From Loveland’s Favorite Songs of 2016

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This year has been nothing short of a boxing match for me. I know bashing 2016 has almost become a cliche at this point, but there’s a reason for it. Has anyone had a great year? Despite the ups and downs, this has been my favorite year for music that I can remember. Perhaps as some kind of penance, God blessed the world a ton of great music. Here, I try to sort through it. As with all of my lists, I don’t claim to choose the best songs of the year — simply my favorites. Instead of choosing 50 songs, a Top 40 has always felt right to me.

If you’d like a Spotify version, check at the end of this post.

[Note: I’ve written about a few of these songs before, so very small portions of this list have been lifted from earlier pieces about my favorite albums of the year and songs of the decade.]

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40. Isaiah Rashad — 4r Da Squaw 

It may not be “Heavenly Father” or “Webbie Flow” from early Rashad days, but it’s the pinnacle of The Sun’s Tirade. And, in classic Rashad form, it sounds hesitant to be that. Listen to just about any of his music and it’s hard to imagine him performing live without being kicked back in a La-Z-Boy recliner. Isaiah gives thanks to the music industry for allowing him to turn his talent into financial security and to his newfound sobriety for allowing him to be the man his family deserves. Also, I won’t publish a list of my favorite music videos of 2016, but “4r Da Squaw” would top it.

39. Hamilton Leithauser & Rostam — A 1000 Times 

This collaboration between underrated musical forces was a highlight of 2016 for me. Think Watch The Throne with none of the hype but 100% of the success, if not more so. “A 1000 Times” speaks of unrequited love and the invisible, cosmic strings that tie us together. Leithauser’s impassioned performance stirs the heart. “I found your house, I didn’t even try! They’d closed the shutters, they’d pulled the blinds!” The songs reminds me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is a novel in the same vein that I can’t recommend enough.

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38. Noname — Yesterday

Drenched in the warmth and optimism of a late spring morning, “Yesterday” chips away at the edges of 2016 in a refreshing way. Like #40 on this list, it scoffs at materialism and points to simple truths in life. “My devil is only closer when I call him back,” Noname raps. She sings about how she leans on the memory of her late grandmother when life gets tough. “When the sun is going down, when the dark is out to stay, I picture your smile like it was yesterday.”

37. The xx — On Hold 

The xx’s self-titled debut was an exercise in minimalism. Since then, it seems that the group has been slowly branching out to more flourished music. Coexist built things up, but disappointed me in its seeming abandonment of what made The xx special in the first place. “On Hold” is their debut single from Album #3. Things aren’t quite minimalistic, but they’re more in line with that magical debut. It’s a song about a relationship on its last legs, and it beautifully samples Hall & Oates for its enchanting chorus.

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36. Jeff Rosenstock — Festival Song 

If there’s one fantastic project the mainstream overlooked in 2016, it’s Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY. “Festival Song” is the lead single and it features the classic “screw the man” punk mission statement, at least as it pertains to the music scene itself. “They wouldn’t be your friend if you weren’t worth something,” Rosenstock sings about, evidently, festival organizers. I need to hear this performed live.

35. Lady Gaga — Million Reasons 

“Million Reasons” is Lady Gaga at her absolute best. She can sing like an angel, yet only seeks to prove it on rare occasions. This one is a powerful ballad that lets the pop icon flex her pipes as she sings about how bad relationships can drag on if you’re the type of person that only sees the best in people — even those that hurt you. “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away. But baby, I just need one good one to stay.”

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34. Pinegrove — Old Friends 

Pinegrove is a new group on my radar this year. Cardinal surprised me in its critical acclaim, and “Old Friends” is the opening track. The band is from New Jersey, but singer Evan Stephens Hall has a kind of southern twang that comes out in spurts that gives the track a homey vibe that suits it well. It discusses loss and relationships in a style of songwriting that I absolutely love. “My steps keep splitting my grief through these solipsistic moods. I should call my parents when I think of them. I should tell my friends when I love them.”

33. Anderson .Paak — The Bird 

“The Bird” is sweet, soulful, and autobiographical. Paak sings of his youth and the struggles he faced. “I’m repping for the longest cycle. My uncles had to pay the cost. My sister used to sing to Whitney. My mama caught the gambling bug. We came up in a lonely castle, my papa was behind them bars. We never had to want for nothing, said all we ever need is love.” Between the classic guitar licks, the warm horns, and the rich vocals, it’s all a bit overwhelming on the first listen. Fortunately, it’s still great 100 listens later.

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32. Bon Iver — 00000 Million 

Bon Iver is the first place anyone should turn for an understanding friend in hard times. He has all the street cred in the world when it comes to sad music, and “00000 Million” is no different. The short Fionn Regan clip in the “chorus” seems to put a bow on 22, A Million as a whole, while the song is about finally succumbing to life’s trials. “Must’ve been forces, that took me on them wild courses. Who knows how many poses, that I’ve been in … If it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in.”

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31. Major Lazer — Cold Water (ft. Justin Bieber & MØ) 

It may not have had nearly the commercial success of “Where Are U Now,” but it has the same kind of bounce to it, and I’m proud to admit that Justin could drop 100 more of these before I finally got sick of them. “Cold Water” felt effortless and cast-off, yet was still one of my favorite radio tracks of 2016. He makes it sound easy.

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30. Richard Orofino — I Heard You Were Looking Like The Moon 

Orofino is an 18-year-old artist from NY/Boston who has unloaded a deluge of projects via his Bandcamp page. Between February and November of this year, he managed to reel off eight projects (by my count), so he had pretty good odds of ending up here somewhere. Like much of Orofino’s music, this one is hazy and wistful, and has something built into it that makes you want to keep listening over and over. I nearly put “Stay” on this list, but gave the edge to “I Heard You Were Looking Like The Moon” because it’s been stuck in my head more recently.

29. Wilco — If I Ever Was A Child 

I love my Wilco either exceedingly weird or the exact opposite. After a string of projects that managed to split that gap, Schmilco returned to Jeff Tweedy’s stripped-back Americana roots. This one’s sparse and beautiful, and Tweedy finds himself realizing his own world weariness. “Can my cold heart change, even out of spite?” Like much of the band’s music, it’s like a baseball glove — you have to break it in a little to fully appreciate it.

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28. Car Seat Headrest — The Ballad of the Costa Concordia

“The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” is simultaneously a testament to both Will Toledo’s ambition and his sense of humor. It’s an eleven-and-a-half-minute ballad that sees Toledo see life from the perspective of the captain that ran a cruise ship ashore on the coast of Italy. Somewhere around the six minute mark, things start to break loose. “How the hell was I supposed to steer this ship?! It was an expensive mistake…” Ninety seconds later and the song is on a downhill sprint. The whole thing is incredible and fascinating.

27. Kevin Abstract — Empty 

American Boyfriend (and “Empty” itself) is about a kid just trying to grow into his own skin. “I hate my yearbook photo, I hate my passport, I hate my last name, I hate everything it stands for,” raps Kevin Abstract. Adolescence is weird and so are the romantic relationships we explore during it. Things can boil down to a firestorm of hormones. Kevin’s simply trying to navigate. “I’ll be right outside your front door on my 12-speed. I got your emotions tattooed on my sleeve. I think about you all the time. I’ve waited for you all my life.”

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26. Conor Oberst— Mama Borthwick (A Sketch) 

“Mama Borthwick” is Conor Oberst — ahem — ruminating about how frustrating and silly humanity can be, and he uses the works of Frank Lloyd Wright as the lens. “It costs twenty dollars to visit Fallingwater. It’s a perfect house where no one lives.” As an idiot who’s always admired Wright’s work from afar and questioned humanity from up close, “Mama Borthwick” nailed a weird place in my heart. Plus, any song with soulful harmonica is a winner in my book.

25. Beyonce — Hold Up

It may not be a showstopper like “Sorry” or “Formation”, but “Hold Up” is a Lemonade favorite much like “XO” was for me on Beyonce’s last album. In the landscape of the concept album, this one sits at the beginning, just as Bey is beginning to suspect her lover’s transgressions. The production is flawless in the way it slinks around while Knowles seductively saunters in and out of singing and rapping. Not sure why more people don’t love this like I do.

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24. Bon Iver — 33 “GOD” 

The number 33 is in the title, and is the age of Jesus at the time of his death. The song was released 33 days prior to the debut of 22, A Million and clocks in at 3:33 seconds long. Frilly symbolism aside, this is the closest Bon Iver got to a radio single with their latest effort, and it’s pretty fantastic. I always enjoy their singles because they usually don’t require as much effort to dissect as their rest of the album, and this song is no different. The instrumentation is beautiful. “These will just be places to me now.”

23. Japandroids — Near To The Wild Heart of Life 

I’ll admit that I’ve never listened to Japandroids before this. “Near To The Wild Heart of Life” was something I gave a cursory listen at the urging of a lot of folks on Twitter, and I ended up falling in love. It’s an upbeat, riotous number that rages for a full five minutes. It’s anthemic and I’ve had it in steady rotation. Since discovering the band, I’ve gone back and explored Celebration Rock. Mostly, I’m just excited for their next album, which figures to weasel its way into my 2017 year-end list.

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22. Lady Gaga — Sinner’s Prayer 

It’s 2016, and Lady Gaga released a (good) song that sounds like it can and should be square danced to. That’s not something any of us imagined in 2009 but it’s something I welcomed this year with open arms. Joanne had its highs, lows, and lukewarm mouthfuls, but “Sinner’s Prayer” was a refreshing change of pace and a welcomed step outside Gaga’s boundaries. Hopefully she dives in now that she’s successfully tested the waters.

21. The Hotelier — Two Deliverances

As I said in my year-end list, there’s an album or two that I liked more than Goodness in 2016. However, I’m not sure any have held up as well as Goodness has. We’re on the doorstep of 2017 and my love for this hasn’t quelled at all. “Two Deliverances” is a lyrical tour de force from a band that’s always been poetic. Here, they dissect a room like only they can. “A drapery of clashing fabrics in every corner of your room. They hung like lace on the whitewashed face of the walls that are begging you to move.” Like all of their music, it perfectly ebbs and flows, playing with emotions like a yo-yo. There aren’t supposed to be this many good songs on one album.

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20. Signals Midwest — At This Age 

At This Age somehow managed to be one of my most anticipated albums of the year and also the most divinely appointed. Usually when an album perfectly sums up your current place, it comes out of nowhere to do so. I waited years for this, only to find that it was a mirror to where I was in 2016. “At This Age” is a flawless examination of the foyer of adulthood. “Always thought at this age I would be settling in to a major city. Always thought at this age I would be further than I am now.”

19. Frank Ocean — Solo

On “Solo” Frank rides alone while the world burns itself to the ground. Despite the flames, Ocean remains irreverent and his bravado remains stronger than ever. “I’m skipping showers and switching socks, sleeping good and long. Bones feeling dense as f*ck, wish a n*gga would cross.” Rarely have I know Frank to be the type to weave a flawless chorus, but “Solo” is new territory in that regard. There’s hell, fire, bulls, and matadors. It’s enchanting in the same way that Ocean always has been.

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18. Wilco — Normal American Kids 

“Normal American Kids” seems like the type of ditty that was half-heartedly plucked out for the first time in the backseat of a cloud-filled hippie van on Route 66 in 1973. It’s even sleepier than “If I Ever Was A Child”, which is saying something when you look at Wilco’s recent history. Tweedy seems to slip in a reference to late Wilco member Jay Bennet in the midst of a hazy brainstorm. “All of the time, holding a grudge, ‘fore I knew people could die just because.” This belongs on a movie soundtrack somewhere.

17. Joyce Manor — Fake I.D. 

While it feels considerably poppier than earlier offerings, “Fake I.D.” is now my favorite Joyce Manor song not named “Constant Headache.” It tells the story of new love that quickly turns south once the conversation shifts to music and the protagonist realizes he doesn’t quite see eye-t0-eye with his new girl. “Singing, ‘What do you think about Kanye West?’ ‘I think that he’s great, I think he’s the best!’”

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16. Francis and the Lights — Friends (ft. Bon Iver) 

One of the funnier moments of 2016 was Francis Starlite openly fielding criticism from all corners that his new music sounded a lot like Bon Iver before pulling the big reveal by having Justin Vernon himself pop up in the “Friends” video doing a fully-choreographed dance number. It’s the year’s strangest music video, but it’s oddly charming and is the perfect accent to Francis’ most mainstream-ready single to date.

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15. The Chainsmokers — Closer (ft. Halsey) 

Follow this website — or my Twitter page — long enough and you’ll notice that I’m a sucker for a massive single or two each year. I don’t think I’d call them guilty pleasures (because that implies the music is bad), but it’s definitely along those lines. While the rest of America grew tired of “Closer” and The Chainsmokers altogether, I continued to groove along. This single is just massive. If you don’t like it just a little bit, I think you’re lying to yourself.

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14. Beyonce — Formation

I’d argue that “Formation” is the most Beyonce song ever. “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils. Earned all this money, but they never take the country out me. I got hot sauce in my bag, swag.” Beyonce took lyrics like these to halftime of the Super Bowl in full Black Panther garb. 2016 was full of defining moments, and that was one. Don’t overlook the visual album, because this song’s chapter is noteworthy.

13. Car Seat Headrest — Drugs With Friends 

“I’ve only had one psychedelic experience,” says Will Toledo. Here it is, in all of its glory. “Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms. I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of sh*t in a stupid looking jacket.” Toledo wrestles with himself, his friends, and the people around him as he comes to the realization that — in this moment — he’s everything he hates: “another sh*tbag civilian.” There are several moments on Teens of Denial where Toledo flexes his sense of humor, but this is my favorite. While virtually every other song about psychedelics seems to romanticize it, “Drugs With Friends” is hilariously honest and forthright.

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12. Kevin Abstract — Yellow 

When 2016’s most simmering up-and-coming artist hit Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 Radio show, he said “We just wanted to make some Vanessa Carlton type stuff.” It’s not exactly something you’d expect to hear from one of the year’s hottest music kids, but it’s exactly what “Yellow” is. Abstract’s statement probably sounded puzzling to those unfamiliar with his work, but it’s hilariously accurate. “Yellow” sounds like an early 2000s pop song. He’s never been a straight-up rapper, but I still never really expected to hear “I wanna build a sandcastle for no reason” on a song. It’s sunny and fantastic.

11. Bon Iver — 715-CR∑∑KS

Post-Bon Iver isn’t a genre of music, but that’s what “715-CR∑∑KS” is. When I called 22, A Million Justin Vernon’s Yeezus, this is what I was talking about. Someone grabbed the Bon Iver knob and cranked it to 11. Vernon is compressed and garbled and warbled beyond recognition and there isn’t even a backing instrumental. This is what sad people in the year 2064 listen to. Our protagonist begs and pleads and tries to will himself out of a rough patch while alluding to the story of Moses. “Honey, understand that I have been left here in the reeds, but all I’m trying to do is get my feet out from the crease!” There are several standouts on 22, A Million, but this won me over with its character. It’s weird and wonderful and completely Bon Iver.

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10. Told Slant — Tsunami 

When I bought spur-of-the-moment tickets to see The Hotelier this year, Told Slant was simply part of the package I blindly signed up for. In doing some quick cursory research, I stumbled across this one. Later that night, in a sweaty, crowded Columbus bar, it filled me up in the kind of way that only live music can. “Tsunami” is a open letter that begs for a solid rock in the midst of a storm — something we’ve all longed for at one time or another.

“I am not a tsunami, so don’t look at me that way. I wanna be a good sky on a bad day, and today was a bad day. I want someone to grab my face, tuck my hair behind my ears, and say, ‘Isn’t this silly and aren’t you beautiful?’”

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09. Kanye West — 30 Hours 

Putting “30 Hours” in my Top 10 may feel like an unnecessary hot take, but I fully stand behind this. While the rest of America understandably fawned over bigger, bawdier songs like “Ultralight Beam” or “Famous”, I became enraptured by this unassuming number tucked towards the end of The Life of Pablo. “30 Hours” finds Kanye casually tossing out rhymes and referencing Nelly (not once, but twice) as he reminisces about 30-hour drives from Chicago to Los Angeles (via Nelly’s St. Louis) to see his ex-fiancee. While braggadocios Kanye gets most of the attention, it’s the nostalgic, quick-witted version that’s always been my favorite.

“Expedition was Eddie Bauer edition. I’m drivin’ with no winter tires in December. Skrrt skrrt skrrt like a private school for women, then I get there and all the Popeye’s is finished. Girl, you don’t love me, you just pretendin’. I need a happy beginnin’, middle and endin’.”

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08. Signals Midwest — Alchemy Hour 

I had the opportunity to hear this performed live 18 months ago at Mahall’s in Lakewood, Ohio. I was instantly in love and anxiously awaited its release. In fact, there isn’t a song on this list that I waited for longer than “Alchemy Hour.” It’s a song about how the human experience can simultaneously be enduring yet fleeting and hard to grasp. It’s a song about the past and future that ultimately begs to live in the present. It’s a song that starts with a memory and ends with a promise: “We will not wash away.”

“So let the dishes pile up in the sink. Let those collections collect dust. Let that distracted, derivative drivel all just fall right out of us. When Midwestern skies reflect the roads that run beneath, find me out on the water spitting little streams through my two front teeth.”

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07. Lil Uzi Vert — Do What I Want

In a year that gave us all plenty of reason’s to feel down, it makes sense that a few shamelessly cheerful songs found their way into the upper reaches of my list. If there was a happier song released in 2016, I didn’t hear it. Lil Uzi Vert had a bit of a coming out party this year, but this song got overlooked, short of appearing in the year’s most fantastic commercial. Had it come from a more established artist, it could’ve had “Hey Ya”-esque mainstream appeal. It’s the motivational song of the year. We all needed it.

“Boy, I started on the bottom, made my way to the top. Boy, I’m gon’ keep winning, no I cannot stop. ‘Member I had a little? Turned that sh*t to a lot.”

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06. The Hotelier — Goodness Pt. 2 

Goodness features 2016’s best percussion outside of The Life of Pablo, and nowhere is it more evident than here. The entire album is like a roller coaster. It rises and falls, twists and turns, and is incredibly hopeful and fun, but it never leaves its (drum) track. The percussion on “Goodness Pt. 2” is gloriously driving, and given a mix more akin to a concert than anything else. It’s easy to close your eyes and feel like you’re at a show. Goodness is The Hotelier’s dead sprint out of the forest of depression, and it’s remarkable. I said it in my albums list, and I’ll say it again: In a year that seemed to center around so much darkness, I can’t give enough respect to a band that so earnestly seeks to find the light leaking through the cracks. This album — and this song — are beautifully hopeful. [If you’re craving a stripped-back B-side, listen to Part 1. Be warned, it contains nudists.]

“A little bird from the side of sidewalk sings me hymnals of comfort in pain. Said ‘Give me you all disarmed and uncertain, and I promise that I’ll do the same.’ And it sounded like something you’d say.”

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05. Kanye West — Ultralight Beam (ft. Chance The Rapper) 

Who would’ve figured that one of the bigger songs of 2016 would be a full-blown gospel song by Kanye West, complete with a prayer by gospel legend Kirk Franklin? And while Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book underwhelmed me, his verse here may be the pinnacle of The Life Of Pablo. He manages to reference Psalms, the Gospel of Luke, Martin, PBS’s Arthur, Sia, Harriet Tubman, Kanye’s scrapped Good Ass Job album, “This Little Light of Mine”, his own Warmest Winter initiative, Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, and the Gospel of John. God bless Chance The Rapper.

“This is my part, nobody else speak. This little light of mine… glory be to God, yeah. I’ma make sure that they go where they can’t go. If they don’t wanna ride, I’mma still give them raincoats. Know what God said when he made the first rainbow? Just throw this at the end if I’m too late for the intro.”

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04. Modern Baseball — Hiding 

Again, it just seems perfect that one of the toughest years of my life featured more outstanding hopeful songs than any other year. “Hiding” is about growing up. Not the crummy I have to go to work and pay the bills type of growing up, but the I can handle whatever life throws at me kind of growing up. The MoBo guys are weathering the storm, and this song is proof of that. Modern Baseball’s catalog has always seemed like kind of a love letter to the trappings of ignorant adolescence, but “Hiding” actually begs to grow, to learn, and to be better. “Are you hiding or have I abandoned you? Let me learn here, I am in pursuit of all I can undo.”

“Made mistakes, the plants died young, like all good things, but I wish my small self had known how much water to use. Still some nights I find the ideas that bring me rest are the ones that used to prod and pester and keep me up. Swinging open doors I swore I’d shut.”

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03. Frank Ocean — White Ferrari

Frank tips his hand to the song’s meaning by briefly quoting “Here, There and Everywhere” and giving Lennon and McCartney a writing credit. While the Beatles staple is about bringing your lady along while globetrotting, “White Ferrari” is encompasses more ethereal elements like time and space. It’s Ocean’s “Lost” meets Interstellar. It scarcely gets above a whisper, making it gentle and gorgeous like everything that Frank Ocean has ever done. The song needles and stretches like a midnight desert mirage and Frank drops one-liners like “Mind over matter is magic, I do magic” before the track splinters and plunges into a For Emma, Forever Ago-esque outro.

“I’m sure we’re taller in another dimension. You say we’re small and not worth the mention. You’re tired of movin’, your body’s achin’. We could vacay, there’s places to go. Clearly this isn’t all that there is. Can’t take what’s been given, but we’re so okay here, we’re doing fine, primal and naked. You dream of walls that hold us imprisoned. It’s just a skull, least that’s what they call it, and we’re free to roam…”

02. Frank Ocean — Nights

So much of Blonde is like a nesting doll. Every track has additional ideas tucked inside of it waiting to be uncovered. “Nights” starts out with a bouncing beat and the story of a past relationship with someone holier-than-thou before Frank decides he’d like to share a bit more about how this relationship came to be.

The track disintegrates and the year’s best instrumental kicks into gear and Ocean gets explicitly autobiographical, which reminds you: He never does this. Weknow a lot about Frank’s story through ideas and metaphors, but this feels more like an intimate retelling of a memory — specifically his childhood in New Orleans before Katrina displaced him to Los Angeles. It’s a rare peek behind the curtain from music’s most famous recluse.

“1998 my family had that Acura, The Legend. Kept at least six discs in the changer. Back when Boswell and Percy had it active. Couple bishops in the city building mansions, all the reverends. Preaching self-made millionaire status when we could only eat at Shoney’s on occasion. After ‘trina hit I had to transfer campus. Your apartment out in Houston’s where I waited. Stayin’ with you when I didn’t have an address…”

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01. Car Seat Headrest — Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales 

Car Seat Headrest frontman Will Toledo says “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is about “post-party melancholia. Wishing to either be a better person or care less about the whole deal.” He also uses the after-party depression vibe to draw a parallel to life itself. Sometimes life manages to feel like that 30 minutes between the end of the party and the arrival back home: just a tired, weary slog.

In a literal sense, he’s chiding himself for driving home after too many drinks. He knows it was a terrible thing to do, but he was “only trying to get home.” In the same sense, we all do things we know are wrong in order to simply help us get by. In some way or another, we’re all drunk drivers just trying to “get home.”

“It comes and goes in plateaus,” he says of his depression. “One month later, I’m a f*cking pro. My parents would be proud.” There’s a lot of realness here, and while it sounds initially like Toledo has succumbed to what ails him, there is redemption later in the song. “It doesn’t have to be like this,” proclaims the explosive chorus, before Toledo urges himself to leave behind everything he uses to numb himself from real life. “It’s not too late. Turn off the engine, get out of the car, and start to walk.”

“We are not a proud race. It’s not a race at all. We’re just trying, I’m only trying to get home. Drunk drivers, drunk drivers. This is not a good thing, I don’t mean to rationalize or try and explain it away. It’s not okay. Drunk drivers, drunk drivers.”

Listen to this list on Spotify.