Radio & Music

One Year Late Review: On the songs of 2016

Okay, let’s just be up front with this – I meant to write this a year after 2016, but I didn’t. Nor did I do a write up one year after 2017, 2018 or 2019 either. So I’m doing a bit of a retrospective and filling in some of the gaps as a way to get myself back in the habit of writing stuff on the internet. This piece was written in May 2020, and sent back in time to fill up my archives. Sue me.

Before we get going though, let’s just remind ourselves of some of the reasoning behind this project. Increasingly we seem to lurch from Hot Take straight into History without pausing for a moment to get a sense of what the crap actually just happened. Wouldn’t it be better to think about what’s been going on with a little distance instead? So that’s the concept of the One Year Late Review, and I think it’s a good one! All newspapers should be doing it – a daily column on what happened a year ago and what it has come to mean with a little bit of distance. It’s a shame I was too lazy to take it more seriously, but what can you do. I’m here now, aren’t I?

Now, the next thing I normally do is add in a little bit of context. So let’s duo that now. 2016 was the year of the Zika virus! It was the year of Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman! It was the year of the Brexit Referendum! It was the year of the Orlando nightclub shooting. It was the year Donald Trump became Presi… Jesus Fucking Christ. Let’s just get on with the motherfucking music and try and blot out the rest of this crap.

The Avalanches: Because I’m Me

I wasn’t one of those people who ‘got’ the first Avalanches album immediately. A few of the tracks stuck with me, but the whole edifice always seemed a bit impenetrable. The second album almost had the opposite problem – it was so immediate that much of it gave me a quick sugar high and then faded away.

But there were a few songs that give me that hit but still stayed with me, including ‘Frankie Sinatra’ and ‘Harmony’, and the stand out ‘Because I’m Me’, which I’m awarding this year’s special prize for ‘Song That Makes Me Spin Around With Joy and Makes Me Feel Like Things Will Actually Be Okay’.

In the end, it’s all about the moment where the muffled performance breaks out into full band and orchestra, and a full wave of joy sweeps over me. I can’t get enough of it. Wonderful.

Anderson .Paak: Come Down

Oh this is just filthy. The chanting opening stops and this sprawling, rambling, snake-like baseline kicks in. Then .Paak starts singing around it, connecting with it periodically, then ignoring it, spiraling around it like they were teasing each other. Then the sort of bridge chorus comes in and goes in a completely different direction. Every single part of this song makes me want to dance. And not just normal dancing: like proper sexy dancing that it’s really hard to carry off when you’re 47. It’s just this wonderful mess of syncopation and layers that comes to feel both enveloping and supporting. You are cooler when you’re listening to it. That’s a hard feeling to create.

Kevin Morby: I Have Been To The Mountain

I do not know a lot about this man. I don’t know how I found this song. I don’t know whether he’s an artist that is cool or shameful to enjoy. I have never listened to another one of his songs.

What I know is that it does a lot of things that I absolutely love. It’s got some rhythm, some interesting structure, a weird apocalyptic vibe, a bit of dripping Americana and what seems to be a gospel choir that is sitting back quietly until it really wants to blow your mind, when it appears out of nowhere and sings its little heart out. It has an appropriately spooky video too.

Lizzo: Good as Hell

This feels like a bit of a cheat because I absolutely did not know Lizzo from a hole in the ground in 2016, but then maybe that’s the point of this whole project – to be able to assess the music from a year a bit more accurately because you’ve got a bit more distance.

I discovered her when I went to XOXO and Andy Baio and Andy McMillan had booked her to play. I had never heard a single one of her songs. I knew nothing about her whatsoever. And yet she got the entire audience singing along and 100% bought in within a couple of minutes. She. Was. Spectacular.

This song is now everywhere, and it’s superficially pretty basic and simple as a paean to loving yourself. But I mean, come on. If there’s anything that almost every single person needs, it’s a bit more self-love and a bit more self-respect. And that she’s not a skinny pop stereotype makes it all the more wonderful.

Emmy the Great: Rapids

Now this is a song that did nothing for me at all the first time I listened to it. At least that was true for the first third. It felt like a generic piece of female-fronted pop music that I might have stumbled across a hundred thousand times over the years. It was certainly nice, but it wasn’t particularly exciting.

But as it continued and reached its second third, it just started to do more and more interesting and weird things, playing with noise, playing with feeling, playing with atmosphere. And the last third, where it descends and devolves into a kind of wordless pop aphasia is just extraordinary. It seems to cut through all the crap in your head and just hijack your reptile brain without any intermediary at all. It makes my eyes roll back in my head in the most glorious fashion.

Desiigner: Tiimmy Turner

This is not a track that I would have expected to like at all. It’s pretty deep and strange hip hop, taking the name of the main character from The Fairly OddParents cartoon and smashing it together with what appears to be a story about the wishes of a desperate young black guy who will do anything for fame and to escape parts of his life. It is extraordinary – atmospheric, lyrically, clever, elegant, musically challenging and it fuses in this mix of aspiration and hopelessness. Definitely one of my absolute favorite tracks of 2016.

Ramin Djawadi: Exit Music – For a Film

Without question one of the albums that I have found myself listening to most over the last few years is Ramin Djawadi’s Westworld Soundtrack. The mix of original music and elegant western-style piano reimaginings of pop and rock classics is perfect to work to and very evocative. I’ve listened to it so much in fact that when I tried to watch the show again I kept getting caught up more in the music that in the action.

If I remember correctly, this cover of the Radiohead classic comes right at the end of the series and is one of the few that switches between simple clear period instrumentation and a full orchestra. It builds. By God, it builds. It starts simple, moving and sad, and then about two minutes in there is a tiny lacuna and then the strings kick in. And they build and build and then they spread their wings and soar and … it is glorious, transcendent, wonderful. The piano then comes to the fore and cascades arpeggios all over the place until you’re completely lost in it. And then it lets you go, exhausted and flat. It’s an almost perfect tiny potted musical experience.

Jóhann Jóhannsson: Heptapod B

Another soundtrack that has got a lot of traction for me over the last few years is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music from Arrival. But it’s a very different beast, filled with deep hums, strange percussive noises and looped bits of almost human speech. It’s a much more alien and abstract experience – intentionally so, obviously, since that’s the subject of the movie – and on occasion, it’s so dissonant and weird that it’s not 100% pleasing to listen to.

But there is one moment where absolutely everything comes together perfectly, and all the noise and dissonance builds and coincides long enough to make something absolutely transcendent, and it is the track ‘Heptapod B’.

The 1975: Somebody Else

This was a weird track to stumble upon. It felt like someone had gone and rifled through the 1980s and stolen a whole bunch of atmosphere, production and mood, and then fused it in a particle accelerator with a bunch of early 2000s off-center song-writing in a way that should have been dreadful, but somehow wasn’t. A few years on, this track doesn’t feel as interesting as it maybe did at the time, but it’s still a wonderfully written, interesting combination of concept, lyric and music that I still listen to regularly.

Mitski: Your Best American Girl

This feels like it sits next to the Emmy the Great song in my mental catalogue of music. It starts as if it’s some kind of dull piece of generic pop, and then explodes into something far, far more interesting and sprawls all over the place causing all kinds of harm and self-destructive damage as it goes. I’m sort of fascinated by these songs that take pretty generic tropes and do something a little weirder and more avant garde with them. It shows there’s life in pop and rock music yet.

Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker

This album was recorded shortly before Leonard Cohen died, and it somehow it is the summation of everything he’d tried to do before. It has the best production—much less quirky or faddy than previous tracks—using beautiful gospel choirs and simple organic instrumentation to create a musical frame around the stars of the show, which are Cohen’s absolutely extraordinary voice and the deep and intense weight of his poetry.

It’s an album about the coming of death. It’s an album about the end of a life. It’s bleak and it’s extraordinarily beautiful.

Jenny Hval: Conceptual Romance

And we come to our final piece of music for 2016 and probably the track that sticks with me most. In a way it fits with Mitski and Emmy the Great. It’s another piece of female-fronted pop music that takes things in strange, interesting new directions, grabbing something that could have felt generic and pushing it in the most bizarre of directions.

This is a track that plays with massive absolute dissonance. Each verse has this weird distorted atonality that makes it unsettling to listen to. It’s a discomforting mess, above which a crunched version of Hval almost speaks. And then the chorus comes in and it’s clear and melodic and harmonious and beautiful. And just when you settle into the beauty, it collapses again. And the pattern repeats and repeats, punctuated by a kind of repetitive splint, until it all builds and then starts to collapse into noise. It’s the track that stays with me most from the entire year and which I suspect I’ll like forever. Enjoy its bizarreness. And I’ll see you later for the best songs of 2017.