The master list had about twice as many songs, because even though the albums of 2016 felt generally underwhelming (read: I'm feeling detached and it probably has nothing to do with the records at all), all of those generally underwhelming songs had at least a song or two that was solid gold.
30. Descendents - “Without Love” (Hypercaffium Spazzinate)
Still got it. Still doin’ it. The Descendents were one of the very first bands I discovered when I got into punk rock via Blink-182 and they occupy a special place in my heart.
29. Bon Iver - “00000 Million” (22, A Million)
As is always the case, the last track on the Bon Iver LP is my favorite. The man just knows how to bring the house down at the very end right before the lights come up.
28. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam - “A 1000 Times” (I Had a Dream That You Were Mine)
And the year’s “Young Folks” goes to… Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, “A 1000 Times”! That is to say, I feel like very soon I won’t be able to walk down the street without hearing this song, to the point where I will grow to hate it, which is no fault of the song, but a testament to its instant appeal via Leithauser singing the absolute hell out of it.
27. Frightened Rabbit - “I Wish I Was Sober” (Painting of a Panic Attack)
Frightened Rabbit used to be one of my Top 5 favorite bands. They claimed the top spot of my favorite albums of 2010 with The Winter of Mixed Drinks, and I didn’t even like that one as much as I loved their sophomore LP The Midnight Organ Fight. Since Mixed Drinks, the band has gotten progressively more dour and the records a little harder to swallow. Scott Hutchison, who has such a gift for bleak humor, abandoned the humor altogether and left only the bleakness. I liked Pedestrian Verse just fine, and his gifts as a songwriter are in fine shape but man, the songs on that record were pretty dark and the songs on Painting of a Panic Attack are even darker.
26. Sad13 - “Less Than 2” (Slugger)
25. Lambchop - “In Care of 8675309” (FLOTUS)
This record is totally insane, and that’s not even by Kurt Wagner standards, considering most Lambchop records are always a little insane. With all of its electronic manipulation and expansive soundscapes, FLOTUS was too dense for me to crack open this year, but the opening track is intensely beautiful.
24. Pinegrove - “Old Friends”/ “New Friends” (Cardinal)
Man, I can’t even pick one. Cardinal came in at #5 on my favorite albums of 2016 list but I feel like their sound is what 2016 is gonna sound like when I think about it ten years from now.
23. How to Dress Well - “Lost Youth/Lost You” (Care)
I feel like this one came up a LOT on shuffle, and maybe that’s because it survived so many processes of weeding out because it’s so damn good. It’s a fragile, white boy R&B number with big feelings, and though I feel like I never give How to Dress Well a shot because man, that’s an awful band name, Tom Krell sings his ass off and I need to give him more credit from now on.
22. PUP - “Familiar Patterns” (The Dream is Over)
Immediate inclusion for any song that refers to a group of peoples as “riff raff.” Immediate exclusion for any musical artists named Riff Raff.
21. Angel Olsen - “Shut Up Kiss Me” (My Woman)
You ever listen to an artist and think it’s going to be a goddamn shame if they’re not the biggest, most well respected songwriter on the planet in ten years time? Because that’s how I feel when I listen to Angel Olsen, who is an absolute powerhouse. She’s already a gifted singer and songwriter of considerable prowess, but the thing that sets her apart is that you get the feeling that she is only going to get better.
20. Tancred - “Pens” (Out in the Garden)
Hello? What year is it? I feel like I have fallen through a wormhole and been transported to the Pacific Northwest circa 1994. These tunes, this sound… Here’s another one where I randomly clicked play on the video and immediately slotted it into the Top 20 songs of the year.
19. Rooftop Vigilantes - “Psychopathic Communication” (Let it Be)
On the night Alex Chilton died, I went to see Rooftop Vigilantes at the Replay. They covered “September Gurls” and at the end of the set, went to play it again but wanted someone else to come up and sing it and of course I went up there because I love that song. But I only really knew the first verse and a half and the chorus and it’s one of those embarrassing moments that will occasionally come out of nowhere like a Randy Orton RKO and send a shiver down my spine. I then walked home in a blizzard, fell down on Kentucky Street and ripped open the knee of my jeans, and skinned my knee. And as embarrassing as that is, it’s tied to how much I love this band and loved seeing them play.
18. LVL UP - “She Sustains Us” (Return to Love)
If I’m gonna knock Beach Slang for sounding too much like the Replacements, I should definitely be knocking LVL UP for sounding too much like Neutral Milk Hotel. AND YET. There is an unseen quality that doesn’t irk me. It might be that this track (and this record) feels more like a throwback to the halcyon days of Elephant 6 and those fuzzed out guitars and harmonies and sweet simple little solo riffs sustain me.
17. Against Me! - “Boyfriend” (Shape Shift With Me)
Against Me!’s career arc feels like an episode of Behind the Music and, based on the energy of Shape Shift With Me, this band doesn’t even feel like it’s halfway done. Easily my favorite Against Me! record since As the Eternal Cowboy, and that is thanks to ass kickers like this that let Laura Jane Grace really fucking wail. Her voice has always been this band’s greatest asset, and goddamn if she doesn’t tear the house down here. Also, Shape Shift With Me is the hands down album title of the year.
16. Sturgill Simpson - “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” (A Sailor’s Guide to Earth)
The tender lead-off track from Sturgill Simpson’s third album might not be the album’s showstopper (the lead single “Keep it Between the Lines” and his cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” are the ones that bring the house down here) but it’s the one that made me fully commit to the journey. The song’s concept of missing your loved ones whilst out on the road is a time honored one, but the way Simpson sings to his newborn son about how much he wants to be there with him gets me choked up every time. I mean, just pulling up the lyrics “When I get home it breaks my heart/ To see how much you’ve grown” made me misty eyed. It’s powerful stuff, and Simpson delivers it with such conviction it doesn’t come across as sappy (although it helps that the songs opening piano ballad feel gives way to a brassy soul song midway through).
15. Crying - “Premonitory Dream” (Beyond the Fleeting Gales)
Crying wooed me with their evolved version of chiptune, and truly stole my heart when I saw that they called their fanbase “Crylons.” Beyond the Fleeting Gales was the best indie pop record of 2016 (that I heard at least) and its leadoff track is a powerhouse that sets the table, serves you the meal, and gets you ready for 9 more fabulous variations on that theme.
14. Car Seat Headrest - “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” (Teens of Denial)
Despite having more albums under his belt by the tender age of 24 than most bands produce in their whole careers, Will Toledo continues to forge his own path. He’s still beholden to some pretty obvious influences (Teens of Denial feels like a modern Modern Lovers record) but his willingness to take chances (like having a song cribbing the melody from “Just What I Needed” devolve into a cover of “Just What I Needed” and having Ric Ocasek sue to get it off your record, which is pretty great) and let it all hang out like a big shaggy indie rock dog, well, I gotta respect that. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is his most triumphant statement yet, in a career that seems destined to be littered with triumphant statements.
13. Hallelujah the Hills - “The Girl With Electronics Inside” (A Band is Something to Figure Out)
I know Guided by Voices released an album this year, but this is the best Guided by Voices song of 2016.
12. Modern Baseball - “Mass” (Holy Ghost)
This brisk little number covers the well trod ground of “missing your girlfriend on tour” songs, but what Jake Ewald makes it feel fresh by packing a crapload of details and a crapload of feeling and a crapload of wry songcraft into a sub-two minute track that you just stand back and go, “Goddamn.” It’s rare to find great lyrics that are just as good on the page as they are in the song, but lines like, “But here I am Valero bathroom/ Whose paid to keep these things cliche/ Bury me beneath New York State/ It’s the only place where I feel dead” and the line about writing down the jerk gas station attendant’s name and immediately sympathizing with her for having to work such a shitty job are great any way you look at them.
11. AJJ - “Junkie Church” (The Bible 2)
It was tough to pick a favorite track from The Bible 2. It’s just such a great album album. “Junkie Church” won out because the last verse in the song was maybe my favorite verse of the year. Plus, and I mentioned this in the Favorite Albums list when talking about The Bible 2, the repeated references to Milky Way candy bars really spoke to my soul.
10. Jeff Rosenstock - “Staring Out the Window At Your Old Apartment” (Worry)
Jeff Rosenstock, where have you been all my life? Oh, right, playing in a band I never listened to even though that band (Bomb the Music Industry!) is well within my wheelhouse but you can only get to so much stuff with so little time and you chalk it up for a loss but then hey, at least now you have a whole new discography to dig through and that’s pretty cool. Where was I? Oh yeah, right, Rosenstock, the prodigal one. Last year’s We Cool was such a staple that I wasn’t ready for Worry and filed it away under “Gonna be regretting not putting this on the list in April 2017.” This song kicked me right in the pants, though, because there really is nothing more depressing than seeing a decorative surfboard up in your friend’s old apartment where their records and books used to be.
9. Conor Oberst - “Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)”/ "Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out" (Ruminations)
“It costs twenty dollars/ To visit Fallingwater/ It’s a perfect house where no one lives” is one of my favorite lines of the year. I'm also a huge fan of the spontaneous album, and the magic that can be made when things aren't worked to death. I'm cheating here because why not.
8. Kevin Devine - “I Was Alive Back Then” (Instigator)
Kevin Devine’s Instigator traffics in power pop vibes pretty much throughout, but the last track on the records vibrates with the deep and raw personal truths that I live for. When listening to music, nothing is more satisfying to me than finding a songwriter willing to lay everything out there for all to see.
7. The Hotelier - “Two Deliverances” (Goodness)
I didn’t think Goodness quite reached the intense emotional peaks of its predecessor (and it certainly wasn’t a requirement as the band can make whatever the hell they want), but this song sure as hell did. I'm probably on the wrong side of history with this record, because even in the week since publishing my favorite albums list I feel like I didn't slot it high enough after a couple more listens.
6. Martha - “Curly & Raquel” (Blisters in the Pit of My Heart)
Song of the Year if you’re judging only on a track that was able to find all of my joy sensors and overload them so that my brain turned into a big euphoric puddle. In a year where Los Campesinos! (weirdly) didn’t release a record, Martha picked up the slack in the punk-tinged indie-pop department and “Curly & Raquel” only edges out the other six or seven songs from the record that could occupy this slot because it was the first one I heard.
5. Big Thief - “Masterpiece” (Masterpiece)
Man alive, sometimes you stumble onto a music video and put it on because you like the band’s name and you end up with one of your favorite records of the year. I love it when that happens, and I love the title track from Big Thief’s magnificent debut LP. I feel like this track exists outside of time and it’s so damn hard to pull that off.
4. Frank Ocean - “Ivy” (Blonde)
Here’s the requisite “I checked out this big record outside of my comfort zone and it was incredible” pick of the year. I put Blonde on as a way to push myself outside of my indie rock wheelhouse a little bit and this one knocked me on my ass so hard I fell through the floor. It manages to be beautiful, heartbreaking, innovative, passionate, genre bending and an ear worm all at once and, yeah, just give Frank Ocean a license to print money ok? I’m on board.
3. John K Samson - “Winter Wheat” (Winter Wheat)
There are five or six tracks from John K Samson’s new record that could occupy this slot, but it goes to the title track because it was my post-election salve. I woke up that Wednesday morning, heart still in my stomach, beginning to process the horrors ahead, and put this album on while I made breakfast for Rosie. I put it on because Winter Wheat feels like an album about having hope and persevering and doing one’s best to create a better world. There are copious incredible lines scattered throughout Winter Wheat (as there are with any album associated with Samson) and in the wake of the election results, the line “We know this world is good enough because it has to be” (lifted from a novel by Miriam Toews) put me at ease. In Samson’s own words, “That’s exactly what I want the heart of this record to say. Not this idea that we should be complacent about how the world is, but the fact that we have to accept certain things about who we are and we have to survive.”
2. Joyce Manor - “Last You Heard of Me” (Cody)
Joyce Manor’s knack for short songs with sturdy emotional backbones was what immediately drew me to their records moth-to-flame style, but this song is in a league of its own. In two and a half minutes there’s a build, and then there’s a burst, and in between there is a short story about a night out at a karaoke bar that turns from meet-cute to a twists into a meditation on detachment and a knowing unwillingness to commit to anybody and glimpsing a cycle of bars and one night stands that effectively goes on indefinitely since the song ends without giving us any more than that. The songwriting is deft and the track is infinitely replayable and you realize that even this early in their career, and even though these guys are young as hell, they’ve basically already mastered their thing, and just looking at the growth models leads me to believe these guys are going to be making songs of this caliber for a very long time.
1.Mitski - “Your Best American Girl” (Puberty 2)
I would love to see the slow motion replay of how I came to this track. Certainly Mitski’s Puberty 2 had been on my periphery. Though I quit reading music reviews in 2016, things would pop up in my newsfeed or I’d see the grades in passing while scrolling through the AV Club. I think I saw the cover, thought it was some sort of electronica thing, moved on, found out it had guitars and pulled up the single on Youtube. And I sat there on some random night in the first days of Summer, and five seconds after the chorus hit I quietly muttered to myself: “Song of the year.” “Your Best American Girl” was a no doubter. The songwriting--both sonically and lyrically--is exquisite. Gorgeous, emotionally fraught, heartbreaking, all the things that go to make a compelling listen, right there from an incredible new(ish) voice.