Top 20 songs of 2016
1. The xx, “On Hold”
Released two days after the U.S. election, it was the song we needed. Sad (“When and where did we go cold?”) yet hopeful, at least in beat (and in an unexpectedly brilliant Hall & Oates sample). The xx have promised a new, more “uplifting” record in 2017, one that sees their producer-slash-DJ Jamie xx take a more prominent role, as he does on “On Hold,” and as he should following the success of last year’s solo album In Colour (its single, “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” was my top song last year). Can’t wait.
2. The Rhythm Method, “Party Politics”
At first, I didn’t know what to make of London duo The Rhythm Method and its Sleaford-Mods-meets-Pet-Shop-Boys’ single “Party Politics.” There’s clearly humour here, from the band’s wink-wink name to lines like, “I’ve got no place to go / I’m George Best in show” or “Be my Cherie Blair, I’ll be your Cherie Amour.” But it’s not just a laugh; it’s a sharply written and produced house track about “the sad lads in the sticks” longing for more, looking to dance.
3. Chairlift, “Moth To The Flame”
The first of two Chairlift songs, this one starts the night.
4. Francis And The Lights, “My Citys Gone”
Savvy pop-music fans were already familiar with Francis And The Lights, from a few warmly received EPs and tours opening for Drake and MGMT. But 2016 saw Francis step further into the spotlight, helped by his collaborations with Chance The Rapper, Frank Ocean, Bon Iver and Kanye West. The latter two appeared on “Friends,” the bigger hit from new album Farewell, Starlite!, with a meme-worthy (and possibly cringe-worthy) video of a dancing Justin Vernon. “My Citys Gone” [no apostrophe] is far less breezy, evoking Bruce Springsteen’s 9/11-inspired “My City In Ruins,” another song that spoke to a time of rapid, unwelcome change. As Francis sings on “Citys,” it spoke to me.
5. DJ Khaled, “For Free (ft. Drake)”
Few in hip hop had bigger years than DJ Khaled and Drake. No surprise that their collaboration was the most banging. And that’s without a read of its salacious lyrics.
6. Jessy Lanza, “It Means I Love You”
Lots of love for Jessy Lanza, a native of my adopted hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. “It Means I Love You” is a finely crafted neo-techno classic that simmers a full three minutes before Lanza’s vocal comes in, letting the DJ Rashad-influenced beat build. (It’s reminiscent of a similar trick Michael Jackson pulled on “Billie Jean,” when he famously resisted producer Quincy Jones’ attempts to shorten its 30-second bass-line intro. “But that’s the jelly!” Jackson said. “That’s what makes me want to dance.”) That’s the jelly.
7. Chairlift, “Crying In Public”
And this one ends it.
8. Astronoid, “Air”
In this post-genre musical era, it’s hat-tip worthy to create a new one. So well done Boston-based five-piece Astronoid for giving us ambient metal, two tastes that go surprisingly well together. You don’t have to be a fan of either genre to like “Air”; in fact, it might work even better if you’re not. It’s dreamy and aggressive, six minutes of what-the-hell-is-this? duality.
9. Modern Baseball, “Apple Cider, I Don’t Mind”
For those who want more straight-ahead rock, this is as level as it gets. “Apple Cider, I Don’t Mind” barely clocks two minutes, virtually requiring repeat listens. And its “Tell me this is forever” refrain is Modern Baseball at its emo best.
10. The Range, “Florida”
There’s a joy to The Range’s brand of electronica that sets its maker, James Hinton, apart. It’s captured in a performance of his 2013 breakout single “Metal Swing” at the Pitchfork Music Festival, a video of which shows Hinton passionately swinging back and forth to his own song as the crowd locks in. And the positive vibes carry through to this year’s calypso-tinged “Florida,” built on a vocal sample from the found YouTube video of bedroom singer Kai Mars.
11. PUP, “DVP”
It helps to have driven the road featured in PUP’s blistering track from The Dream Is Over, the Ontario band’s super-solid new album. The Don Valley Parkway is a source of frequent rage and frustration, just like the character in “DVP”: “She says I drink too much / Fucked up and she hates my guts / She says I need to grow up!” Sometimes you just need to pick a different route.
12. James Blake, “I Need A Forest Fire (ft. Bon Iver)”
The song in which Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon lets out an uncharacteristic “Woo!” A forest fire is an apt metaphor for this slow-burn single, one that bleeds together Blake and Vernon’s achy vocals over a lingering, longing beat.
13. YG & Nipsey Hussle, “FDT”
It’s not easy to make a good protest song, which often suffer from either preachy lyrics or forgettable tunes. (Or both.) But this year’s best anti-Trump song avoided both; “FDT” didn’t mince words and it bounced.
14. Basement Revolver, “Johnny”
A second act from Hamilton, Ontario, but no favours needed for Basement Revolver’s “Johnny,” a gently propulsive track about a really bad, really bad boyfriend.
15. Maddie Ross, “Make Me A Safe Place”
The bottom half of this list is dominated by female indie rockers who aren’t shy about their pop influences or shy about much. Maddie Ross’s “Make Me A Safe Place” is sassy (“Bad girls go first / Good girls eat dirt / Ha!”) and compact, with a stomping finish.
16. Krrum, “Hard On You”
The best Miike-Snow-meets-Disclosure single didn’t come from either of those dance-pop stalwarts, but UK newcomer Krrum on his sunny house-lite track “Hard On You.”
17. Alex Lahey, “You Don’t Think You Like People Like Me”
Young, female, Australian, and not afraid to rock or be pop. This one has the Smiths-like title.
18. Bloods, “Bring My Walls Down”
Young, female, Australian, and not afraid to rock or be pop. Not Broods, but Bloods.
19. 18+, “Drama”
“Such a dum-dum for you, baby.” And the best non-sample sample of the year.
20. Jealous Of The Birds, “Russian Doll”
A follow-up to their equally great first single, “G0ji Berry Sunset,” Jealous Of The Birds’ “Russian Doll” is delicate Stars-like rock about tormenting love. “Despite how much I want to just punch you in the face / My favourite smell on this Earth is still your pillowcase.” Aww!
- A Tribe Called Quest, “We The People”
- Chance The Rapper, “No Problem”
- Lydia Loveless, “Clumps”
- BOYBOY, “Daylight”
- Tellef Raabe, “Flying On The Ground”
- Margaret Glaspy, “Somebody To Anybody”
- Harts, “Peculiar”
- Kaytranada, “Lite Spots”
- Mal Devisa, “In My Neighbourhood”
- Blowout, “Indiana”
- DJ Shadow, “Nobody Speak (ft. Run The Jewels)”
- Slingshot Dakota, “Lewlyweds”
- Kid Cudi, “Surfin’ (ft. Pharrell Williams)”
- Babygirl, “Overbored”
- Lion Babe, “Endless Summer”
- ADLT VDEO, “Break”
- Beyond Rare, “Cold”
- Kanye West, “Real Friends”
- Charles Bradley, “Changes”
- Ekkah, “Small Talk”
- Phoebe Troup, “Come Back, Deer Tick”
- Kweku Collins, “The Outsiders”
- Nadia Nair, “Something Something Something”
- Nick Murphy, “Stop Me (Stop You)”
- Braids, “Companion”