New Year’s Mix List: Top 13 Songs Of 2016

(photography from Casper Sejersen’s Belongs To Joe)

Congratulations!  If you’re reading this you’ve survived the whole of 2016, a year that just about everyone has summed up as “horrible” or similar words you could find in a thesaurus.  In some ways it was a constant parade of bad news, celebrity deaths and political malaise, so I’m not surprised to see the aftereffects surfacing in the music I listened to this year. 2016 was a year unlike any other. It was a year of progress for sure; the disconcerting thing is the direction that progress is taking us.

In spite of all of this, music can be a bastion in our personal lives: illuminating, rough and beautiful, especially during times like these. A friend of mine recently remarked that what will be interesting is what artists will do over the next several years. For now that remains unknown, but we did agree on how it reminded us of the speech penned by Orson Welles in The Third Man (1949):

“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

We didn’t agree on the sentiment, but it did beg the question of what reactions are to come.  The future definitely has change and invention in store for us.

The album is shared here for downloading.

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1) Lorn – “Anvil”

I’ve always had a weakness for instrumentals that sound like scores from a lost and unseen film.  Although I don’t know much about Lorn yet, I’d definitely rank him alongside others like Forest Swords and Gesaffelstein.  The video for this is pretty amazing as well.

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2) Bobby Darin – “Not For Me”

“I am without love
But I don’t doubt love can be
And maybe there is such a thing
But not for me”

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3) Radiohead – “Burn The Witch”

This was the first song on the list and grew with me the longest, summing up my political and personal frustrations of the year with an incendiary clearness.  Lines like “Loose talk around tables / Abandon all reason” and “Avoid all eye contact / Do not react” didn’t only highlight how political attitudes were coming to blows, but how people around me began treating each other.  When that happens, there’s no way of escaping how unpleasant it is, especially when it becomes normalized.  The accompanying video couldn’t sum that up better, and was retweeted by Thom Yorke after the election.

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4) Christine and The Queens featuring Perfume Genius – “Jonathan”

“Jonathan” is a song about acceptance and forgiveness, a plea from a person to be recognized as a whole and not seen or utilized as just one thing.  In the wake of this year I’d believe that in most cases the other party’s answer would be “No,” but the final strains of the song leave the message open-ended and hopeful.  I’ll never know the answer to the question, but the way it was asked was worth every listen.

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5) Nicole Dollanganger – “Mean”

I discovered Nicole Dollanganger last year but continue to marvel at how she translates the unbelievably ugly, depraved and untouchable into beautiful microcosms with an elegance you’d consider impossible.  “Mean” highlights the kind of relationship that’s a complete train wreck from the outside, but Dollanganger slips into its distortions and finds the drive and devotion that could fuel it.  It reminded me of a quote from Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch: In Praise Of Difficult Women, in which she ruminates on abusive relationships:

“I hope I would be able to realize that if I were choosing to believe that someone who hurt me badly could also love me, then I have accepted this dance, I have agreed to take the waltz, I am willing to engage in the games of manipulation and fear and injury that I will call love.  I will accept the risk.  I will sustain physical damage and I may die.  But it is worth it. I finally have my Heathcliff, I finally have my mad love, my movie plot, my Tennessee Williams drama.”

I could never concede to that kind of life, but that doesn’t diminish the power that drives others to do so, whether in real life, erotica or their personal fantasies.  Dita Von Teese voiced her opinion quite succinctly when she was questioned about her burlesque career, which at times has crossed lines with Dollanganger’s work: “In my sexual fantasies things are not politically correct.”

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6) Crystal Castles – “Kept”

I find it amusing that as hardcore Crystal Castles presents itself, Ethan Kath samples Sigur Rós or Stina Nordenstam when he undertakes one of his ear-shredding copy-blender-paste sound collages.  In short: he is pulling stuff from things considered new age, jazz or shoegaze and turning it into floor-shaking noise pop.  On Amnesty (I), he uses Beach House‘s “Other People” (a track I’m not particularly crazy about) and turns it into dance music so catchy and powerful that when I saw it performed live the entire building was shaking with the beat.

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7) The Flying Lizards – “Summertime Blues”

If I’ve settled on Klaus Nomi being my favorite artist of the ’80s, I suppose The Flying Lizards are my favorite band of that decade.  Beginning as a gathering of avant-garde and improvisational musicians, they went on to be one-hit wonders with their cover of “Money (That’s What I Want),” using unlikely instrument combinations and robotic lyrics.  What I didn’t know was this was utilized again and again, whether it’s this cover of Eddie Cochran‘s “Summertime Blues” or the tongue-in-cheek fun they had on Top Ten (1984).  FYI: their music video of James Brown’s “Sex Machine (Get On Up)” is one of the strangest, funniest, catchy and, well, British things I saw/heard this year.

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8) Delia Derbyshire – “Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO”

Delia Derbyshire is considered one of the overlooked pioneers of electronic music, creating scores for BBC television shows and radio programs while collaborating on experimental projects like The Dreams.  Her music sounds like Grimes and Aphex Twin or other out there stuff…  only it was produced in the 1960s.

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9) Jed Kurzel – “The End”

Snowton was by far the most disconcerting and scary film I saw this year, bolstered by Jed Kurzel‘s heart-pounding score.  This is what plays over the credits, and all I did was stare at the screen, completely numbed and overtaken by the horrible things I had seen.  That might not come across through listening to the song on its own, but in its original context it does more than cap off the two hours leading to it.

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10) Lisa Germano – “No Elephants (Edit)”

Who would have thought that a song Lisa Germano released three years ago would somehow perfectly sum up the fallout of the election?  Originally written about the plight of the environment and humanity’s growing obsession with technology, I couldn’t come across a better commentary on the reactions pouring in online (of course): “All plugged in / And tuned out / No elephants around.”  Whether you want to interpret that as democrats assuming they wouldn’t be outnumbered or the many “elephants” in the room, the metaphor works both ways.  And either way everyone ends up losing.

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11) The USSR Ministry Of Culture Chamber Choir – “The Hymn Of The Cherubim”

This Tchaikovsky piece was posted on Tumblr with the caption: “Currently listening to this at 2 a.m. while wearing gold eyeliner and it makes me feel celestial (oh and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard).”

Sounds legit.

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12) Tori Amos – “Fire-Eater’s Wife (Demo)”

The road with Tori Amos has been long and I’ve traveled it in fits and starts.  I returned to her this year and discovered this demo from Boys For Pele It sounds like a dream fragment as well as a contemplation on how to search for a better world without feeling weighed down.

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13) Max Richter – “The Nature Of Daylight”

Every week Perfume Genius shares a couple of songs he has been listening to on Spotify, but out of all of them, this one struck me immediately and has stayed with me for quite a while now.  It’s no wonder- it just took a little research to find out how popular it was.  Originally written as a part of a protest against the Iraq War, “Daylight” has been used in the films Stranger Than FictionShutter IslandDisconnectThe Face Of An Angel and this year’s critically acclaimed Arrival.  Not surprisingly Richter has gone on to score films in the twelve years since its release.

Nevertheless, I think this was the best song to end things.  The song is soothing as it is plaintive, one of those rare pieces where lyrics have no place or necessity.  The instruments say it all.

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Happy 2017 to everyone out there.  Enjoy.


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