It’s been a modest yet somewhat surprising first few months of music in 2016. We had a crazy sloppy album release from the former best rapper on the planet (Kanye West with Life of Pablo), and a quiet surprise release from the current best rapper on the planet (Kendrick Lamar with Untitled Unmastered). We’ve had a lot of old favorites come out with some solid releases (M. Ward, Mavis Staples, Santigold), and a few breakout artists catch me by surprise (Anna Meredith, TEEN, Anderson .Paak). Here are five of my favorite songs so far to come out in 2016.
This is certainly not the playlist you expected upon first clicking in. It’s not the soundtrack to Sleepless in Seattle 2 or the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation, but rather love-themed songs from unexpected sources from my past months’ worth of listening. So I guess that makes this clickbait in a way ¯_(ツ)_/¯. There are some older acts I’ve dug deep into for the first time, as well as some newer acts I’m excited to hear more from. So without further ado, a love-themed playlist that’s not too sacharine.
Harry Nilsson – “Love Story (You and Me)”
Everybody’s talking Ryan Adams covers album of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Well I just found an album of one of my favorite underrated musicians, Harry Nilsson, covering another much underrated musician, Randy “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” Newman, with tremendous success on Nilsson Sings Newman. “Love Story (You and Me)” is maybe the finest moment on all the covers album with Nilsson’s golden pipes take Newman’s nervy, intelligent piano ballad to new heights.
Royal Headaches – “Love Her If I Tried”
This is nothing fancy but great nonetheless. Australian rockers Royal Headache are sort of warm and affectionate punk music, if there was ever such a thing. The lead singer – who just goes by the name Shogun – has sort of an early Beatles-like innocence to him, even as the guitars soar and swell around him.
The Modern Lovers – “Pablo Picasso”
This may be cheating since “Love” is in the band name instead of song name, but The Modern Lovers remain one of the most influential but least known bands around, especially upon today’s indie rock scene. One of my very favorite bands today, Parquet Courts, are essentially a modern retread of the Modern Lovers. “Pablo Picasso” shows the humor, edge, and rawness that makes Jonathan Richman so great, and it was also fun to revisit after just getting a heavy dose of Picasso on my recent trip to Spain.
Rhiannon Giddens – “O Love Is Teasin”
Rhiannon Giddens, lead singer, violinist, and banjo extraordinaire for the bluegrass trio Carolina Chocolate Drops, stepped out on her own earlier this year with her first solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, and it’s pretty much perfect Americana music: beautiful unadulterated melodies and harmonies, brilliant string-playing, and bare-bones percussion to move things along and provide texture. “O Love Is Teasin’” captures the intense drama and grace that Giddens’ voice and music embodies.
John Grant – “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore”
Speaking of drama, John Grant’s music is dripping with it, plus an surprising dose of humor. Instead of a heirloom piano or a beloved six-string, the now Iceland-based singer/songwriter chooses propulsive, sci-fi synths as his backdrop for his confessionals. “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore” could be sung beautifully with almost any arrangement, but it’s distinct and haunting coming from Grant.
While plenty of people (students and teachers alike), just went back to school, this time of year usually is a great time for music discoveries. Here are five of my favorite songs from the last couple months, as well as a Spotify playlist including plenty more.
Low Cut Connie – “Back in School”
Can we talk about Barrack Obama having the best taste of music of any president ever? Who knows what Obama’s legacy will be 10 years from now, but I certainly won’t forget that. Obama recently included rabble-rouser bar band Low Cut Connie on his Spotify Summer Playlist, and he’s certainly all the cooler for it.
Leon Bridges – “Better Man”
Leon Bridges is probably the closest thing to a second coming of Sam Cooke we’ve had in 50 years. His songs are simple, innocent, and irresistible.
Mac Demarco – “A Heart Like Hers”
I used to not care for Mac Demarco and his stoner, goofball schtick, but then I actually saw him live and truly listened to his music. Turns out that stoner, goofball is an amazing songwriter, especially around heartbreak. “A Heart Like Hers” sounds more like Damon Albarn singing mournfully for the Gorillaz than anything, but it’s an extremely moving song either way.
Dr. Dre feat. Kendrick Lamar – “Genocide”
This is officially the year of Kendrick Lamar and Oscar Isaac. Oscar Isaac because he’s now killed it in Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year, Show Me a Hero, and will soon blow up as big as Harrison Ford when the new Star Wars hits this Christmas. Kendrick, because he’s put out the best album this year, been on the biggest summer single in T. Swift’s “Bad Blood”, and totally dominated Dr. Dre’s new album to the point it should be called a Kendrick album. “Deep Water” displays a rapper simply out of his head, a once-a-decade rap talent. (P.S. Because of Dre’s billion dollar empire, of course he doesn’t make the song available on any outlet except Apple Music.)
Thundercat – “Them Changes”
Thundercat knows how to bring dat bass. The producer and bassist is sort of the unsung hero on To Pimp a Butterfly, but has made plenty of amazing music himself these past three years. Be sure to check out his Song Exploder episode on “Them Changes”, breaking apart all the different elements in the song.
For more music from the past few months, visit my 15-song Spotify playlist.
Since the day of the cassette mix tape up till today with Spotify playlists, many people’s playlists follow a mood like rainy day or exercise music or draw from a nostalgic period like songs from high school or the 90’s. This playlist is none of those things. I’m not sure why, but I’ve never been much for mood or seasonal playlists. We’ve certainly lent plenty of fuel for them, and I love stringing together complementary songs for a special event like a party or wedding, but in my regular day-to-day, my listening tends to be way more sporadic. In that spirit, here are five songs from the last couple months that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. In fact chances are you like one thing but could care less for the rest. Either way, I hope you find something you enjoy among these odds and ends.
Kamasi Washington – “Change of the Guard”
Like three-hour jazz space odysseys? Ok, saxophonist Kamasi Washington isn’t for everyone, but if you loved Kendrick Lamar’s masterful To Pimp a Butterfly which he lent his golden saxophone pipes to, in time you can find your way into Epic, sort of like if when John Coltrane died he was reincarnated on Mars.
Bully – “I Remember”
Like 30-minute punk rock albums? Well Nashville’s Bully is pretty much the opposite of Kamasi Washington: simple, punchy attitude distilled into two-minute garage rock songs.
Algiers – “Blood”
One of the most distinct bands to land on the scene in 2015 has been Algiers. The Atlanta band defines most standard rock labels, but if I was to call them anything, I’d call them industrial blues punk. “Blood” has vocalist Franklin James Fisher howling about what often feels like a losing battle, matched in the video with images from the history of Black civil rights in America.
Holly Herndon – “Morning Sun”
Following in the footsteps of avant-garde electronic female artists like Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono, Holly Herndon is wilting both highly intricate and also highly melodic electronic quilts. Her latest, Platform, doesn’t shy from using any and every possible sound on her computer (treating Garageband like Storage Wars), but she puts them all to good use.
Django Django – “Shake and Tremble”
Let’s end on a light note. London spaghetti-western rockers Django Django are the sound you would get if the Johnny-Depp-voiced gecko Rango fronted a London dance rock band. I know that’s complete nonsense, but frankly I don’t care. Listen to Django Django.
This year, we’ve talked plenty about this year’s three best releases (at least in my mind): Courtney Barnett’s lively Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly, and Sufjan Stevens’ delicate memoir Carrie & Lowell. However, we haven’t written nearly enough of all the other solid-to-great releases that have sprouted up the last few months. This by all means is panning out to be a better music year than last, thanks to surprising sophomore efforts (Alabama Shakes, Torres, Purity Ring) and some welcome returns (Sleater-Kinney, Blur, Sufjan Stevens). Here are some of my favorite songs of the past few months.
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