My Favorite Songs of 2016: Track #30-26

30. “I'm Fine” - Hazel English

Fuzz guitars and angelic vocals are crowding the bottom part of this list, and I'm not bothered. I have a type of song that hits that little pleasure nerve in the brain, and this song, with its soaring 80's synth breaks layered on top of a grizzled guitar lick, taps that button over and over again. By the time a clean electric solo line flows over the top as English sighs “I can't measure up to this girl you thought you knew,” I'm all the way in.

English is still basically a complete unknown - she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page - but she's starting her first US tour next month (it's only seven dates and four of them are in California, but still). Get in early.

Where I Found It: Chris Ryan complained about it on The Watch's Year In Music Podcast, and I often like what Ryan hates.

29. “Wrong Crowd” - Tom Odell

I enjoyed the plaintive, dark songwriting that Odell put forth on his first album, Long Way Down, but I appreciated that the moody Brit set his sights on something bigger this time around. Odell enlisted Adele producer Jim Abisss to create a fuller sound for Wrong Crowd, with big production and sweeping orchestration, to help create “a heightened sense of reality.”

All of that's on display on “Wrong Crowd,” as a muffled piano and blanketed kick drum give way to a rapid succession of a tapping snare, a chorus of backing vocals, puffing synths, and a whistled melody line. The song winds up like a jack-in-the-box, as dreamlike lyrics give way to simple refrain, repeated over and over again as the madness builds up behind him, until it all dies out, leaving the listener back exactly where they started.

Where I Found It: Odell got one of his best songs, “Long Way Down,” featured on The Fault In Our Stars soundtrack a few years back (which has quite a number of good gems packed inside it, by the way - Birdy, STRFKR, Lykke Li). I've tracked his career ever since.

(A lot of music videos have confusing beginnings where you can't tell when the song has really started. This one is particularly so, since there's a weird clip of him singing another song at the beginning. The real song starts about a minute in)

28. “Moonlight” - Ariana Grande

I've always had a soft spot for Grande's brand of modern-Mariah roller-coaster balladeering. The debut track off her latest, Dangerous Woman, highlights everything I like about her – the clawing desperation in her breathier verses, layered over spotless pop production, coupled with her unstoppable power vocal soaring over top through the choruses. Grande absorbs a lot of heat, because being a young female pop star in the public eye in our society is a misery I would wish on no one, but no one can hit her on the point that counts most – her vocal talent is utterly undeniable. For pity's sake, her label put out the vocal-only tracks of all of her songs from her last album, just for bragging rights.

Where I Found It: It would be harder to not notice Grande these days, frankly.

27. “Time To Run” - Lord Huron

I'd gathered a few of their earlier tracks, and caught one of their shows in Austin several years back, but I somehow didn't notice Lord Huron's debut LP, Lonesome Dreams until they released their second album, Strange Trails, earlier this year. I haven't spent as much time with the new one as I did the first, because I mistook Lonesome Dreams for the new release, downloaded it, and didn't realize that I'd missed Strange Trails until just a month or two ago. I'll have to spend more time with both, but for now I prefer the former to the later.

This track stood out from the first listen, which is tougher to do on an album like this one, meant to flow seamlessly together like a steady mountain stream. It's a mix of etherial vocals, sweeping wind sounds, plunking percussion, and lap steel guitar around the frenetic strumming we've come to connect with indie folk. “Time To Run” is perhaps the perfect song to introduce the band, with both its dusty Western bandit vibe and its pure pop vibrancy.

Where I Found It: I think I originally discovered Lord Huron at SXSW a couple years ago. But it might have been from a NoiseTrade release, too. It's been a long time.

26. “Grand Hotel” - Regina Spektor

If we're going to talk about a heightened sense of reality, we've got to bow to the queen. In the opening lines, Spektor describes the path you can take through an old hotel to travel straight down into to hell, then imagines a story where the devils come up to visit the hotel for company and friendship. It takes a specific type of voice to make that kind of off-beat melancholy work, and I don't know many other artists who could possibly make a song like that work.

How I Found It: I've been a Spektor fan since she was opening for the Strokes, and I was in college at the exact moment it was cool to be a Regina Spektor fan (and also during the period where it was also no longer cool to be a Regina Spektor fan, but such is the way of things), so I've been on the bandwagon for a long time.