Since 2011, I’ve been compiling my favorite local songs, national albums and national songs for all to ignore at the end of each year. By now, you may or may not know the drill: Because we review a local record once every other week, the pool from which to pluck songs is much bigger than the pool from which we can pluck entire albums. Thus, our year-end, best-of list is comprised of local songs, not complete records. And remember, the list is compiled from songs we wrote about this year, not necessarily 2016 releases (i.e., if you released something in 2015, and we didn’t get around to writing about it until the first part of 2016, you were eligible for this year’s list). Got it? Good.
So behold my favorite music from 2016. Of course you’re going to disagree, and of course you’re going to make fun of me for it. That’s the joy.
Let’s get going.
10 BEST LOCAL SONGS
10. American Television — Better Living Through Chemistry
American Television’s “Reaction” was one of the most exciting EPs of the year, their blend of pop-punk combining with good, old-fashioned energy and grit to make something both inspiring and infectious. This, the first track on the five-song release, has everything fans of the genre could want: Anthemic vocals that don’t not sound like Dexter Holland grew up listening to Hot Water Music, a firestorm of simple, tasteful electric guitars and a late-track switch in mood that settles everything down perfectly for fading away. It set the tone for an aggressive, exhilarating EP that proved to be impossible to deny.
9. Jack Funk — Freight Train
One of Frederick’s best original live bands, Jack Funk stepped into the studio for their first EP, “Good For Your Soul,” and came away with a solid set of homegrown material that deserved your attention in 2016. This, the set’s swan song, provided a pop-funk groove with a killer bridge that allowed singer Nick Ring to shine a light on his inner Rastafarian. Flowing seamlessly and cementing itself in your subconscious, “Freight Train” stood out as the most accessibly satisfying track on an EP filled with memorable hooks and contagious harmonies.
8. The Milestones — Shadow Enemies
It just drones on and on and on and on and man is it beautiful. The most Kings Of Leon-ish track from a band who sounds like it would die just to be a prince, this song reaches its climax as singer Alexander Wandres asserts, “I’m never, never, never going home to you.” His angst is palpable and his anger promises to be trusted. And to think, this doesn’t even consider the insatiable recitation of the “She said!” refrain, which pops up at the most perfect times. It’s almost as delicious as the “Honey” from which the song came.
7. Lost Keys — The Revival
From an EP of the same name, Lost Keys’ debut release culminates with a ruckus jam that’s more of a party than anything else released locally in 2016. Led by Anthony Sloan’s expert guitar work and Trevor Davis’ raspy howl, this song was a grand slam on a set filled with home runs. And if you don’t enjoy watching baseball, just check the organ solo that fills the track’s middle section or the lush soulful backing harmonies that give the groove a soft place to land. One spin and you’ll quickly race to see if there are any seats left at the ballpark.
6. Josh Gray — Mortality Blues
Gosh, this guy has a voice that sounds centuries older than it actually is. Gruff and weathered, Josh Gray’s “Mortality Blues” is a smart, insightful meditation on death, aging and reality. The hook — “Let me get old before I die” — will haunt your dreams with the way the singer delivers it, stretching out the word “old” to a late-night, lonesome-moon howl. Armed with nothing more than an acoustic guitar, Gray established himself as one of the area’s premiere songwriters; “Mortality Blues” is the purest example of how he got there.
5. Calm & Crises — Moving Parts
Oh, it’s just so boozy! Calm & Crises burst onto the year’s best-of list with their most in your face, take no prisoners song on an album that has no problem spitting in your eyes. “Moving Parts” leads the set off and it does so with an inordinate amount of vitriol and vigor. Pushing forward with an explosive drum beat, singer Peter Bonaventure sums up coming-of-age-angst brilliantly when he scowls, “All of my friends from back home are breaking my heart / They’re all so together and I just keep falling apart.” Split in two with a slew of whoa-ohh’s, it’s the best hangover a should-be rock star ever ought to need.
4. Stitch Early — Cordless
Two of Frederick’s heaviest hitters in independent original music, the man born Lorenzo Nichols (better known as Stitch Early) and Silent Old Mtns. lead singer Andrew Bromhal team up to offer up the darkest track of the hip-hop maestro’s career. With a beat that echoes mid-period Eminem and a vibe that’s as ominous as it is confrontational, “Cordless” combines the importance of self-worth with the defiance of someone dying to prove it. Inspirational at its core, the song marked a sharp turn in texture for Nichols, all but ensuring our spot on the edge of our seats to see what might come next.
3. Teddy Chipouras — Rusted Silver Dime
So unassuming, so good. Straight from the pop singer-songwriter camp that people like John Mayer and Matt Nathanson should teach at, “Rusted Silver Dime” was perhaps the most complete song in 2016 local pop. Burning slowly with a humble acoustic guitar as a match, the song ultimately picks itself up with the help of a luxuriant organ and dramatic drums only to die right back down as it ends. Couple that with a voice that sounds as though it’s perpetually looking down at its shoes, and what you have is the grandest idea that couldn’t exist without the help of a million tiny parts.
2. The Get Right Band — Munitions Man
Because you always need a reggae-leaning track on every year-end list. The Get Right Band’s “Munitions Man” was the high spot on the record “Who’s In Charge?” that saw the trio take a mountain-sized leap forward in maturity. The best part? Check the sprawling funk that unfolds as the latter half of the song takes hold right as the roots vibes fade back in, guitar effects in full swing, bass and drums locking in tighter than a newly minted dreadlock. It’s spaced out music for a spaced out beach party and you need to find your spaceship ASAP.
1. Brooks Long — Got Soul
Man, I’ve been waiting for this record for what feels like ages. Brooks Long, one of the area’s resident soul stars, finally unleashed “Mannish Boys” this year and it didn’t disappoint. This, the catchiest, grooviest, most lasting tune of 2016, is a throwback in all the right ways. Call and response chorus? Check. A groove that swings as much as it slides? Check. Requisite organ solo that serves as a bridge filling the song idea out beyond standard parameters? Check. James Brown meets Raphael Saadiq meets Johnnie Taylor? Double check. “Don’t tell me you ain’t got soul,” the singer proclaims with zeal countless times, and if not having it was a problem prior to hearing this song, rest assured that the particular issue at hand will be long gone thereafter.
10 BEST NATIONAL ALBUMS
10. Norah Jones — Day Breaks
Fans and critics — and even, according to a few interviews at least, Norah Jones — argued that “Day Breaks” was the singer’s return to the jazz world that helped catapult her career in 2002; I’m not so sure that’s true. Still, there’s a decidedly smokey atmosphere that adds a palatable haze here and man, when she decides to explore the fog, there are few who do it better in the modern day. “Burn” is sexy and groovy, building until it reaches nowhere to go before smartly fading away, while “And Then There Was You” takes those illusive jazz elements and creates something both poignant and elegant. “Once I Had A Laugh,” the new mom sings on her ‘60s-swing-club-song of the same name late in the record. “Day Breaks” proves Norah Jones has a strong case to keep smiling.
9. Anthony Hamilton — What I’m Feelin’
Perhaps the most surprisingly strong soul record of the year, Anthony Hamilton reclaimed his place among the genre’s best talents with “What I’m Feelin’.” Ostensibly a breakup record, as his marriage to former backup singer Tarsha McMillan dissolved in 2015, these 12 songs run the gamut between all the emotions that come along with such Big Life Moments, including the heartbreak (“Love Is An Angry Thing”), the defiance (“Walk In My Shoes”), and the inevitable hope that arrives with new love (“Amen”). With all this backed by his signature Southern Soul Ethos — along with some new turns, including the funky, excellent “Save Me” — you have the reemergence of a voice that feels like it’s been gone just a little too long.
8. Tegan & Sara — Love You To Death
Say what you want about the mainstream’s resurgence of synth-heavy pop music in the last handful of years, but shoot, if nothing else, it’s a whole bunch of fun. After Tegan & Sara’s transformation from folk to glam began with 2013’s “Heartthrob,” 2016’s “Love You To Death” only really updated that shift in tone by adhering to the same retrofitted formulas while incorporating some good, old-fashioned current day production tricks. For proof, cop the pop modernism of opener “That Girl” or the balladry of “White Knuckles” that owes just as much to Taylor Swift as it does Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez. That said, nothing hits as hard as “Dying To Know,” which is as snarky as it is vulnerable, and when that late hook kicks in with the help of little more than electronic drums, it’s hard not to feel chills race down the spine. It’s the king-sized Snickers in a candy store filled with minis: Sugar all the same; grander in scope. What’s not to love?
7. Mayer Hawthorne — Man About Town
If 2013’s “Where Does This Door Go?” was a tiny detour away from Mayer Hawthorne’s signature update of the Hall & Oates blue-eyed soul formula, 2016’s “Man About Town” was the moment the detour signs ended and the man born Andrew Cohen finally got back on the main road. From the silky smooth “Book Of Broken Hearts,” where a vocal refrain mirrors the strongest aspects of Philadelphia soul, to the ‘70s pop-funk of “Cosmic Love,” where a clean guitar clashes with the sexiest groove this side of 2 a.m., these quick 10 songs should be mandatory listening for anyone who claims to love the genre, both new and old. And don’t sleep on the reggae, either — “Fancy Clothes” is a welcome, invigorating departure from the R&B world that works as a lazy sunny afternoon on a beach somewhere far away from here. Good to have you back on the town, sir.
6. Gregory Porter — Take Me To The Alley
Let’s be honest: This wasn’t nearly as solid as Porter’s 2013 gem “Liquid Spirit,” which took the best parts of the singer’s skill set and married them in an excitingly fresh manner with jazz music principles. Yet even with that said, pretty good Gregory Porter is better than most other artists’ best shots. Single “Holding On” recaptures the versatility and hunger that the former college football standout showcased with flair on his previous set while “In Fashion” is undoubtedly the cutest song Porter has ever had a hand in — and yes, that includes “Be Good (Lion’s Song)” — even if the premise is a bit heartbroken. And shoot, “French African Queen” sure is a hell of a lot of fun. It will be interesting to see where Gregory Porter goes from here — full-on cheese-pop or Bill Withers-esque soul. For now, “Take Me To The Alley” serves as a rousing bridge toward the next step in one of the most promising careers R&B currently has to offer.
5. William Bell — This Is Where I Live
These 12 months were awfully tough to swallow for music fans, what with Prince, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen all leaving this world, two of those three dropping brilliant swan songs on their way out the door. Soul music legend William Bell, though? Well, at 77 years old, he still appears to be going strong and with his return to Stax this year, “This Is Where I Live” proved to be one of the most touching albums of 2016. Not only does he revisit his “Born Under A Bad Sign,” but he also reflects on his mistakes with both wit and grace (“The Three Of Me”), makes promises he swears he’ll finally keep (“I Will Take Care Of You”), and examines a lifetime of heartbreak with an exacting amount of resentment (“All The Things You Can’t Remember”). He sounds gritty. He sounds old. He sounds tired. He sounds honest — all the things that make Memphis Soul an essential pastime of its own. No wonder he’s so proud of where he lives.
4. Macy Gray — Stripped
Well, now who saw this coming? A 10-track jazz record from one of pop music’s most unique voices. Recorded live with only a single microphone in a refurbished Brooklyn church over two days, “Stripped” is Exhibit A for how cool Macy Gray is and will forever be. Old hits are reimagined as lounge club favorites when “I Try” kicks up the tempo as subtle guitar stabs lend a sense of comfort to the performance and “Sweet Baby” goes all Bo Diddley on the proceedings. Even better are the handful of new ideas — “Lucy” is profane and mysterious, all the things that make Gray such an essential artist, while “Annabelle” focuses on a longing most commonly heard in the type of blues found in Mississippi Delta swamps. If nothing else, it was the most unexpected album from a mainstream pop artist in 2016, and it re-established Gray as a fearless singer whose imagination is a bigger asset than other most artists’ voices.
3. Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker
What an awful year for heroes. One of my personal ones, Leonard Cohen set this beauty on the table weeks before walking away, leaving this world for good, and it capped one of the best later-years resurgences in recent music memory, beginning with 2012’s “Old Ideas.” Just take the title track, which is the most aggressive Cohen has been in years, punctuating itself with the haunting premonition, “I’m ready, my lord.” And then there’s the signature ballad “Treaty,” which reminds us all of why Leonard Cohen was the master of the heart, be it breaking or thriving, as the dramatic strings paint pretensions and the singer apologizes for ghosts he seemingly never reconciled. “I’m leaving the table / I’m out of the game,” he proclaims on the poignant waltz “Leaving The Table.” It will never be the same without him and “You Want It Darker” puts an exclamation point on that very fact.
2. Alicia Keys — Here
It’s the rawest, hungriest — and absolute best — collection of songs Alicia Keys has ever released, and it’s not close. “Here” captures an artist stagnant for too long, ready to evolve, giving precisely zero of the damns about whatever consequences may lie ahead. I mean, the record’s best track (the sultry “In Common”) didn’t even make the cut, save for the deluxe edition. That’s how good this set is. From the defiant, longing aggression of “Pawn It All” to the sprawling neo-blues of “Illusion Of Bliss,” and all the way to the acoustic, Bob Marley-esque textures (which are something new for the singer) of “Kill Your Mama,” Alicia Keys decided to turn away from the adult contemporary path on which she was traveling and instead re-find her home on the streets, warts and all. She’s “A Minor” no more.
1. Paul Simon — Stranger To Stranger
When you have a mind as observant, as cutting and as engaged as Paul Simon’s, you don’t grow older; you grow wiser. “Stranger to Stranger,” the 13th studio album from the Only Living Boy in New York, is a testament to curiosity, a tight, fat-free collection of songs that continues the singer’s later-years winning streak.
Single “Wristband” turns on a dime from quirky unfortunate backstage experience to a meditation on social injustices, while the title track is one of the most longing, desperate love songs of the year, no matter the genre. Lest we forget, however, that what makes Simon one of a generation’s foremost poets is his effortless ability to shift from tender to profane, as he does with the hilariously scathing “Cool Papa Bell,” stretching a certain four-letter-word to heights he’s never previously climbed. “Most obits are mixed reviews,” Simon intones on one of the set’s most memorable moments, “The Werewolf.” “Life is a lottery, a lot of people lose.” “Stranger to Stranger” is the sound of a man hitting the jackpot … again.
10 BEST NATIONAL SONGS
10. Rihanna Featuring Drake — Work
Say what you want about Rihanna’s flat singing voice and Drake’s obnoxious ubiquity, but shoot if this thing didn’t stick in your head like it was super-glued to your medulla oblongata after hearing it just once I’ll eat my shirt. It’s so silly, so simple, so lazy, it’s almost novel. Plus, if this doesn’t transport you directly to a reggaeton-soaked beach, you’re not listening.
9. William Bell — The Three Of Me
The wittiest song by a 77-year-old all year (the same award for 75-year-olds can be found at No. 1), “The Three Of Me” is Southern soul balladry at its most clever. As the Stax Records icon reflects on the man he was, the man he is and the man he wants to be, you can’t help but hear the pain creep through that weathered, honest voice with each letter. Add some tastefully bluesy guitar work and you have one of the best-ever efforts from the guy who wrote “Born Under A Bad Sign.” And that’s not to be taken lightly.
8. Corinne Bailey Rae — Green Aphrodisiac
Ahhh, man. So delicate. So velvety. And then that bass kicks in at about the 1:20 mark and boom goes the dynamite. It’s the perfect blend of yesteryear soul and modern day studio trickery, the way everything feels so natural yet so raw. Plus, man, that groove. I mean, really: That groove. For all those who thought Corinne Bailey Rae worked best in acoustic, coffee shop rhythm and blues textures, take one listen to this and shut up.
7. The 1975 — The Sound
You know what? I understand that it’s cool to hate on The 1975 for their cheese-glam approach and obnoxious-looking lead singer, but if you took everything that dominated pop radio in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, threw it in a box, shook the box up and pressed record on your favorite cassette-playing boom box, this song is what you’d hear. “You say I’m such a cliche,” lead singer Matthew Healy admits before concluding, “I can’t see the difference in it either way.” Bask in it, man. Bask in it.
6. Justin Timberlake — Can’t Stop The Feeling
This was sort of/kind of the song of the summer, was it not? Even during years JT doesn’t make a splash musically (save for a Netflix concert movie, of course), he still manages to be at the forefront of our minds because of singles like this. Besides: Timberlake is at his best when he’s getting his Michael Jackson on (cough, “Take Back The Night,” cough), and this song, funky, infectious and layered, is as Off The Wall as anything the former boy-band’er has ever done.
5. Tegan and Sara — Dying To Know
Of all the great songs that have come out of this neon change in direction for Teagan & Sara — and there sure are a few of them — “Dying To Know” is unequivocally the best. Simple yet cutting, it’s the quintessential kiss off, and the way these two deliver the payoff line — “Is the one you ended up with everything you wanted?” — is deliciously antagonistic and undeniably bratty. When these sisters get it right, it’s hard to find a duo that does it better.
4. Alicia Keys — In Common
You still can’t convince me it was a good idea to leave this song off the standard pressing of “Here.” Caribbean in tone, this track drips with sweat, the pitter-patter of a hi-hat as sexy as anything you could see on late-night cable television. We already knew that the woman born Alicia Cook could stand toe-to-toe in vocal power; who knew she could create such a steamy atmosphere? It’s the most interesting song of her career, and don’t forget that she once collaborated with Tony! Toni! Toné!.
3. Gregory Porter — In Fashion
It’s just so much fun. Soaked in metaphor, the best track on Porter’s “Take Me To The Alley” is a throwback of sorts, a pop song that owes as much to show-tunes as it does to the current form of R&B. Better yet is the piano solo that skips its way through raindrops as the bridge unfolds. It mirrors the scatting that Porter embraces at the end of each hook, a small touch that reminds us of how compelling the singer can be whenever he decides to focus on detail. And with a voice like that, the details can be as essential as anything else the guy can offer.
2. Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker
If Leonard Cohen was ever going to write a song called “You Want It Darker,” this is the exact way it should sound. Moody. Hazy. Assertive. The lead single from his album of the same name, it embodied the many things that made The Broken Poet so legendary. Throw on top of that the now-eerie premonition of “Hineni, hineni / I’m ready, my lord,” and you have one of the most haunting refrains from a guy who made a career out of chasing ghosts. He might have been ready for his lord, but we weren’t ready for him to leave. This track encapsulates all the reasons why he’ll be sorely missed.
1. Paul Simon — The Werewolf
Pop music’s longstanding Poet Laureate (Curmudgeon Edition) did it again this year with 2016’s best album, which came fully equipped (obviously) with 2016’s best song. Much like Cohen, Paul Simon’s later-years career output has been an absolute treat for any of us longtime followers. Most people might argue that “So Beautiful Or So What” was better than its sequel, this year’s “Stranger To Stranger,” but I’d actually go the other way.
Why? Because “Stranger” was more concise, and, frankly, it cut deeper. And nothing punctured the skin with more abandon than the set’s lead track, “The Werewolf.” Take that literally, as we learn within the first minute of the song that our protagonist has been murdered by his wife via a sushi knife. Or take that symbolically, as Simon offers this killer passage: “Ignorance and arrogance / The national debate / Put the fight in Vegas / That’s a billion-dollar gate.” At 75 years old, he’s still got his finger directly on the pulse of America, and in a year when we were starkly reminded to appreciate the greats while we still could, Paul Simon gave us reason to give thanks that even though many of them are gone now, there are still a few who aren’t going away quietly. God bless him for that.