Once again we come to the point where we look back upon the year that was and try to think of the songs that moved us most. It's a nerve-wracking experience - how do we know we haven't somehow forgot something important? - but ultimately rewarding to take a look at the most genuine, original, and important songs of 2016.
Teens of Denial, Will Toledo's first album of all original material since he signed to Matador Records, is actually his thirteenth album since 2010. Despite his prolificness, 2016 felt like a real milestone for his Car Seat Headrest project, delivering a set of songs that feel timeless and inventive from the first time you hear them. "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales," like the rest of the seventy-minute record, is packed with hooks and unforgettable moments. As the title suggests, it's essentially two songs smashed together, and it's hard to determine which chorus is more fun to shout along to, which rhythm more indelible, which peak is the song's true climax. "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales" is a journey in just over six minutes and feels like half that time.
Sydney's own Rainbow Chan followed through on all her promise and potential this year, and the results were astounding. However, the first thing we heard from her in 2016 remains the absolute highlight of her savvy post-genre take on electronic pop. Digital bird noises and lufts of warm melody buoy the song just as much as the New Jack Swing indebted drums, atop which Rainbow Chan's soulful and delicate vocal bounces. "Nest" has a simultaneous simplicity and fullness befitting the lyrics' reminiscence of a deep and colourful intimacy beset by creeping sorrow. "I'm not enough for you," she sings at the song's closing climax, and its note of resignation is also delivered with layers of understanding, self-love and strength. Rainbow Chan has the maturity and sense of self to be an all-time great.
Mitski's lyrics read, on paper, like the kind of thing you wish you could have scrawled across your notebooks in high school. The songs on the aptly-named Puberty 2, her breakthrough album, are nakedly emotional, but still remarkably eloquent in the way they portray fear and longing. The delicate chorus of "Your Best American Girl" is almost shy, reticent metaphors and rudimentary guitar accompaniment standing in for direct confession as Mitski establishes the unfathomable distance she feels from the object of her affection - that is until the crushing chorus obliterates everything around it. The piercing, metallic cresendos ripple with self-affirmation and resolution as Mitski accepts that she is an outsider, that she'll never be "your best American girl."
The impact of "Drone Bomb Me," feels as if it's still reverberating. When the song, along with a music video featuring a weeping Naomi Campbell, premiered in March, many of us were weeping along with her. This year, ANOHNI, formerly known for her mercurial chamber pop under the name Antony & the Johnsons, made a radical shift into overt political and social commentary driven by often harsh electronic beats. The track was produced by Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, and the strange collision between the former's textural compositions and the latter's outsized dance music makes for thrilling accompaniment to ANOHNI's bitter, self-eviscerating lyrics in which she implicates herself and the entire Western world in humanity's collective grief.
Generally, we're used to women playing the passive role in love songs. They seem to do a lot of waiting and hoping. When Angel Olsen sings "I ain't hangin' up this time," at the start of "Shut Up Kiss Me," though, it's clear that the script has been flipped. This year's album My Woman was the former-folkie most rock-oriented record yet, but also her most adventurous, and though the country-rock tinged "Shut Up Kiss Me" belongs to a clear lineage of exuberant rock 'n' roll love songs, it's 100% Angel Olsen. Not only is this a truly great, timeless song, but it's also a superb performance from Olsen, who applies her distinctive, caustic voice to the tire-screeching contours of the melody, delivering the song with reckless abandon, attitude and tenderness that make it feel like it's already a classic.