Music is subjective and it is not. “What?” Well, we all have our own conception of what taste, treasure, and trifle are in music. The following list comprises my favorite musical treasures from 2016. They may appear as trifles to other ears tuned for different frequencies than my own are. Yet I’m confident that each cut presented here in one way or another makes a contribution to an overall upward trajectory, a positive progression for music which aims at an objective high-quality. Many songs harp on or exemplify trends in popular or underground music which I consider valuable. Some introduce new, well-turned phrases into the eternally in-flux dialogue. Others repackage old wisdom in a shiny new bow. Many simply evince the extremely high production value which I worship, idolator that I may be. If my rhetoric already seems innane, skip it, but do yourself a favor and enjoy a few of these sixteen songs.
Sunflower Bean is a rock trio from Brooklyn. “Easier Said”, the first single from their debut album, is a near perfect pop song with it’s simple but emotive guitar licks and frontwoman Julia Cummings’ serene voice and poetic lyrics – “Should have just stayed home, but I’d rather be alone instead.”
Tom Misch can do no wrong. This one-man-band – vocalist, guitarist, pianist, producer – released his Reverie EP in July, featuring this softly aching song about looking back on one’s past.
According to the producer’s Soundcloud, Open Ocean is about “depth”. 2016 saw the rise in “Wave” music, a strange concept when one considers all music is one intricate arrangement of waves. Open Ocean offers my favorite conceptualization of “Wave”.
Waves (Remix) Feat. Travi$ Scott
This tune came early in 2016 and captivated me for employing production techniques atypical in R&B, even its contemporary strains. “Waves” has an uncompromising energy that hit the sweet spot. Travis Scott’s verse precurses his massive success and innovation through the rest of the year.
Jade Cicada from western Massachusetts makes me almost incredulous with his profound production capabilities. What was first a 30-second clip on Soundcloud was then debuted in full when Jade Cicada opened for Dave Tipper at the latter’s Full Moon Gathering in April in Florida. It’s been a standard in the underground glitch hop scene since.
Survive (ft. Maksim)
COPYCATT is a 19-year-old producer from Brisbane who released this track with the MC Maksim on Inspected 2, a compilation from the boundary-pushing music/fashion collective Inspected which dropped in November. The British bars over the nutty sound design evokes Grime, but the sound design is far more sophisticated. I desperately hope to be caught by surprise and flattened by this song on a dance floor in 2017.
A Love That Lasts Forever (Tsimba Remix)
Wax Future, a producer/guitarist duo from Philadelphia, have been upping the ante on the sample-collage, electro soul sound popularized by Pretty Lights. Budding Connecticut-based bass music producer Tsimba brought his “future roots” sound to bear on this WF original. The subterranean bass and esoteric thematic material made it an easy pick for me.
I was introduced to this too-fire track by Bassnectar who dropped it one Halloween weekend. We expect great things from one of Kannibalen Record’s most promising young talents, who has the touch. To end the song the producer samples Doors frontman Jim Morrison who presciently describes the future of music. I see you, Shivaji.
Akhar Zaman (This Moment)’
The singer, songwriter and axe-wielding phenom from Agadez, Niger named Bombino stole my ears mid-2016 with his album Azel. With it’s simple popish formula and striking riff, “Akhar Zaman (This Moment)” is my favorite song from this vital North African rock-and-roll masterpiece.
Mind Tricks Ft. Lafa Taylor
Bassnectar’s 2016 album was more subdued than most of his work from the past five years, but “Mind Tricks” featuring Lafa Taylor on vocals and G Jones on production is an unequivocal banger. The syncopation between the bassline and the drums is a hallmark of both Greg Jones and Lorin Ashton, native Santa Cruzans from different generations who apparently have an EP in the works for 2017. Lord help us.
Clearly, my ears are mostly keenly tuned to dirty, heavy neuro bass music. Few sauce it better than the mercurial producer Kursa who released this absolute flamethrower in October. I was fortunate enough to hear a top notch selecta spin it live before year’s end.
I’m not being punny or cute when I say this was a sleeper on my list. Dave Tipper released this song for his stepfather PJ the day he passed away. For someone like me who also lost a close loved one in 2016, the existential beauty of this song stimulates self-reflection and an appreciation for life’s fleeting treasures.
It would be convenient and almost accurate to substitute my list here for Chance’s entire Coloring Book. Same Drugs soars above the rest because of how sensitive and relatable it is. “Same Drugs” highlights the artist’s versatility as a singer and songwriter, while humanizing someone whose star was soaring so high all year.
“Only Yesterday” was an early song-of-the-year pick when it dropped in April as the first new music in almost two years from Derek Vincent Smith aka Pretty Lights. Words can’t describe the catharsis this man creates through sound. He takes the most endearing elements of America’s musical past, and synthesizes them to pioneer its future. Anyone who’s felt lonely or lovelorn could probably bump this tune ad infinitum.
I’ve saved the best for last. Perhaps this is unwise in an age of ever-decreasing attention spans. Regardless, if you’ve made it this far then enjoy this acoustic masterpiece furnished by Uyama Hiroto. This favored collaborator of Japanese beat legend Nujabes is a master. His 2016 drop Freeform Jazz takes the Japanese hip-hop/soul sound to new, emotive heights. Minano is a town in central Japan, but whether or not Hiroto is referencing this place is unknown to me. Nonetheless “Minano Pride” is my favorite cut from my favorite record in 2016. Thanks for reading and listening.