel like maybe I didn’t even have that tiny bit of cool that I thought I had. The reason for this is that these guys have all of the cool. “Rather Die” is a song that speaks to me the way Gnarls Barkley did when Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse first came out of the woodwork to take everyone by storm, but it also has these laptop-kid cool strokes and killer glitchiness that remind me of the best parts of The Weeknd. It’s ice-cold and melting all over the place.
Sir the Baptist, “Raise Hell” and knowing that you’re onto something. I don’t dance. Some folks argue that point, after I was in the “right place at the right time” and moved my body for the Quad Cities Chamber’s Quad Citizen video shoot sometime in the summer. Sir the Baptist could potentially make a dancer out of me yet. This song and the one by THEY. that I just mentioned are the two songs that brought out in me the most instantaneous reactions of any songs I heard all year. This one is straight fire and, if caught just right, it could make me shake it, or more likely move it a little here and then a little there in a manner befitting dancing activity.
Death by Unga Bunga, Pineapple Pizza and recognition of hot-blooded rock-and-roll boys. The great thing about rock and roll, when it’s done right, is that it’s so damned freeing. It jars you out of the humdrum kind of pettiness that we tend to get caught up in – what with our ventis and grandes and our BS worries. We can just let loose and drink way too many beers while doing so. Beer always tastes a little better when you’re sucking it down and you’re feeling it working in the limbs. A bunch of grungy boys from Norway, Death by Unga Bunga have no motives beyond creating feel-good, conversational-nuggets catchy garage rock. These are songs about friends and pizza parties and getting blitzed. The line that got me from this record was “Do you wanna share a Pepsi? We are gonna be best friends.” You can’t not like a band that would write something like that.
Valley Queen, “Who Ever Said” and a cat café on a sunny Texas day. I turned Bob Boilen onto Valley Queen down at SXSW this past March. We try to stump each other every year, and this was the one I got him with this year. He ended up becoming a big fan, inviting them by his Washington, DC, office for a Tiny Desk Concert last summer. The first time I saw them actually perform was at the weirdest place I’ve ever seen a band perform: It was a rescue-cat shelter that doubled as a café. There were lint rollers on the table that you could get to after signing a waiver at the door that essentially laid out that you could play with the cats, you could pet the cats, but you were forbidden from picking the cats up. You could order food and drinks there in that furry cavern, and we ate while surrounded by cats climbing everywhere and Valley Queen playing their Summer of Love-feeling Laurel Canyon odes. Lead singer Natalie Carol’s vocals are transported from another era, one that overlaps something the Supremes would have done and something Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie would have done.
Overcoats, “Nighttime Hunger” and “Cherry Wine” and frozen days. When two voices match the way that Hana Elion’s and J.J. Mitchell’s voices match, you want to just wrap yourself in the warmest blanket you can find and cocoon up and just see how intensely you can take yourself inside those voices. The two songs that Overcoats released in 2016 are nighttime diversions so soft of step that they’re liable to get into your house and eat all your chips and steal your TV without you hearing a thing.
Adam Torres, “Juniper Arms” and good things happen. There were a lot of times this year when we all wanted to give in, just roll over and let the bad guys, the scabs, and the bullshit just do whatever it was they were trying so hard to do to us. And I’m speaking for all of us here, because we were all in this shit show together in 2016. Well, from what I can tell, most of us didn’t do that. We can look around at some who did and we’ve got nothing for them, but most of us did everything we could to take dead aim at the clean start that symbolically comes to us with the turning over of the calendar and even before that – with a holiday season that stands for something more nurturing than anything else: friendship, fellowship, and love. This song, by a beautifully voiced man from Texas, smacked me and at least a handful of others right in the face when we heard it live, and it became a beacon for new life and rebirth and a cleansing. I have to believe in better days because of this song. And damn it, if all that came from this year was the Cubs winning the World Series, I’ll take it and run.
Honorable mentions: Terra Lightfoot, Exploded View, Big Thief, Margo Price, San Evian, Denzel Curry, Beyoncé, Beach Slang, LCD Soundsystem at Bonnaroo, Okay Kaya, Fleurie, Elise Davis, Sara Watkins, Joe Fox, Hannah Epperson, C.W. Stoneking, Charlotte Day Wilson, Local Natives, Demo Taped, BROS, Liz Cooper & the Stampede, Fil Bo Riva, Mild High Club, Weyes Blood, Birdtalker, and Matt Maeson.