Every year I write basically the same thing in this introduction. My music tastes are mine alone, so this list is less of a proclamation about what was definitively the best music than it is simply a list of my favorites. I’m not a real music critic, and you can find plenty of year-end lists that are more wide-ranging or that better fit your own personal style.
Nevertheless, I find it fun to chronicle my favorites for each year, and this is that list. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting too. If you use Spotify as I do, I have created a playlist (link) that counts the songs down in reverse order. You can also find my top-100 of the 2010s (link) on Spotify. Use those links if you have trouble seeing the embedded lists below.
Top 40 of 2016
Top 100 of the 2010s
Lastly, please listen through on your own before sharing with kids. Not all good music is kid-friendly.
40. The Naked And Famous “Higher”
Album: Simple Forms
TNAF regretfully is becoming further removed from the heights of their 2010 debut (“Young Blood” and “Punching In A Dream”), but “Higher” is still a credible facsimile. They have been overtaken by the likes of CHVRCHES in the electro-pop realm.
39. Fruit Bats “Humbug Mountain Song”
Album: Absolute Loser
This is a weird, folksy, confused song that is somehow also catchy. Fruit Bats had been a thing for a long time before I ever heard of them or this song, but I’ll listen a little closer in the future.
38. Digitalism “Shangri-La”
Album: Hills End
Digitalism works more in the area of electronic dance, which often doesn’t catch my interest, but my affinity for the FIFA video game series introduced me to this song, which plays out more like a straightforward synth-infused pop song. FIFA 17 has a killer soundtrack overall and is heavily represented on this list.
37. St. Lucia “Dancing On Glass”
“How long until we learn dancing is dangerous?” is not a question you ever have to ask in the Church of Christ. We know all dancing is dangerous and is an immediate precursor to other illicit activities.* But I’ll forgive St. Lucia for asking, even if I personally cannot relate to dancing on any type of surface, much less glass.
[*Ed. Note: May not actually be true.]
36. Bastille “Send Them Off!”
Album: Wild World
“Send Them Off!” is a straight-up pop vocal performance that shines in the face of a somewhat underwhelming beat. The lyrics are typical Bastille, which makes them somewhat more interesting than you might otherwise expect out of a pop group. “Pompeii” it is not, but this is a solid song.
35. Mutemath “Changes”
It’s not a normal album release year for Mutemath, and yet here they are. “Changes” is a one-off single included on their remix album of the same name, but it still stands out as one of the better tracks of the year. Unfortunately it is more of the same low-key electronic style that dropped Vitals down a notch from their previous work, at least in my view.
34. Glass Animals “Season 2 Episode 3”
Album: How To Be A Human Being
Maybe you have managed to procure one of the NES Classic systems this year, in which case you have been treated to a number of musical effects like the ones in this song. Beware becoming so lethargic that you are using “a cookie as a coaster.”
33. Paper Route “Chariots”
Album: Real Emotion
We are already up to three FIFA 17 songs on the list, but this band is also somewhat of a local connection. Paper Route hails from the Nashville area and is another group that has been around longer than I would have guessed. The vocals at the end of the song are the thing that keeps me coming back to “Chariots.”
32. Blind Pilot “Packed Powder”
Album: And Then Like Lions
The verses are great, showing the kinds of backward logic and rationalization that we all engage in from time to time. I mean, who doesn’t take a job as a tour guide hoping it will simply make them believe the things they’re saying? It’s interesting the paths we take to find self-confidence, love, a fulfilling career, all the things we want in life.
31. Local Natives “Past Lives”
Album: Sunlit Youth
I’m as guilty as anyone of spending my time trying to unravel how I got here, rather than simply being here. “Past Lives” explores that idea through an urgent vocal performance over an expansive beat.
30. Tall Heights “Horse To Water”
In a way, this song would have been a fitting opener to Neptune, Tall Heights’ major label debut, because there would be no doubt about the treat of harmonies in store for the listener. It’s difficult to entertain the idea that these guys were busking on the streets of Boston just a few years ago.
29. Lucius “Born Again Teen”
Album: Good Grief
I’m not convinced that the stereotypical “born again teen” mindset truly exists, but I get what they’re trying to capture. Lucius’ live performance of this song on Ellen was great, even if Wolfe and Laessig’s particular singing style—impassioned singing while facing each other at the same microphone—is a wee bit over-the-top. They still get bonus points in my book for being the singers on the recording of the San Fermin debut, which is one of my favorite albums of the decade so far.
28. Lanks “Golden Age”
Album: Viet Rose (EP)
I have no idea what makes “that sound” you hear on the recorded version of this song, but for better or worse, I suppose it’s part of the hook of the song. The bridge toward the end shows off Lanks’ range as a singer, and it’s outstanding.
27. Yeasayer “Silly Me”
Album: Amen & Goodbye
Thankfully this is a song to which I cannot relate, but it’s entertaining just how incredulous the lyricist is about the way his relationship is ending. Yeasayer is no stranger to unique instruments, arrangements, and sounds, and the live production of this song employs a fretless bass for our enjoyment.
26. Tall Heights “Infrared”
“Infrared” lacks the same sorts of harmonies that infuse Tall Heights’ other entries on this list. This track has more of a raw synth sound, and the lyrics take a turn toward the existential.
25. Broods “Free”
It’s a great song that doesn’t translate as well in the acoustic version that they always seem to perform in the various studio performances I have found. I like how the verses take the higher register while the chorus digs down into the lower reaches.
24. PLGRMS “Pieces”
Album: Pieces (Single)
The debut single from this Australian electro-pop duo actually came out in 2015, but since they have yet to release even an EP, I’ll go ahead and include it here. Vocalist Jacob Pearson lets it fly as the song gets to a crescendo at the end.
23. Two Door Cinema Club “Bad Decisions”
While Two Door Cinema Club’s earlier singles were more fast-paced and guitar-driven, the bass drives “Bad Decisions” through the super falsetto verses into a big late guitar solo. Is it too cliché in 2016 to be pointing out how much we love instant information gratification? Maybe so, but I still like the song.
22. School of Seven Bells “Open Your Eyes”
“Open Your Eyes” is the heartbreaking lead single off the album Alejandra Deheza completed and released in early 2016, after her bandmate Benjamin Curtis died two years prior, following an 11-month battle with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma. Given the lyrics, it is chilling to consider that it was actually written in 2012, before Curtis’ death. Would that we all received such a fitting tribute.
21. Regina Spektor “Grand Hotel”
Album: Remember Us To Life
“Grand Hotel” is a playful and eccentric song about literal hotel guests from the afterlife. It’s a send-up of the film-making idiosyncrasies of Wes Anderson, specifically The Grand Budapest Hotel.
20. Lucius “Madness”
Album: Good Grief
Who doesn’t dream about reacting to being held at gunpoint? Maybe in 2017 Regina Spektor can write about an eccentric band instead of a director, and this song can be the jumping-off point for her riff on Lucius. For now we’ll settle for Lucius’ own version, which is quite good.
19. Phantogram “You’re Mine”
Here’s an example of “I saw them live a few weeks ago and can’t help but bump them up a few spots.” Don’t twist yourself up over the confounding double negatives. Just enjoy some of the dark, aggressive synth-pop-rock goodness that Phantogram continues to release every couple of years.
18. Jack Garratt “Worry”
If one were to make a list of “impassioned performances of 2016,” would Jack Garratt take all of the top spots, or just most of them? Check him out on YouTube sometime to get a flavor of this one-man band. Here we have a song about not quite being over someone who is over you.
17. D.D Dumbo “Walrus”
Album: Utopia Defeated
D.D Dumbo is another one-man band, although his style is more experimental. “Walrus” is a gorgeous yet simple song, as he demonstrates by looping and stacking the parts on top of one another, in an NPR field recording from 2014.
16. Glass Animals “Pork Soda”
Album: How To Be A Human Being
This one is much better in a live recording than on the album, but either way, I doubt it is possible to listen to this song and get that nonsensical “pineapples are in my head” little earworm out of your head.
15. Phantogram “Same Old Blues”
There is a lot of synth-y electronic bass stuff on my lists these days, but Phantogram still has a unique sound to me within that genre. To you it may be the “Same Old Blues.” Forgive me for that, and just enjoy the drop where the guitar comes in.
14. Sløtface “Empire Records”
Album: Empire Records (EP)
Yes, the band has toned down their name from something that no one wants to say on the radio or type into a search engine. Setting that aside for a moment, “Empire Records” is a great little 90’s nostalgia song with a fun punk-ish sound and a nice bass part. This is a very promising group in general—I have just recently added “Sponge State” to my regular playlist but haven’t given that one enough time to sink in for a year-end list.
13. Wild Beasts “Tough Guy”
Album: Boy King
We’ve all come across the “Tough Guy” in some form, and man does that guy stink. This song has kind of a dirty feel that I assume is intentional, but it’s also catchy, with that odd style of percussion that (fellow Brits) Alt-J seem to have perfected.
12. Phantogram “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore”
Here’s a nice, positive uplifting song to get you through this not-so-kid-friendly portion of the list. Wait, nope, I found another one likening drugs to a relationship going off the rails. Phantogram now has a long list of songs I like, but this might be my favorite.
11. Jack Garratt “Surprise Yourself”
The chorus is basically all ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ but it is still a fine song—another one from FIFA 17 and an instance where the soundtrack seems to agree with me that this (and not lead single “Worry”) is the standout song from Garratt’s debut album Phase.
10. Regina Spektor “Bleeding Heart”
Album: Remember Us To Life
Regina Spektor is possibly my favorite lyricist on the planet. Her writing has just the right amount of charm and off-beat creativity, and her melodies and vocals bring the lyrics to life in a way few other writers can match. “Bleeding Heart” is addressed in the second person to someone who has struggled to adapt to life, and it’s beautiful.
9. School of Seven Bells “Ablaze”
While it’s maybe not the song on SVIIB that will tug most at your heartstrings, the lyrics are clearly still heartfelt, and the pumping beat and chorus of “Ablaze” makes it the standout for me on School of Seven Bells’ final album.
8. Glass Animals “Youth”
Album: How To Be A Human Being
There’s a deep sense of regret to this song that is relatable to me as a parent who has already watched five years elapse for my boys, in what seems like no time at all. Glass Animals have a way of making slow-to-mid-tempo songs musically interesting, with “Youth” standing out as a prime example.
7. Japandroids “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life”
Album: Near To The Wild Heart Of Life (due 2017)
Japandroids feel like one of those love-them-or-hate-them bands—noisy and not-so-melodic—but man can their songs pack a punch. “The House That Heaven Built” was a huge miss on my 2012 year-end list and has since climbed into my top 10 for the decade. “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life” is maybe not quite on that level, but it is still very much in that same vein of energetic and emotional hard rock.
6. Everything Everything “Distant Past”
Album: Get To Heaven
Maybe it’s cheating to include a song that was released on BBC Radio in February 2015 and was on last year’s FIFA 16 soundtrack, but since it’s my list, I’ll bend the rules. Get To Heaven was released stateside in 2016, for what it’s worth (maybe not much, in this digital age). “Distant Past” is like its album cover—very colorful, a little violent—and Jonathan Higgs’ frenetic vocals take us back to a time when things were, well, maybe not all that different than they are now.
5. Colony House “You & I”
Album: Only The Lonely (due 2017)
Colony House are the closest band on this list by proximity to my hometown. They are from Franklin, TN and are legitimately good, not just good locally. “Silhouettes” from their debut album was my #15 song of 2014, and “You & I” takes a step beyond that song. It’s sing-along worthy mainstream rock, and hopefully they will continue to expand their following with a new album due out in January.
4. White Denim “Holda You (I’m Psycho)”
“Holda You” is super unsettling from a lyrical standpoint, especially when the music is so upbeat and catchy. But that’s White Denim in a nutshell. The band went through some turnover since the last album, retaining only their colorful lead singer James Petralli and very good bass player Steve Terebecki, but the band’s sound remains. As the song’s antihero reaches his breaking point, newcomer Jonathan Horne’s guitar similarly takes off toward a wild finish.
3. Tall Heights “Spirit Cold”
I’m not sure how to explain that this song really soars toward the end, at least not without making a reference to this duo’s name. “Spirit Cold” is about being aware of what’s around us, good and bad, being informed and moved by it. The lyrics are genuinely interesting, but I think it’s cool if you just want to enjoy the harmonies, which are top notch.
2. Animal Collective “FloriDada”
Album: Painting With
I’m slowly coming around to Animal Collective’s critically-lauded catalog, and I have to admit that “FloriDada” is the first song of theirs that has struck me as both “creative” and “something I might want to hear again.” Evaluating the weirdness of Florida through the perspective of Dadaism seems strangely appropriate. I never would have thought of it that way myself, but there is indeed a weirdness worth celebrating about America’s vacation spot. The “Florida Man” punchline is one example of how it offends our sensibilities in a way that is not so different from Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “fountain.” There’s more to Florida than Florida Man, for sure.
1. Glass Animals “Life Itself”
Album: How To Be A Human Being
If you have seen my top 100 of the decade, you’ll notice that my favorite songs are also some of the strangest songs that make my lists. Sometimes a song is just “out there” and doesn’t really enlighten or entertain in any way, and Glass Animals can really toe that line sometimes. “Season 2 Episode 3” is one example that maybe leans more to the weird side. “Life Itself,” though, is engaging from the start, equally relatable lyrically and catchy musically. It’s tough not to bob your head to that unique beat, and the earworm factor is what eventually caused this one to win out over several worthy candidates for the top song of 2016.