Our Top 25 Songs of 2016.
25. Teenage Fanclub – “I’m In Love” [Merge]
Scotland’s Teenage Fanclub ended a six-year silence with Here, an album that showcases the group’s ability to write short, infectious power pop tunes that are impossible to forget. “I’m in Love” leads the way with a powerful hook, breezy vocals, a beginning writer’s sense of wonder but a veteran’s sensibility of structure and might. Does the song say anything new? Probably not, but its celebratory vibe, is uplifting choruses and relentless celebration of new love (or at least love that feels new) is irresistible.
There’s also time for a Thin Lizzy-style guitar break that proves that lead guitar in the context of a pop track is alive, well and in capable hands thanks to Teenage Fanclub. The whispery but powerful singing adds a sense of mystery while losing none of the overall heft a composition such as this wields: Who couldn’t feel moved by these promises of undying devotion despite all the things working against hearts that want nothing more than to celebrate each other?
Could this just as easily be about the group and its devoted circle of fans, those of us who believe that nothing can’t be fixed with some groovy chords and a chorus that takes us to the gates of heaven? Maybe. Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t matter. Teenage Fanclub’s music doesn’t need fixed meanings to make us happy or to convince us to drop the needle on pieces such as “I’m in Love” one more time. – Jedd Beaudoin
24. Radiohead – “Daydreaming” [XL]
Opening with a pitch-shifted, warbling ambient synth, “Daydreaming” lives up to its title with a twinkling, wistful arrangement that lays sparkling, sun-refracting chimes and sleepy piano to its soundscape. Thom Yorke’s frail croon adds to the sense of displacement, though his lyrics cut through the fog. “Dreamers, they never learn,” he moans, gently scuttling the relaxing vibe even as the effects and loops he occasionally tacks onto his vocals sends the composition further into the ether. Yorke’s singing is strikingly front and center, given how it typically forms a larger part of the band’s textural composition, and if Yorke’s strained voice has always connoted some level of insular sadness, the feeling he expresses here is unbearable. Backwards-masked vocals translate out to “half my life,” a lament for his recently ended 23-year relationship, and the gradual intrusion and crescendo of downtuned cellos manages to plunge the song deeper even as it builds. The net effect of this cluttered track is, ironically, total nakedness, revealing more of its makers than nearly anything they’ve done to this point. Radiohead is no stranger to morose, somber music, but “Daydreaming” stands as one of the most affecting songs of their entire career. – Jake Cole
“Texas.” With one word, repeated three times, Beyoncé unfurls a world; we can imagine stagehands scurrying out from the wings with fake cactuses and a desert backdrop. “Daddy Lessons” plays with the mythical connotations of Bey’s home state, setting of so many Westerns, in spinning a story of a hard-drinking daddy teaching his daughter to be tough. It’s tempting to read into this as an allegory for Beyoncé’s relationship with her own dad, a stage papa whose split from his daughter as business partners coincided with the quantum artistic leaps the pop star made this decade. But then again, the daddy of the story’s dead, so maybe it’s just a parable. (For that matter, is she really talking about Jay-Z on the rest of Lemonade?)
“Daddy Lessons” was not initially one of the more beloved tracks on Lemonade, but it threw the music industry a monkey wrench. Beyoncé’s performance of the song at the Country Music Awards threw the country music world into heated quarreling about whether or not “Daddy Lessons” was really country, whether or not a pop star of Bey’s stature should be allowed at such an event. As of this writing, Beyoncé fans are mad it wasn’t up for a Country Grammy. Funny how in pop’s supposedly post-genre landscape, the mere idea of Beyoncé doing country has everyone at each other’s throats. Bey, of course, can only sit back and sip her tea. – Daniel Bromfield
22. Conor Oberst – “Gossamer Thin” [Nonesuch]
Conor Oberst pares back his seventh solo album, Ruminations, to only sparse acoustic instrumentation and his own quavering voice as he sings about characters who are stretched even thinner. Before the recording the album in a 48-hour period while on a winter retreat to his native Nebraska, Oberst had endured a significant health scare and the emotional fallout from false accusations lobbed his way. He used these experiences to breathe life into his ragged characters on this album, flawed and fragile individuals who are highlighted perhaps most earnestly on standout “Gossamer Thin.”
Beginning with a story about a strung-out musician meeting weekly “at a seedy motel” for a passionless tryst with an equally desperate woman, Oberst shifts to the first-person in the song’s second half, singing about his “glass psyche” on the verge of breaking, a state of mind where getting out of bed can be a challenge and keeping the drink in his hand from shaking is an impossibility. Backed by plaintive piano and punctuated by emotive bursts of harmonica, Oberst taps into the ennui that can so often accompany a quality of life that has diminished into mere existence, when every day is simply another in a long line of joyless maintenance. A song about the toll depression can take has rarely been so transcendent and beautiful. – Josh Goller
21. Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam” [Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music]
As divisive as Mr. West was in 2016, we can all agree that “Ultralight Beam” is one of the greatest songs he’s ever made. The opening track of the messy, purposely unfinished The Life of Pablo is an effortless synthesis of everything the populus loves about Kanye West, with absolutely none of the more prickly elements of his musical persona. It’s five minutes and twenty seconds of pure rapture. Kanye himself disappears into the elements that make the track so beautiful. His singing is…well, it’s his singing. But that’s not what he’s there for. That’s what Kelly Price and The-Dream are there for. He doesn’t even rap much. Because that’s not what he’s there for. That’s a job for Chance The Rapper, perhaps the purest descendant of “the old Kanye.” The song feels almost like a funeral for Kanye from the future and Chance’s verse is a Grammy medley tribute being simulcast to the past. Kanye has a lot of “proteges” on his vanity label, but here Chance sounds like the son usurping the father, to his pops’ delight. His indelible lyricism is the glue holding it all together.
Yearning, regret, hope, love, God, all of that with sky piercing choir vocals and a heart wrenching outro from Kirk fucking Franklin himself about the power of forgiveness. It’s an important song to the ongoing Kanye narrative. He didn’t include the Gospel legend for some easy credibility from church folk who’ve forgotten “Jesus Walks” and only see him selling tattered rags to rich hipsters. Only Franklin could sincerely deliver the most important words on the whole song – “You can never go too far where you can’t go home again.” It doesn’t matter how irritating, weird or controversial Kanye West is. We’ll always let him back into our homes, through our speakers, because so few modern artists can make us feel as much as he does, as easily as he does. I’m fine with five more years of Walt Disney rants if we get a few more songs as soul nourishing as this one. – Dom Griffin