The SMEAR staff collaborated to make a playlist of what we think are 2016's best songs.
Daniel Valdez: “Festival Song” - Jeff Rosenstock
20 years ago, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon joked on The Simpsons that the modern music festival is about “advertising and youth-oriented product positioning.” If you look at how giant events like ACL sell back the concept of independent music to suburbanites willing to spend thousands on VIP packages, it’s hard to argue with her.
In a year where DIY venues across the country have shuttered their doors, “Festival Song” serves as a vital reminder to demand better of our counter-culture than bank-sponsored ‘rebellion.’ Like all great punk songs, it’s a call-to-arms against apathy. Rosenstock rails against “department store crust-punk-chic” with ragged, infectious energy. He depicts the current festival environment without holier-than-thou chastising of the genuine music-lovers around him. Instead, he focuses his righteous anger towards the looming commercial forces that smother the air with billboards, that only use indie music as a gateway to a lucrative demographic.
Oh yeah, the song just rocks too. I feel like that’s worth noting. The arrangement explodes from an anemic Casio-preset beat to a fiery, synth-spiked rave-up. Rosenstock’s hard-driving beat and jittery “whoa-oh” chorus induces a near-Pavlovian need to headbang along. “Festival Song” will have you yelling yourself hoarse to keep from crying.
John Pesina: “Self Control” by Frank Ocean
Channel ORANGE came out right around the year I came out, and a lot of the songs on that album have a special resonance for me. I can’t really listen to “Bad Religion” without thinking of laying down in the back of a school bus coming back from a band thing after being rejected by a huge crush I had for a year. A lot of the music Frank Ocean makes dredges up a hazy sense of nostalgia for me. A kind of nostalgia that rarely brings up a real memory, but can at least invoke some semblance of emotion and feeling from a bygone time, a forgotten love, and holy shit did “Self Control” hit me with that when I listened to Blond this year. The lonely guitar, voices swirling in tandem, the last part where the song changes and becomes this echoey symphonic suite that fades into the ether; so many components of this song get me. But it’s the damn chipmunk voice that sings “Keep a place for me / I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing” that legit gets me almost crying. I don’t know if it’s the melody or just the idea of the lyrics themselves -- more unrequited love and a desire to be with someone you can’t be with -- that gets me going; but damn, it’s perfect. Absolutely perfect. 10/10, welcome back Frankie.
Frances Molina: “Happy” by Mitski
This song has a lot going on. Sonically, lyrically, emotionally. It’s the first track from her album Puberty 2 and pretty much set the tone for my fall/winter season. Over hazy guitar melodies and random saxophone, Mitski personifies “Happy” as a fuck boy who comes for tea and sex, promises to stay, but leaves a mess anyway. Along with a terrifying music video, the record itself possesses a sadness that verges on resignation, a resignation that verges on parody. Sad boys and girls everywhere: do yourself a favor and listen to Mitski. Lord knows you’ve got something to cry about.
Hunter Funk: “715 - CRΣΣKS” by Bon Iver
A harder decision than was likely necessary, since no matter whether I go by which song I listened to most this year or which one I cried to most this year, I’d be lying not to have this strange interlude at #1. It befuddles me that I’ve yet to fully peg what about this track strikes such an emotional chord in me - it’s literally just two minutes of Justin Vernon self-harmonizing through an army of layered vocoders - but I’d guess it’s how he manages to wrest such hauntingly human emotion through the manipulation of a machine. Vernon’s music has long reminded me of old gospel spirituals (“the kind of music I’d suggest to my mother”), especially with that grizzled choirboy voice of his, and to hear it now run through a processor and digitized as all hell adds an element of bittersweet postmodern beauty. Impressionistic lyrics paint memories of a final shared night with broad brushstrokes, the vocals building in intensity before ultimately being cruelly warped by the very instrument transmitting them. A veiled commentary on the fallibility of technology?? Man, I’m gonna need more coffee to tackle that one. All I know is, it feels broken in the most wonderful way, just like my little heart whenever I hear it.
Emily Gibson: “Size Of The Moon” – Pinegrove
I think part of the reason why this song is so important to me is because I found it at a particularly hard period of the year, so it kind of became kind of like an anchor to me; it’s the type of song you play on repeat and it never gets only, only more addicting. I must have listened to it over 100 times in one week. The imagery in the lyrics is understated and striking. I tend to appreciate lyrics that feel real - kind of fucked up, kind of vulnerable. Toward the end of the song, singer Evan Hall contemplates, “Do you wanna die? / Fine, you’re right / But I wonder what it feels like to stop feeling so alive.” It isn’t a grand poetic sentiment or philosophical jack-off, it’s just a question. So I guess in that vein, this is really just a song. But it seems like so much more than that. The music starts soft and builds along with Hall’s woes until the end is a near-scream; Hall and singer/keyboardist Nandi Plunkett harmonize to create a haunting echo during the song’s most pressing bits; the lyricism reads like the diary of a heartsick college-age genius.
It’s also just hella good to sing along to in the car.
Melanie Allen: “I Was Home” - Sunflower Bean
This is so hard and I would like to preface this with a disclaimer: this is not my FAV song of 2016 because I for real cannot pick just one but this was one of my favorites that I feel like everyone needs to know about. I think the several genres that unify their sound (grunge, psychedelia, post-punk, etc) are all very important, and it is a BLESSING to hear them all together through this band. This song is just one of the many that remind me of the music my mom listened to while I was growing up, so it has a special place in my tiny yet sensitive heart. Side note: their studio recordings do not even slightly do justice to their live performances so go see them, please. You will be doing everyone a favor.
Sonia Margolin: “Because I'm Me” – The Avalanches
This is the only song this year that has never once failed to make me happy and dance-y. It’s pure euphoria!!! I listened to it almost exclusively for like a month straight in July and now I jam tf out before interviews and parties and presentations and it makes me feel like a million bucks.|
Emma Johnston: “Secrets (Cellar Door)” by Radical Face
I’ve been obsessively following Ben Cooper’s Radical Face for years, eagerly devouring the ambitious three album arc of story-oriented folk music, The Family Tree. The third and final installment, The Leaves, came out early this year, as strong as any of his earlier work. The opening track, “Secrets (Cellar Door)” is a distillation of everything Cooper excels at. It perfectly demonstrates his equal mastery over soft exposed vocals and swelling orchestral layering. His driving percussion, cooing choral back up vocals, syrupy violins and lightly finger plucked acoustic guitar are all in top form here. It shows his ability to craft a full story arc in less than five minutes, full of fantasy and dark melancholy. Here, he captures the simultaneous innocent insecurity and brazen exuberance of childhood. His music always leaves this tight little ball in the base of my stomach because I care about the characters in his music like I’m are part of the Family Tree he crafts. He makes music for watching raindrops rolls across the car window on road trips through the Midwest; for laying outside in spring when it’s still too cold unless you’re in the sun, for flickering fires set at night. I cannot recommend his work enough.