Every year since I was in high school I’ve had a tradition of compiling my favorite songs of the year and putting them together as a single mix. At first they were on cassette, then CD, and now digital. I only have a couple of rules:
- I have to have acquired the songs some time within the preceding year or else have been re-listening to them a lot during that time.
- Everything has to end up sounding good together, because a mix isn’t random, a mix is a carefully constructed montage of sound.
This year’s mix clocks in at around 2 hours and 28 minutes and features 35 of my favorite songs from 2016. I call it:
Note 1: these songs are not in order of rank they are in a play order from 1 to 35 and are designed to be listened to as such.
Note 2: I don’t have an online playlist of these songs anywhere other than the haphazard manner you find here because a) there’s no one service with a linkable playlist function that has them all and b)If you like them, you should buy them and make your own playlist. Streaming music is great for discovery, but a poor substitute for owning music and knowing you can play it anywhere … forever. Also streaming pays musicians like crap.
Note 3: The actual list of songs was finished over a month ago, it’s just taken me a long time to finish this post.
1. Russian Circles
Every year end mix starts with me trying to find the perfect first song. Once I find it, the rest just starts falling into place almost automatically. It took me a few weeks of experimentation before I finally realized that this year, “Mladek” off of Russian Circles‘ 2011 LP Empros was that song.
Empros is an album that I’ve had almost as long as it’s been out, though I had only given it and the rest of their discography a few scant listens despite having seen the band live several times at festivals or in support of other acts over the years. Leading up to yet another live appearance (where the main draw for me had been opener Helms Alee) I put Russian Circles’ catalog on heavy rotation and turned myself from a lowercase “f” fan to an uppercase “F” one. “Mladek” was a big part of that transformation.
The second track off of Empros, “Mladek” is a beast. The ferocity of this song – both brutal and beautiful – pretty much summed up 2016 for me as a whole and given the heavy rotation I gave it over the last couple of months, it was the push that this years mix needed to get started.
2. The Killing Floor
Another older song, but one that was new to me this year. Killing Floor were one of my SXSW picks that I didn’t get out to see, though this song really stuck with me. “Corruption Capital” reminds me of Muse’s heavier moments, but sadly the rest of the band’s repertoire that I could find (all 2014 or before) didn’t grab me the same way. I’ve yet to check out the EP they released more recently on which “Corruption Capital” again appears though, so maybe I’ll find something more along these lines there. If not, then that’s OK. This is still a powerful jam.
3/4. East Cameron Folkcore
“Enemy of the Times”, “Director’s Cut”
While East Cameron Folkcore did release a very good album this year, given the state of 2016 (especially toward the end) I felt a lot more affinity for a couple tracks from their 2013 release For Sale. “Enemy of the Times” and “Director’s Cut” always almost always come as a pair to me. Following each other on the album, they’re already meant to go together, however there’s a deeper connection between the two that plays out even when attempting to listen to them outside of that context.
“Enemy of the Times” comes on like the apocalypse, full of grim bluster and tortured noise. “Director’s Cut” strikes a more soothing tone, but is still indignant in it’s own way. Together the two strike a balance of terror and defiance amid the band’s cacophonous fury.
If there’s a section of this year’s mix that’s a commentary on the political state of the world in 2016 then it’s these first four songs and these two tracks perfectly express the terror, uncertainty, and the barest glimmer of hope for us ahead in 2017 and beyond.
5. Ruby & The Reckless
Rainbows – Single
This years obligatory “pop song that I inexplicably cannot get out of my head” award goes to “Rainbows” by Ruby & The Reckless. I’m already a sucker for violins in pop and rock music to begin with, so they kinda had me from the start, but there’s something about the construction and execution of this song that just grabs me. The entire song is a progressive build, but in no way cheaply done and with moments of anticipation and payoff throughout until the explosive conclusion. I was sad that the full length that followed this single didn’t grab me in the same way, but regardless I still have “Rainbows” … over my eyes.
“You & I”
Not long before leaving Virginia, my friend Amy dragged me out to a show by a band she had just discovered called HoneyHoney. They were sort of an indie rock, alt-country affair and I immediately dug what I heard. For me it wasn’t an unheard of reaction as the right combination of fiddles, banjos, and such tends to do that to me. I’ve managed to keep up with the band over the years and there are always a few really stellar tracks to come off of their releases, “You & I” being one of my favorites off of their 3rd LP from 2015.
7. Andrew Bird
“Are You Serious”
Are You Serious
Late in the year I began thinking “It’s been a while since I’ve heard a proper new LP from Andrew Bird“, at which point I noticed that he had indeed dropped such a thing earlier in the year without my having noticed. After almost a decade listening to his work, I don’t expect Andrew Bird to blow me away any longer, but based on that output I have high expectations and keeping up with those is good enough for me. I’m happy to say that Are You Serious does just that. While packed with quality songs, the title track was the one that stuck out the most to me.
8. The Deer
“Reflections on Moonstone Beach”
Tempest & Rapture
My first exposure to The Deer was seeing them open for Wild Child late in 2015. It was enough to put them on my radar and then after seeing them again during SXSW I decided to become a fan just before they dropped their second LP Tempest & Rapture. I’ve never quite been able to find the right words to describe The Deer, but “psychedelic folk” is about as close to describing their sound as anything. There’s an Appalachian, jam band-ish quality to their sound at times that melds nicely with an ever-present, ethereal vibe and Grace Park’s entrancing vocals. As a whole this latest LP is more of a mood piece, great in the background, but light on singles. Still, there are a few stand out tracks, such as this one.
9. The Accidentals
The Accidentals are this year’s SXSW success story for me. Originally just one of the random groups on my list, seeing these kids live won me over in a HUGE way. A trio of early 20’s kids from Michigan, these multi-instrumentalists laid on the charm and proved their musical prowess in person. They also showed their business savvy in a big way by offering their first LP for free at SXSW. Seriously, don’t sell your album at SXSW if you’re small and looking to be bigger, give it away. I would have bought it anyway, but the gesture and the foresight behind it was endearing. There are any number of great tracks off of this LP, but the closing track “Blessed” continues to give me chills in the best possible way nearly a year later. If this were a ranking and not a playlist, it would be in the top 5 … easily.
10. Mr. Lif
“Everyday We Pray”
Don’t Look Down
At this point I’m pretty sure that Lif will never give me a release that I adore as much as his epic 2002 LP I, Phantom, but I’m willing to recognize when he comes close and this year’s Don’t Look Down (his first LP in a while) was the closest he’s come in some time. While in the end the album doesn’t live up to the promise of it’s opening moments (or perhaps just my lofty worship of I, Phantom) there are some great tracks within and “Everyday We Pray” is one without a doubt, even if the subject matter seems a bit more pious than I usually hold with.
11. Lushlife / CSLSX
“Totally Mutual Feeling”
If you like your rap rolled “over soul beats like that” then Lushlife is the man you need to listen to and Ritualize is full of smooth hip-hop jams. Lush is one of those rare hip-hop creatures: a top-notch DJ mixed with a genius lyricist. Having seen him live a couple times at SXSW I’m always hip to hear something from him and “Totally Mutual Feeling” was one of a few tracks I kept coming back to from this release again and again.
12. Aesop Rock
The Impossible Kid
As if Lif weren’t enough, we had the reemergence of Aesop Rock with his first solo LP in several years. This album was on heavy rotation for me this year and in my opinion may even rival Aes’ seminal Labor Days LP. It’s tough to pick any one song off of The Impossible Kid to highlight as it may as well just be an album worth of quality singles, but as someone who also “used to draw”, “Rings” cut deep for me. It’s just one of an album full of autobiographical tunes that see Aes digging down deep and pulling up some of the best work of his career.
While I never really consider myself a big Megafauna fan, I always like what they put out. This years LP Welcome Home saw the band shifting from their classically styled heavy rock into more progressive and psychedelic waters and the results were both different and interesting. While there were several stand out tracks on the album, I chose to highlight “Hogs Out” here, even though it’s sadly bereft of one of Dani Neff’s blistering solos.
“I Feel Alien”
Borzoi have been teasing Austin with EP’s for a couple years now and while I’m grateful for the semi-constant stream of music, I wouldn’t mind seeing an LP sometime soon. Mostly punk, but with classic rock and hardcore elements alike, Borzoi’s output always feels fresh and different. “I Feel Alien” is an almost perfect example of that blending of style and tone, with its punk intro and classic rock solo blending perfectly together to create something paradoxical and cool.
15. Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes
Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes
Like the bastard children of Nivana’s Kurt Kobain and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes offer up a noisy, yet nuanced wall of sound that I like to think of as Grunge Gaze. While it may be easiest to immediately recognize CSSS by monster guitar assaults like album opener “(I)”, where the band really excels for me is when they slow things down and ditch the seemingly 300 guitars for a scant 20 or so. In these moments they almost remind me of Dinosaur Jr. by way of Alice in Chains: thoughtful, but sparse lyrics over threadbare rhythms and stoned beats, with a hint of menace lurking around every riff. “Sundance Kid” is one of those songs. I don’t know that Grunge & Western was ever a genre, but it is now.
16. Sweet Spirit
“Baby When I Close My Eyes”
While I love Sabrina Ellis‘ voice and she’s easily one of the most energetic front persons for any band ever, I’ve never gone all in on any album she’s recorded for one of her many bands over the years. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments and “Baby When I Close My Eyes” is one of them. In addition to having one of my favorite music videos of the year, this is just an expertly crafted pop/rock song. The guitar riff kills and Ellis’ dreamy, sultry vocals conjure a weird Abba vibe, while the strings toward the end of the song add a regal tone. It’s almost a perfect song.
17. Good Talk
I’m just going to come out and say it, Good Talk are channeling Slanted and Enchanted era Pavement in the best possible way and I’m more than okay with that. Seriously though, there’s a lot more going on with this band than Malkmus/Spiral Stairs worship, but that’s definitely part of it. If you want to hear what I’m talking about it, just listen to the solo at the end of the song. At first it oozes early 90’s garage, that Malkmus influence worn bold and proud, but there’s a unique quality to it … something added to the formula. It ultimately creates (for me) something that’s both nostalgic and new and as a lover of 90’s rock (but also someone who refuses to live in the past) that’s the best I can ask for.
18. Beach Slang
The Things we do to Find People Who Feel Like Us
My buddy Mark Wood (to whom I owe a sizable portion of my music collection) told me that I should be listening to Beach Slang midway through the year after I told him he should be listening to Modern Baseball (see track 23). Even though I had already written the band off (because I’m the kind of moron who assumes that any band I first hear about from anyone other than local sources or Mark must be crap) I decided to listen to them anyway … because Mark Wood. At first blush, the band were decent enough to pick up an album and over time they grew on me. Seeing their frontman make good on previous band engagements, but as a solo act (because the band had a) kicked out an abuser, and b) lost another member shortly after) at Sound on Sound fest, really endeared me toward them. I still think their production is a little over the top, but I dig the sound and the sincerity of songs like this one.
The Dream is Over
Given the context of this album’s title (a quote from the lead singer’s doctor about the status of his voice … medically speaking) I don’t know that we’ll be hearing anymore from PUP. I kinda figure we will though. I have a weird relationship with this band. They’re one of a few that I love while I’m listening to them, but rarely remember much afterwards. Beach Slang do the same thing to me, which is likely why they follow each other here. There’s always one of two PUP songs that grab me though and the intro to this latest LP (the one-two punch of “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” and “DVP”) did the trick this time.
I was never a Descendents fan growing up. My punk phase began post college and I had a lot of catching up to do and somehow never made it to the Descendents. I mean … I familiarized myself with them somewhat (thanks again to Mark Wood) and saw them play a blistering set at FunFunFun Fest a few years back, but I never really delved into the back catalog other than a few spins on Spotify. This new album was my chance and I couldn’t have asked for a better one. It’s tough to single out one tune on Hypercaffium Spazzinate because the entire album is an instant classic, especially for aging punks like me, but “Without Love” is easily one of the front runners for “best track” on this LP.
21. Bouncing Souls
“Up to Us”
The Bouncing Souls released their latest LP on the same day as the Descendents, leaving me to wonder what year it actually was, but much like their west coast kin, the Souls released a killer album this year. I’ve gone back and forth on recent Bouncing Souls releases in the 2000’s. I hold my NJ hardcore bands to a high standard. Simplicity is a stellar album though and like the Descendents 2016 offering, full of great tracks. “Up to Us” (while one of my favorite songs on the album) is a great outro for 2016. In a year where we’ve lost so many artistic heroes from David Bowie to Carrie Fischer, this is a song about taking up the torch and keeping it lit. It’s up to us.
22. Bob Mould
“Voices in My Head”
Patch the Sky
Bob‘s been on a roll with his last few albums and while Patch the Sky is probably the weakest of the set, it delivers that signature wall of guitar sound and heart-on-sleeve emotion that I’ve come to expect. This is a break up album, plain and simple, and having just read Bob’s memoir “See a Little Light” at the start of the year, I was sad to realize that. Great pain leads to great art however and while not as triumphant as Silver Age or personal as Beauty & Ruin, Patch the Sky delivers. Album opener “Voices in my Head” takes the prize as the standout track though, due in no small part to its stellar guitar solo.
23. Modern Baseball
“Tears Over Beers”
This is one of those bands that I should have been listening to several years ago when I first heard about them and though I had Sports on my “to buy” list for a while, I never got around to it. When their third LP dropped this year I finally got on board. While the new album has a lot to offer, going back into the catalog it was Sports that had the most resonance with me and “Tears Over Beers” was the first song I fell in love with off that record.
24. Free Kittens and Bread
“Bold Promises, Empty Dreams”
This was a band that I had been following for a while locally and I was poised to review their debut LP for OVRLD when they turned out to be total dicks at a show the site put on with them on the bill. Like Frank [Turner] says “there’s no such thing as rock stars, there’s just people who play music and some of them are just like us and some of them are dicks”. Regardless, I really liked the album despite it being more of that “Gaslight Anthem” style that seems to have taken hold of a lot of punk bands looking to mature in recent years. Free Kittens and Bread were always on that trajectory however, so there’s nothing to be disappointed about and if you ignore their behavior that one time and focus on the music, songs like this one really deliver.
25. Honey and Salt
Seams of Value
Vocals aside (don’t get me started on every math rock band having the same wispy, high register, monotone vocals these days) Honey and Salt deliver in a big way. Tight and technical, with a sound that belies their status as a three piece band, Honey and Salt play the kind of noodly math rock that I really dig. The band had been on my watch list for about a year based on an early EP and when Seams of Value dropped it took a lot of people by surprise. This isn’t a style you hear often in Austin and to have it represented (and well at that) is a major bonus for the local scene.
I just realized that this last block of songs has been the “I love it … but” section and BADBADNOTGOOD‘s latest LP is no expection. “IV” is the kind of song I love BBNG for, this and various iterations on it. Their last album was like that: jazz, with progressive playfulness, and some hip-hop influence. I felt like IV veered too far into the R&B and hip-hop areas is the problem. It’s not that I don’t like that kind of stuff, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like BBNG. I don’t hear the band in those songs. “IV” is not one of those songs though and brings the jazz the way I like it.
27. A.M. Feelgood
“This Alley is Right Up My Alley”
Wisteria Trail EP
I first heard this band in mid 2015 off a split with Ballerino that was recommended to me by the now defunct band Halaska. At the time they were interesting if unremarkable and while their latest EP shows a lot of growth, it’s not until the final track “This Alley is Right Up My Alley” that they really break the mold. This is Austin post rock the way its meant to be done and in Austin we know a thing or two about post rock. This song soars and swells, growing and evolving riffs, while taking the listener on an astral journey. It reminds me of early Explosions in the Sky though with more urgency and variety. This is easily on my top 5 tracks of the year and I hope to hear more from this band soon.
“The Stars Are Stigmata”
Love of Cartography
As of this year I am finally caught up on Sleepmakeswaves releases. Love of Cartography was their 2015 LP and easily their best to date. There are any number of amazing tracks on this album, but “The Stars Are Stigmata” is the one that not only fit best in the mix, but also rocks the hardest right from the start. There are times when I feel like Sleepmakeswaves’ sound is best described as “the best bits from the best post rock bands” and that’s definitely true as I hear a decent helping of From Monument to Masses, Mogwai, and And So I Watch You From Afar in them, but the way they deliver is unique. With a new LP planned for 2017, I’m happy to finally be there on the ground floor with the rest of their fans and maybe this time I’ll get lucky and they’ll come to Austin.
“Blood on the sand”
New York Fascist Week
BLXPLTN‘s late 2015 debut was a revelation and a brilliant, timely, and powerful work. It was a hard act to top, but with New York Fascist Week they have. More powerful, more timely, more brilliant, BLXPLTN rock a potent blend of early hardcore and stripped down industrial laced with moments of soul. I find that I feel every note and lyric deep in my chest. It’s almost unpleasant, but over time it grows on me in a beautiful way. There’s power here, the power of revolution and anger. “Blood on the Sand” opens the album with a perfect example of that chest penetrating sound.
30. Us Weekly
Us Weekly continue to be the hardest band to pin down in the Austin punk scene right now. While some bands strive to sound like Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Religion, or Fugazi, these guys are always all over the map in such a way that at any moment you’re not sure where they’re coming from, but you’re pretty sure you’ve been there before. Songs like “Asshole” strike the most easily identifiable chord for me however. There’s a Pixies-like quality to the whole affair that’s punctuated by the lazy “too stoned to be surf” guitar, reminiscent of Joey Santiago‘s early pixies noodling. That comparison is broken immediately by Chris Nordahl’s vocals however as he spits more Henry Rollins than Frank Black. It all contributes to a unique and subtly menacing sound however.
31. The Red Heroes
Sing-Along Hate Songs
My first exposure to The Red Heroes came at a Free Week showcase at the beginning on 2016. The band’s set impressed the hell out of me and after they mentioned that they were recording a full-length I immediately got in touch with them to let them know that I was going to be interested in reviewing it. Sing-Along Hate Songs is pop-punk the way it should be and the Red Heroes play it like they’ve spent the last couple of years locked in rehearsal and listening to nothing but old mall punk and early emo. “Hate Song” is the break up song for 2016, spitting venom while simultaneously smirking and commiserating in the company of friends.
32. Hop Along
“I Saw My Twin”
I should have been into Hop Along before now. I had every opportunity, but honestly, their first album didn’t really do anything for me at the time it came out (still doesn’t) and when the follow up dropped in 2015 I just missed it. Luckily I was in a mood for female singer-songwriter stuff at one point late in the summer and decided to give Hop Along another chance, opting instead for the more recent Painted Shut. I can’t quite place what exactly works better on this album than their debut (it may be that there’s more of a band presence) but I’m glad it does. After listening to it once I immediately went out and bought the vinyl … then proceeded to ignore it for a couple months. When I finally came back to this record it was like getting hit by a bolt of lightning. Something had been allowed to gestate in my brain during that time away and all of a sudden I “got it”. For a solid month I had a new favorite song every few days. Painted Shut is my favorite record that I acquired in 2016. It’s a hard record to describe and a hard one to really recommend initially. It’s not a record that grabs you right away other than the off-kilter vocals, but when it does finally get a hold, it doesn’t let go. I could have chosen any of half a dozen songs on this album to go on this mix (and almost did) but “I Saw My Twin” was the first one I fell in love with and remains top among my faves on Painted Shut.
Autolux aren’t a prolific band, but when the do put out a release you can bet it’s going to be all kinds of different and good. Pussy’s Dead is a bizarre and challenging release, full of new ideas and new twists on old themes. It’s Autolux doing what they do best, not standing still. While there are plenty of great tracks on Pussy’s Dead I had to feature one that I felt adequately showcased Carla Azar’s drumming. From the moment I heard “Turnstile Blues” off their demo EP 17 years ago, the drumming has been front and center and “Becker” is another stellar drum track, full of angular jabs and rococo rhythms.
34. Two Inch Astronaut
I first came to know of this band a year or two ago when another musician on my Twitter feed described them as being like Medications, one of my favorite late 00’s DC bands. The description was apt and this year not only did they release their excellent sophomore LP, but they had J. Robbins (frontman of many of my other favorite DC area bands over the years) mix and record it. The album is an excellent evolution of their sound and while it captures that DC/VA/MD flavor, it adds something unique at the same time. “Woodstock ‘99” is about as solid a closer to an album as you could ask for and features an excellent, jazzy, post punk jam in the outro.
35. Cymbals Eat Guitars
I dislike using someone else’s final track to end a mix (it’s just too easy) but, Cymbals Eat Guitars practically gave me no choice. While I’ve failed to be as captivated with their subsequent releases quite the way I was with their Debut Why There Are Mountains, the band has managed to continually grow and put out quality albums that always feature a few stellar tracks. Their latest release was yet another evolution, poppier in many respects, but maintaining the off-kilter sound and composition that first drew me to them. There are a number of great tracks on the album, but to end 2016, “Shrine” was a no-brainer.