Twenty-five songs for twelve (twenty-four) months, heartache and ecstasy and death and ordinary days wiping noses, catching buses, patching flats, cleaning the kitchen after everyone’s gone to bed. Here’s the Spotify playlist for this one, again missing songs with the (*). Please note the random peppering of artist photos that has nothing to do with the artists they happened to be wedged next to.
Songs: “cuddle buddies on the low”
Alabama Shakes, “Shoegaze.” On Sound & Color, these guys absorbed some of the chilly timbres and sharp dynamics of post-punk, much to the delight of my hometown’s indie station; but my favorites on the album are still the warm, punchy, soul-derived tunes, this one and “Future People.”
Mary J. Blige, “Long Hard Look.” An impossibly brave and robust singer whose guest spots I’ve often liked better than her albums, Blige here completely puts over a song that I could scarcely imagine a younger singer having the courage to touch.
Buena Vista Social Club, “Lagrimas Negras” (feat. Omara Portuondo). My favorite from their odds-and-ends collection this year.
The Chemical Brothers, “Wide Open” (feat. Beck). Consoled me on a rainy drive, helped me think of the future during a sad hard conversation.
Disclosure, “Good Intentions” (feat. Miguel). Finally feel like I get the hang of house vocalists, why they sound so far off. In R&B, the singer’s drama and storytelling is the song’s emotional center; in house, the singer’s another instrument, an underlining of (or counterpoint to) the song’s energy and emotion. The distance of Miguel’s regret here isn’t a sign of an aloof performance: it’s his response to house’s history of anonymous, coolly-lonely divas, the same way Miguel’s own “Kaleidoscope Dream” responded to Shuggie Otis, “Adorn” to Gregory Abbott. And, of course, distant regret has been one of my winter’s dominant feelings, so this song couldn’t be more appropriate.
Drake, “0 to 100/The Catch Up.” Surprising no one, I find I love love love this song: a statement on the state of the art.
Ty Dolla $ign, “Saved” (feat. E-40). The better the speakers I’ve listened to this one on, the more I’ve found in it: the chorus’s bass drop, the shifting filter on the synthesizer arpeggio that brings it closer and farther, wrapping around you then drawing back. Yeah, Ty seems like a cad, but at least he’s repeatedly honest about it, and in E-40 he welcomes an elder who’s spent years expressing the same sentiments. “I ain’t gonna save her,” he says, but the music itself is a restorative joy.
inc., “A Teardrop from Below.” My song of the year. As obsessed as I am with No World, inc.’s record from a few years ago, this song improves on it in every way— the whispered vocals, the nimble guitar, the skittery soothing drums. This band certainly deserves to be huge; if they follow up the collaboration they’ve begun with FKA twigs, maybe they will be.
Nick Jonas, “Jealous.” Look, not every great pop song can be “Call Your Girlfriend”— it can feel new without enlarging Top 40’s emotional vocabulary, or even in doubling down on gendered sentiments I don’t much like when an actual human being expresses them.
Kelela, “Rewind.” Kelela couldn’t be emotionally farther from it as a singer, but her taste in beats still reminds me of Yeezus— abrupt, dark-toned, almost skeletally simple.
Natalie La Rose, “Somebody” (feat. Jeremih). Back before our Corolla went to heaven, this song leaped out from our local hip-hop/Top 40 station’s endless cycling and kicked me right in the ears. A knockoff-DJ Mustard beat I like better than most DJ Mustard beats.
(*) Led to Sea, “Mossy Stone.” My favorite from Alex Guy’s new record is this stinging and swirling download-only B-side…
The Milk Carton Kids, “Getaway.” Like the Everly Brothers, these guys’ harmonies are almost too perfect; the live warmth of their Monterey record is what saves it from an unbearable buttoned-up neatness. This is my favorite from the album.
M.O, “For a Minute.” My mom got me a subscription to Rolling Stone as a present for my 14th birthday, just as the last echo of male entitlement-bellowing was fading from mainstream radio and Puff Daddy and the Spice Girls one-two’d my middle school and shared a Rolling Stone cover. At the time, my teenage allegiance to punk rock and nerd-boy anti-sentimentalist sclerosis— why didn’t more bands sound like the Clash?— led me to hate Bad Boy and Euro-pop. But, almost two decades later, I love “I Need a Girl” when it comes up on our local all-throwbacks radio station, and I turn up any female-led R&B tune calling back to those euphoric late-90s groups (All Saints, En Vogue). Like this one!
Nicki Minaj, “Truffle Butter” (feat. Drake & Lil Wayne). Alex and Sayer, remember the drive to the healing stone scar of the Elwha and back where we listened to nothing but this? And: Is that a Burial sample?
Joan Shelley, “Stay on My Shore” (feat. Will Oldham). I wish I’d loved this whole album of poetic Americana— it even has guitar from Nathan Salsburg!— but only this song shone out through Shelley’s melancholy, musical referentiality, and lyrical reserve. Still looking for new music alive to (mostly) New England folk forms that admits all the originals’ hellfire, longing, jubilant lust and savagery, rather than playing like a reverent reflection of a narrowed past. (Should I just remain content with Palace and Cordelia’s Dad?) But still, all this to say: this song is unspeakably beautiful.
Jazmine Sullivan, “Let It Burn.” I have this fantasy where the dozen visionary women currently destroying and enlarging my conception of R&B— from old-school-not-conservative Sullivan to Dawn Richard who’s growing on me to love-drugged android-cool Kelela– are all on a private plane together and spend the flight taking stock of what geniuses they all are.
Tame Impala, “The Less I Know the Better.” My uncle, a music fanatic who used to choose his Seattle apartments based on their ability to pick up KCMU and who loves X so much he got politely kicked out of their last Seattle show, first turned me on to Tame Impala, sending me a link to “Half Full Glass of Wine” and calling them “the future of psych.” But five years later, on Currents, their dry close-mic’d sound and Kevin Parker’s Lennon-on-Revolver vocal timbre move away from psychedelic and closer to big-screen 80’s synthesizer pop.
Vessel, “Drowned in Water and Light.” I wanted to love Punish, Honey like I loved Drop the Vowels– noisemakers sculpting heavy, bleakly-sexy body music– but this is the only tune that stood out amid the album’s diminishing returns of rattle, squall, and squonk.
Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen.” Didn’t really get this one until I danced to it with a hundred buzzed beautiful revolutionaries, queers, and future-bodies a half hour after we staggered out from seeing Braids down the street.
The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face.” A whole album of Abel Tesfaye’s moping, coldness, and sexual ego wears me (and others) out, but on single songs this good the combination of his persona, his hurt-but-agile tenor, and his great taste in beats is bracing. Five years out, this no longer sounds new, but it does sound good.
White Suns, “Priest in the Laboratory.” A certain species of musician, for whom the spiritual possibilities within music are immediate and vital, can scream, sail, or whirl themselves into an ecstasy that makes those transcendent possibilities into immediate felt realities that have little do with “spiritual music” as the idea is commonly received. Look at America: it makes perfect sense that many of us experience sublimity only in music of pre-rational regression, nauseating dynamics, and horrified clarity. Maybe it makes me a pervert, too, but I still dearly love this shit, even though I find plenty of less-violent music transcendent too, and even though the spiritual possibilities I find outside music are the opposite of absurd and are inescapably relevant. Put one song on here rather than the album because that’s all I can take at once.
Wussy, “Halloween.” The worst thing about the two-camp model of music criticism— seeing the “mainstream,” and then an everything-else, defined generally in the negative and pegged to concepts of coolness and of speaking intentionally to a select group— is that its elitism keeps it from developing a language for musicians whose cultural signifiers, legacy, and influences come from both. Wussy, after ten-plus years and five albums, only now get cred from the hipster tastemakers they’re too big-hearted for anyway. Attica! mixes up Sweetheart of the Rodeo and “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Ramblin’ Man,” and even though the ponderousness of the rhythm section sometimes wears me out (I don’t really like the Drive-By Truckers either), the tunes Lisa Walker leads are all splendid, with this cinematic and sweet and yearning song being my absolute fave.
Jamie xx (ft. Romy), “Loud Places.” When’s Romy gonna have a solo album? As Jamie xx’s productions turn into party music, big-screen and bright-colored, I get bored and miss that first album they did together. Maybe Jamie misses it too? Because this song’s dope: there’s regret and openness both in Romy’s voice and the song’s big movie-journey moves me because of it.
Young Money (ft. Tyga, Nicki Minaj & Lil Wayne), “Senile.” Piers put me on to this one. Thanks Piers!