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Listen Up: The best of 2016

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You shouldn’t judge an athlete by one play, a director by one scene or a carpenter by one chair.

In the same vein, don’t judge a column by one week. I’ve loved writing about a great year of music, and I worked harder on a top ten compilation than at least one of my finals (sorry Dr. Raczkowski!), but it will never be perfect; tough cuts had to be made.

Still, these are my essential songs from the year; of everything that was released in 2016, listen to these.

“Lazarus,” by David Bowie

“Lazarus,” like all of Bowie’s final album “Blackstar,” is not an easy listen. Its deathly premonition is especially eerie considering he succumbed to cancer two days after its release. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” Bowie sings, as the horns blow their mournful melody and dirty guitar crashes in. The jazzy sound was another twist in a career that was never complacent, always pushing boundaries.

“Garden,” by Hinds

New bands always give hope, even more so when they come from where it’s least expected. Madrid isn’t exactly known for producing rock bands, but great music is coming out of new places every day. One thing we can thank the internet for, I guess.

The guitars jangle, the multiple vocals weave in and out of each other and the whole thing sounds like the band could be playing live in someone’s basement. It’s a beautiful thing.

“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” by Kanye West

Yes, that first line is very vulgar and fairly stupid. Critics often level those adjectives at Kanye West, but they should always be preceded by “brilliant,” which this song remains. A gospel sample mutilated beyond recognition, a spotlight-stealing appearance from Kid Cudi, and West’s auto-tuned voice hitting the emotions his voice could not make this just the latest in a career of shocking innovation.

“Your Best American Girl,” by Mitski

This is the only song that I specifically wrote about this year included in this list, because it is just that good. The first chorus still shocks me, even though I’ve listened to it dozens of times. How Mitski hasn’t yet been labeled a pensive voice of her generation yet, I don’t know.

“Nikes,” by Frank Ocean

The first time I heard this song, I was sitting in Los Angeles International Airport, a great spot for people watching. But “Nikes” managed to shut out the world around me. Ocean’s voice is pitched up and he breaks his longheld silence on the first track of his forever-awaited album “Blonde.” “Said she need a ring like Carmelo, must be on the white like Othello,” he sings as snares smack, the synths in the background wobbles; it is all-consuming. About two-thirds of the way through, Ocean’s unadulterated voice cuts in, at first boisterous then turns sorrowful before the beat sharply cuts back in.

“Nikes” doesn’t sound right without “Ivy” following it up, and “Pink+White” after that, until I have listened to the whole album. And I’m fine with that.  

“Broccoli” by D.R.A.M. featuring Lil Yachty

D.R.A.M. makes the best album covers and the cheeriest R&B-rap hybrid music out there. The surprise hit of the summer was his collaboration with Yachty. A twinkling, catchy tune that brought D.R.A.M. back to the spotlight after last year’s minor hit “Cha Cha.”

“Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest

Car Seat Headrest took the anxieties of one’s early twenties and recorded it. The album “Teens of Denial” is sad, resilient, depressed but thoroughly existential. This song begins with an understated intro that finds its bombastic crescendo, never falling into traditional song structures.

I don’t know what the band will sound like in five years, because right now they sound so planted in an age and time.

“Mad” by Solange featuring Lil Wayne

Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” was deceptively ambitious, as many of the best songs on the album featured sparse instrumentation, relying on the songwriting and vocals to carry the songs–but that was never a problem. “Mad” is carried by a drum and bass rhythm and a melodic piano, but it’s Solange’s multi-tracked voice and Lil Wayne’s surprisingly personal verse that makes this track so irresistible and emotionally affecting.

“Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd featuring Gucci Mane

This song was driven to No. 1 by a viral video trend, meaning I can never be annoyed by a mannequin challenge. Not after it took this scattering beat, the best hook of the year and Gucci Mane to more people than I ever would have thought possible. My aunt wanted to try the challenge at Thanksgiving dinner — Rae Sremmurd has suddenly found a new audience.

“Shut Up Kiss Me” Angel Olsen

Brash, volatile punk in 2016 was much needed, as it always is. The best rock artists aren’t the ones who can play better than any other, they’re the ones who can write songs like this one. Olsen writes just as well as anyone else making guitar music this year, and this song proves it.  

Thanks for reading Listen Up this year — I will be graduating from school, happily, and from the Lantern, sadly, later this month.

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