“Ages of You”
I spent a lot of time this year watching old R.E.M. videos on YouTube. In one from 1982 in Raleigh, they did this B-side, and I was instantly smitten. It was collected on Dead Letter Office, though I couldn’t find my copy—thankfully, it was reissued this summer.
Picking my favorite song off A Seat at the Table was nearly impossible, but “Mad” has such an amazing groove and that Lil Wayne verse: “And when I attempted suicide, I didn’t die/I remember how mad I was on that day.”
“Here Comes the Night”
The Beach Boys
I got really into Wild Honey last year, and this spring, my husband found me a pristine used LP copy. I usually start with side 2 so I can hear “Darlin'” and this song—sometimes I don’t even make it to side 1.
“The New World”
A song from 1983 that sums up 2016. X capture the feeling of having years of slow social progress and a growing sense of empathy toward marginal voices smashed flat by a comically oversized jackboot, with shoutouts to the dying auto industry along the way.
Dev Hynes has shown himself to be an artist committed to the projection of marginal voices, and Freetown Sound was one of my go-to listening choices this year. The dusty bass and electric piano groove of this track struck me from the outset.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
This Dead cover (from the massive Day of the Dead comp) replaces the paranoia and darkness of the original with a chaotic, lustful bounce that happily reminds me of the Purple One at his most giddy. A pick-me-up without the sugar crash.
Though Kevin Barnes’ emotional firebombing of those close to him has become difficult to stomach, this track shows a gentleness and sweetness towards a new object of affection in simple terms – “I already like you, I like that you like you, I think that you’re great, let’s relate.”
A devastatingly simple acoustic track that transitions from dark to light in the course of a brief interaction between two lovers, where the interior world of thought is affected by the exterior world of touch. This track evokes the feeling of sanctuary that my own home has attained this year with my significant other; while uncertainty and chaos roils outside, there is a peace of mind and body in our little shared space that comes directly from the presence of the other person.
“Where Are We Now?”
When I found out that David Bowie had died, it seemed impossible. He wasn’t just a musician. He was a comet flaring through the culture, altering whatever he touched. I had that Tuesday off, so I decided to treat myself to breakfast at a diner near Washington Square. As I sat watching the traffic on Sixth Avenue, this song came into my head. To me, it’s always seemed like a song of making peace, of looking around at one’s life and realizing ‘I’ve got a good thing going here’. “As long as there’s sun… as long as there’s rain… as long as there’s fire… as long as there’s me…. as long as there’s you.” And I felt like his spirit was there, in the spike of the Empire State Building against the bright sky, in the hum of the subway and the crystalline wind.
When I first listened to this album, this song didn’t make much of an impression. But I kept the album in heavy rotation through the winter, and the whole thing grew on me—I realized that every song had layers of meaning under that laid-back façade. At the end of April, everything changed. My friend Dan, a fine musician in his own right, died just six months before his twenty-sixth birthday. The fact of his death hit me like a brick wall. How could I get around, or through, or over? “I’m looking at you/ but it’s only a picture/ so I take that back…” People had posted hundreds of pictures of him, clowning around on stage and off. What hurts are the pictures I didn’t take—like the one of him walking up outside the bar on 67th Street a week after I got back to the city, in his Harry Nilsson shirt, looking at me like I was the best thing he’d ever seen. For a while, this song was all I could stand to hear. It’s full of longing, but it, too, has a sense of peace about it—a chapter has closed, but the world hasn’t ended.
“Left of the Dial”
Having already written about this song and its role in my friendship with Dan, I don’t feel the need to add much more. But that piece brought me a lot of kindness, from people who knew Dan and some who never met him, so I’m grateful for that.
“You Ain’t That Young Kid”
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
This was one of the only new albums I bought this year. Again, I feel like I’m only starting to appreciate its complexity, but from the first time I listened to it, this song stood out as the heart. Like the others on this list, it’s a meditation on change, loss, growing older. I turned twenty-five this year. I have a full-time job, and some grey hairs coming in. I’ve been through a lot. So when Leithauser croons about “some way-too-long road with some way-too-young folks,” I think I know what he means.
This song would be one of my favorites in any year; it has a timeless quality to it, as if I’d always known it. But in this year of so much doubt and disappointment, it’s been an anchor. We all need a ‘zero’—a place (or person), for our hearts to rest on—as our minds and bodies take on this business of living.
When asked what positive experiences I had in this notably sucky year, I thought of the big goal I accomplished with the help of music—finishing my second marathon. Getting lost in a meditative-like reverie when running with music is why I do it. These five songs are now wedded to specific, memorable moments I experienced over those hundreds of miles.
“Birdhouse in Your Soul”
They Might Be Giants
TMBG is hard for me to avoid as I’m married to a fan. In trying to gain an appreciation for them, I added some of their songs to my running playlist. Only one failed to annoy me (no offense) while I got caught in rainstorm while running a winding path through a rolling meadow with humming powerlines zig-zagging above. It was pretty dreamy, and with this song’s steady beat and seeming to go on a little too long, I felt like I was floating.
was a band I discovered with my college friend Dana the summer we shared an apartment. At this time, I hadn’t talked to Dana in two years. In December 2016, though, we randomly reconnected, finding that we’ve both been dealing with similar crap and having the same 30-some year old realizations, but mostly just talking about anything and everything—just like we did ten years prior over a bootleg Wire cassette tape.
Between miles 17 and 20 of the actual marathon, I was super cranky. I was so sick of running. I seriously thought about quitting. Knowing I’d hate myself if I did, I forced myself to get into a better groove. This old favorite came on shuffle, and I sang along aloud. Especially the parts in Spanish. I channeled Joe Strummer, who ran the Paris marathon, I dug deep, and I laughed out loud at myself.
“Life on Mars?”
In the fallout of one of the many depressing news stories of the year, I chugged along my typical route on a long Sunday run. The neighborhood cat I usually stop to pet wasn’t around. I worried that my niece will grow up miserably in a terrible world. Perfectly timed, one of Ziggy Stardust’s magical songs came on. But, instead of feeling eased, I sobbed. I didn’t stop to catch my breath and wipe my face. I didn’t care if anyone saw me. I just let myself be in that moment with Bowie and thinking, “I really fucking hope there’s life on Mars.”
Alone, I chugged along a wooded trail at dusk. I was a little paranoid, hoping a mugger (or worse) wouldn’t surprise me. After tracing a sharp curve, I came upon a doe gracefully leaping into the brush to my right. On my left, two fawn spied me from behind thorny brambles. Stevie Nicks blasted in my earbuds, “I have no fear. I have only love.”
The frustration and heartache of this trying year cast a long shadow over the music I played. These are the five tracks which stand out in my mind as the songs I listened to the most often in 2016. One is an actual new 2016 release, three reflect a few of the many losses felt by the pop world this year, and one is just a perennial, much needed blast of transcendent rock ‘n’ roll brilliance. In no real order:
“Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”
One of a number of tracks I could have selected from The Monkees’ superlative 2016 album Good Times! It could just as easily have been “Me & Magdalena” or “You Bring The Summer.” Far and away my favorite album of the year.
“Life On Mars?”
2016 wasn’t even two weeks old when we lost Bowie, and we should’ve taken that as a sign to return the damned year to sender, postage due. Bowie’s passing affected me a lot more than I ever would have imagined, and I started my own blog because I needed a place to vent. I have several favorite Bowie songs—”Rebel Rebel,””Suffragette City,””Panic In Detroit,” and “Heroes” come to mind—but “Life On Mars?” was the one I kept coming back to, over and over, in search of…catharsis. I guess.
“Your Own World”
1.4.5. was an offshoot of The Flashcubes, my all-time favorite power pop band. Piloted by ‘Cubes guitarist Paul Armstrong, 1.4.5. has encompassed many varying lineups; this track is from the 1987 album Rhythm n’ Booze, and it features the late Norm Mattice on lead vocals. Mattice’s passing was the 2016 death that felt like the biggest, most vicious single punch to the gut. He was one of our own, a Central New York talent who should have been a star, and not a homeless man who died of exposure, all alone, unable to find shelter from the cold Syracuse night. He had friends and family willing—eager—to help him, but it was of no avail. Nothing was. Nothing could be.
“I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”
We’d been playing Prince’s “When Doves Cry” on This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl a bit throughout the first few months of 2016, and I betcha it would have made our year-end countdown even if Prince had remained one of our greatest living rock stars into 2017. His death in April sealed the case for this year’s ongoing infamy. “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” was never a song I thought much about before—if I were going to play Prince, I’d be more likely to go with “When Doves Cry” or “When You Were Mine”—but a request for the song from TIRnRR listener Joel Tinnel prompted us to play it on the show the week after Prince died. And it just clicked with me, suddenly but unerringly. I’ve been playing it ever since.
“You Really Got Me”
Always. Especially in a year like this one, a year which has demanded more from us than we’ve felt capable of giving. Turn it up. And I say we attack 2017 before it attacks us.
It’s a challenge to find songs that satisfy the three distinct musical tastes in my household, which include those of a 17-month-old child. The entire Porches album Pool manages to get us all, and this song in particular is a standout.