Saturday, December 31, 2016

Top 25 Songs of 2016: #3-1

Happy New Year! Almost. This concludes my little annual countdown of what I think are the top songs of the year. I listen to a silly amount of stuff, so it's always a fun exercise to look back and narrow down what stood out most or had the most impact on me. It's so easy to be influenced by popular opinion or what your peers and critics say, when really, whatever music strikes you is a blueprint of who you are - and nothing else should really matter.

Thanks for reading!

3. All Night - Beyoncé: Following the above intro, this song is a great example of choosing an unlikely favourite off a groundbreaking album. Don't get me wrong, I was equally moved by "Formation," "Hold Up" and "Freedom," but it was this healing track that tied the whole story of love gone awry together. It's still honest, forgiving and, more than anything, just a really beautiful love song. I happened to be awake, drinking wine and working the Saturday night that this album dropped back in April, and for whatever reason, clicked on this song first. Of course, the rest of the album turned out to be far more charged than "All Night," but even after listening to it all, Beyoncé's vulnerability on this one still hit me like a ton of bricks. It's just as symbolic as it is literally pretty, and for that, will always be the Lemonade standout for me.

2. Nights - Frank Ocean: Again, upon the release of Frank Ocean's long-awaited Blonde, this track was almost always unmentioned by critics, who were enthralled with stunners like "Ivy," "Self Control" and our first taste, "Nikes." But as I've watched media outlets post their picks for best of the year, "Nights" is making it on to plenty, and that's probably because it's the kind of song a listener needs to sit with. Off one of my favourite albums of the year, I'm not choosing "Nights" because it sounds so distinctly Frank Ocean; in fact, I love the distorted approach to a lot of the album. "Nights" is just fucking dreamy; it's a classic. It takes you through a two-part journey that feels exactly like a lot of nights do. It starts as a downtown, neon-streaked adventure with its clangy chords and Frank's punchy delivery, before ending in a whirling, slow jam haze. Song to song, all of Frank's journeys are so different and sometimes tough to follow, but "Nights" is a place I feel like I've been in real life, and want to revisit.

1. Ultralight Beam - Kanye West: Oh man, where to begin. My first memory of this song is one of my most powerful music memories, maybe ever. I ran home from work to stream Kanye's The Life Of Pablo and Yeezy Season 3 reveal at Madison Square Gardens, where thousands piled in to sit and and listen with 'Ye and co. The first track played was "Ultralight Beam," and in preparing to consume a new Kanye record, this wasn't what anyone expected as the album opener. Even from the comfort of my couch, I was motionless. Starting with the tiny toddler preacher and Kanye's most coherent, diary-like verse, this song about a "god dream" and looking for redemption was already solidifying itself as the most game-changing of the year (and it was only February). A booming choir and Kelly Price interjection later, Chance The Rapper delivered the most spellbinding verse of the year. With insane clarity, Chance lets his acrobatic wordplay and vocal shifts tell the story of his life to date, and where he plans on going. He talks family, hunger and doing his best with that coined Chano exuberance, and it becomes clear that the positivity and hope Chance has mirrors what Kanye has been looking for, and probably still is looking for. It's a fitting back-and-forth between mentor and mentee, and while Kanye sets the tone and asks the questions, Chance delivers the answers - proving that youthful optimism and a little faith can go a long way.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Top 25 Songs of 2016: #6-4

6. Love On The Brain - Rihanna: I've always liked Rihanna; she's a talented, versatile, hitmaker who's still wildly successful nearly 14 years after her first single. But. I've never owned an album of hers until this year's Anti, which I knew I would be purchasing the first time I heard the impossibly bad ass "B*tch Better Have My Money." Even though she's always been a bit of a bad ass, it felt as if the dawning of an even badder RiRi era was upon us; a serious rebirth of a new femme fatale that was more rock star than anything else. Sure enough, after Anti's release, that was confirmed - when even chugging doo wop ballads like this one managed to be intimate, vulnerable, kind of grimy and, most of all, chock full of confidence, all at once. From the first few notes of "Love On The Brain," as well as "Higher," I knew we we had a few contemporary R&B classics on our hands here. Similar to some of the great retro soul and R&B artists that likely influenced Rihanna, this round's raw, fearless lyricism and delivery suddenly put her in a class of her own.

5. We The People... - A Tribe Called Quest: Learning that A Tribe Called Quest would be releasing a new album 22 years after their last was maybe one of the most thrilling bits of music news (for me) this year. An album created with Phife Dawg prior to his passing, We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service was destined to hit hard. From the first buzz and kickdrum of this album opener, it was as if no time had passed; that they were just as triumphant, just as spot-on, as when they asked if they could kick it back in '90. A biting commentary on the state of America then, now and moving forward, ATCQ are still the people's rappers - the sharp, no bullshit boys who, days after Trump's election, swing in with 16 tracks of realness that predicted America's demise long before this album was released.

4. Sister - Angel Olsen: There were any number of tracks off Angel Olsen's breathtaking My Woman that I would have put high, high up on this list - but this one is everything I adore about the album all in one. The sprawling 8-minute track starts close to her Neil Young folk roots - voice shaky, drums skittering, guitar twanging - before thundering into her newest self, a Stevie Nicks-influenced shredder, baring her soul with vocal variations on one line: "All my life I thought I'd change." She spends the better half of the song exploring that concept, but it's not sad - and, similar to the Cat Powers' and Hope Sandovals before her, that's what makes Olsen one of the most authentic rock heroines of our time.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Top 25 Songs of 2016: #8-7

#8. Glowed Up - Kaytranada (feat. Anderson .Paak): Montreal-based Kaytranada flew onto the global radar this year, collaborating with everyone from Talib Kweli to Chance The Rapper, and eventually winning the Polaris Music Prize. To me, all of this signified that the future of Canadian music, and all of its possibilities, was here. While Canada's been historically pretty well-represented in the rock game and, more recently, the hip-hop game - a brilliant, genre-diverse DJ is something we couldn't really boast about until now. Particularly, a millennial who mind-bogglingly chops soul, R&B and funk samples together like someone who lived through the height of those genres. This track is a perfect example of what we're talking about with Kay's eclectic debut album 99.9%; it's amazing, but by no means representative of everything else on the record. The two-parter slithers around .Paak's fiery sing-rapping - the first half sounding chillingly extraterrestrial, before transitioning into a romantic, acid-jazzy finish. It's a bonafide hip-hop earworm, with a little something for everyone, but is wedged between some electro-jazz fusion and what sounds like an old-school breakdance number. He has so much range, and I really don't get how he knows as much as he does, but I'm beyond proud he's one of our own.

#7. No Problems - Chance The Rapper (feat. Lil Wayne & 2Chainz): And now for the man of the damn year, Chancelor Bennett and Coloring Book, one of the most refreshing hip hop albums of the last decade. Chance has been around for awhile, and avid listeners would remember that he wasn't always the confident, sunshiney fellow he is until last year's Surf, a stunning collaborative album with tons of huge stars and his backing band, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment (name since changed, thanks to another Donald). Following 2013's darker, druggy confessional Acid Rap, which was still obviously incredible, Surf was a gorgeous hip hop experiment that fell deaf on the mainstream's ears, but acted as the prelude to the dynamic then-named "Chance 3" - a mixtape that had been hyped up by new friend Kanye West the second the year started. Once singles like "No Problems" dropped, it was clear that this album was going to be one of the most confident releases by an unsigned artist ever, as evidenced by the subject matter of this track, which is basically a (jolly) double middle finger to anyone who wants Chano to conform. Sure enough, Coloring Book was released independently and on streaming services only - becoming the first album to chart solely based on streams, and the reason The Grammys changed their rules to allow stream-only albums for consideration. This bouncy banger might seem like, well, just that, to anyone who hasn't followed Chano's story, when in reality, it's a forewarning that Chance really only plans to do things his way.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Top 25 Songs of 2016: #10-9

10. Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales - Car Seat Headrest: As I got further down this list, I wondered if I made a mistake putting this song so high up, in the number ten spot. There were at least three other songs I thought deserved to be here - some of which didn't even make the list in the end - and so I re-listened to this album over and over again to feel confident in my choice. And it turns out I'm very confident, actually. After consuming Car Seat Headrest's official debut (frontman Will Toledo put out 11 Bandcamp albums prior) another dozen or so times, I remembered a lot about who I am as a listener. This kind of angsty indie rock is a big part of what I grew up on, and frankly, it's been a thing of the past for awhile now, until Toledo. He's this generation's 24 year-old indie saviour, whose lo-fi anthems ask the same drug and booze-induced questions about his place in the world as the Nirvanas and Pavements before him. Teens Of Denial is a lyrically sharp, instrumentally scorching rock record, in a time when great rock records are hard to come by.

9. Rings of Saturn - Nick Cave: Off one of the most devastating albums of the year, this song is a mess-you-up-in-public kinda song. And whether or not Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' dark balladry is your bag, there hasn't been a time when I've played this song around other people and someone hasn't asked, 'What is this?" Skeleton Tree was written prior to his son's tragic death in 2015, and completed afterwards, so there's no escaping Cave's confrontation with pain here. But "Rings of Saturn," with its spoken poetry and transcendent melody is a momentary reprieve in itself. Over glimmering synth, Cave reflects on a resilient female lead (who I think is his wife), repeating, "And this is the moment / This is exactly what she was born to be." Especially after enduring an unthinkable tragedy like he has, their 16th album might be his darkest yet - but a song like "Rings of Saturn" proves he too can find the light.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Top 25 Songs of 2016: #12-11

12. True Love Waits - Radiohead: Written in the late 90s around the time of my favourite Radiohead album The Bends, "True Love Waits" went on to be played live for the next two decades - before receiving new studio treatment and turning up on their latest, A Moon Shaped Pool. In what will likely be its final and most beautiful format, the song is stripped down to Yorke's aching vocals and piano, making for the saddest, most ethereal iteration yet. Sounding his frailest as he pleads "just don't leave," this version was likely recorded around his 2015 split from longtime partner and mother of his two children Rachel Owen, who shortly thereafter was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away last week.

11. 22 (OVER S∞∞N) - Bon Iver: Justin Vernon is not an artist you get mad at for experimenting. It's literally his best feature, his ability to innovate. He plays freely with genres, instruments and electronics, almost as if he gets bored easily, yet always manages to create something that still sounds distinctly his. On his most experimental album to date, Bon Iver blends unusual production elements, warped vocals and his coined wintery folk to pose pretty big questions around existence. With the stunning album opener, Vernon wants his existential thoughts ("it might be over soon") to really marinate, so the feeling isn't lost on us. He does this through distorted vocals, drawn-out buzzes, the sound of broken tape, strums, horns and other quirky bits - setting the tone for a weird, magical album that doesn't sound like anything else, but is so uniquely his.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Top 25 Songs Of 2016: #14-13

#14. untitled 02 - Kendrick Lamar: Get Top on the phone! Something I still mutter when I have to make a phone call. untitled. unmastered, one of the best demo releases ever, dropped unexpectedly in March - and while the songs are off the cutting room floor of the prolific To Pimp A Butterfly sessions, they're obviously equally as brilliant. Because it's Kendrick. On the six-minute untitled 02, the woozy jazz and sinister beat coast under Kendrick's shaky croon, before the song transitions into laidback, but pointed, rhymes about money, women, God and sin. These topics clearly aren't uncommon in rap, yet Cornrow Kenny's enchanting commentary unpacks them in a way that only he could.

#13. No Woman - Whitney: This Chicago amalgamation of Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Smith Western members maintained my undivided attention throughout the year, beginning the first time I heard this song. The loneliness in this drifter's ballad is palpable; a real slice of Americana nostalgia delivered via trumpets, swirling guitar hooks and Julien Ehlrich's childlike falsetto. I watched these guys perform their debut album in a tiny dive bar in Texas, and it was really amazing to hear every bit of that weary, life-on-the-road contemplation come to life.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Top 25 Songs of 2016: #16-15

16. California - Childish Gambino: Donald Glover, AKA Childish Gambino, is another big winner in 2016. Releasing his newest FX series Atlanta to critical acclaim, before his third studio album Awaken, My Love! to even more rave reviews, the guy is about as refreshing and wildly multi-talented as they come. One of my favourite tweets of 2016 compared consuming 'Bino's latest to "doing a trust fall into a vat of warm goop," and man, I couldn't have said it any better myself. The vocal soul album trades his hip hop beginnings for raunchy, raw soul and a few playful numbers, such as "California." I was as mesmerized as anyone by the first two singles "Me and Your Mama" and "Redbone," but something tells me this tropical oddity is the underdog pick for one of the more memorable tracks on the album. Most critics have slammed "California" for standing out like a sore thumb, but frankly, that's one of the things that draws me to it.

15. Black Beatles - Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane: The Mannequin Challenge soundtrack is your entry point if you're looking to understand the whole Rae Sremmurd thing. The Mike WiLL Made-It-produced trap anthem is everything you can expect from the Sremmurd brothers - druggy, melodic, hook-laced sing-rap that worms its way into your head at the first verse. If you choose to consume it as more than background music, you'll hear that its ingredients only seem simple, and the depth of these Atlanta kids' songwriting abilities is finally coming to light.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Top Songs of 2016: #18-17

18. Baptized in Fire - Kid Cudi: Honestly, this is a surprising choice for me. A) This song only came out two weeks ago, and B) I used to really not like Kid Cudi. Sure, he had a few gems, but more memorable for me was his 2009 party-rap reign and a sloppy live show. That said, his admirable open statement about his struggles with depression and admission into rehab could have explained the aforementioned hiccups in what has otherwise been a pretty celebrated career. Prior to last Friday's release of the triumphant and accurately titled Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin', "Baptized in Fire" dropped, and I went as far to say it was lowkey one of the better hip hop tracks of the past few years. Not only because it knocks so hard, but because all the reasons to love Kid Cudi have resurfaced. He's focused, even though lyrically, he's back to digging for meaning. His cadence is impeccable. And that hypnotic production, well, damn. Anyone who knows me well knows that nothing at this point in time could top the line, "three piece suit and I'm lookin' so cute." 

17. Pillowtalk - Zayn: Another shocker this year was my appreciation for the first two Zayn singles that followed his split from One Direction, a band I've never listened to (although I do appreciate me some Harry Styles - who doesn't). "Pillow Talk" was an obvious play on Malik's part; a sexualized ballad that includes the eff word and a video with model girlfriend GiGi - two things One Direction didn't have going for them. But regardless of the big boy change in (one) direction, the song totally blew me away, and still stands up as one of the most beautiful power pop songs of 2016.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Top 25 Songs of 2016: #20-19

20. Breakers Roar - Sturgill Simpson: There's no denying the huge influence of pop and hip hop this year, but smack dab in the middle of that was Sturgill Simpson. Who? Yeah, that was the resounding head-scratcher that plagued millions when his name showed up in the f**king Album of the Year category at the 2017 Grammy nomination announcement two weeks ago. But that's neither here nor there, because this bonafide country saviour - no, not Dierks Bentley or... one of the other country artists people like - has drawn comparisons to twangy staples like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. His old-school composition is simple, yet heartbreaking, while his lyrics are only the latter; they deliver the kind of poetry that weighs heavy on your chest, if you listen close enough. This swaying lullaby for his kid back home is pretty guaranteed to choke you up, but every syllable and guitar slide is totally worth it.

19. 30 Hours - Kanye West: And on the complete other end of the spectrum is number 16 on Kanye West's 19-track The Life of Pablo - a song I'll wager most hardcore Yeezy fans would vouch for as one of the best of the new lot. Similar to the other first singles released prior to TLOP ("No More Parties" and "Real Friends"), musically and lyrically, "30 Hours" was like stepping into a time machine. It felt so much like College Dropout, when 'Ye was playful, sometimes unpolished and self-deprecating, and all over his most prevalent un-gangster subject: messing up and growing up. The minimalist production - which on this song includes an Arthur Russell sample (something that made me really, really happy) - is just the foundation for his cunning wordplay. That, more often than not, is the way hip hop should be. My conclusion? I miss the old Kanye.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Top 25 Songs of 2016: #25-21

Alright, here we are, at the end of one of the shittiest years in recent memory. Personally, I had many great times this year; although, what went on in the rest of the world was such a palpable damper that I obviously agree that 2016 was terrible.

One thing that wasn't - and I have a bone to pick with you if you think otherwise - was music. Music was absolutely insane this year. Particularly, hip hop and R&B. It was just one after another - innovative, charged, potentially game-changing releases that acted as the discourse, the fun, the reassurance and, ultimately, the much-needed community and light amid this year's dark moments. I listened so intently to so many albums - rarely casually or only once - which is sign that there was a lot of creative genius and important commentary flowing in 2016.

So, alas, I've put together my annual list of top songs which, every damn year, I curse myself for mentally agreeing (...with myself) to do. I'm actually not taking any holidays this year - I'm only changing locations - so, I've really just made added daily work for myself by doing this yet again. Oh well. I couldn't not do it, so I hope others find a little fun in following along. Here we go!

25. Work - Charlotte Day Wilson: Charlotte Day Wilson, along with her tribe of fellow young Torontonian music masterminds, made me proud to be Canadian this year. (Well, her and Gord Downie and Justin Trudeau). From her stunning collaborations with BADBADNOTGOOD (Snoop Dogg approved) to her opening spot on Local Natives' North American tour, this confident instrumentalist and songstress still blows me away every time I catch a wave of her Sade-reminiscent soul.

24. Gucci Comin' Home - BIA: This underground rap hit is the definition of a sleeper - or, lowkey brilliant song that was highly under-appreciated by the mainstream, but praised by the hip hop community. Similar to Makonnen's "Tuesday" (pre-Drake), except far more developed, budding Boston rapper BIA assembled one of the most intricately perfect and minimalist rap songs that, whether or not you're as big of a Gucci Mane stan, is a hard-to-dislike earworm. The ode to then-imprisoned Gucci came together as a sort of funny lyrical accident while BIA experimented in the studio with beats, but whether initially serious or not, it should be noted that she penned this song in under an hour. The rapper/singer is signed to Pharrell's label, so fellow female MCs are going to have to make room for her huge talent soon.

23. The Line - dvsn: If this was a list of the sexiest albums of 2016, mysterious OVO signees' dvsn would, hands-down, top my list. Taking over Jeremiah's sexy songwriting duties this year, the underexposed R&B ear might find the Toronto duo's debut songs overly NSFW/explicit, rather than the raw and intimate works of art that they are. Any song on Sept. 5th could have made my list, but it's the (pretty PG) D'Angelo-esque, 7-minute album closer, in all of its vulnerability, that embodies what dvsn is capable of.

22. When The Truth Is... - Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam: Well, this album was always destined to be fabulous, with ex-Walkmen lead Hamilton Leithauser and ex-Vampire Weekend guitarist/songwriting mastermind Rostam Batmanglij at the helm, but it still exceeded every expectation of mine. This song, melding the coined doo-wop-rock we've heard on all of Leithauser's solo endeavours to date with Batmanglij's impeccable pop vision, is a heartbreaking contemporary classic.

21. Friends - Francis & The Lights (feat. Bon Iver + Kanye West): I've loved Francis for years, so was pleasantly shocked when I heard him turn up on Chance The Rapper's extraordinary Coloring Book. Shortly thereafter, we received Francis' debut LP (he has four EPs prior), and this sparkling gem as the lead single. Enlisting the help of a similarly-falsetto'd Justin Vernon and his new studio pal Kanye West (a good person to know, musically), "Friends" has that rare ability to make your stomach feel warm and tingly like when you think about your sweetheart or take a swig of good bourbon. I still get butterflies every time I hear the opening notes.