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.)
Sia – This Is Acting
This is other singers’ leftovers, is more like it. I get that role-playing and getting into the mindset of other artists Sia was pitching songs for was the entire intent here, so maybe it’s unfair to bag on this album for it, but man, it sure sounds like generic programmed pop music even in comparison to 1000 Forms of Fear, which was already a bit too middle-of-the-road for me but which did contain some solid singles and a bit of personal depth that wasn’t always apparent due to the musical style. This one’s just a blatant attempt to be all things to all people. Occasionally it’s catchy, but even then the choruses are so repetitive and rife with recycled ideas that I have to cringe.
Dream Theater – The Astonishing
You could pretty much copy and paste my complaints about every Dream Theater album since 2007’s Systematic Chaos and they’d apply to any of them. This one, however, is a real doozy – a double album that takes their already overblown prog-metal style and attempts to work in some sort of musical theater-esque story about a group of revolutionaries fighting against a world without music ruled by noise machines. No one has the time for music any more, James LaBrie laments in one of the many ridiculous character voices he attempts to do throughout this tedious, behemoth project, and when the music is this goofy and this insistent on sabotaging the few memorable moments scattered among its 30-odd tracks, honestly it’s not hard to see why.
The Honey Trees – Bright Fire
My wife gave me this one as a Valentine’s Day gift. She knew it’d be up my alley due to my love for twee-pop acts like Eisley and intimate folk-pop duos like The Civil Wars. Eisley-related projects Sucré and Merriment are probably the most apt comparisons here – imagine either group splitting between female and male vocalists and you’ll get the idea. Jeremy Larson even shows up to produce and compose string arrangements here, and his presence is welcome, though it does make the sound threaten to become a carbon copy of other groups he’s produced or participated in. I get diminishing returns from the mellow sound by the second half of the album, but a few more dramatic moments in the front half are pleasantly surprising, most notably “Nightingale” and “The Fall”.
Animal Collective – Painting With
Animal Collective’s aim with this one was apparently to make a shorter and more to-the-point pop album – in the musical ADD style we’ve come to expect from them with the vocals constantly ping-ponging between both singers and a million other things going on all at once, of course. It’s fun, but mentally exhausting to make even a lick of sense out of what they’re singing half the time. It gets to the point where the manic energy threatens to bury the otherwise solid hooks they’ve baked into most of these songs. The irresistible lead single “FloriDada” and a few other amusing moments like “Golden Gal” and “Burglar” manage to rise above the din, but I actually think the album might benefit from a more lush, meditative track in the vein of “Bluish” or “No More Runnin'” just to change up the pace a bit.
Plumb – Exhale
Plumb’s made a few ho-hum pop albums in the past – I’ve accepted that she’s mostly backed off from the edgier/more alternative rock sound she started with and that her albums are going to contain few surprises nowadays. But man, this thing bored me to tears. Apparently she’s fallen victim to the false notion that worship albums have to be trite and predictable. It sounds rote, by the numbers, and honestly quite awkward for an artist who has delved into deeply personal stories of triumph and pain in the past, and who’s even managed to wow me on an otherwise extremely mellow album comprised of lullabies for her kids. This one’s interchangeable with most of the worst of the dregs of generic contemporary worship music cluttering up Christian radio playlists in the last 10 years or so. I can’t remember a single solitary interesting thing about it.