I’ll try to make this mercifully short, for those who’ve been around a while and just want to know what are the picks for 2016 songs.
Skeleton at the Feast is an annual mix disc I make for friends as a sort of Christmas gift. As an old music writer, I’m still in the habit of collecting a lot of music, and I’ve been curating what I think are the year’s best songs for a half-dozen years now. For more on this practice/habit/obsession, read my first post about it. And if you’re curious, you can still check out the last few years’ listings.
Let’s get straight to the music, eh?:
- Birds of Chicago – “Barley”
Saw them live last spring at Over the Rhine’s Nowhere Else Festival on Memorial Day weekend. You should see them, too.
- Astronautalis – “Running Away from God”
I used to say Astronautalis is what Moby would be if Moby were more influenced by rap than R&B. But, dang, that doesn’t do Astronautalis justice, though. This song is about post-Katrina New Orleans — hence the ambulance with high-water marks — and ends with his saying, “That’s a true story.”
- case/lang/veirs – “Georgia Stars”
I adore Neko Case and k.d. lang, so I was stunned that Laura Veirs’ song turned out to be my favorite on this team project.
- Drive-By Truckers – “What It Means”
Mike Cooley’s “Surrender Under Protest” may actually be a finer cut from this strong outing, but Patterson Hood’s journalism on this song gave it the nod.
- Beyoncé – “Freedom”
I was leaning toward Bey’s “Daddy Lessons,” but Jenn swayed me to this one. Both are, in a twisted way, about grrrl power.
- Okkervil River – “Call Yourself Renee”
This album feels like a rebirth for O.R.
- Weezer – “Jacked Up”
Beyoncé and Weezer on an album of allegedly little-heard songs? Shaddup and give this a listen. You’ll thank me.
- Car Seat Headrest – “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)”
Maybe my favorite record of the year. Sometimes he sounds like Ray Davies fronting Pavement. Sometimes he sounds like Lou Reed maybe didn’t die.
- Wilco – “Nope”
Several great songs on Wilco’s latest, loosest, “Abbey-Roadest” record, which sounds like they might not have ever not been high when recording it. For us, that’s a good thing
- Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – “Perfect Time”
Who knew that when the band lost the strong vocals of Jade, it would lead to their strongest set of songs, lyrically and musically. This is the album that doesn’t feel like a gimmick. It’s like an alt-rock “What’s Going On.”
- Felice Brothers – “Aerosol Ball”
Is every tooth in Duluth really Baby-Ruth-proof?
- Avett Brothers – “Satan Pulls the Strings”
For years I railed that the Avetts were being overproduced. But this album’s even more produced than their last two, and it’s better for it.
- Shearwater – “Backchannels”
The warmest song on a beautiful, icy record that reminds me of ’70s-era Peter Gabriel.
- Cage the Elephant – “Cold, Cold, Cold”
I literally could’ve picked any song off this record. Ain’t no rest for these wicked boys.
- James – “Nothing But Love”
I’m not sure anyone but Tim Booth could spit out an innocuous phrase like “nothing but love” with as much acid.
- Jamie T – “Solomon Eagle”
Solomon Eagle was a real man — a Quaker, a practitioner of civil disobedience, and enemy of organized religion. And if Jamie T. is right, also more than a little cray-cray.
- Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – “Distant Sky”
If you don’t know the backstory behind Cave’s latest record, you’re on your own. This song makes me cry.
- Kevin Morby – “I Have Been to the Mountain”
The bass groove makes it. So does the video.
- Joe Purdy – “New Year’s Eve”
Purdy’s album was written a full year ago, but it’s like he saw the post-election future. Jenn and I saw him open for Glen Hansard last fall, and when I heard the line, “Power means nothing in a world without love,” I knew it was destined to land on this year’s disc.
Even more exposition!
Here are the liner notes I included for the people who received physical copies of the disc:
Usually I write some witty banter about the collection of the year’s songs here. This year I decided to let the songs do the talking. What follows are all pieces of the lyrics, and, because I’m a geek, they’re in the same order as they appear on the disc.
When we’re choosing Skeleton selections, the music is always the guiding principle, not the lyrics. And the same goes for ordering the songs on the disc; what sounds good following the song before it, what changes the pace a little, that sort of thing.
So it’s always more than a little freaky to see the final selections form a narrative. Strength and defiance in the face of wrong, giving way to despair, but ending with even more determination — that’s sort of what I read into this. But seriously, they say it better than I do:
The dark before the dawn breaks, it will not bind me.1 They don’t need no magic just to make this happen. Make out, make due, make the best of what you got, and turn the volume up till it shakes the rafters. We make our own disasters.2
Georgia, Georgia, can you hear me calling in the grave, alone in fields all frozen?3 We’re living in an age where limitations are forgotten. The outer edges move and dazzle us, but the core is something rotten.4
I’ma wade through the waters — tell the tide, “Don’t move.” … I’ma riot through your borders — call me bulletproof. Lord forgive me, I’ve been runnin’, runnin’ blind in truth.5 And me, I don’t care if I come back as a single wave, or an oriole on a spell branch on a tree, ’cause I’m not scared to die as long as I know that the universe has something really to do with me.6
You’re the sun that I’m orbiting. I burn in your heat. Supernova and cosmic dust, you spawn galaxies.7 And there was one guy there who kept asking me, “How does it feel?” and I didn’t even know how to begin to answer that question.8 Why kill a man when you can drive him crazy? Why make it end when my amusement always depends on the joke? Won’t you lend me my punchline?9 Whatever colors you wear, they are gonna bleed someday, some rainbow day. We’ll have the perfect time.10 Come sit on my lap in a Phrygian cap. I’ve been looking for a mix of sex and politics.11
When the winter yields to summertime, the whip-poor-will she sings. My heart is in the puppet box, and Satan pulls the strings.12 It pulls a thread of slowly unraveling days, annihilates your mother tongue, your only light. But hold this sound. Follow it all the way. And put down the knife.13 It’s cold, cold, cold — cold inside. Darker in the day than the dead of night.14
Nothing but love flushes hearts from hiding. Deeper we dive, nowhere to hide. Earthquake, avalanche and goodbye.15 Though I love you, I will leave you, and I leave you in the desert hot sand. I’ll introduce you to the Devil, and the Devil he will take you by the hand.16 They told us our gods would outlive us. They told us our dreams would outlive us. They told us our gods would outlive us. But they lied.17
Calling out, demanding answers. Pleading skies cry for hours, dropping peace bombs, collecting prayers.18 We’ll right all our wrongs, put an end to our war, and we’ll reach for compassion till there’s bloodshed no more. And we teach every child, so they might rise above, that power means nothing in a world without love.19