If you want to skip my reviews and just get to the music, here’s my 2016 Spotify playlist.
2016 was a real dumpster fire of year, right? Just considering the talent we lost (e.g., David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince) the world seems a little dimmer and less magical. But then there was that never-ending election, which paraded a whole host of “This is the best we can do?” candidates before us while exposing long-standing cracks in our society (and no doubt creating a few more).
I can’t recall a time when our culture’s felt so divided, critical, and suspicious — not only of each other, but even of some of our most fundamental ideals and institutions. (Have we really reached the point where people are okay with curbing the First Amendment?)
At a time like this, writing about music (and culture in general) can seem like a rather frivolous exercise in light of, say, the growth of racism and white nationalism. (Or, looking at my own camp, in light of the willingness of so many Christian “leaders” to throw away their integrity and go all in with a presidential candidate like Donald Trump.)
However, we still need music; we still need art and beauty. We need it to encourage and uplift us in the midst of the world’s ugliness. We need it to entertain us and lighten our moods. We need it to remind us of those who are broken and suffering (even if that happens to be us). We need it to give us new eyes with which to see each other. We need it to help us remember that, for all of our differences in opinion and perspective, there’s still so much than can, and does, unite us. We need it to take us beyond ourselves and our current plights and situations.
With all that being said, here’s a list of songs that helped me get through 2016 in one way or another. I hope it contains a song or two that’ll help you in a similar fashion in the days to come.
Netflix’s Stranger Things was the cult hit of 2016, thanks to its delightful blend of sci-fi, horror, nerdery, and ’80s nostalgia. Oh, and an awesome John Carpenter-ish soundtrack courtesy of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. Though barely a minute long, the show’s opening theme does a masterful job of setting both tone and viewer expectations: the dark synthesizer pulses and arpeggios make it clear something ominous (and awesome) is awaiting you in the episode to come. It’s a safe bet that Dixon and Stein will return to score the show’s second season. However, they shouldn’t waste any time trying to compose a new theme. This one’s perfect as is.
A “super group” featuring members of Slowdive and Mogwai? If you know anything about me, then you know that’s basically a no-brainer. Minor Victories’ music certainly features plenty of lovely vocals courtesy of Rachel Goswell, as well as the atmospheric guitar-work you might expect from Stuart Braithwaite. However, the band also throws some additional elements into the mix, such as the aggressive, churning synthesizer that underscores “A Hundred Ropes” and gives it so much energy and urgency. It’s not shoegaze, post-rock, or synthwave but rather, something located somewhere near the middle of that musical Venn diagram.
I’ve been listening to Starflyer 59 for over two decades and I’ve always appreciated the workmanlike, “blue collar” nature of Jason Martin’s music. Trends be damned; Martin doggedly sticks with what he likes and what he knows will work — which explains why his discography has been so reliable all these years. That being said, 2016’s Slow is particularly noteworthy; it contains some of the best music Martin’s made in a decade. And “Wrongtime,” with its chiming guitars, no-nonsense beat, and weary, regret-filled lyrics, is the clear album highlight. It’s proof positive that Jason Martin’s only getting better with (middle) age.
’80s nostalgia has been all the rage lately, and I confess, it had an undeniable influence on this particular list. But The Midnight’s ultra-polished electro-pop might very well be said nostalgia’s apotheosis. At least, that’s the sense I get every time Johannes Jørgensen unleashes some glorious guitar riffs on “Sunset,” The Midnight’s ode to youthful rebellion and escape. If you claim to be a child of the ’80s and “Sunset” doesn’t evoke a certain wistfulness or fondness somewhere deep down inside, then I’m gonna have to question the date listed on your birth certificate. (For the record, “Sunset” was my most-played song from 2016, which should tell you something.)
A rough-hewn beauty can be found in the raggedness and disorder of William Ryan Fritch’s “Cataclysm.” True to its title, the song sounds like the wreckage of five or six different songs lashed together in the middle of a terrible storm, and at first, you brace yourself for an unbearable onslaught on your eardrums. But to Fritch’s credit, he’s able to shape and mold those elements — e.g., shivering guitar feedback, swirling strings, clattering and clanging percussion, disembodied vocals — into something that, while certainly noisy and raucous, is also so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Music can easily instill a desire to head off the beaten path and strike out for more foreign places. Western Skies Motel’s music certainly creates a sense of wanderlust, but not for the sort of exotic locales you might think. With his delicately picked acoustic guitar, sparse piano, and field recordings, Denmark’s René Gonzàlez Schelbeck evokes the American Midwest throughout “Migratory Birds.” But leave it to a foreigner to eschew the lionization of the Midwest that’s happened in so much of American pop music. Schelbeck’s music evokes a sense of vastness and barrenness that may not make your chest swell with heartland pride — but if you’re actually from the heartland (i.e., Nebraska, in my case), then you know it rings true.
Emily Jane White’s album tackled some pretty serious topics (e.g., racism, sexism) but did so in a graceful manner. Much of that is due to how White utilizes layers of her rich voice, which imbues her songs with an almost choral feel at times. At the same time, the folk-iness of her music gives it a warmth and intimacy. Which is good, because “Frozen Garden” contains some pretty ominous imagery (“Here they lie, children forsaken/And I see myself as one among them”). But the gentle organ swells imply that’s not all there is. Indeed, in the song’s final moments, White’s still able to sing, if not of forgiveness, than a hope for forgiveness. Which is a step in the right direction.
As “Across the Waves” winds down, Heather Ditch sings “There is calm, there is hope, there is light.” If ever there was a year when we needed those things, it was 2016. However, “Across the Waves” isn’t exactly an “uplifting” song — not in the usual sense of the term, anyway. Part of that is due to the hauntological aesthetic pervading The Big Eyes Family Players’ music, which evokes a more folksy, pastoral version of the Ghost Box label’s repertoire. And Ditch’s voice, while lovely, possesses a certain aloofness not dissimilar to Broadcast’s Trish Keenan. Even so, the song is a comforting listen precisely because of the beauty shining amidst the surrounding chill and darkness.
This song features some of my favorite guitar riffs of 2016, even though it’s a far cry from what’s usually considered “guitar” music. Liz Janes has always been a musical chameleon, with a discography that shifts between blues, folk, country, and psychedelia — certainly nothing that really hints at “epic” riffage. And yet, that’s what we hear on “Circulation” as jagged, distorted guitar notes soar high above Janes’ playful/soulful vocals and Dan Fahrner’s drunken, staggered drumming. Those notes sound like they’re going to tear Slow City apart after just a few minutes; instead, they become akin to a livewire that makes “Circulation” positively electrifying (pun intended).
“Only Child” is both a warning against surrendering to the sins of the past as well as a plea for forgiveness — and it was a plea that left me choked up after nearly every listen. 2016 was filled with expressions of rage and discontent by people all across the socio-political spectrum who’ve felt marginalized over the years. Jonathan Meiburg’s ballad doesn’t contain any grand political statements — its scope is far more intimate, ostensibly about a child reeling from parental abuse and neglect — but in a year as contentious as 2016, his yearning for peace and healing was a true balm for the soul. Perhaps it’s naïve to think that songs can heal national wounds, but maybe they can remind us of a world that we’d all like to see come a little closer to becoming reality.
When American Football released their self-titled debut in 1999, your local record store (remember those?) probably filed it under “emo.” Which always felt like a stretch. American Football played intricate, atmospheric music that had far more in common with Steve Reich than Rites of Spring. The group’s sophomore album doesn’t deviate from that too much; if there’s one complaint leveled against it, it’s that it’s more of the same. But so what? Fluid guitars, shimmering vibes, snappy rhythms, plaintive vocals — everything you expect from American Football is there. Even better, the song boasts a bridge that was one of 2016’s most beautiful musical moments; the understated manner in which it graces the song is breathtaking.
Visions of Us on the Land is Damien Jurado’s third album collaboration with producer Richard Swift, and once again, their union produced some truly amazing music. Jurado made his name as a solo artist writing stripped down, heartbreaking indie-folk. There’s nothing particularly stripped down, however, about “Exit 353.” The core is still Jurado and his acoustic guitar, but organs, percussion, and layer-upon-layer of vocals give the song a trippy, cosmic vibe. And yet, because it’s Damien Jurado we’re talking about here, a man who can wring untold layers of emotion from his music, the song never loses any emotional oomph.
I’ve seen a lot of bands come and go as I’ve run Opus. It’s always sad to see bands who’ve released something great subsequently disappear into the void for one reason or another. After releasing their self-titled debut in 2012, I was afraid that’d be the case for Pittsburgh’s Sleep Experiments. But as it turns out, the trio — much like their unassuming blend of folk, dreampop, and ambient — were just flying under the radar. Passages doesn’t break new ground, but then again, music this pure and heartfelt doesn’t need to. Morgan Stewart’s voice is a thing of beauty on “To the Shore”; meanwhile, crystalline piano and billowing guitars provide an appropriate backdrop for a song about faith, self-awareness, and humility.
“In Heaven” sure sounds heavenly, with shoegazer-y sparkles, ethereal synths, and Michelle Zauner’s breathy voice cooing away. But underneath those airy sounds is a whole mess of hurt caused by a broken relationship. “I came here for the long haul/Now I leave here as an empty fucking hole” were some of 2016’s most caustic lyrics. The dichotomy between the lyrical bitterness, the coyness of Zauner’s voice, and the dreamy music only makes the song more affecting. When Zauner sighs “Oh it could be such heaven/If you believed it was real,” the heartache twists like a knife — and you just want to punch the moron who broke her heart.
The band’s name may conjure up music that’s prurient and, well, sex-obsessed, but it’s a clever bit of misdirection. There’s nothing “dirty” about Cigarette After Sex’s languid ballads about love and intimacy. Rather, Greg Gonzalez is a hopeless romantic, and on “K,” he’s completely smitten. As he sings “Holding you until you fall asleep and it’s just as good as I knew it would be,” surrounded by lush guitars and sleepy rhythms, the song easily evokes the sort of intoxication that accompanies falling head over heels. Put another way, if Cigarettes After Sex had been around back when I was making mixtapes for girls I had crushes on, “K” would’ve been on every single one of them.
I have a confession to make: Despite their music containing my favorite musical elements (e.g., shimmery guitars, dreamy vocals), Hammock has never done much for me. I’ve always appreciated the music they make more than I’ve liked it, even as many of my similarly minded friends have fawned over them. And I can’t really explain why. I confess all that because, even though it doesn’t do anything different than the rest of Hammock’s discography, the music on “Glassy Blue” coalesces in a way that just nails me. The song is sweeping, cinematic, and wide-eyed, especially in its closing moments when the string arrangements emerge.
Posh Lost’s self-titled debut was everything you could want in a post-punk album. Hewing closely to the formula established by Joy Division in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it still contained plenty of its own personality. The moment Jack Woolsey’s bass came thundering in like a stormcloud while Jeff Cornell and Sean Neppl’s guitars slashed away like icicles, I was hooked. And Woolsey’s detached voice looms high overhead like some ancient spectre, world-weary and detached and yet impossible to get out of your head. When the song picks up the pace until it’s barreling forward with reckless abandon only to end on a resigned note? Absolutely spellbinding stuff.
A deep chill pervades every single second of Winter Severity Index’s “Waiting Room.” The rhythms are carved from ice, frost encases every guitar note, and the keyboards settle down like so much new-fallen snow. There’s a serenity and austerity about the song that feels almost timeless, like the song has been trapped in a deep Arctic freeze. Simona Ferrucci’s brand of atmospheric post-punk is absolutely pristine in its execution. When she sings “This endless angst dissolves the will to find oneself,” gloom and existentialism has rarely been delivered so well. Her ability to coax such supremely graceful and beautiful music out of such despair — to find some human warmth in the midst of such cold — is second to none.
Makeup and Vanity Set’s synthesizer music tends to be on the dark side (e.g., 2015’s Wilderness, 2013’s 7.25.2148). On the Wavehymnal EP, Matthew Pusti doesn’t necessarily eschew the darkness, but his music has rarely sounded so sleek; I’d even go so far as to describe it as “danceable.” Pusti’s synthesizer and programming work is as crisp and finely tuned as ever, but “Stalker“ ‘s vibe is leaner, faster and — dare I say? — funkier than nearly anything we’ve heard from him to date. And the icing on the cake? A synth melody that invokes the excellent 88:88 album. 88:88 could be considered the starting point for Makeup and Vanity Set’s current musical phase. As such, “Stalker” — along with the rest of Wavehymnal — feels like Pusti’s coming full circle.
Ever since 2014’s Sleepygirls, Yagya’s brand of ambient dub techno has been my frequent go-to for coding sessions. And at first listen, Stars and Dust sounds like more of the same, which isn’t a bad thing given the quality of Aðalsteinn Guðmundsson’s music. But it’s kind of deceptive like that, as Guðmundsson has sprinkled lots of interesting little details throughout his expansive sounds. “Through the Sculptor Group” is a fine enough track of synth melodies and hazy rhythms, but right around the mid-way point, an eerie melody begins to emerge. It never strays too far from the background and sounds like it might’ve beamed over from somewhere deep in the titular expanse of space. In any case, it only adds to the vastness conjured up by Yagya’s music.
It’s hard to think of a more fitting track for an album titled Slow Knife. “In Your Sleep” is certainly slow and mellow, thanks to smoky beats and textures evoking Mezzanine-era Massive Attack. But it also has an undeniable edge, a keen sharpness that keeps you nervous even as you find yourself lulled. Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe is the song’s crux; his light, airy voice melds perfectly with the music while his lyrics (“If you say it in your sleep/Then there’s one less secret you have to keep”) add to the song’s dark, mysterious tone. In the end, “In Your Sleep” walks a thin line between dream and nightmare; you’re unsure if you want to wake up from it — or even if you can.
It’s a real shame the Academy disqualified the Arrival soundtrack from the “Best Original Score” category in this year’s Oscars. (Their reason: the movie contains some borrowed music, specifically Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight.”) Jóhann Jóhannsson’s blend of orchestral and choral arrangements does so much to enhance Arrival’s already mind-bending tale of alien encounter. Film soundtracks can often seem interchangeable. Not so with Jóhannsson’s, particularly on such an unearthly sounding song as “First Encounter.” The more you listen to it, the more you realize it’s just as vital to Arrival’s brilliance as Amy Adams’ measured performance, Denis Villeneuve’s meditative direction, and Bradford Young’s gorgeous cinematography.
Irezumi’s Thirty is dedicated to the memory of his brother, who died in 2015. Furthermore, the Parisian musician described Thirty as “a statement of several years of combat about depression, doubts, fears, mourning & resilience.” As such, it’s no surprise that a song titled “Goodbye Brother” is the album’s finest moment, as well as some of the most beautiful ambient music I heard all year. Over the course of six minutes, gentle music box chimes are slowly subsumed by heavenly synth clouds. The music’s so intimate, you almost feel like a voyeur — like you’re listening in on Irezumi processing his sorrow and grief while seeking some beauty or hope through it all.
As I wrote in my review for Christ and Pop Culture, Hyper Light Drifter is not your typical hero narrative video game. Your mission may be to save the world from an ancient curse, but doing so will cost you your life. Basically, your character is doomed to die so that the world might live. Fittingly, Disasterpeace’s soundtrack is by turns ominous, foreboding, and melancholy — but that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful. “Panacea” is a soft, tender ballad with a definite Joe Hisaishi vibe, and it plays during your character’s final moments as he sees a vision of the world restored. That sounds terribly depressing, and it is (especially since there’s every indication that your sacrifice will go unknown), but it’s a fitting accompaniment for such a selfless act.
Vaporwave was all the rage in 2016, it seemed, and two artists at the center of its explosion were HKE and Telepath. Both enigmatic artists have been incredibly prolific on their own, but when they combined forces as 2814, the resulting music was something else entirely. On the surface, the duo’s gauzy, amorphous sounds certainly fall within vaporwave norms, but there’s a depth and darkness at work throughout 2814’s Rain Temple that was far more complex and intriguing than anything else I heard in vaporwave all year long. Everything comes to a head on “Inside the Sphere”; the song explodes in a wall of sound not unlike a Ben Frost album. The music’s harsh, overwhelming, and pushed to its limits, and in the process, becomes something truly otherworldly.