As I have done the past several years, below I have compiled my annual list of the top 50 songs of 2016, in the opinion of myself, Craig Ismaili. This list required a great deal of deliberation, and it is solely a reflection of my personal perspective, and should not be viewed as Garden Statement’s official top songs list. As is always the case, I have also only included one song per album on this list, so as to spread the wealth and give many different artists the recognition they deserved for their standout tracks this year. This is, however, a departure from in years past, as I now will allow for an artist to appear multiple times on the list, granted that artist has appeared on more than one album. It is my hope that this new rule will allow me to recognize when an artist has truly dominated the culture discussion (and my own listening habits) in a year. I hope you enjoy the list I came up with. If you don’t agree with a selection, or would like to tell me what I missed, let me know in the comments. There is a handy Spotify playlist included again at the bottom of the list, as well as a link to an Apple Music playlist, for those of you who are short on time, but still want to hear what I have chosen. I didn’t want to censure myself or give myself a strict so I figured I’d break it into two posts. Here’s part 2 of the list. Thanks for reading.
Bellows – Thick Skin
I went to see The Hotelier last summer knowing absolutely none of the four openers playing the show. I figured I would show up late, maybe drink a beer or two and wait out the storm of presumably bad openers. And then Bellows blew my goddamn mind. And this song from their most recent record Fist And Palm displays just how much nuance and depth their songwriting has.
Key lyrics: “Cause I fear the unknown / Don’t want to leave the Earth even for a moment”
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – Fire Escape
There were several songs in contention for these last few spots (chief among them Bon Iver’s 33 God and anything from Beyonce’s Lemonade) but I decided to go with Andrew McMahon’s “Fire Escape” in part because I think it’s a great love song, and in part because I’m genuinely terrified that McMahon’s new album Zombies on Broadway is going to be bad, so I thought I’d get in the praise for “Fire Escape” now while I can.
Key lyrics: “Pocket change and subway cars / Our big ideas filled empty bars.”
Bruno Mars – 24K Magic
I don’t know what more you want for me. I’m a sucker for perfectly crafted pop tracks. I fell for it with Uptown Funk and I’ve fallen for it again with 24 K Magic. Bruno Mars is great. Don’t @ me.
Key lyrics: “We too fresh / Got to blame Jesus.”
Moose Blood – Knuckles
Moose Blood has their formula down to a science. So their newest album Blush sounds like a slightly updated version of their debut? Who cares when the result is ten more catchy as hell pop-punk tracks from these craft Brits. One of the very few pop-punk albums I went back to a bunch this year.
Key lyrics: “I know that you’re stuck with him, I know. You got his name on your arm, his words on your knuckles.”
Joyce Manor – Fake I.D.
Oh hey, look it’s that other pop-punk album I went back to a bunch this year. While I enjoyed Joyce Manor’s self-titled and Never Hungover Again was a revelation, Cody will easily go down as the band’s finest work to date. This song about a drunken hookup who is a little too overzealous about her love of Kanye West is so effective because of vocalist Barry Johnson’s distinctive narrative voice. While many pop-punk songs take their lyricist’s self-loathing to an extreme, few do it with the sort of brashness and irreverent joy that Joyce Manor do.
Key lyrics: “Then she seduced herself out of the room singing ‘What do you think about Kanye West? I think that he’s great. I think he’s the best.'”
The Weeknd – Starboy
The Weeknd’s newest record Starboy is earning all kinds of praise, and it is every bit deserved. There are about a dozen songs on the album which one could call “perfectly written” and could have easily placed on this list. I went with the title track, in part because it was the single, in part because it is catchy as hell and in part because it coined a delightful pun name for a boast: “let a n—a brag Pitt.”
Key lyrics: “Star Trek roof in that Wraith of Khan / Girls get loose when they hear this song.”
House of Heroes – We Make Our Stars
A lot of people have admittedly never heard of House of Heroes and I can’t blame them. But they have put out several “concept albums” for close to a decade now, and they’ve only been getting better. This concept album about a young man who has to decide whether to rat out his cousin or become and accomplice to murder is rife with as much tension and heartbreak as can be expected from that conceit. We Make Our Stars is the mid-first act ballad where we are introduced to the love interest. A gorgeous soaring piece of art that is brought back as a reprise later on the album, it’s a song that’ll be hard to get out of your head.
Key lyrics: “You’re a picture of infinite possibility / I see chaos, you see a symphony.”
The Japanese House – Face Like Thunder
Fans of The 1975 who have not yet listened to labelmates The Japanese House are missing out on their new favorite band. On this, her third EP, The Japanese House steer the compass firmly in the pop direction. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with for her debut full-length, whenever it drops, but her soulful, longing voice and knack for writing lyrics that will punch you in the gut (“does he really believe that this new taste of love is obsolete?”) have it right near the top of my most anticipated list.
Key lyrics: “And you question your lover, did she really believe / That this new taste of love is obsolete?”
The Naked And Famous – Higher
The Naked and Famous were a band I wasn’t particularly familiar with outside of their song “Youngblood” which I adored when it came out. On “Higher” they hit all the notes I’m looking for in a synth-pop song- vaguely 80s sounding synth vibes, huge tom drums, and a soaring pop melody chorus. It’s huge and it’s hella satisfying.
Key lyrics: “Time is the medicine to heal these needs that only raise our voices higher.”
Kings of Leon – Waste a Moment
Kings of Leon get a lot of shit. Literally, sometimes (the band once left a festival stage after pigeons pooped directly into one of the member’s mouth). But I don’t think all of it is deserved. This band can craft a hell of a hook. Case in point: the “take the time to waste a moment” melody was stuck in my head for a week after I heard this song.
Key lyric: “Name a price to all this living / Never ask to be forgiven”
David Bowie – Lazarus
Few departed artists ever get to call their shots before they pass. Even fewer have done so with the air of nobility or the boldness of David Bowie. Releasing his swan song Blackstar on the eve of his death gave each of the songs a heightened weight, but Lazarus is an intensely emotive song even sans context. A brooding self-epitaph with one of the most gripping, moving saxophone solos in modern music.
Key lyrics: “Just like that bluebird, oh I’ll be free, ain’t that just like me.”
The Chainsmokers – Closer (ft. Halsey)
Total millenial wish fulfillment. An electronic pop duo with basically no singing talent (see: their VMA performance) meets an early 20s warbler who feels just a little bit like a Jimmy Iovine-created Voltron of a pop star (think Avril Lavigne for those born after the year 2000). And yet, it fucking works. Somehow, some way, the hook will draw you in.
Key lyrics: “Stay, and play that blink-182 song, that we beat to death in Tuscon.”
Margaret Glaspy – Emotions and Math
The twangyness of “Emotions and Math” belies just how much power Margaret Glaspy’s voice has. As if to remind you, she really accentuates the gravely vocals on the first line of each verse, as if to say, “I can sing this little twee southern pop ditty, but don’t fuck with me or I’ll bring out the big guns.”
Key lyrics: “I was a rolling stone out on my own / but now that you’re here I’m just living in fear of you leaving.”
From Indian Lakes – The Monster
From Indian Lakes just make viiibe music. “The Monster” is a song of introspection, a song of questioning if who you think you are is entirely accurate. Everything Feels Better Now is the kind of album you put on when driving down a long highway, or laying in your bed in the dark thinking about life, where that kind of introspection is most fitting. Not exactly the most uplifting of listens, but life isn’t always sunny.
Key lyrics: “I’m beginning to wake myself up / I’ve been dreaming of monsters in love”
Chance the Rapper and Jeremih – I Shoulda Left You
I want to level with you for a moment. Last year’s list (and every year before that), I had a rule that there were no repeat artists allowed. I broke that rule deliberately this year, so I could talk about all of Chance The Rapper’s projects, in hopes that by the end of this article I could convince you that Chance The Rapper was the MVP of music in the year of our lord 2016. On this track, he transforms what had been a fun if ultimately forgettable Christmas mixtape collaboration with Jeremih into one of the funniest, wildest jams of the year. Riffing off the premise “2016 has been a miserable year filled with awful news and awful people, I wish we could just leave all this stuff here and start fresh next year,” he and Jeremih drop two of the very best verses of the year (“Please can we get back Craig Sager? / Leave your ass at the rim.”) Despite a regrettably homophobic guest verse from Lud Foe (“A nigga diss on me, he a homo”) that we could have certainly left in 2016, Chance The Rapper again proves that his music is filled with such an optimism and ambition that it’s just hard not to want him to be the biggest artist in the world.
Key lyrics: “Merry Christmas, Space Jammin, swear I got about 6 rings.” / “Rest in peace to great David Bowie / Please can we get back Prince? / Please can we get back Kimbo Slice, / boy I swear that they gave you life / Shoulda left your ass in the pen / Please can we get back Craig Sager? / Leave your ass at the rim.”
Emperor X – Wasted on the Senate Floor
There’s a line from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises where one character asks another how they went bankrupt. The other character replies: “2 ways. Gradually, and then suddenly.” I think this explains how I fell in love with Emperor X. I first fell in love with his song “Erica Western Teleport” as I was studying for the LSAT (“Don’t think of her, study for the LSAT”), before falling headfirst in love with that track’s album Western Teleport, and then, most recently with his new song, the capitalism censuring “Wasted on the Senate Floor.” The song debuted just days before the new world order was established in early November, and it gave me great comfort through the dark, anxiety ridden days that followed the election. The world may be screwed up, but at least we’re realizing it.
Key lyrics: “I start to shake when she stares at me. / Our currency’s almost at parity. / I’d try to talk, but apparently / that’s not attractively tough.”
Chance the Rapper and Francis & The Lights – Dear Theodosia (Reprise)
The Hamilton Mixtape was a compilation filled with things I never knew I wanted till I got them (“Satisfied” ft. Sia as Angelica Schuyler, Alicia Keys ripping “That Would Be Enough”) but the most unexpected and beautiful tribute to the musical came from Chance the Rapper and Francis and the Lights, who close the mixtape with a solemn, gorgeous cover of the first act’s penultimate track. Chance The Rapper sings to bring the same joy and love and optimism for his kid’s future that he displayed on “Angels” from Coloring Book to this ballad.
Key lyrics: “If we lay a strong enough foundation / We’ll pass it on to you, I’ll give the world to you”
Balance and Composure – Mediocre Love
Balance and Composure’s third album Light We Made is a quantum leap forward in maturity and sound, and while it is best experienced as united whole (preferably after midnight going 70+ on a highway somewhere), this mid-album track is singled out because it has one of my favorite ominously brooding bass lines of the year.
Key lyrics: “Time bends back its strong arms moving, slowly take a breath / Mediocre loving ways can make you come undone”
Andy Hull and Robert McDowell – Montage (ft. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe)
Swiss Army Man was my favorite movie of the year and it wasn’t particularly close. Part of it is the sheer audacity of the spectacle and the fact that I have never seen a movie like it (yes, five minutes into the movie Paul Dano is riding Daniel Radcliffe’s body as a jetski powered by farts) but also because it is so deeply moving despite its absurd premise. The film’s signature song, “Montage” is literally a song played during a pivotal montage which describes the action of the montage, but just like everything else in the movie it works.
Key lyrics: “I have to admit I’m enjoying your company / Are we falling in love? / All we’ve ever needed is a montage.”
Migos – Bad And Boujee (ft. Lil Uzi Vert)
Donald Glover recently thanked Migos for making this song after winning a Golden Globe, saying, “That’s the best song ever.” While I don’t have it quite as high as he does, who am I to argue with him. Song is dope.
Key lyrics: “Raindrops, drop top, smokin’ on cookie in the hotbox.”
Andre 3000 – Solo (Reprise) (From Frank Ocean’s – Blonde)
So, unfortunately, because one of the greatest of all time drops into Frank Ocean’s record unannounced and drops my favorite verse of the year, Frank Ocean gets shafted from appearing on this list. Check out “Nights” and “White Ferrari” though, I love those two. They just can’t hold a candle to Andre 3K spitting fire and calling out other rappers for not writing their own verses.
Key lyrics: “I’m humming and whistling to those not deserving / I’ve stumbled and lived every word, was I working just way too hard?
Lucius – My Heart Got Caught on Your Sleeve
This track from Lucius’ newest album Good Grief is more understated than their Whitney Houston sounding “Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain” or their Fleetwood Mac-meets-Florence and the Machine sound on many of their tracks, but that doesn’t make this ballad track any less fascinating. Featuring a delicate piano accompaniment and swelling string arrangement, this song builds to a heart-wrenching dual harmony conclusion which took my breath away the first time I heard it.
Key lyrics: “Trying to think of my heart as an ocean / Where there’s room enough for things”
Switchfoot – Where the Light Shines Through
One of the most memorably uplifiting songs of the year, Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman urges people to remember that their flaws make them who they are and to be incredibly proud of the things about themselves they can’t change. In a world where our new President mocks a reporter with a disability and the would-be Secretary of Education doesn’t believe the federal government should help fund educating the disabled, it’s a message we needed to hear this year.
Key lyrics: “Your scars shine like dark stars, yeah your wounds are where the light shines through.”
Noname – Reality Check (ft. Akenya and Eryn Allen Kane)
Noname is perhaps most well known for being a frequent collaborator of Chance the Rapper’s but her solo debut mixtape, Telefone, shows a depth of songwriting many rappers should be rightfully jealous of. On Reality Check, she confronts her own anxieties about finishing up the record and presenting it to the world. The song also features an inspirational pep talk of a hook from Eryn Allen Kane that I really loved.
Key lyrics: “Skeletons in my closet gone open the door when Yale come / They ain’t gonna wanna see my silhouette rap”
Taking Meds – I Only Want to Listen to My Own Band
This Broken World Media band’s laughably titled My Life as a Bro may be a hit-or-miss affair, but “I Only Want to Listen to My Own Band” has one of the year’s very best chorus. The explosive dissonant chords which meet the tongue in cheek lyrics just perfectly lead to this unexpected song needling its way into my brain.
Key lyrics: “I really prefer silence man / I only want to listen to my own band”
Thanks for reading! Check back tomorrow for Pt. 2!