My ten favourite songs of 2016.
10. Car Seat Headrest – “Destroyed By Hippie Powers”
The best indie rock songs – “Ibi Dreams of Pavement”, “All My Friends” – all have some form of catharsis. “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” has it in spades, but it’s not like the heart swells of Broken Social Scene or LCD Soundsystem classics. The genius of this song, and its album Teens of Denial, is that it proves that catharsis, hope, joy – can all be found in the mundane, even the downright shitty. The song’s protagonist is at a party, freaking out after having too much drugs and too many beers. Most of us have been in one of those situations before and the hopelessness of the situation can be confronting; the comfort provided by “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” comes from its loud, slamming guitars, yelping vocals and honest lyrics. “That guy I kinda hate is here,” intones Will Toledo. What’s worse than having a panic attack in front of your ex-crush’s new beau? With the added pressure of soul-sucking anxiety? Car Seat Headrest is here to say, fine, shit’s fucked. Accept it for now, take another swig and belt out the chorus of the song that’s playing in the background. That’s as cathartic an idea as any.
9. Solange – “Cranes in the Sky”
On an album full of gorgeous, feather-light meditative tunes, “Cranes in the Sky” is the best of them all. The song describes Solange’s attempts to assuage pain, and she offers no answer: just a list of tried-and-true methods with varying levels of success. In the hands of a lesser artist – and producer; the slow, lush beat comes courtesy of R&B stalwart Raphael Saadiq – it could be an instantly forgettable song. But the star attraction, Solange’s vocals, are so warmly inviting it’s impossible to resist. She could be forgiven for hopelessness given the subject matter found on A Seat at the Table but instead her angelic voice floats effortlessly atop Saadiq’s gentle, persistent shuffling drum beat, humming synths and lovely plucked strings. If heaven is anything like the outro of this song, then sign me the hell up. Away, away, away…
8. ScHoolboy Q – “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane (ft. Jadakiss)”
The first time I heard this song, the latest in ScHoolboy Q’s ever-growing list of bangers, I was utterly convinced the beat (Dem Jointz) sampled TV on the Radio’s “DLZ”; I was immediately transported to an Albuquerque hardware store. It isn’t sampled in “Groovy Tony” or its counterpart “Eddie Kane” (astonishingly, the former’s drum beat is sampled from a ho-hum Christine McVie song), but the similarities remain. “Groovy Tony”, one of the year’s most menacing hip-hop tracks, is all drug-dealing and vicious violence, featuring a verse showing off Jadakiss’ expertise (hear how he matches every syllable perfectly with the beat, and his subtle pronunciation changes at the end of the lines “Running with the rebels it’s a three-man weave / with the Lord and the devil / really all I need is a pitchfork and a shovel” to keep the rhyme up). It’s a nod to Tony ‘Scarface’ Montana. In contrast “Eddie Kane” shouts out Michael Wright’s character of the same name in the film The Five Heartbeats; Eddie was a soul singer who ran foul of the law and developed drug addiction and mental health issues. Tae Beast’s beat reflects the change in mood from “Groovy Tony”; when once the protagonist was running the game, he is now being chased, and the paranoid beat and desperate vocals of ScHoolboy Q and Den Jointz portray the bitter, never-ending cycle: whilst Groovy Tony embraces it all head-on, Eddie Kane’s thank-you to Ronald Reagan is rooted in hopelessness.
7. Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam (ft. The-Dream, Kelly Price, Chance the Rapper & Kirk Franklin)”
I woke up at an ungodly hour on a January morning to catch the train from Werribee to Melbourne Central, to sit in a cinema for an 8am livestream of Yeezy Season 3, Kanye West’s fashion show and album unveiling. The show didn’t begin until nearly 9am and it was awful watching models forced to stand frozen to the spot as Kanye indulged himself. But for all his questionable excesses, goddamn can he make a good song. “Ultralight Beam” was the first song we heard and it was only the third time in my life that something had made me wish I was religious. The beat – a Kanye/Swizz Beatz/Chance/Mike Dean collab – is noteworthy for its use of negative space; there’s some gentle synth, wormy bass, a naked drum beat, an occasional horn and very little else, making it all about the vocals. The intro samples an Instagram post. Kanye urges us to pray for Paris. The-Dream and a choir combine to call for peace. Kelly Price preaches the virtues of looking skyward. And then, wading out the mist, comes Chance the Rapper, the bearer of all knowledge, wisdom and dope bars. His verse can safely go down as one of hip-hop’s greatest ever moments. It begins so warmly, Chance softly reassuring: “When they come for you, I will shield your name”. In three breaths he references continental shift and a beloved children’s TV show (the theme song to which he’s covered before). The pace picks up, he speaks of his inspirations and faith. “This is my part, nobody else speak.” He slows down, looks around him, does that loveable Chance smile – “I’m just having fun with it!!” – and then races to end, allowing Kanye, The-Dream, gospel musician Kirk Franklin and a choir to wrap things up. Your hairs are left standing on end, you are in awe. This is a God dream, and “Ultralight Beam” proves that, though he can be hard to root for, Kanye is really just hoping to uplift the world.
6. Bon Iver – “33 God”
Religion has never seemed to play a huge part in the music of Justin Vernon. At least not overtly. “33 God”, the second song that dropped ahead of the release of Bon Iver’s third full-length LP, 22, a Million has Vernon (through Paolo Nutini) finding “god – and religion too”. It’s a little tougher to find the meaning of the track itself – his music as Bon Iver seems to grow more esoteric and mysterious by the record – my guess is it’s a confused man taking a path of solitude to find religious salvation, but, as with many previous Bon Iver songs, it hardly matters. Like in all his best work, the emotion is palpable from the very beginning. The utterly gorgeous, elegiac piano grabs your attention from the outset, though it is soon swallowed up by pitch-shifted samples, glitchy synths and some banjo. There’s one of those lovely, relatable lines that sticks in your head right away – “I’d be happy as hell if you stayed for tea” – Vernon is a genius at that. Then there’s that Paolo Nutini sample and thunderous drums and fuzzy bass envelop the track, with a whole range of other instruments hidden in there as well. 22, a Million also finds Vernon’s vocals more treated than ever, but, despite the overload of elements, “33 God” remains as relatable as his best tracks. Unrequited lovers’ hearts still beat passionately as the track reaches its conclusion, the music cascading towards its ethereal catharsis.
5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Skeleton Tree”
Following the horrific events of 2015 – Nick Cave’s youngest son died after falling off a cliff – the album he released with his long-time band The Bad Seeds is a harrowing affair. At least, for the most part. The most remarkable thing about Skeleton Tree – maybe the best album of his long and storied career – is that it ends on a positive note. The closing song and title track comes after 36 minutes of soul-searching and grieving and finds Nick Cave sitting by a frost-bitten window on a Sunday morning, after a tortuous night of drinking and little sleep. “Sunday morning, skeleton tree / nothing is for free / in the window, a candle / maybe you can see.” He’s audibly exhausted, exhausted from searching his grief for an answer: “I called out, I called out / right across the sea / but the echo comes back empty…” The music reflects the mood, with its gentle, embracing synths, light piano and even lighter drumming lulling the listener – and Cave – into a much-needed sleep. As the song slowly reaches its conclusion we understand that there’s no easy way out of grief. But in this moment, right now, drifting off, things might just be okay.
4. Ariana Grande – “Into You”
“She’s been a bright spark this year,” my friend Tilly texts me, after I’ve tagged her in the latest of the one-time Disney child star Ariana Grande’s Instagram posts. Indeed Grande is one of the few people who probably won’t find much to hate about 2016; her third studio album spent most of the year capturing the zeitgeist. The second single from it, “Into You”, is an absolute banger and in this writer’s eyes by a million miles the best pop tune of the year. That’s thanks to two things – firstly, the dark and sexy beat, produced by Ilya Salmanzadeh and – who else – Max Martin, which makes last year’s after-hours stomper “Can’t Feel My Face” feel about as sexy as an American presidential debate. But Ariana Grande is undoubtedly the star here, her captivating voice – at its explosive best in the chorus – carrying the song’s desire. But I know there’s not much less sexy than a nerdy white Australian man about a female singer’s burgeoning art. Words can do little to accurately describe the visceral thrills that “Into You” provides. The song itself, and its video, do a far better job.
3. Radiohead – “Daydreaming”
Anyone who has listened to Radiohead for more than five minutes can tell you that few – if any – artists do melancholy like the British five- (sometimes six- or seven-) piece. Their catalogue is littered with an embarrassing wealth of gorgeous, heartrending ballads and “Daydreaming”, the second track on A Moon Shaped Pool, can stand toe-to-toe with all of them. Six minutes long and built on a very simple piano line imbued with sadness, “Daydreaming” is an ambient, esoteric wander through metaphysical wilderness (though it becomes literal wilderness in the beguiling video). The track opens with light, woozy synths, instantly setting the song’s dreamlike mood. The aforementioned piano line fades in, followed by Thom Yorke, who gives the intro the perfect amount of silence to work its magic. Warped electronic treatments give the daydream an edge, while the Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral embellishments provide the track with another layer, enveloping the listener as the song drifts towards its conclusion. (Seriously, the band’s work cannot be understated – there’s a part about halfway through the song where you’d expect another line from Thom but he stays silent; instead, spacey piano wades in to fill the space. It’s genius.) Underneath it all is Thom Yorke, sounding as resigned as he’s ever been: “Dreamers / they never learn,” he sings, repeating the second line with even heavier gravitas. Understandable given it recently came to light that Yorke’s long-term partner Rachel Owen – the mother of his two children – succumbed to cancer. In the film clip Yorke visits a hospital ward before finally finding some solace in a campfire in the snow, mumbling something about love. But he knows “it’s too late / the damage is done”. That’s why the song’s heaviest lines are all repeated a second time, Thom’s vocals sadder each time. In grief we all seek comfort as best we can; and if six minutes of daydreaming as beautiful as this is what it takes then so be it.
2. Kanye West – “Real Friends (ft. Ty Dolla Sign)”
The first thing that strikes you about “Real Friends” is that incredible beat. Produced by Kanye and Boi-1da, it’s the type of hip-hop beat that makes you nod your head in appreciation rather than go H.A.M., the type of thoughtful, earthbound beat that Outkast perfected on their second album ATLiens. Like other Kanye beats before it – think “Avril 14th” in “Blame Game” or “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in Devil in a New Dress” – it’s built on a minuscule sample from an obscure song, this one’s “Couches”, from Canadian producer Frank Dukes. It’s hazy, melancholy, it’s moving, it’s downright sad. The other striking thing about this song is how down-and-out Kanye sounds. “I’m a deadbeat cousin, I hate family reunions”, he begins, before listing a number of small incidents that have got him down: drinking at a communion, spilling wine on his tux, time pressures and so on. I don’t think we’ve ever heard Kanye this despondent, this insular. It’s easy to pick on the man for perceived megalomania but his music has always been self-aware. “I guess I get what I deserve don’t I?” Even though he’s balanced on this track by some brilliant adlibs from Ty Dolla Sign, whose raspy vocals fit the song’s world-weary mood to an absolute tee, Kanye’s never sounded so alone, so lost. Its place on The Life of Pablo is bookended by the album’s other two most anguished tracks – “FML” and “Wolves”. This is no coincidence, and, taken in isolation, reveals a great deal about the man’s mental state. “You ain’t never seen nothin crazier than / this nigga when he off his Lexapro” he raps in “FML”, while in “Wolves” it’s “I need you now / lost and found out”. You have to wonder how many real friends Kanye actually has; ones who have his best interests at heart, rather than money, fame or recognition. It’s this that he raps so assuredly about on “Real Friends” – “I cannot blame you / for having an angle”. But by the third verse he’s getting more and more crazed. And now, with the recent hospitalisation in mind and the absolute majority of public opinion against him, it sounds like he could use some true friendship more than ever.
1. David Bowie – “Lazarus”
Prior to David Bowie’s death I thought “Lazarus” was a really good song. Great guitar and a good hook. In the wake of his death, everything I thought was typical Bowie esotericism – quirky, fatalist lyrics, a terrifying film clip – turned out to be a rearview signpost. “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”, begins the track, the second from his parting gift of an album called Blackstar. It’s as accurate a summation of terminal cancer as any that’s been eulogised in song; and yet in the days before his death we didn’t read deeply into it, wondering instead if it came from the mouth of a character, based on the biblical Lazarus, the latest in a long, long line Bowie has played. We were excited at the prospect of five, ten, perhaps more years of Bowie as an artist. That never came to be, which is sad, but we should count ourselves lucky that he left us with work as vital as anything he released in his previous five decades of work. Many singers lose their edge over time, but on “Lazarus” we hear Bowie in sensational form. In his first few lines he sounds resigned, alongside mournful horns and slow drumming. In the second verse he sounds a little fidgety, a little anxious, a little paranoid – “look up here man / I’m in danger”, “I’m so high it makes my brain whirl” – before asking rhetorically, “ain’t that just like me?” The song continues to swell, getting more restless, both the music and the vocals – the drums get faster, a stop-start guitar part wanders in, the horns moan their discontent as Bowie’s lines begin to blur together, bound by a feeling of trepidation – “This way or no way / you know I’ll be free / just like that bluebird / now ain’t that just like me?!” Bowie takes his leave from the track with about two minutes remaining, instead allowing the masterful horns, now running wild, to solo calamitously. But they too, fade away, leaving just gentle drumming, grounding bass and metallic guitar strikes to wind down the song, without doubt Bowie’s greatest since at least 2004, if not the 1990s.
A few months after Bowie’s death I saw a tribute show at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall. It left me and my good friend Stephen, with whom I have shared many a tear and glass of red wine since Bowie’s passing, cold. A run-through of his biggest hits, it sorely lacked atmosphere, personality and vivacity. The one artist who could be excused from criticism was Tim Rogers – he alone brought the swagger necessary to pay tribute. It was telling that the highlight of the show, by the length of the Swanston St tram corridor, was not any of Bowie’s tried-and-true hits, but Rogers sauntering his way through “Lazarus”. The conservative audience were indifferent to it, but Bowie might have smiled. It speaks volumes of the artist Bowie was that rebel rebel Rogers sought to pay dues not only to the packaged, 2-CD Essential Bowie, but the Bowie that the artist himself embodied for his entire career – adventurous, daring, challenging, restless, fucking brilliant.
“Everybody knows me now,” a forlorn Bowie sings in “Lazarus”. But did they? Who among us expected him to treat his own death as art, releasing a Labyrinthine album full of great new songs and then quietly, privately pass away? I certainly did not. But god am I thankful that he did. Always surprising, always leaving us wanting more. Ain’t that just like him?