One of the most apt tweets I’ve read in the past month was from Emmy Kegler: “2016 has been, for almost all intents and purposes, a garbage fire. But a couple of things have been really great and I wanna collect them all.” Nearly all of my better-than-garbage-fire moments of 2016 have been musical, and these are some highlights of my collecting.
Making a list of songs from a year is incredibly challenging, especially from a year that has been far more interested in providing us with fantastic albums. Please do not hear that as a complaint – far from it! I am so happy that the art of an album is alive and well in our digital world. It’s just that a plethora of great albums makes for a myriad of memorable songs.
In order to make this task of choosing 16 songs somewhat more possible, and to allow for profiling a few more artists, this list does not include songs that are featured on records that have made my 2016 Albums list (although there might be the odd, but justifiable exception). Enjoy exploring some new music or comparing your own lists with mine! Let me know what I missed in the comments or on twitter @PlayListedPod. If a song does not include an embedded video, make sure to click the link in the title to hear it for yourself.
#16 Dang! – Mac Miller featuring Anderson Paak (from the album The Devine Feminine)
This song has very quickly become my feel-good track of the last several months. I have never given Mac Miller a real chance before (being a white rapper and all), but his playful, goofy verses match perfectly with Paak’s laid back vocals. I find it especially satisfying to dance to while cooking or doing dishes.
I need at least one guilty-ish pleasure every year, and I’m still not 100% sure whether I spin it at parties for anyone other than myself. It’s basically Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” reimagined, but I think the Kent Jones version is slightly less terrible lyrically, and far more catchy. Plus it will forever remind me of some amazing teens I met this summer in Pennsylvania who taught me the dance (which you can always find me doing behind the turntables).
I first listened to this song early this year as I was helping a friend put together a break-up playlist – the track fit perfectly, but I forgot about it for a few months (probably sometime after Lemonade took control of all my listening time). “Worry” manages to marry the bitter and sweet of moving on from a relationship in both its lyrics and melody, over a chill beat that works for nearly any occasion.
I love this collaboration so much that I’m shipping James and Justin… at least for the sake of a collab album. I have to be careful what playlists I add this song to, because it stops me in my tracks whenever and wherever it’s playing. The ethereal quality is perfect for reflecting upon regrets, distant memories, and other big life questions and feelings. Best listened to from fetal position.
There is a reason why after only a few months of this track going viral, more than 10 other rappers, including Nicki Minaj and 50 cent, have already been part of remixes. “OOOUUU” has quickly become a phenomenon, and there is something very refreshing about having a lesbian rap the gangsta anthem of the year.
Anderson Paak’s debut was the hardest not to include in my Albums of the Year list. Instead I’ll focus on the track that stands out to me the most, which is this groovy love song about wanting to spend alone time with the girlfriend. And not to distract from the brilliance of Paak himself, but The Game’s verse here is on point.
#10 The Greatest – Sia featuring Kendrick Lamar (from the album This is Acting)
Warning: the video above does not contain the Kendrick Lamar verse, which means you should probably go listen to that later too. Still, the video seems like the best way to fully experience this song as both an energetic dance/work-out track and a touching homage to the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in June. Maddie Ziegler and Sia together demonstrate how we can pick ourselves up in the face of tragedy and threat, and move forward in joyful protest.
I never thought I’d be playing so much Drake at parties, but now that I’m in Toronto and Drake is pretending he’s from the Caribbean (perhaps to woo his longtime crush?), I’m almost convinced. With one of his best samples/featured vocals from Kyla, this song is straight-up contagious.
#8 Find Me – Sigma featuring Birdy
Don’t ask me to differentiate between the song and the music video, which features everyone’s new favourite 12-year-old actor, Millie Bobby Brown. Does anyone else imagine Eleven singing this from the Upside Down? All I know is that since watching this beautiful and dramatic video, all I need to do is listen to this song in order to feel all of my feelings again.
I tend to be a sucker for songs named after beverages, but it’s a done deal when said song introduces me to a falsetto as smooth and strong as Gallant’s. Once I started paying attention to the lyrics and asking whether he’s comparing love for a woman or his struggle with faith and doubt to addictions, I’m completely slain.
#6 Good As Hell – Lizzo (from the EP Coconut Oil)
If you have had any conversation with me in the past several months, you’ve probably heard Lizzo’s name once or seven times. She seems to specialize in self-confidence anthems, and this is my favourite, although “‘Scuse Me” is also a contender. In my job searching this fall, “Good As Hell” and the rest of the Coconut Oil EP became my interview prep soundtrack, and I highly recommend it for any kind of boost you need.
This was a song that 2016 needed – a rally cry to keep on keeping on, while most likely borrowing from Maya Angelou’s biography title “All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes,” in the outro’s refrain. Mvula is a queen, and although her album The Dreaming Room didn’t make the same kind of impression on me as her debut in 2013, Sing to the Moon, I will always anxiously await any projects she undertakes.
Every once in a while I put TLOP on, but every time I’m reminded that it’s all downhill after this opening track. Not that there aren’t a couple of other great songs, but as an album this is admittedly Kanye’s most unfinished and scattered collection so far. But oh, the hope “Ultralight Beam” creates, reaching deep into gospel and providing space for one of Chance’s best feature verses yet. I think it’s proof that even as Kanye continues to spiral, there is still some connection to his own humanity and brilliance, despite his angry ego.
There is something beyond special about this track, and that something is a kind of holy trinity of Hundred Waters’ spooky earnest prayer-song and the pure joy of Chano mixed over the contagious drums of Skrillex’s keen ear and imagination. This song has become a mantra for me whenever engaging with folks who tempt me to violence.
There are very few songs that have had the kind of effect on me as this song, Frank Ocean’s cover of Aaliyah’s version of the Isley Brothers’ “You Are Love.” I cannot do anything, even write this blurb, while this song is playing. It’s like Frank’s falsetto has a magical spell that whispers to me: “No typing, No eating, No thinking… Ok, I guess you can breathe a little bit.” I recognize that this experience is due to a number of factors. Like so many of you, I spent a lot of time anticipating the visual album, Endless. Nothing could have prepared me for beginning with this. Sometimes it still takes a couple tries to continue the album past “At Your Best.” Endless indeed. *Warning – the link above is a slightly lower-pitch version that ends up also being remixed. If you have access to an Apple Music link, that’s the best (and only legal) way to have a listen.
#1 Formation – Beyoncé (from the album Lemonade… sort of)
No surprises here, ironically, since this song was initially such a huge surprise to everyone. Do you remember where you were when this song/video was released? It shocked and stopped the world, and was yet another example of Beyoncé refusing to play by music industry rules. Instead of releasing it as a single or even a video on her website, “Formation,” was shared as a private youtube link, individually via email, until everyone knew about it whether they had managed to see it yet or not. Then of course, she performs her brand new song – never mind that it is full of very explicit southern, black, female pride – at the Superbowl halftime show. World stop. Carry on.
I’m not even going to write about the video because there are articles upon articles already out there, analyzing scene for scene. I’ll just say that the song prepared us for Lemonade in the way that I think the spirit of Lemonade prepares us for the work of “Formation.” Although the song is intricately connected to the album, they have been, and are meant to be experienced separately. This song is simultaneously a dance track, a marketing campaign, a protest march, a rally call, a think piece, and an anthem – and it’s damn good at each and every role.
Even before we knew 2016 would be the tragic and eventful year it was already one of pointed artistic and musical responses. Police brutality and racial injustice are nothing new, but our consciousness and ability to talk about it has both increased and escalated to a new level of conflict, especially in light of the campaign for the USA’s now president-elect. And as the whole world seems to be choosing hatred and discrimination over care for our planet, we’ve lost an especially high number of inspirational icons and artists. For many of us, the music of this year has produced the only visible (audible) glimmer of light in the midst of many seemingly hopeless unknowns.
A couple notes to get us started – this is the first year I’ve had such an early deadline for songs/albums I’m considering. While in years past I would include an album dropped in late December, this year I’m only considering complete LPs released between January 1st and December 1st. That way I can write this blog with a little less stress about giving enough of a listen to some hot LP dropped yesterday. I’ve also decided to break this list into two parts to make it a little more manageable. And with all of that out of the way, here are the first 8 of 16 albums that have helped lead me through the processes of grief, celebration, protest, and deep thinking in 2016.
#16 The Suffers – The Suffers
Easily one of my favourite new bands this year, The Suffers’ debut LP is bright, energetic, soulful, and there’s not a single dud on it. Whether you have the chance to see them live, or just blast the album over speakers in your living room, every member and section commands your attention without competing for it. Their lead woman, Kam Franklin, has so much charisma and attitude, matched only by her blaring horn section. Nearly. Oh hey, and three of my stand-out tracks happen to be what they perform for their smile-inducing Tiny Desk Concert! …But also check out “Make Some Room” and the rest of the album while you’re at it.
#15 Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
Although I had a lot of anticipation around the release of Radiohead’s latest LP, it took a few listens for me to really fall in love. With every record they release, Radiohead manages to play with such different sounds and yet always create similar deeply moving melodies and soundscapes. Along with many electronic tools and effects, Moon Shaped Pool plays with a much richer orchestral instrumentation than their last several records. But ultimately what convinced me was Yorke’s own voice, consistently dripping with emotional honesty whether I understand his words or not. Album highlights are “Burn the Witch,” “Glass Eyes,” and the last two songs on the album, “Present Tense,” (which is embedded below) and “True Love Waits.”
#14 Love Letter For Fire – Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop
A strong recommendation for anyone who loves The Civil Wars, since Love Letter for Fire is a collection of duets by two incredibly creative, talented, and often solo-performing songwriters. I’ve wanted Sam Beam of Iron & Wine to record more collaborations ever since first seeing him perform with his sister harmonizing at Sasquatch ten years ago, and this record is the answer to that prayer. Jesca Hoop is a new voice to me, but I especially enjoy her sense of humour and quirkiness when paired with often musically melancholic Beam. They balance each other out while adding layers of both harmony and depth to one another’s songwriting. As much as I like their work separately, this collaborative album seems to be greater than the sum of its parts. I particularly like “Know the Wild that Wants You,” “Soft Place to Land,” and the rather odd “Chalk it up to Chi.”
#13 Black America Again – Common
There is rarely a Common record that I don’t love – I’m a sucker for his articulation and enunciation, not to mention his lyrical consciousness. But this is far from a favourite-rapper nod. The more I listen to Black America Again, the more I’m convinced it’s Common’s best work since the 90s, finding that perfect balance of sharp and smooth – angry as hell and calm as dawn – as he describes not only what is wrong with America, but also his hopeful imaginings for a way forward. On top of all of that, the list of features is stacked with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bilal, Syd (from The Internet and Odd Future), BJ the Chicago Kid, and John Legend. My personal highlights are the title track, “Pyramids,” and the chilling closer, “Letter to the Free.”
#12 Chaleur Humaine – Christine and the Queens
I was listening to this album all year without realizing it could be a contender for this list. Héloïse Letisser (aka Christine) re-released her 2014 album for the Anglophone world in February of this year and has been picking up some serious interest outside of France ever since. On one level, this is creative work around gender, sexuality, and identity, while on another, it’s a collection super poppy synth beats that manage to both excite and relax. The moments that especially stand out for me include her take on Kanye’s “Heartless” in “Paradis Perdus,” as well as “Tilted,” and “Night 52.” Oh yes, and her music videos are almost as cool as her live performances.
#11 Love You To Death – Tegan and Sara
The Canadian twin duo’s 8th album was never going to be the year’s most important album, but it might be the happiest, which is an impressive title given how much of it explores difficult confession, breakups, and regrets. I think Love You to Death is so satisfying for me because it sounds like the album I wanted in Heartthrob. Their journey into synth-pop feels right and complete, and yet they’ve managed to maintain the emotional honesty that made their earlier albums so effective. The whole record is super accessible, but my favourite moments include “That Girl,” “Dying to Know,” “100x” and “BWU.”
#10 We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest
The reunion album that no one knew whether they should hope for – especially in the wake of Phife Dawg’s death in March – was released in two perfect volumes and is exactly what our imaginations promised and more. It has everything we’d expect – jazzy hip hop, Q Tip’s classic lyrical flow and Phife’s playful energy, a mix of unexpected samples with live instrumentals, and deep exploration of racism and political corruption in America and worldwide. The timing of this record is creepy, having been primarily recorded early this year but seemingly tailor-made for the post-election experience. The featured verses on this album feel both nostalgic, with old friends such as Busta Rhymes and Consequence, and poetic, with new(er) heavy-hitting friends such as Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, and Kanye West. 18 years was a long time, but it was worth the wait. Literally every song is a highlight.
#9 Blackstar – David Bowie
The year of 2016 basically began with the bad news of Bowie’s liver cancer and death, which brought with it the release of his own personal epitaph. The entire collection is an appropriately dark and eerie prodding lament. There is a deep sense of importance – like we’ve been given this brief but valuable glimpse into the mortality of a legend. Actually, exactly like that. I wouldn’t call this record fun or even enjoyable, but there is mysterious beauty in the jazz inspired arrangements, and David’s own deeply exhausted voice. The title track and “Lazarus,” are the two songs that haunt me most from this album.
That’s it for the moment! Now it’s time to lean into the spirit of advent, and wait for a week to check back to see my top 8 albums of the year!
Finding victory in only 3 votes over her nobel competitor, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin takes home the Diva Cup! Congratulations to all who picked her as their brackets winner, and all those who were rooting and voting for this classic #6 seed.
To continue the celebration of our diva-of-choice, take a look at a post I wrote a few years ago for one of my all time favourite albums (that happens to be an Aretha record), I Never Loved A Man (the Way I Love You).
I don’t know what will be next, so please comment below if you have ideas for music that would make for a good brackets tournament for March Music Madness 2017!
And then there were two…
After all the madness, we’ve found ourselves in with a reasonable final match up after all! Although every bracket I’ve seen has been busted, both of these women have been predicted as the ultimate winner of the tournament, and now I am hoping for as close a competition as we had in the UNC/Villanova final game last Monday night. I’m just cheering for a close vote, or something like that, because the truth is, I have argued with myself about who deserves this more: Aretha Franklin or Mariah Carey.
So I don’t know what will happen here, and I promise not to have intense feelings either way. No matter what, I will choose an album for the winner to talk about in a separate blog post next week. As in the final four, polls will be open only until the weekend, but you will be able to vote from your device once every 12 hours. By now you should be very well acquainted with these two legendary divas, so let’s get right to it, shall we?
Actually wait, look what I found. First there’s Mariah singing an Aretha cover.
Now for Aretha covering Mariah….
Yes girl, that happened. And finally, when they appeared on the same stage for the first VH1 Divas performance in 1998.
Ok, now you can vote.
Alright folks, here are the final four of Diva Madness. Before we get to the updated brackets, you should know that the poll settings have changed so that you may vote once a day per device, so make sure to check back and help out your diva of choice. Polls will close on Tuesday, April 5th at midnight, and the final matchup will be posted the next morning. Let’s take a look at the four divas you’ve chosen to represent each era and their road to the final four. Instead of picking one video for the round, I’ll scatter several links to performances and mash ups throughout their introduction. Have fun, and vote responsibly!
She may have started out as a #6 seed, but I doubt that many people are surprised by Aretha’s presence in the final four of Diva Madness. Since starting her musical career solidly in the arena of gospel with the likes of Mahalia Jackson mentoring her throughout the 1950s, she followed her idols Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson into the world of popular rhythm and blues. She began to chart on Billboard in 1961 (at the age of 19), and now holds the record for most charted female artist of all time, with 112 singles in the pop charts, and 100 R&B entries (including albums and singles). Her very first #1 hit became an iconic feminist anthem. She has not lived a life of drama per se, but has perhaps internalized the drama around her, resulting in health challenges including weight fluctuation. Rolling Stone magazine has called Aretha one of their top 10 artists of all time, and the #1 singer of all time.
Annie Lennox is the dark horse of this competition, making her way into the final four as an underdog for most of the tournament. In brutally tight competitions, she took out my personal fave, Janet, and predicted favourite, Whitney, only to finish of Stevie Nicks who made it past both Gloria Estefan and Madonna. She’s proven to be a contender, and every time I talk to folks about this competition I am reminded just how loyal Annie fans are. Though this Scot began her career with the Eurythmics and turned out several #1 hits, it was her solo work in the 90s that elevated Annie to a household name and gave her a place in the diva category, proven by her 1992 album title, Diva. She defies many of the normal diva attributes, both in terms of drama and presentation of gender, but it’s hard to say whether these things are to her advantage or disadvantage in this competition.
She is the last #1 seed left in this competition, making her the diva version of UNC (for the basketball fans out there). She is favoured to win, but that is without factoring in some mad love for Adele since her 25 album and tour. Still, Mariah has the nostalgic factor, representing the era that could be considered the golden period for divas. To get to this place, she has rarely found herself in a close-call situation, always having a clear advantage against Faith Evans, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, and even most recently, Celine Dion. In terms of diva defining categories, she has an edge in every possible one. Her vocal range is legendary; her runs are unbelievable; her hand motions when she’s doing a run are on point; she has a residency in Vegas and has enough drama and narcissism to star in her own reality show; and she does nearly everything in heels and sequins. On top of that, she is arguably the most successful female artist of all time. Also, have you seen her episode of “Cribs“? The girl is undoubtedly a hustler.
With only 3 albums in less than a decade of recorded music, Adele has already found herself listed with the best-selling recording artists of all time. She has a great voice, but I think what makes her a diva is her ability to emote beyond the words she sings. In her mid 20s, Adele has already seen a share of drama, and channelled it directly into some very catchy pop-songwriting and big hair. I just realized that none of these four finalists are total package performers – they are all primarily vocalists that stick to what they do best. Adele is certainly in this category, proving time and time again that she can just stand on a stage and sing, and we will be mesmerized. Plus she’s still so young, so hopefully there are many years of divaness to come.
Ok, it’s time to vote! Remember, you can come back every day until Tuesday to place your vote. See you on Wednesday for the championship poll!