Welcome back to Pt. 2 of my Top Songs of the Year List. If you missed Part 1 with my #50-26 songs of the year, you can check that out here. 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 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.
25. Gates – Eyes
A personal favorite of mine for years now, and one of the best bands New Jersey has to offer, Gates took their sound to a new level this year. Kudos to them embracing the special elements of their sound more than they ever had before, leading to huge wide-screen pans like the one on “Eyes”. While you have to wait longer for the climaxes than you used to, when they come they hit harder than they ever have before.
Key lyrics: “I know I am never going to be the person that you saw in me / through those eyes”
24. Touche Amore – Skyscraper
When an earlier track on Touche Amore’s Stage Four ends with vocalist Jeremy Bolm singing, “I haven’t found the courage to listen to your last message to me,” referring to a voicemail his mother left before she passed away, you’re not really expecting to get an updated. And then, as the last crashes of Skyscraper fade away, long after Bolm’s The National-channeling warbling and a subtle Julien Baker cameo melt into a climactic burst, you hear a soft voice. It’s an understated message, a note that she had left the hospital and was heading to CVS to get a prescription filled, but the understatedness of the message makes it doubly more heartbreaking. As someone who has gone through traumatic loss, it’s these little moments of normalcy which get such heightened weight after the fact.
Key lyrics: “New York City, it’s all yours, it’s yours. You live there, under the lights.”
23. Told Slant – Tall Cans, Hold Hands
Another incredible band I heard for the first time on that summer The Hotelier headliner (that band really knows how to pick great openers), Told Slant may not be for everyone simply because they are often warbly, out of key vocally, but if you can get past that (or learn to love that), “Tall Cans, Hold Hands” is one of the most deeply moving pieces of music I’ve heard this year.
Key lyrics: “Life is not bad with tall cans and hold hands. You’re my best friend, and I need you, do you know that?”
22. Phantogram – You Don’t Get Me High Anymore
The first time I heard this song was on a Like a Version cover rendition PUP did. While I don’t like that version of the song nearly as much as the original I eventually heard, it’s a good prep course for the simmering intensity of the original version. There’s a hidden rage hidden under a hell of a vocal hook and synth-pop exterior.
Key lyrics: “Walk with me to the end, stare with me into the abyss.”
21. Muncie Girls – Respect
For my money, the two most important political songs of the year are the next two songs on this list. Muncie Girls eviscerate the boys club of pop-punk as well as institutionalized misogyny, domestic violence, and gender inequality, all in the span of a three-minute pop-punk song. As Muncie Girls’ Lande Hekt sings, “It’s so easy to pretend this doesn’t happen in our society,” but it fucking does still happen. Look at every pop-punk tour that continues to have 5 bands of all dudes, while bands like Muncie Girls rip with a woman singer. And it matters that we keep talking about it. As long as a woman is made to feel less than by her peers, of either gender, as long as income and social inequality continue to exist, we will not progress to a more just society.
Key lyrics: “For the next few years you can laugh and joke about your next victim, but when you’re all grown up and your daughter cries you’ll be sorry you did this.”
20. Kevin Devine – Freddie Gray Blues
Perhaps the most important song written by a white performer this year, “Freddie Gray Blues” tackles the story of Freddie Gray, a Baltimore area black man killed while in police custody after his spinal cord was severed due to alleged negligence by the officers. But on a wider scope, the song takes on the #BlueLivesMatter movement, and how the movement misses the mark. “I know not every cop’s a racist murdering cop, but this is bigger than the people I love,” he snarls, “the system’s broken, not breaking. It’s done.” Whether or not you agree, it’s a haunting piece of protest music, with a subject matter that is particularly relevant to the culture dialogue at the moment.
Key lyrics: “This is not my reality / I’m afforded the luxury / Of shaking my head / I shut the screen, go to bed / I can turn off what you never can”
19. Thrice – Stay With Me
I think this, out of all the songs this year, has my favorite vocal performance of any song. Dustin Kensrue’s soaring voice, straining into the highest edge of his register, sounds better than it ever has during Thrice’s illustrious career. The final, climactic chorus especially, is one of my favorite musical moments of the year. That swell, as drummer Riley Breckinridge seems to detonate his drum set- that’s how explosive that last beat is- gets me amped up every time. I’m so glad Thrice is back and making some of the best music of their career still.
Key lyrics: “You were a silhouette, a shivering shadow in the mirror, ash and snow.”
18. Against Me! – 333
So Shape Shift With Me won’t go down as nearly as transformative or vital an album as Transgender Dysphoria Blues, but I think at this point that’s basically impossible. I would argue the only punk album this decade with nearly the same cache is On The Impossible Past by The Menzingers, and even that is nowhere close really. They were really dealing with impossibly lofty expectations, and all they did was return with a no holds barred banger of a punk record. “333” also lowkey has one of my favorite choruses of the year.
Key lyrics: “Cycles of death and regeneration, sensations of absence and loss, you should’ve been there by my side to see it all.”
17. Black Foxxes – River
My friend Cody showed me this song as my introduction to the band Black Foxxes, while we were chatting with another friend Casey in the car. We were in mid-conversation when this song just ripped my attention away and left me blown away. The moment when vocalist Mark Holley howls, “Oh God. If you turn I’ll break your will,” is the moment where this band transformed from “cute Manchester Orchestra ripoff” to “one of the best new emo bands in the world” for me. I’ve been a huge fan ever since then.
Key lyrics: “Take it away what we once become / Hold me down / Let me drown”
16. Carly Rae Jepsen – First Time
Really, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion: Side B is eight songs of literally completely equal (and great) quality, so I just kind of picked on at random here to throw in, along with a recommendation that you need to listen to this EP because it is pop perfection. The fact that these eight songs are B-sides still absolutely blows my mind. Most artists would work their entire lifetimes to write a hook as good as the one on “First Time,” and she’s just burning them on B-side compilations. There’s no one out there better right now in the bubblegum pop lane. We’re not worthy.
Key lyrics: “We won’t get too sentimental, not tonight. / I could meet you in the middle, we won’t fight.”
15. Owel – Be Quiet
As I mentioned in the Gates write-up earlier, the New Jersey music scene is in great hands nowadays. One of the best bands coming out of our New Jersey scene right now is Equal Vision Record’s Owel. Their second full-length, Dear Me, was a breathless, exciting journey. While the hour plus runtime of Dear Me takes many unexpected twists and turns (the industrial Not Today chiefly among them) it is the expected, Be Quiet which is the most stunning. It takes the formula Owel crafted for themselves on their debut, breathy vocals, spacey arrangements and a knack for dynamics, and ramps them up to the nth degree. With everything firing on all cylinders, the climactic moments are that much more rewarding.
Key lyrics: “They might say I’ve given in / But I’ve given up and there’s a difference”
14. Daughter – No Care
Sonically, “No Care” is the outlier on Not To Disappear. Not to Disappear is a record of ominous quiet, self-loathing, and “No Care” does not fit that vibe, but it has become one of my favorite songs of the year because it so perfectly summates what I love about Daughter. Elena Tonra seems to find unique ways to phrase her self-loathing so it feels relatable instead of depressing (“Nobody asks me for dances because I only know how to flail.”)
Key lyrics: “How I wanted you to promise we would only make love / But my mouth felt like I was choking, broken glass / So I just slept it off.”
13. Microwave – Vomit
The key lyrics section below would be redundant for the song, because I want to point out that “Vomit” has my favorite lyrics of the year. In it, Hardy sums up the anxiety of a quarter-life existential crisis, where all of a sudden you get yourself into a tailspin of nihilism and you can’t find your way out of it. “There’s no such thing as love / We just felt vulnerable without a God / Without a crutch / There’s nowhere else, nobody else, nothing.” This can be an especially dangerous line of thinking when you, like Hardy and myself, lack a spiritual center either through deliberate choice (Hardy leaving the LDS Church) or through apathy (myself). The way you come out of it is by pouring yourself into your passions, whether that be art, music, or learning.
12. Every Time I Die – I Didn’t Want To Join Your Stupid Cult Anyway
Every Time I Die had always been that band that I was enthralled by for about two weeks every two years when they would release an album and then just sorta let fall by the wayside because it’s not the kind of music I normally listen to. Then Low Teens happened. It was the kind of album that made me re-evaluate how I looked at Every Time I Die, and all bands like them in my music collection that were lightly played. Was I missing out on some new favorites due to stubbornness? Yes, yes I was. And as for Low Teens, it has stuck with me more than any Every Time I Die record ever has before. “I Didn’t Want to Join Your Stupid Cult Anyway,” functions as a shell for vocalist Keith Buckley’s difficulties with AA and other religion-based sobriety based programs when trying to rehab from alcoholism.
Key lyrics: “From faith to doubt, / I’m hardwired to short-out. / From parts unknown / To streets paved in gold.”
11. Run The Jewels – Thursday in the Danger Room (ft. Kamasi Washington)
Much of Run The Jewels 3 is about the Black Lives Matter movement and reacting to the cultural dialogue around the movement on a macro level, while also reflecting on how when non-violent revolution becomes impossible, violent revolution becomes inevitable (“Kill Your Masters”) but Thursday in the Danger Room approaches things in a much different, more personal tone. This is El-P and Killer Mike reacting to a friend and loved one being murdered by another member of their community and how that grief has affected their community. It’s as visceral and haunting a portrayal of the loss of a loved one and the grief of having to keep living day by day after they’re gone as I’ve ever heard. The song also features some incredible saxophone arrangements from modern jazz legend Kamasi Washington.
Key lyrics: “The only thing left was his child, and she had a smile in his eyes / So much to the soul, when the grandmama kept her, she’d look at her sometime and cry… / And day after day she cried / Then called baby mama and told her ‘I’m sorry, can’t keep her no more, I have tried’”
10. Bayside – Mary
My friend Mike is one of the biggest Bayside fans I know. He has a Bayside dove tattoo on himself for godsakes. And yet, when Bayside put out Mary earlier this year, he texted me asking if it was a cover song. “It sounds like a classic song,” he said, paraphrased. I had to reply, “Nope, I’m pretty sure they came up with it on their own.” I know what he meant, though. and I 1000% agree with him. It’s not that he was saying Bayside wasn’t good enough to write a song that classic sounding, it’s just that the song is so perfect, so simple, so effortlessly catchy that it had to have been crafted in the early days of rock and roll. And yet, Bayside wrote it in the year 2016.
Key lyrics: “Save your breath, we only get so many trips around the sun / And there’s no lucky stars.”
9. Chance the Rapper – Same Drugs
On to the third (of four!) contributions by Chance the Rapper to this year’s list. I read an article from Complex Magazine, trying to accomplish what seemed to be a near impossible task, selecting the “Best Rapper Alive” for every year from 1979 to 2015. Their selection for 2015 was Drake, and while he had an okay year in 2016 as well (including his first Billboard Hot 100 single in “One Dance”) it would be impossible to argue that the title for 2016 belonged to anyone but Chance the Rapper. From his guest verses to his Christmas mixtape to his Magnificent Coloring Day Festival in Chicago, everything Chance the Rapper touched in 2016 turned to gold. But rap’s Midas had his greatest achievement with the follow up to Acid Rap, Coloring Book. To call this the greatest hip-hop album of the year would be accurate, but also kind of a misnomer. It was also the greatest gospel album of the year, the greatest soul album of the year, and several other genres as well. At the heart of it was “Same Drugs” one of the most beautiful songs of the year. Surprisingly, “Same Drugs” is not at all a song about drugs. Instead, it’s a song about fleeting childhood and nostalgically looking back on transient friendship. There’s a longing to go back there, but in the same breathe a look to the future, as Chance directly addresses his daughter, “stay in the line, stay in the line, Dandelion.”
Key lyrics: “Windows closed, Wendy got old / I was too late, I was too late / A shadow of what I once was.”
8. Pinegrove – Aphasia
Surely, by now, you have heard the hype on Pinegrove. The New Jersey alt-country/emo-tinged songwriter Evan Stephens Hall has earned praise from everyone from Pitchfork to NPR to the New York Times. And I’m here to tell you that the hype is 100% deserved. Hall has a way of rearranging your whole world in the span of a four-minute song. “Aphasia” is a song about the ways in which we often feel incapable of expressing our emotions in words, how that fear can manifest itself physically, and the relief of being able to move past this fear. It’s a poignant song, and as someone who has suffered from social anxiety at times throughout my life “Aphasia” and “New Friends”, another song on Pinegrove’s album Cardinal, have become something of personal anthems for me.
Key lyrics: “One day I won’t need your love / One day I won’t define myself by the one I’m thinking of.”
7. Jimmy Eat World – Sure and Certain
Jimmy Eat World is the best band in the world. There, I said it. Last year was the year my friends, maybe the biggest Jimmy Eat World fans in the US (???) converted me to that belief. I was almost fully there after they blew my mind with the Futures tour a few years ago, but when we met them at Vintage Vinyl earlier this year and they were unbelievably gracious with their time and their interest, the band fully won me over. And the lead single off the band’s latest, Integrity Blues, is a damn near perfect post-rock song hidden in an emo song’s body. The way the song utilizes quiet/loud dynamics to make the final chorus explode is right out of the post-rock textbook, and I couldn’t possibly adore it more. My favorite drum moment of the year is when Zach Lind punches a climactic drum roll right into that massive final chorus.
Key lyrics: “Sure and certain, wander till we’re old. Lost and lurking, wonder till we’re cold.”
6. Kanye West – Ultralight Beam
Originally intended to be the outro to Kanye’s ambitious The Life of Pablo, Ultralight Beam smartly was moved to the beginning of the album’s tracklisting, where it’s immense soulful power could be best used. Kanye has always utilized gospel music samples throughout his discography, but Ultralight Beam is the first song of his that I truly feel wouldn’t be out of place if edited and used in a church service. While The-Dream, Kelly Price, and everyone else who pops in and out of Ultralight Beam do an incredible job of world-building so this song feels lived in, it’s hard to argue that anyone else is more vital to the song’s success and critical reaction than Chance the Rapper. He drops what has now already become a legendary verse, exulting with praise for God while predicting the success he would have on Coloring Book and setting the stage for the greatest year I can remember an artist having on record. It’s a transcendent moment for music in 2016, and it’s what the world needed.
Key lyrics: “I made Sunday Candy, I’m never going to hell / I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail”
5. The Hotelier – Soft Animal
Soft Animal is a song I discussed a lot in my 4000+ word dissertation on The Hotelier’s Goodness, and I believe wholeheartedly that it was worthy of the praise I lavished on it. There is a naturalism about this song, a form of modern transcendentalism which is breathtaking. The Hotelier is so vitally important to the music industry. The courage to release songs like “Soft Animal”; songs that teeter on the edge of overwrought earnestness, but they’re just so damn undeniable that it’s hard not to find yourself shouting along and pouring out that emotion alongside them.
Key lyrics: “Fawn, doe, light snow. / Spots on brown of white / Make me believe that there’s a God sometimes.”
4. Animal Flag – Cathedrals
If there is one band I want you to listen to that you have never listened to before on this list, it is Animal Flag. They’re one of the best young bands out there right now, and it’s absolutely remarkable that their first album LP, a combination of their first two EPs, is only their debut. There is a maturity and depth of songwriting caliber from Animal Flag that you never see from many bands who have written ten LPs. “Cathedrals” could have ended after the four minute mark with its climax and fake ending, but the bravery to tear the song down to just a delicate piano and vocalist Matt Politoski’s voice, ringing out into the void, “Come speak in the silence” It gives me chills just writing about it.
Key lyrics: “Quiet my heart, quiet my tongue. And come speak in the silence.”
3. The Menzingers – Lookers
Here it is, the song with my favorite chorus of 2016. It’s hard to imagine there will be an album I love more in 2017 than The Menzinger’s After the Party. There will certainly be contenders: The aforementioned Animal Flag is putting out another album next year, Paramore is finishing up their new record, and who knows maybe we’ll finally get that Brand New album (ha, not) but The Menzingers have already released three incredible songs for the follow-up to the still-incredible Rented World. But the cream of the crop is undoubtedly “Lookers,” a song which steers directly into the kind of nostalgia-punk The Menzingers have made a name for themselves in creating. The Tom Waits-influenced chorus, a whisky-soaked singalong anthem, has added significance for shouting out both my home state and an Asbury Park landmark.
Key lyrics: “Sha la la la, Jersey Girls, they’re always total heartbreakers / Julie from the Wonder Bar / I still wonder where you are.”
2. The 1975 – The Sound
I could’ve picked any number of songs from The 1975’s most recent full-length, but I went with “The Sound” because it’s the sort of world-beating anthem I will still be listening to twenty years down the line. Indebted as much to 90s Euro step as it is to the alt-rock world it came out of, “The Sound” takes its wall-of-sound and beats you over the head with it till you’re left with nothing else but to start dancing. It’s a perfect pop song, and there’s no real disputing that. I can’t even find the words to describe how much I love this song, but I think if you listen to the moment the guitar solo kicks in just before the final chorus, I think you’ll experience the same feeling of elation I have every time I even hum this song to myself.
Key lyrics: “It’s not about reciprocation it’s just all about me / a sycophantic, prophetic, Socratic junkie wannabe.”
1. PUP – DVP
The year’s best song to me is not an expertly-written pop song, or a moving emo heartbreaker, but an unapologetically brash punk song about getting drunk and making stupid decisions. “DVP” is the most explosive song of the year, from its chaotic orgy of noise and riffs intro to its bridge, where the protagonists’ drinking “habit” (read: problem) comes to a head, (“I drink till I’m / staring at the ceiling, / I’ll be just fine / I’m numb and losing feeling.”) It’s also by far the most fun I’ve had listening to music all year. If you haven’t taken a drive yet, shouting along with vocalist Stefan Babcock as he howls, “She says that I drink too much, / I fucked up and she hates my guts / She says I need to grow up,” you need to do that, as soon as possible.
Key lyrics: “She says that I drink too much / Hawaiian Red Fruit Punch / She says I need to grow up.”
Thank you so much for reading! I hope 2017 brings us as much incredible music as 2016 did.