As much as I’ve learned to love looking forward to Spotify’s automatically generated playlist with my most played songs of the year, there are admittedly few surprises.

After all, I’m aware that I’m the one that chose to listen to Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake nearly every day since it was released back in June. It’s not all that enlightening to find out that three songs off that album are among my top five.

Still, it’s an interesting way to make sense of your taste. I always struggle when someone asks: What kind of music are you into? With this, I can tell them anything they’d like know – and then some – with one playlist.

My top 10 most played songs of the year:

  1. Whitney – No Woman
  2. The Leers – I Can’t Cope
  3. Whitney – Golden Days
  4. Lake Street Dive – How Good It Feels
  5. Whitney – Dave’s Song
  6. The Leers – Fool
  7. Night Moves – Carl Sagan
  8. Allen Stone – I Know That I Wasn’t Right
  9. Lotus – When Our Nerves No Longer Twitch
  10. White Denim – Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love)

And a deeper look into a few of my favorite albums from 2016:

Whitney – Light Upon the Lake

whitney

I didn’t want to attempt to rank my favorite albums of the year. I don’t think it’s fair to say one is better than another. You like different bands for different reasons. Apples and oranges, if you will.

Light Upon the Lake, however, was far and away my favorite new release this year. Whitney’s core is the combo of singing drummer Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek, both formerly members of the now defunct Smith Westerns. Ehrlich also drummed for another one of my favorite groups – Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

As the story goes, when Smith Westerns called in quits in 2014, the two began working on solo stuff and were bouncing ideas off of each other. Both Ehrlich and Kakacek had recently been through bad breakups and found writing together to be therapeutic. In an interview with The Line of Best Fit, Kakacek explained how the album’s first single – “Golden Days” – helped them through that process:

“To me, ‘Golden Days’ is the song we both sent our ex-girlfriends after we made it,” Kakacek explains, “to get some kind of closure. I remember sending it to her and she just started bawling. It wasn’t even in a sense of getting back together, more like – I sent you this, and now we can be friends, and everything’s cool.”

This is essentially a microcosm of the beauty of Light Upon the Lake. I’ve never experienced a more accurate portrayal of the bliss and tragedy of heartbreak. On “Golden Days,” Ehrlich sings:

“Oh, don’t you save me from hangin’ on
I tell myself what we had is gone
And after all that I put you through
I get knocked out like I never knew”

There is a thick layer of nostalgia over the hopeful sound of Ehrlich’s earnest falsetto. It’s a longing for the good ol’ days, like those that Ehrlich sings about on the lighthearted “No Matter Where We Go”:

“I can take you out
I wanna drive around
With you with the windows down
And we can run all night”

This emotional lyrical journey, combined with Whitney’s soulful and wistful sound, made for a near-perfect debut I expect to revisit regularly for a long time to come.

The Leers – Are You Curious? 

the-leers

I also have Spotify to thank for helping me find The Leers. Nine out of 10 times when I explore a band the app has recommended to me based on my listening history, I quickly move on after a couple songs. But for once I found myself going back to Are You Curious? again and again.

Maybe it’s the variety the young New Zealanders offer. If someone only played “I Can’t Cope” for you – a funky account of a stoner battling his anxiety, book-ended by head-bobbing grooves – you’d miss out on a unique blend of styles.

There’s a sense early on in the album that the band has some cornered aggression waiting to be released. It builds during “Hold On, You’ll See,” evidenced by guitarist James Kippenberger’s threatening solo midway through the song. Just a track later, that distorted guitar is growling menacingly through your headphones on the instrumental “Escapades.”

It’s not all angry, in-your-face rock and roll. There are many layers to peel back. “Easy Love” offers an infectious, simple hook along with some soft grooves. “Who The Hell” is your classic tale of unabashed jealousy.”Who the hell did you go out with last night?” wonders vocalist Matt Bidois.

What connects this mix of songs is an unmistakable coolness. These guys don’t give a fuck about what you expected to hear from an up and coming band making its full-length debut. Are You Curious? is unique and ambitious, but every aggressive punch lands with staying power.

Night Moves – Pennied Days

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I first listened to Pennied Days while riding a bike alone through the empty streets of Philadelphia late at night.

It was the perfect soundtrack.

These songs feel so recognizable. Not unlike Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake, Night Moves create a longing for the past. On “Leave Your Light On,” frontman John Pelant chooses to ignore that his once-love has moved on:

“So leave your light on
Still I’m wondering just where you’ve gone
Steal the days and it takes me back
Lovingly, lovingly
Somedays I wish it had last”

Despite some heartache, this is warm and inviting psych-pop with earworm hooks and tight grooves. It creates a freeing, weightlessness feeling. You feel it almost immediately during a break in the action early on in the album’s opener, “Carl Sagan.” Pelant’s voice is stretched thin above synths and dramatic piano. You can picture yourself floating for a moment through the arrangement.

I’ve tried to make sense of the record’s album art. It appears to be a couple people resting on a psychedelic cliff side, looking out to an otherwordly sky (See right-most photo in the featured image at the top of the page for reference.) Make of it what you will. I like to think it’s telling us just to slow down and appreciate the great unknown.

-Mike Still

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