Sounds of 2016

2016 was an extraordinary year. Everyone appears to have their own take on what made this past year so remarkable, whether it was good or bad. There are dozens of ways to reflect and interpret what 2016 was like and what it has meant to people. For me, the easiest way to understand last year has been through music. Something I’ve always found remarkable about music is that way it can focus the emotions of thousands of people into a single thought. Music undeniably reflects our own fears, dreams, anxieties and aspirations back at us. It therefore provides a unique perspective on the past year. I’ve collected some of the songs that resonated with me throughout the year. They are songs that I feel are particularly important when I think about what 2016 meant to me and the people in my life.

When I first started putting these songs together I was struck by what seemed to be the most prominent recurring theme, 2016 was a year full of anxiety for many people. Many artists and their fans seemed to be resonating with lyrics describing the depths of this stress. Phantogram was singing about their teeth falling out of their head in You Don’t Get Me High Anymore, Vince Staples rapped about staying “at the Marriot having Kurt Cobain dreams,” in Loco, and Radiohead warns of a “low flying panic attack” in Burn the Witch. It wasn’t hard to find sources of anxiety in 2016. Whether it was the Brexit Referendum, the changing role of men in western society, the raging opioid epidemic, the slaughter of black Americans, or the disastrous 2016 presidential election, there was a reason for almost everyone to be nervous last year.

In this playlist there are more than 20 artists, but only four that appear more than once, Bon Iver, Flume, Beck and Macklemore. Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, happened to be my favorite album of this year, which is not something I expected in a year with a new release from Animal Collective. Justin Vernon and his band pressed the limits of sonic experimentation while maintaining accessibility and emotional depth in a way I’ve never seen. The album expresses an existential anxiety that seems to have infected the very structure of the songs. By blending auto-tuned lyrics, gospel verses, drum machines, and feedback, the band creates an experience which is far more than the contribution of any single song. The concepts in the album seem to be stretching the limits of the media in which they are instantiated. The album feel as if it is pushing for something more, but lacks the language to describe it. Following the release of 22, A Million Vernon and some friends from The National organized an experimental music festival in Berlin which aimed at reinventing the way music is valued. The festival experimented with the way music is produced and consumed, as Vernon put it in an interview with Pitchfork, “It’s not even about breaking down capitalism—it’s just about showing people a different way.” In a world where a politically inexperienced billionaire was elected president of the most powerful nation on the planet, this type of experimentation seems more important than ever.

For me, the most interesting dance music of 2016 came from Australian producer Flume, who released his second album Skin. The LP is astonishingly cohesive for a genre which values singles and remixes more than albums. Flume is an undeniable titan in electronic dance music, even if the entire industry is dead or dying. Skin comes across as surprisingly deep and thoughtful, although Flume never fails to make you want to move. Flume found inspiration in the notion of “the fabric of reality tearing,” which led directly to the production of Wall Fuck, the most aggressive and unsettling song on the album. However in 2016, for many people the fabric of society was being ripped apart as the Brexit referendum tore into European culture, and Donald Trump shredded the liberal ideals of young Americans.

My favorite track from Flume’s Skin was his collaboration with Beck, Tiny Cities. In many ways I think Beck made music in 2016 to try to make everyone feel better. Tiny Cities reflects on dealing with the loss of ideals. This can be seen in the repetition of “it was never perfect, it was never meant to last.”  Beck acknowledges how confusing it can be to sustain hope when everything you’re seeing seems to oppose it as he sings, “How can I convince myself to not believe in what I know? When all I see is dominoes falling up it as we go.” The lyrics in Tiny Cities come off as somber and contemplative but after listening to the song it’s difficult to not feel uplifted. In 2016 Beck also released Wow, which is arguably his biggest commercial success since 1994’s Loser. In a difficult year Wow was joyous. In my mind that single is inexorably linked to some of the most amazing news of 2016, like the detection of gravitational waves and the discovery that the closest star system to our sun contains a planet in the ‘habitable zone.’

Last year was a year of political upheaval, and as usual musicians had a lot to say about it. Macklemore was able to speak directly about two issues that really matter to me. First, his single Drug Dealer, with Ariana DeBoo, in which he addresses the moral, emotional and medical crisis that is the opioid epidemic in America, an issue he has personal experience with. Second, Macklemore was ready to jump into a collaboration with YG and G-Eazy to reiterate a sentiment I never miss an opportunity to share, “FUCK DONALD TRUMP.” On Nov 9th 2016, Phantogram’s Same Old Blues took on a new meaning and depth for me. Sarah Barthel’s lyrics seem to echo the concerns and sorrows of several important women in my life. The election of Donald Trump has been explained in many ways, but it is impossible to understand his success without admitting the role of misogyny in American culture. When Barthel describes “having this dream / Where I’m stuck in a hole and I can’t get out / There’s always something that’s pulling me down, down, down, ” it’s easy to imagine that the hole she’s describing is the national endorsement of sexism and misogyny represented by the 2016 Presidential Election. On Nov 9th many people, and particularly women understood exactly what Barthel meant when she said “Today I lost my future to the past.”

Many other artists also made powerful political and social statements in 2016. A Tribe Called Quest put out a new album for the first time in 18 years, leading with the single “We the People,” which reflects on the rising tides of racism, homophobia and xenophobia in the western world. The Washington punk-hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. (Girls Living Outside of Society’s Shit) rose to fame early in the year after the success of their 2015 Demo, proving that the core value of punk, cultural subversion, is alive and well and as important as ever. MIA questioned the values of pop culture and challenged our society’s choice of language in Borders, by wondering out loud why we refer to being poor as “broke,” and success as “slaying it.”  Girl Power supergroup, Nice as Fuck, led by Jenny Lewis, insisted that messages of peace and love are the ways forward, while “the shit that we talk is a smoke screen.”

2016 witnessed new types of musical experimentation. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo (TLP) was supposed to be a living album, a concept which added to the confusion of the album’s release. The album rose to commercial and critical acclaim. Listeners tend to feel strongly about it, evidenced by the fact that a Pitchfork reader poll ranked it as both one of the most underrated and most overrated albums of the year. TLP featured a 44 second track titled I Love Kanye, in which Kanye West raps about Kanye West and reflects on how the world thinks Kanye West thinks about Kanye West. This track is either a passionate and intellectually stimulating attempt by an innovative artist to harness the creative power of ‘self-reference,’ or the earliest signs of Kayne’s pending mental break down. In stark contrast to the sheer production power of TLP was  Kendrick Lamar’s surprise album called untitled unmastered. This album was simple, raw, unstructured and honest. It gave us insight into the mind of a rising star in hip hop and it effortlessly topped the Billboard charts.

Last year gave us some heart-warming tracks, whether it was the intangible emotion in Animal Collective’s Golden Gal, or the explicit feelings of love expressed by Father John Misty in Real Love. Artists like M83, the Growlers and Jagwar Ma made us dance without needing to drop the bass. Run the Jewels and YG made it clear why we are mad. Whitney and James Blake made us stop and breathe. The Avalanches released their first album in 16 years Wildflower, which is composed of over 3,500 unique samples. Wildflower reminds us that music derives its power from its combinatorial nature. Music is made by individuals but it is an artifact of societies and cultures, evidence of our attempts to understand and communicate in way that language alone cannot accommodate. Music is important not only because people make it to represent themselves, but also because people consume it to understand themselves. I think the unfolding of 2016 made the music of the year important, but I also think that 2016 was an important year for music.