The 50 Something or Other Songs of 2016: Part 3

After getting through the first forty songs of Rolling Stone's Best 50 Songs of 2016 list, and with a mere ten left to go, it had become most apparent that I have stuck strongly to my guns in regards to my favorite genres of music, and had grown little in the way of generating warmth toward those that I considered beneath my notice.

This is somewhat of an inverse effect to my personal politics, where I have grown increasingly more liberal since my teenage years; I was always rebellious against authority since my earliest days, but my mind was shaped, to my detriment, by the continuing prejudices of the time in which I was raised (mostly the '70s) and the older books and movies which I devoured eagerly. I found increasing influence all around me, however, thanks to my eagerness to learn from history's mistakes (not recreate them) and my understanding that if the human world is ever going to truly move away from "caveman" status, one's mindset must always look to the future in a progressive manner. Only the most backward-longing simpleton (i.e, Sean Hannity) doesn't evolve with the times that he inhabits, and part of living beyond being such a noxious creature, one must adopt and cultivate a widened acceptance of not just changing societal norms, but also the arts that derive and evolve within the changing times.

Part 1:
Part 2:

This does not mean that I just roll over and spread 'em for any song with a good backbeat. I demand more from my music than danceability. Hell, danceability is not even a factor, since I hate dancing (my own, that is), but that doesn't mean I don't recognize a good dance tune if I hear it. There are two very distinct sides to my personality in regards to music. The first prefers richly detailed lyrics laden with emotional impact, social importance, and cleverness, not necessarily in that order, nor all inclusive in a single song; the other weaker side has a great tolerance for even the dopiest of novelty numbers, music that if it were turned into a font, would definitely be represented by Comic Sans. (I blame Dr. Demento, but only jokingly, for this side of me.) That these two sides thrive in me is vexing at times; both are certainly affected by the other. And both sides still exist outside of the rule that says if I simply like the way a song sounds, then so be it.

The Top Ten of this list found some interesting challenges for me, only one of them involving mannequins. (Well, maybe two or three, depending on your view of the artists themselves.) One last time, if you wish to go along with me, the link to the original Rolling Stone story with music videos and song samples is:


The 50 Something or Other Songs of 2016: Part 3

#10 - Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane, "Black Beatles"
Heard of the artist? Sort of.
Own any of their music? Nope.
Heard this song? Could you escape it? Neither could I.
Would you purchase this song? A solid maybe.

If, like me, you have been subjected (or have subjected yourself) to the myriad videos that sprang up in the no-consequence cause of the Mannequin Challenge in 2016, then you have found yourself listening to Black Beatles by Rae Sremmurd. Not only did the internet go crazy for the latest craze in viral video styling by giving birth to dozens and dozens of short clips where groups of people froze in place doing all manner of in-jokes or silly actions while a camera continues to move in often swirling fashion through the crowd or labyrinthian design, but Black Beatles is the music used in the vast majority of the videos. (Strangely enough, it is not used in the original video as far as I can tell, in fact, no music is used at all.)

It has been nearly impossible to avoid these videos since October of last year, and I will admit that I have grown enamored at the increasingly complicated variations on the initial form. I will also admit that I had no idea what the music used in the videos was nor who created it until deep into the run of these videos. Not until near end of 2016, when I read that Paul McCartney had done his own Mannequin Challenge and saw his video. (Macca is name-checked in the final chorus of the song.) His tweet for the challenge was "Love those Black Beatles," which had me scrambling for why he said it. Looking up the phrase on Google, I found the video for Rae Sremmurd and heard the full song for the first time.

I am not going to lie. I like this song. Even as an arguably overplayed and overused earworm, I firmly believe that Black Beatles caught on because it is, at the heart of things, a fun, clever song. Of course, any 30-second section of any song could have made its way into the Mannequin Challenge videos and been used over and over again. It might just be sheer luck it was Black Beatles that was employed. That takes nothing away from the track. "Haters mad for whatever reason"... not me. I am just trying to find my spot at the party...

#9 - LVL UP, "Pain"
Heard of the artist? Nope.
Own any of their music? Not yet.
Heard this song? Nope.
Would you purchase this song? Dead certain.

LVL UP is definitely right in the ballpark for me, but while Rolling Stone brings up the name of the late Elliott Smith in the vocals, I get more Doug Martsch of Built to Spill from it, not just in the vox but in the structure of the lyrics before the song spends its last 2½ minutes building towards its fireworks and feedback-strewn guitar climax. “Where is the one you love/Who loved you unconditionally/And who you need?” sings lead guitarist Mike Caridi, and it is a sentiment most of us would probably never admit to thinking but to which we are all predisposed in our lowest moments. Based on this song alone, I wanted to buy the album. Then I watched a live performance of this song and three others on KEXP's YouTube page (something I have since done for some other new artists on this list to get a more rounded feel for their work), and came away knowing this album is now an absolute must for me. It may harken back to an older sound that makes me nostalgic for other bands, but this song is comfort food for my ears. It is too early to tell if this band can carve out their own full style from the remainder of their album, but sometimes comfort food is just what you need. It will do for the moment.

#8 - Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign, "Work from Home"
Heard of the artist? Nope.
Own any of their music? Nope.
Heard this song? Absolutely.
Would you purchase this song? Nope, but in a better world it could be my theme song.

Another one that I have heard in the gym numerous times now. While there is certainly a double entendre within the title statement, unlike Grande's Side by Side, there were no lyrics for me at which to gasp when I finally watching the video that caused me to suddenly lose my mind even thinking about hearing the song on my next trip to the gym. The subject matter is pretty obvious and there is very little to this song at all. Fairly tame, innocuous product that adds up to very little in my estimation. It gets you through the workout – even the workout from home – nothing more. 

#7 - Solange, "Cranes in the Sky"
Heard of the artist? Isn’t she the Knowles with the better pipes?
Own any of her music? Actually, no, but technically, yes.
Heard this song? Yes.
Would you purchase this song? Not my usual jam. It’s nice though… hmm… wait. This might be worthwhile.

Even without radio, I learned about Cranes in the Sky before this list came along by listening to its featured episode on a podcast I frequently explore called Song Exploder. I don't download every episode of the show, but I listened to this one based on a passing interest in what Solange was doing now. My immediate impulse was that this is simply a lovely sounding song. It does not contain the imagery I was expecting based on the impression I initially summoned up due to its title. I assumed co-songwriter Solange was going for the obvious metaphor based around the beautiful flight of marsh birds, but these cranes – the kind that make her curse the "metal clouds" – are more of the sky-filling construction type that can clutter up a bustling city, which served to crush her spirit when she was trying to find peace within herself in a place which she had previously considered her comfort zone. By the song’s second half, she is no closer to actual peace of mind, but the song settles your soul knowing that she is going to figure this out eventually, cranes or no cranes, metal or otherwise. 

#6 - PWR BTTM, "Projection"
Heard of the artist? Nope.
Own any of their music? Not yet.
Heard this song? Nope.
Would you purchase this song? Another dead on certainty.

The second group in this list (and in the Top 10) to use abbreviations that are presented in all caps, PWR BTTM is great fun to hear. I guessed the band's affiliation from their name, though that is never easy with bands. (Remember how The Queers weren't actually gay? At least they denied it...) You can decide whether that such matters are important or not based on your own ease with the subject; for me, knowing where PWR BTTM is coming from is a biographical detail that is important in deciphering the emotional angles within their lyrics. PWR BTTM's songs are punky, poppy, and energetic in equal measure, but Projection requires that you know of vocalist/guitarist Ben Hopkins' discomfort in a world others accept as commonplace when he sings about his skin not being "made for this weather." Without a visual reference to the band (they are not actually seen in the accompanying video), you cannot tell just how outrageously PWR BTTM seeks to push the buttons of its presumably largely straight audience. Hopkins revels in covering his face to extreme lengths in wild, thick theatrical makeup, while drummer/vocalist Liv Bruce tones that look down with merely wearing lipstick, but tends to wear dresses onstage just as his bandmate does. In other songs, the pair have a lot of fun swapping pronouns around to throw the audience, but it is done far more sincerely and fun than when Prince used to tease the world with it occasionally in his earlier works. None of this flair for outrage really distracts from the fact that the duo rocks much harder than you would expect. It is too early to call this, but I feel there could be a possibility PWR BTTM's early stuff could catch on with succeeding generations of teenagers much like the first Violent Femmes album.

#5 - Kanye West, "Ultralight Beam"
Heard of the artist? Sadly, yes.
Own any of his music? The guy is an ass.
Heard this song? On Saturday Night Live.
Would you purchase this song? Pretty song, but I am not going to support this fool, musically or politically.

Despite my better instincts, this is at its heart a gorgeous song, very well-produced and lyrically intriguing. I just have a massive problem with Kanye in real life. I was just fine with our first black president, and will be just fine with a second and a third when the time arrives. And hopefully one or both of those presidents will either be women or gay. But I am not ready for our first Black Trump. I have been told by people whose opinions I respect otherwise (or used to respect in a rather extreme example) how Kanye is one of their favorite artists, and that he has released some of the greatest albums ever. And I have heard other songs of his over the years where I felt like he was, at least in a production sense, pushing boundaries and beats that were above the usual standard. Likewise, I had seen him on TV where I felt that the performance aspect (in a theatrical sense) was innovative or well done. But as a rapper, he has not impressed me at all, and I even came to believe on some songs that he mainly grunted "Uh" and "Yeah" to a relentless degree while other guest artists spit out the actual rhymes. Well before the whole Kardashian debacle, I was of the belief that West was just another of those toddler-men of which Trump is now the not-so-shining example: adult males who cannot take the slightest criticism, throw it back in sophomoric threats and argumentative gibberish, and speak only in self-possessed superlatives and hyperbolic claims. All of this erodes away the good will built by my first statement about this song, which admitted that it is a beautiful work, even if atheist me doesn't give a single crap about it being "a God dream". I am more than willing to hear Kanye sing about his invisible deity, and I will respect his artistic and personal vision... just don't make me have to deal with it in a goddamn voting booth come 2020.

#4  - David Bowie, "No Plan"
Heard of the artist? He is (and was, dammit) everything.
Own any of his music? The bulk of it (not nearly as much as Aaron though…)
Heard this song? Yes, sir.
Would you purchase this song? Got it.

Like many people, especially my buddy Aaron, I am still nursing a bad existential hangover from the death of Bowie early last year. It really did feel like the game was over for all of the universe. Sure, you can look at celebrity deaths throughout the remainder of the year and blame it on all a specific number, or that they all felt that the world was going to take a bad turn so they were getting out while they could (which doesn't make a lick of sense because you can take yourself out of the game anytime that you'd like), or any number of conspiracy theories. Celebrities die all the time, just like regular people, and we take losing certain ones worse than others. Bowie's death was a Jim Henson-level of loss and pain for me. It was suddenly not having someone who had been a figure in your life for so long you had started to take them for granted. I could barely summon the words then and they are hard to get out now. Part of me wants to not accept it and simply pretend he is still with us.

Which is not how the man faced the end of his life, nor would he want us to do so. Artists certainly do live on through their work, but it is a bit maddening to know we won't have brand new albums from Bowie moving forward. Supposedly, his final new studio recordings (there will be years of older ones coming out eventually it is rumored) are included in the Original Cast Recording of his stage show, Lazarus; three new songs and a reworking of another one that have been tacked onto the end of the Lazarus disc but are of a piece with his final full album, Blackstar (released two days before his death). The songs have also been put out on a separate EP titled No Plan, the title song of which we are discussing here. The song has Bowie seemingly floating through some sort of ether or afterlife, but the nebulousness of its description raises more questions than his journey answers. "Here, there's no music here/I’m lost in streams of sound/Here, am I nowhere now?” sounds like a man who knows he is about to move on, but to what and where, he has no clear conception... no plan, as it were. He doesn't sound scared, but he does sound uncertain, as if he regrets never having really considered the situation at length until now. "All of the things that are my life/My desire, my beliefs, my moods/Here is my place without a plan" he concedes, eventually closing the discussion with "This is no place, but here I am/This is not quite yet". Bowie spent his last months in the studio possibly being more open and confessional than he has ever been, and yet, the chill from the music still keeps the beloved artist at arm's length as ever, always keeping us guessing.

#3 - Drake feat. Wizkid, Kyla, "One Dance"
Heard of the artist? Can’t escape him these days.
Own any of his music? Nuthin’.
Heard this song? Yes, on SNL.
Would you purchase this song? Nope.

I have only heard (well, actually seen and heard) this song on Saturday Night Live. It was a brave performance, considering Drake is a surprisingly shitty dancer. Those boots couldn’t help, but he (or his Borg-like commitment to fashion) chooses to wear them; at least he let the booty girls take it over for most of the bit. The song itself is pretty catchy and low-key, and really kind of nice. Top 50 nice? Not sure about that, but to each their own.

#2 - Frank Ocean, "Ivy"
Heard of the artist? One of the most interesting artists out there.
Own any of his music? Yes.
Heard this song? Yes.
Would you purchase this song? Been on my "to buy" list for a bit.

I bought into Frank Ocean a few years ago when I bought his first album on the recommendation of several critics that I listened to at the time. This particular track was almost a disqualification because of the Spotify sample track provided in the Rolling Stone article (like with Kendrick Lamar), but I was able to give a full listen to Ivy on a video someone placed on Vimeo (though I had heard the song before). I find Ocean to be one of the more interesting artists in pop music today, and there will come a time when I will not hesitate to purchase his latest album. (That time is not right now, being so money-deprived as I am.) Ivy is a sharply edged but strikingly quiet tune about a love that never quite worked out, which Ocean reflects on in disjointed fashion, the feel of the song almost like a hazy memory cloud that never fully becomes clear in the mind but that still hurts as hard as it ever did. Over a marvelous circular guitar riff that almost has a steel drum quality to it, Frank sings, “If I could see through walls/I could see you're faking/If you could see my thoughts/You would see our faces/Safe in my rental like an armored truck back then/We didn't give a fuck back then," and then the key lines hit: "I ain't a kid no more/We'll never be those kids again." The biggest and saddest truths hit hard in dual fashion near the end of that verse: “Everything sucked back then/We were friends.” This is a pop song with a haunting, longing sting.

#1 - Beyoncé, "Formation"
Heard of the artist? Queen Bey. Not really a fan, but I recognize her importance.
Own any of her music? Just a band called The Genuine Fakes covering her.
Heard this song? Of course.
Would you purchase this song? Don’t need to. It’s everywhere. Not my thing anyway.

Saw her do this at the Super Bowl. Saw her do this in the video. She is Beyonce. She is the Queen of America (but, no, Jay-Z is not king). It has a cool springy synthesizer hook. She name-checks the Jackson Five, she takes her man's ass to Red Lobster (for services rendered properly), and she scares every jittery white idiot in our half-dopey country with her unapologetic attitude regarding both her heritage and her womanhood. And she slays and slays and slays. Formation is not meant for me, but not every song has to be meant for me. And I still think it is just dandy, though I have no reason to own it. This woman just simply slays... what don't you get yet? Deal with it, pink boy!


So, where does that leave us? The final tally for Round 3:

Total number of songs this round: 10
Songs I have heard before: 8
Songs that I own already: 1
Loved: 2 | Liked: 6 | OK to Meh: 2 | Hated: 0
Songs that I plan to purchase: 3

Combined with the totals from Rounds 1 and 2, we see the full picture of this journey:

Total number of songs so far: 50
Songs I have heard before: 19
Songs that I own already: 5
Loved: 13 | Liked: 20 | OK to Meh: 11 | Hated: 5 | Couldn’t Rate: 1
Songs that I plan to purchase: 21

Last year, I had planned to definitely purchase 14 songs with 8 others considered as "maybes"; this year, I did away with the maybe category and just flatly stated that the number of purchases is around the same total number: 21. This might be the result of staying a little more perceptive throughout 2016 to the casual music I was encountering just in case it showed up on the next annual list, but the big thing for me is that I heard 19 of the 50 songs previously during the year (or even just after, in the case of the gym-bound tracks), where I had only heard 13 in 2015, with 3 wishy-washy maybes as a supplement. I also hated outright more tracks this year than last, 5 to 2, though my loves and likes were greater as well, a combined 33 to last year's 28.

Well, that's my version of the Rolling Stone list. I have now heard a lot of music I either ignored totally or never encountered before, and I have discovered a slew of new bands to explore in coming months. And I am even more excited about doing the list for 2017. Hopefully, when it is released by the magazine at the end of November, I will not be in as much pain as last November. 


Aaron Lowe said…
Surprisingly, I have not yet listened to No Plan. I got Lazarus for Amber this last Christmas, but she hasn't opened it yet (if I was struck hard by Bowie's passing, Amber was hit tenfold). I refuse to open and use her Christmas gift first.

And I'll be another of your friends who sticks up, moderately, for Kanye. I think he's a horrendous asshole and I never want to hear from him publicly again, but I do own several albums and think they're pretty great. Not favorites, but still really solid.

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