It seems just like yesterday we were counting down the best of 2016, and now we’re a month into the new year. We managed to make it 31 days without a major surprise release, but considering the current state of the US, it was probably wise for musicians to keep from trying to steal the spotlight.
If you want to put the month’s 10 best songs in perspective, let’s first take a look at everything that didn’t make the list. We’re talking about cuts from new albums by the likes of Japandroids, Ty Segall, The Flaming Lips, and Brian Eno. We’re talking about our first taste of new music in years from artists like Real Estate, Pharmakon, Jamiroquai, and Goldfrapp.
We’re talking about a pair of songs with particularly relevant social commentary from Father John Misty and a pair of masterful cuts from Dirty Projectors that are building anticipation for each of their new albums. We’re talking about particularly strong material from relatively unknown acts like Crystal Fairy, Stef Chura, and Sneaks.
And that doesn’t even touch on two of the biggest songs released during the year’s first month, new songs from Arcade Fire and Gorillaz that failed to match our high expectations for either band. It was a reminder of how easy it is to be blinded by good will when your favorites return with good music, and hopefully those are more filler than an actual indication of what their next albums will sound like.
The 10 songs we’ve chosen range from No. 1 hits to album deep cuts, spanning the genres of rap, rock, and R&B. For one act, it’s their first new song in 22 years, and for others, it’s just one of many that we could have included. It’s a markedly strong start for the year, enough so that we’ll be lucky if it continues at this pace.
10. Mount Eerie – “Real Death”
To truly, deeply, knowingly accept the loss of a life isn’t about understanding you won’t see someone again, but remaining aware of the excess space in the world now that the person disappeared. Yet, we grapple with it even though we know their death will never sink in; it becomes accepted, at best, but never fully understood. After Phil Elverum’s wife and collaborator, Geneviève, passed away from cancer, he placed himself behind a microphone and tried to make sense of the slowness swallowing him whole on “Real Death”, a song whose aching pace trembles like a heart monitor and wheezing guitar exhales like the breaths he knows he must take if only to keep the love for her alive. To mourn the loss of someone is to profess your love in a way that hurts because that love can’t be received. Hearing the Mount Eerie frontman detail that very pain — noting the absence of her presence in a room, opening a gift she ordered for their daughter that arrives in the mail after she passed, writing music about loss with the expectation of learning something — is hard to hear not because it illustrates the difficulties of facing death, but because it makes you feel that, and, for many of us, it means reliving the aching pain you learned to repackage into a manageable size long ago. —Nina Corcoran
09. Slowdive – “Star Roving”
New music had been part of the plan for Slowdive from the onset of their reunion in 2014. And after a long wait, that’s finally manifested in the form of the deliciously dreamy “Star Roving”. The band announced the track from their Facebook page with “a certain trepidation,” but that feeling doesn’t show at all, a super-astral wash of glittering guitar, hazy vocals, and lyrics about blinking light, floating kites, and “my girl.” Rachel Goswell’s breezy backing vocals and angelic oohs on the bridge perfectly pair with fellow vocalist/guitarist Neil Halstead’s bronzey glow on the verses. The song feels like a Rather Ripped Sonic Youth cut, only puffed and fluffy, soft and comfortable. “Star Roving” is their first new song in about 20 years, and yet they sound fresh and on top of their game, a good sign for the “bunch of new tracks” they’ve apparently been working on. –Lior Phillips
08. Sampha – “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”
In 2010, British singer-songwriter Sampha found out that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer. He moved back home not long later, essentially becoming her primary caregiver. And under that grief, he returned to the piano in his childhood home, an instrument that had given him comfort and creative outlet years prior and was doing so again. Sadly, Sampha’s mother passed away not long ago; just prior to that, he crafted the remarkable “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, describing the instrument as an old friend, a guardian angel, a safety in the chaos of loss. Sampha clearly felt as if he had something so important to say that he needed it to ring true and clear, his gorgeous, layered voice backed softly but sturdily by that piano. In so doing, the heart and soul with which he sings are palpable, making you feel as if he’s capable of snapping yours in half as his does the same. The slight vibrato in his voice could be stylistic or merely the tremor of sadness. “You took hold of me and never, never, never let me go,” he sings, the lone chords bracing him and keeping him up. –Lior Phillips
07. Jay Som – “The Bus Song”
At 22 years old, Bay Area songwriter Melina Duterte sees the world with the viewpoint of someone who’s lived, lost, and grown measurably sometime between the two. She filters wishful pop through lo-fi folk under her Jay Som moniker, but instead of filling her music with sighs, she remains hopeful, and “The Bus Song” allows her to build a cinematic crescendo about exactly that. While she pines for a third party (“And I just want you to need me/ And I just want you to lead me… Take time to figure it out”), Jay Som creates an arc that urges the listener not to give up. Last year’s gorgeous full-length, Turn Into, remains a ripe listen of fall-flavored folk, but with “The Bus Song”, she prepares us for a new collection of songs to get us through the blistery year ahead, even if the weather doesn’t match the political climate that’s giving us chills. —Nina Corcoran
06. Aimee Mann – “Goose Snow Cone”
Five years and one Ted Leo collaboration later, Aimee Mann returns sounding more elegantly melancholy than ever. Her first single, “Goose Snow Cone”, serves as the opening track off her forthcoming solo album, Mental Illness, and it’s just as depressing as the title of the new record. “I assume the brief on me is that people think that I write these really depressing songs,” the all-too-self-aware singer-songwriter explained in a press release. “So if they thought that my songs were very down-tempo, very depressing, very sad, and very acoustic, I thought I’d just give myself permission to write the saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they’re-all-waltzes-so-be-it record I could.” Having heard the entire record, she certainly delivered on that conceit, as Mental Illness collects 11 of her most somber tracks in over a decade. Consider “Goose Snow Cone” a wintry harbinger of things to come, one that perfectly captures everyone’s feelings right now as she sings: “I could pick up the pace, but I couldn’t go on/ I just wanted a place, but I ended up gone.” Think of it like a cold pillow in an uncomfortably warm room. –Michael Roffman
05. Ryan Adams – “Doomsday”
It’s hard to single out the best track off Ryan Adams’ Prisoner. From beginning to end, the whole thing works like a Scotch-taped scrapbook of jumbled memories that all circle around the same topic: heartbreak. “Doomsday” comes pretty damn close, though. “My love, we can do better than this,” Adams pines. “My love, how can you complicate a kiss? My love, do you love me now ’til doomsday comes/ ‘Til doomsday comes.” It’s all about the repetition on this one, specifically how Adams keeps saying “My love…” again and again as if he’s stranded outside, knocking on the door in an attempt to evade the ensuing storm. There’s a desperation in his voice that hasn’t been heard since Adams’ 2004 album, Love Is Hell, and it’s enlightened by a sound and production style that Springsteen might have used sometime between the late ’80s and early ’90s. You know, back when The Boss was navigating similar waters with 1987’s Tunnel of Love and 1992’s Human Touch. It’s hardly a disguise for Adams, but it’s certainly brilliant. –Michael Roffman
04. Cloud Nothings – “Enter Entirely”
A typical Cloud Nothings song resides in the awkward space between adolescence and adulthood, where the thrashing energies of youth collide with a creeping disappointment that whatever comes next isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. That collision has never resonated so acutely as it does on the group’s new single, “Enter Entirely”, in which frontman Dylan Baldi sounds like he’s stranded on a boat somewhere in the middle of that large body of water pictured on the cover of new LP Life Without Sound. “I thought I knew what I could be,” he sings, before adding on a dejected postscript: “And now I’m there.” Despite Baldi’s own personal stasis, “Entire Entirely” finds his band moving onward and upward, sounding more and more like one of those iconic Pacific-Northwest bands that producer John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney, Death Cab for Cutie) made his name on. Disappointment may be a main theme here, but it’s ultimately drowned out by the jubilant catharsis of guitars and drums. Growing up rarely sounds this painful or this thrilling. –Collin Brennan
03. Migos – “Bad and Boujee”
Just because a song reaches ubiquity doesn’t mean it is great. But for Migos, and their massive hit “Bad and Boujee”, it’s a case of the right song finding its audience. Sure, when the song was released in October, all the track’s potential wasn’t immediately apparent, but by December, it became a fixture of memes, showing up in social media statuses and awards show acceptance speeches on its way to the top of the Hot 100. Migos came into the public consciousness as potential stars, riding a unique (and ultimately influential) flow to become one of the most revered outfits in hip-hop before they saw out-of-genre success. Now with “Bad and Boujee”, and their new album, Culture, released this month, the resume becomes complete, asserting Migos as the important group in rap that we’ve all known they were for years. –Philip Cosores
02. The xx – “I Dare You”
If someone were to ask what The xx are about, as musicians or as people, turning to “I Dare You” might be the best way to investigate. In it, Romy Madley Croft proclaims, “I’ve been a romantic for so long/ All I’ve ever heard are love songs,” as she duets with her counterpart Oliver Sim, putting a finger directly on the aesthetic the trio strike when they get in the same room. It’s music for the hopelessly romantic, for people who value the connection with others as primary in the human experience. It’s music for people who view every trip out of the house, every stray contact with a stranger as a potential to find love, to witness love, or to understand love. The xx have rarely been accused of standing up for something, but on “I Dare You” they draw a line in the sand and dare us all to see the world from their eyes. –Philip Cosores
01. Spoon – “Hot Thoughts”
It’s easy to forget that Spoon’s been doing this shit since 1993. Yes, back when Sam Neill and Laura Dern were running away from dinosaurs, vocalist and guitarist Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno were just getting together in some Austin, Texas, garage. So, you could imagine how hard it’s gotta be to keep coming up with new ideas this far into the game, especially when the game’s become less about success and more about survival. But Spoon always make it look easy, and there’s hardly been a moment in their long, storied career where they’ve been anything short of exemplary. Reason being, Daniel is an old-school songwriter, and he’s very meticulous about his sound. “Hot Thoughts”, the opening title track to their ninth studio album, keeps that trend alive with all sorts of bells and whistles that scream of a reinvention. It’s sexy, it’s saucy, and it’s soulful. When things break down and Daniel sings, “Raise up my creatures/ Diamonds from space/ Pure facets and features/ That drag drug from your lips,” he’s no longer speaking from Texas, but somewhere way out on Mars. It’s the freakiest show. –Michael Roffman