2016 hasn’t been the greatest year. Politically, culturally, socially. And unfortunately, as it turns out, musically as well. Not that it was an awful year, just a drab one. Still, even in a comparatively down year for music, there was still tons of great stuff.
For whatever reason, my list was pretty heavily dominated by women this year, and featured a lot more roots, country, and similar styles than I’ve included in past editions. A down year for America as a whole was a pretty solid year for Americana, I guess.
As always, these are simply the songs that I liked the most. I make no claims to objectivity. And if your favorite missed the cut, it might just be that I missed it, so don’t hesitate to toss me recommendations.
If you’re a Spotify person, you can get almost the whole list here.
40. Best to You – Blood Orange
A great, slinky song, with a wonderful vocal performance from Empress Of. The line that kills me is: “I can’t be the girl you want but I can be the thing you throw away.”
39. You Just Want – King Creosote
A deeply meditative song that digs down into the cross section of sacred and profane.
38. Higher – Rihanna
I didn’t care much for the Rihanna songs that got significant play this year, but this little one from the end of Anti really does it for me. It was apparently recorded very late in the night, when she was more than a little intoxicated. And it sounds exactly like that, in all the best ways.
37. Annie – Petite League
Punk rock is a young man’s game, mostly. But that’s alright because there are always more young men waiting to fill in the ranks.
36. Guns Of Umpqua – Drive-By Truckers
I really wanted to love the Truckers going political, but the album mostly didn’t stick with me. I do love this song, though.
35. Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane) – Rae Sremmurd
I could take or leave the Mannequin thing – which I somehow managed to mostly miss while it was going on – but the song more than stands on its own.
34. Breakers Roar – Sturgill Simpson
A strange, dark lullaby. Ruminations on loss and the transience of suffering, as told to the singer’s infant child.
33. Beached – Julianna Barwick
A piano, cello, and a wordless chorus – all trying to find their way together, moving in and out of phase, proving that there can be great beauty in disalignment.
32. Congratulations – Dessa
There wasn’t much on the Hamilton Mixtape that struck me as essential, but this track definitely qualifies. It’s a shame it was omitted from the original production, since it provides an important capstone on the Angelica/Hamilton relationship. So getting the song now–and performed by Dessa no less–is a welcome surprise.
31. 29 #Strafford APTS – Bon Iver
For the most part, I found the Bon Iver record to be interesting more than enjoyable. This song is the beautiful exception.
30. Kismet Kill – Haley Bonar
The bass line is the star here. It’s the engine under the hood that keeps the whole thing humming.
29. My Church – Maren Morris
The ‘mainstream’ vs. ‘authentic’ country debate is tiresome and pointless, exhibit #183,393. Just enjoy the song and stop worrying so much about what counts as the ‘real’ Nashville!
28. Trailer – Mudcrutch
This song was supposed to end up on Petty’s Southern Accents (where it would have been an excellent fit), but ended up stuck on the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” b-side. Finally, thirty years later, it’s getting a proper release, and it sounds better than ever. Petty seems to be really enjoying the ‘have fun jamming with your friends’ part of his career. It hasn’t produced much in the way of classics, but sure does seem like it’s a lot of fun.
27. Open Your Eyes – School of Seven Bells
It’s really depressing to know that we’ll never get to find out where this band could have gone from this. They took an interesting turn in their sound here, and I’d love to have been able to hear them develop it. RIP Benjamin Curtis.
26. Those Better Days – Mimi Page
A beautiful tapestry of a song, built around a simple guitar riff, a few plinking piano notes, and layers of electronic texture doled out in precise amounts. It builds an entire world in just under two minutes.
25. Hidden Driver – LVL UP
It opens with the guitar riff from “Ghost” by Neutral Milk Hotel, and the similarities don’t end there. It’s not pure NMH-mimickry, which would be a pretty hard sell. But it’s got that same sense of careening just beyond the edge to control.
24. Fill In The Blank – Car Seat Headrest
I really do like this song, which is a nice mixture of Replacements+Cars+Green Day. But I need to take a slight detour here and express my utter confusion at the effusive praise this band has been getting. They made a decent indie rock record. A solid B- or maybe a B. In a weak year for rock records, it would probably make my top 10 for the genre. That’s about it. Get a grip, people!
23. White – HANA
Dance music for a dreamscape. HANA toured with Grimes, and you definitely can see the overlap of their styles here.
22. Colors In Space – Explosions In The Sky
21. Lullaby – Dori Freeman
The closest thing I’ve heard to Iris Dement in a long, long time.
20. What Happened to Us? – Shura
The classic combos: peanut butter and jelly, Frodo and Sam, synths and feelings.
19. Ether – Mogwai
A single deep breath, spaced out over five minutes. Drink it all in, and then push back and let yourself drift away into the quiet nothing.
18. Your Best American Girl – Mitski
The chorus of this song is just fireworks layered on top of more fireworks.
17. Folk Arp – Minor Victories
Q: What do you get if you form a supergroup out of members from Slowdive, Mogwai, and Editors? A: This song.
16. Troublemaker, Doppelganger – Lucy Dacus
Three minutes of bluesy riffs that converge into a minute of pure explosive joy to finish things off. This is basically musical catnip for me.
15. I’ve Got Wheels – Miranda Lambert
Miranda Lambert, in the classic tradition of the American troubadour, concludes her long journey through the dark night of the soul with a bit of hope. There’s redemption to be found out there somewhere. “Whatever road, however long. I’ve got wheels. I’m rolling on.”
14. BWU – Tegan & Sara
Tegan and Sara have made a career out of reversing that classic Tolstoy line (‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’). Their best songs consistently dwell in the space between the specificity of happiness and the universality of heartbreak. This song is another delightful entry in the canon.
13. Burn The Witch – Radiohead
Finely measured strings trace the outlines of a prison. Inside, Thom Yorke paces in measured steps, just waiting for the chance to leap the walls.
12. Daddy Lessons – Beyonce
If you ask twelve people, you’ll probably get twelve different favorite songs from Lemonade. Not surprisingly, given the number of other Americana tracks on this list, I found myself gravitating toward this one. It’s not quite ‘Bey goes to the country,’ but it’s not too far away.
11. ACD (Abcessive Compulsive Disorder) – Nothing
10. Radio of Lips – The Joy Formidable
9. I Wish I Was Sober – Frightened Rabbit
In a year without much in the way of great rock and roll, these three tracks provide a nice counterpoint to the general malaise. None of them expand the genre in any significant ways, but they all make clear that there’s plenty of space for music to be exciting without necessarily breaking new ground.
8. Prayer in Open D – Phoebe Bridgers
It’s the rare cover that outshines the original. And when the original is by Emmylou Harris, well, that’s really saying something. I adore this song and can’t wait for a full-length from Phoebe Bridgers.
7. Highway Anxiety – William Tyler
Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s no more magic left in the world. As long as the guitar exists, there are infinite illusions still waiting to be unfurled. There are few sorcerers of this craft better than William Tyler, and this is his finest work yet.
6. Watching the Waiting – Wye Oak
Jangly guitars and a galloping beat, which can lift you far up into the sky, if you’ll just let it take you there.
5. Into You – Ariana Grande
The best pop song of the past five years. I was already a fan, but this is the song that put me 100% in the tank for Ariana Grande.
4. All of These Years – Vanessa Peters
There is no song this year that made me smile more than this one. Not even close.
3. Words – Outer Spaces
This is the song that 2016 needed. That opening guitar riff says that no matter how dark it gets, there is still so much right in this world.
2. So Here We Are – Gordi
It’s a beautiful melody, and the production is wonderful. But it’s more than that. There’s something here that slices through me in a way I don’t fully understand and certainly can’t explain. Some songs just disarm you.
1. In Heaven – Japanese Breakfast
It shimmers in the dark, like a distant city skyline on a cold November night. Then she starts singing and your breath catches in your throat, the way it does when someone’s about to tell you bad news and is just shuffling around, looking for the right words. But just as the bleakness threatens to overwhelm, she unleashes a chorus – so pure, so heartbreakingly sad, so beautiful – and the whole world shifts under your feet.