This is the fourth and final (for now, at least) part of a series chronicling each year of my life as viewed through the lens of a song that was meaningful to me in some way that represents a significant aspect of my life experience in that year. This segment covers the fourth decade of my life. Be sure to catch up on Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 first.
It’s that time of year again where I run through the list of songs that inspired me, entertained me, or just plain got stuck in my head for amusing reasons, more than any other songs in the last 12 months. Most of these were released in 2017. Some came out in 2016 and I either didn’t hear them until this year or didn’t come to fully appreciate them in time for last year’s list. I’ve given brief explanations and YouTube links for the Top 30. For the rest… just check the reviews where they’re linked, if you’re curious.
And as always, many of these songs (limit one per artist) are collected in my 2017 in a Nutshell playlist over on Spotify.
This is the music I’ll remember the most when I think back on 2016. Not just the great singles (though these albums have plenty of those) or the dark horse picks buried deep in the track listings (tons of those too, though), but the way these records all flow from song to song, creating a continuous listening experience that makes spending nearly an hour of time with each artist (or more, in a few cases) worthwhile. On my most cynical days, I’d say that thanks to both terrestrial radio doing its thing and the ephemeral lifecycle of most songs and artists that go “viral” on social media, the single is a much more easily digestible and obtainable format for popular music nowadays, putting the album in danger of becoming a lost art. But from the very obscure to the decidedly mainstream, every record on this list would be here to prove me wrong.
The final days of 2016 are upon us, and that can only mean one thing – it’s time for some long lists that try (perhaps in vain) to sum up the best music I was listening to this year. As always, I’ll start with the individual songs that stood out to me the most. The in-depth reasons why I love these songs so much are mostly spelled out in the album reviews I’ve linked to from here, but in addition to the usual video evidence, I’ve also included a quick blurb for each of the Top 30 entries, just to keep it from being a long list with no explanation whatsoever, I guess.
I’ve also made a Spotify playlist that collects a lot of these highlights, if you’d like to spend a few hours following along. (That one’s ordered more as I discovered the songs, not so much how I’d rank them now, and it’s limited to one track per artist.)
Artist: Paper Route
Album: Real Emotion
In Brief: A more expansive and immersive album than Paper Route’s first two, that stretches their sound in a lot of interesting ways while remaining true to their band-driven synthpop/electronic rock origins. Absence is a tough record to beat, but this one comes darn close.
Glass Animals – How to Be a Human Being
I’m not sure how to best describe Glass Animals; their style is kind of all over the place, but it incorporates elements of psychedelic rock and electropop with a strong undercurrent of hip-hop and R&B. Old-school Incubus isn’t a bad place to start as stylistic comparisons go, though vocally and lyrically they’re quite different. They lay down some pretty thick grooves on several of these tracks that pull in interesting little bits of percussion and instrumentation from far-away places, adding to the intrigue. Their lyrics read like a mishmash of Gen-Y urban life, which is sometimes charming, but sometimes a bit off-putting when it gets buried in more explicit language and drug references. Still, I think these guys are trying to tell some sort of a story and not just do it for shock value, so I’m willing to listen deeper and see if I can make heads or tails of it.
Wilco – Schmilco
I certainly admire Wilco’s tendency to say “F the system” and turn out albums on a totally independent basis whenever they please, with as much or as little promotion they please. This was most striking on last year’s surprise release of Star Wars, a rather brief – and sadly, mostly forgettable – album which I didn’t necessarily expect a follow-up to so soon. Schmilco, as you might not expect from its electrifying cover art, seems to pull together a lot of the more acoustic and muted song ideas from those sessions, occasionally getting a little more electric or noisy or experimental, but mostly turning out to be even more hushed and laid-back than Sky Blue Sky. This puts a lot more emphasis on Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting, and his curious phrasings and tendency to look at things ironically are in fine form here, but for the most part the songs just don’t have the melodic heft or instrumental brilliance to make them measure up to what we know Wilco’s mellower material is capable of. The result is an album that certainly doesn’t mean to throw us for a loop as much as their most experimental stuff did, but that still ends up being their most tedious one to listen to all the way through since A Ghost Is Born. Maybe take a little more time on the next one, guys?
KT Tunstall – KIN
Tunstall almost gave up the whole singer/songwriter thing for good during the three years between her fourth and fifth albums. I wasn’t a huge fan of the much mellower sound of Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon, but it seemed like a positive sign that she was refusing to be pigeonholed as an artist, so I’m admittedly surprised to see her returning to more rhythmic pop music with electronic overtones (as heard on Tiger Suit) for this new album, which was apparently crowd-funded. I’m not quite as fascinated with the nuts and bolts of the production as I was on Tiger Suit, but I think she does sassy, rhythmic pop/rock best, and the organic instrumentation does get to shine through on several tracks, so it’s probably best seen as an amalgamation of the styles explored in her first three albums. I’m not wowed by most of it, but there are some fun songs here and it’s an enjoyable listen overall.
Paper Route – Real Emotion
I want to say that this was my most anticipated release of 2016, but honestly, earlier this year I wasn’t even sure if they’d manage to pull another album together, given their habit of releasing the odd single here and there over the long four years since The Peace of Wild Things dropped back in 2012, without much of any news in between. Getting a preview of the singles that would wind up on this album when the band opened for MuteMath back in March was nice, though the structure of those songs seemed to emphasize the pop hooks more and the exploratory/ambient stuff heard on Absence a lot less, akin to the singles released from Peace. So I was pleasantly surprised at this album’s ambitious scope – 16 tracks provides plenty of time for rhythmically dense electro-rockers and catchy pop singles and cathartic ambiance and little bits of foreshadowing and song reprises over nearly an hour of music. Both of their past albums were so strong that my expectations here were almost unfairly high, and while this record is definitely more ambitious than their last two, it’ll take some time for me to figure out if I like it enough to top either of them. I already know after 4 or 5 listens that I like it a lot and will probably continue to spin it repetitively for the rest of the year, so that’s a very good sign.
Crowder – American Prodigal
Total surprise. I had no idea Crowder was working on a follow-up to Neon Steeple, though I don’t tend to follow the CCM genre nearly as closely as I once did, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. While Crowder continues to pull together every musical style under the sun that he personally enjoys making, the styles don’t clash as egregiously as they did on Neon Steeple, possibly because there’s a bit more rock to bridge the gap between the swampy, rootsy stuff and the ravey, dance-pop stuff. In general the electronic aspect of Crowder’s sound seems to have been scaled back, though now there are some bits of Gospel and even a few guest rappers in the mix, so musically this one’s still all over the place. It’s also got quite a few tracks to take in, with over an hour of music on the special edition, but my reaction on first listen was largely positive, and that certainly beats the strong distaste I felt when first listening to Neon Steeple (which nevertheless managed grow on me quite a bit over time).
It’s time to kick off my yearly obsession with counting things that it really makes no sense to put in order. More detailed write-ups on the full lengths albums that captivated me this year are to follow, but for now, here’s a haphazard list I’ve compiled of 100 songs that moved me this year… some physically, some emotionally, some both.
For those who’d like to follow along and listen to some of my picks, I’ve compiled a playlist (limited to one song per artist, because it’s crazy long enough already), that hits a lot of the year’s highlights, in roughly the order I came to discover them.