While 2016 has been generally considered a terrible year for humanity, it at least gave it us some great albums that we will remember for years to come, and hopefully disassociate from the events that have occurred these past twelve months.
This is not a list of those albums. Instead, this list is for great songs that were on otherwise good-but-not great albums from 2016.
- Empire of the Sun – Friends
Empire of the Sun’s third album Two Vines attempted to combine the sophisticated grooves of the band’s debut with the pulsating energy of their second album. It had a lead single called “High and Low,” which could be used to describe the album’s trajectory. Fortunately, “Friends” is one of these high points, with an explosive chorus backed by dance beats that make it one of the most memorable parts of the album. You can read more about Two Vines here.
- Animal Collective – FloriDaDa
Although “FloriDaDa” was technically released as a single at the end of 2015, I’m including it here because it’s from the album Painting With, released in February 2016. “FloriDaDa” has a manic energy to it, thanks to its pounding drums, copious synthesizer effects, and hurried vocals that alternate between members Avey Tare and Panda Bear. It also includes a sample of that weird laugh from the surf song “Wipe Out” at one point, and its lyrics were inspired by people making fun of Florida’s weirdness, which the band says is “part of the charm of it.” Most notably though, “FloriDada” shows Animal Collective’s ability to make a good pop song without losing its distinct style, a trend started with 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the album, which you can read more about here.
- Band of Horses – Casual Party
While 2016 was full of ups and downs, we could at least count on Band of Horses for their consistency. Why Are You OK pulled few surprises, perhaps with the exception of its seven-minute opening track “Dull Times/The Moon,” an unprecedented length for the band (and also worth checking out!). Otherwise, the album was Band of Horses at their horsiest, including the single “Casual Party.” Does it sound like other Band of Horses songs? Yes. Is it still an awesome song? Absolutely. It combines all of the American-style rockin’ that the band is known for (this time slickly produced by Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle) with introverted lyrics about wanting to leave the small talk of a mediocre party and just go home. It’s among the best songs the band’s done, and serves as a great introduction to their music. You can read more about Why Are You OK here.
- Kishi Bashi – Say Yeah
Kaoru Ishibashi’s third album Sonderlust was a significant departure from his previous releases, partially because it was a tale of heartbreak instead of upbeat melodies, but most noticeably because it toned down his signature violin loops in favor of synthesizers and electronic elements. This is most prominently heard on “Say Yeah,” where dotted synth notes create a simple, sweet melody as drum beats gradually enter and subtle violin lines mimic Ishibashi’s voice. A flute solo appears toward the end of the song, which I totally wasn’t expecting during the first listen, and really makes the track a standout. All the while, Isbhibashi is pleading for “one last chance as your lover,” summing up the general tone of the album. You can read more about Sonderlust here.
- Islands – No Milk No Sugar
Islands released two albums on the same day this year – the short and simple Should I Remain Here At Sea? and the more electronic Taste. Both had their merits and several strong tracks, but “No Milk, No Sugar” from Taste emerged as an early favorite. The track’s instrumentation relies on drum machine beats and synthesizer melodies like much of the rest of Taste, but the bass line and subtle guitar on “No Milk, No Sugar” are nice added touches. It essentially sounds like a dance track that was slowed down, and frontman Nick Diamonds’ plainly-spoken verses like “we need new lovers” fit the song’s downbeat tone. You can read more about Should I Remain Here At Sea? and Taste here.
- Two Door Cinema Club – Je Viens De La
If you look past the fact that Two Door Cinema Club’s debut Tourist History arrived when there was already a glut of dance-infused indie rock, it’s an excellent album that distinguishes itself from the pack. The same unfortunately cannot be said of their latest effort, Gameshow, which is solidly in the center of the pack of radio-friendly rock. However, the album closes on a high note with the sublime “Je Viens De La,” a no-holds barred disco rock song that features Daft Punk-esque guitars and dance beats. Singer Alex Trimble, who’s somewhat restrained on the rest of the album, goes into a fiery falsetto at the chorus just as the tempo picks up. It’s the definite highlight of Gameshow, which you can read more about here.
- Metronomy – Old Skool
After releasing two albums with a full band, Metronomy’s album Summer 08 was essentially a solo project by frontman Joseph Mount. The album leans toward electro-funk a la Chromeo in several parts, which is surprising given that Metronomy usually make some of the mildest synthpop out there. Epitomizing this shift is the single “Old Skool,” which prominently features drum machine snares and bass grooves that provide the melody. The bass, beats, and intermittent synthesizer notes give it enough of a retro feel to make the title seem appropriate, yet the real highlight of the song is the excellent turntable work done by none other than frequent Beastie Boys collaborator Mix Master Mike. Mount’s lyrics about the banality of getting rich and partying (make some money, make more money/with your new friends, throw a party) provide a fairly amusing contrast to the fact that it actually sounds like a party song too. You can read more about Summer 08 here.
- Yeasayer – Silly Me
Because Yeasayer are Yeasayer, you can expect any new album to be sufficiently weird. Amen & Goodbye exceeded these expectations, shifting between pleasantly experimental electronic tracks and “what the hell am I listening to?” Yet amidst all the eccentricity is “Silly Me,” a relatively straightforward synthpop song that stands out due to its accessibility. Its lyrics spin a simple self-deprecating tale of a failed relationship, an unexpected way to follow to a song that namedrops an entire chemical formula. After all, Yesayer did gain a significant following from the pop-styled “Ambling Alp” and “O.N.E.” on their second album Odd Blood, so it’s good to see they can still make comparably infectious tracks. You can read more about Amen & Goodbye here.
- The Last Shadow Puppets – Aviation
The Last Shadow Puppets combine the talents of Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner and former Rascals frontman Miles Kane to create noticeably 60s-inspired rock. Their debut album The Age of the Understatement came out all the way back in 2008, and has remained a personal favorite of mine (as far as indie side projects go). This made it somewhat disappointing when new album Everything You’ve Come to Expect didn’t live up to expectations (no pun intended) after eight years of waiting. Only opening track “Aviation” had everything I wanted from the band: twangy guitars, a string section arranged by the brilliant Owen Pallett, and a general feel that this could have been a James Bond theme song. It’s one of the few songs on the album buttressed by both Kane and Turner’s vocals in unison, with the remainder exclusively showcasing one or the other. It also features one of the best music videos I’ve seen this year, and has impressively high-vocabulary lyrics that include the term “sectoral heterochromia.” You can read more about Everything You’ve Come to Expect here.
- Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – A 1000 Times
If you don’t recognize the names above, Hamilton Leithauser is the lead singer of indie rock band the Walkmen while Rostam Batmanglij is a former member of Vampire Weekend, best known for playing keyboard and producing their albums. They combined forces to make I Had a Dream that You Were Mine, which showcases Leithauser’s powerful vocal range over Batmanglij’s doo-wop and retro-pop instrumentals. It’s a pretty good album from end to end, yet opening track “A 1000 Times” seems to overshadow everything else on it. Opening with gentle piano notes as Leithauser softly sings the album title, it quickly builds as drumming is introduced and the piano gives way to synthesized organ while Leithauser passionately belts each verse. His vocals feature several incredible dynamic shifts throughout, culminating in a chorus where he shouts the song’s title over and over to hammer in the song’s message of yearning. The track highlights the best features of both the Walkmen and Vampire Weekend. I recommend it even if you’re not a fan of either.