FEATURE: The Best Songs of 2016, Part 1
by Chad Jewett
20.) For Everest – “Autonomy”
We Are At Home In The Body, the great Broken World-released album from emo quintet For Everest works best as an album: a solid and singular work where songs like the slow-burning “I’m In A Boxcar Buried Inside A Quarry” can best be appreciated for their texture and atmosphere. But the album boasts its share of striking would-be-singles. Best of all is “Autonomy”, a mid-album highlight that recalls mid-career Alkaline Trio or latter-day Jawbreaker in both its punchy tunefulness and in its finely-detailed lyrics (“If the cigarettes don’t cloud your lungs and rot your teeth / and the drugs don’t eat your heart and slur your speech / If you make it home tonight without killing anyone else / I hope you find a way to hurt yourself”), recalling the salty-sweet craft of a whole forgotten history of thinking-person’s pop-punk.
19.) The Coathangers – “Watch Your Back”
Of the many evergreen ideas lining the rock and roll annals, few are as perennially exciting as a scrappy guitar and a shout of “Yeah Yeah Yeah!”. The Hives did it. The Blood Brothers did it. Otis Redding did it. It’s American culture’s Homeric myth; forever adaptable and always there for the right person to use and make new. This time around, we find the moment at the center of The Coathanger’s “Watch Your Back”, the manic centerpiece of their 2016 Suicide Squeeze-released album Nosebleed Weekend (title of the year!). Even better is the song’s quick, slashing chorus, powered by the drumming of Rusty Coathanger (aka Stephanie Luke), who emphasizes the song’s hyperactive garage-punk punch with a steady burst of crash-cymbal exclamation points, making for the album’s most compulsively re-listenable moment.
18.) Carly Rae Jepsen – “First Time”
Over the course of the last two years, Carly Rae Jepsen has been powering a one-woman Renaissance of 80s FM gold, and has found the very best context for her own talents in the process. Throughout 2015’s EMOTION and 2016’s sequel-of-sorts, EMOTION: SIDE B, Jepsen has wrapped her effervescent, universalizing pop in the warmly tacky synth horns and video game drum machines of Wham, Whitney Houston, and early Madonna. “First Time” is the project’s masterpiece, a laser-focused homage to Houston’s 1987 hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” that makes sure to borrow both that song’s digitized trumpets and its doe-eyed effervescence, echoing both the neon kitsch and the irreverent joy of that decades’ best pop music.
17.) Radiohead – “Burn The Witch”
How many apocalyptically ominous songs does Radiohead have at this point? You can just about throw all of Hail To Theif on the list. Same goes for Kid A. And now there’s “Burn The Witch”, the eerie, Hitchcock-tense opener of this year’s great A Moon Shaped Pool. Built around sparse, looping percussion, wiry pizzicato strings (echoing Johnny Greenwood’s film work for Paul Thomas Anderson) and a groaning, distorted synth bass, the song’s mood of slowly gathering doom has everything to do with the way in which Radiohead holds back, allowing Thom Yorke to offer chilling suggestions like “Avoid all eye contact” as he slowly renders a nightmarish reality of paranoia and suspicion that Yorke rightly likens to the panicked mania of the Salem Witch Trials. A Moon Shaped Pool is largely a hushed, understated affair, but “Burn The Witch” is its chilling opening scene.
16.) Tinashe – “Soul Glitch”
Tinashe has a penchant for giving her songs titles so evocative that you can practically hear them before pressing play. “Lucid Dreaming”, “Spacetime”, “Sunburn” – all serve as previews for the warm, woozy R&B contained therein. “Soul Glitch”, with its hypnotic, slowed down echoes and quietly experimental instrumental, is a case and point, the sound of the Quiet Storm rhythm-and-blues of the mid-70s melted atop dreamy left-field laptop production. At this point, Tinashe has become so adept at matching her feathery vocals to this stuff that her melodies become another twilit instrument, floating around the songs plush sonic field.
15.) Puff Pieces – “Wonderous Flowers”
Released through the ever-dependable D.C. label Lovitt Records, Puff Pieces’ Bland In D.C. marries twitchy, whittled post-punk to the District of Columbia’s already storied tradition of eccentric, danceable post-hardcore. “Wonderous Flowers” provides an especially striking example, recalling Dischord dance-punk geniuses Q And Not U in its sparse, spry instrumentation while summoning images of a triple-speed version of The Slits in its sharp, biting upstrokes. The song is an infectious, irrepressible joy, with the trio’s minimalist lyrics (“Flowers of June / Flowers of May / In the nice room / On the nice day / Wondrous flowers”) designed to be shouted in manic motion while the song’s built-in spots of noisy chaos serve as quick, mercurial chances to catch your breath.
14.) Of Montreal – “It’s Different For Girls”
The paint was barely dry on the garage rock bluster of last year’s great Aureate Gloom before Kevin Barnes and the corps of collaborators that make up Of Montreal had already moved on to the contemporary electro-pop and disco revivalism of Innocence Reaches. As fun as Aureate Gloom was, dance music and bubbling synths will always suit Barnes’ wry coo and his canny lyrics, and “It’s Different For Girls” is just the latest ideal example, a humid mid-tempo stomper that finds the Of Montreal mastermind deconstructing gender norms (“It’s different for girls / They don’t spit on the street”) atop a steady four-on-the-floor beat and a lattice of glittering keyboards. Barnes will forever excel at body music aimed at the brain, and “It’s Different For Girls” is no exception.
13.) American Football – “Give Me The Gun”
It is to their credit that the highlight of emo legends American Football’s long-awaited second album is the one that least recalls the classic, slow-core minimalism of its predecessor. Instead, the song — with its tensed palm-muted bass and steadily pattering engine of beat (“Give Me The Gun” is among Steve Lamos’ best work in the band) — constructs a sound that contrasts with Mike Kinsella’s breezy vocals rather than adheres to it as so much of the band’s 1999 debut does. “Give Me The Gun” finds American Football at their jazziest, with ringing vibraphones dotting the surface and a sudden late-arriving turn (right around the 2-minute mark) into an even brighter groove that glows across the song’s second half like a beam of afternoon sun.
12.) A Tribe Called Quest – “We The People…”
More tense and brawny than the breezy, jazz-inflected atmospheres of The Low End Theory and People’s Instinct Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, “We The People…” finds Q-Tip, Jarobi, and the late Phife Dawg in an especially apocalyptic register, cataloging 21st century inequities to the sounds of echoing police car sirens (more reminiscent of the Bomb Squad’s early-90s productions for Public Enemy than Q-Tips earthy work for Tribe) and an overdriven bass that creeps beneath the track like a soul-punk version of horror movie pipe-organ. The sigh with which Q-Tip delivers the song’s haunting hook – an image of gentrification become genocide – makes for a striking contrast: energy and exhaustion, all tangled up in one of the year’s most gripping evocations of modern crisis.
11.) Head Wound City – “Born To Burn”
Clocking in at a searing 104 seconds, “Born To Burn” is the moment where hardcore supergroup Head Wound City most markedly echoes the acidic bombast of their decade-old debut EP. But this time that grinding ferocity comes with the added clarity of Ross Robinson’s precise, high fidelity production. Where old songs like “Prick Class” were noise punk missiles designed to scrape walls, “Born To Burn” arrives like artisanal trash for high-end headphones. The sound design is ideal – guitars Nick Zinner and Cody Votolato split hard left and right, the rhythm section of Justin Pearson and Gabe Serbian (on loan from The Locust) gnawing away between. And dead center remains Jordan Blilie, whose excoriating shriek remains a thing of feral beauty, screaming “BURN! BURN!” with punishing abandon. The sum of these parts constitutes punk’s finest moment of 2016.