I’m a lifelong devotee of albums. I’ve defended their right to exist through years of critics bemoaning their supposed demise. But in 2016, my listening habits shifted. Thanks to Spotify, Vevo, and Cymbal, I’ve found a new love: Songs.
I know, it sounds so basic, but truly, until 2016, I valued songs less if they didn’t have an album attached whose depths I could explore. Standout tracks were aberrations, lost souls in want of a ten-track home, a CD (shut up) to settle down and join with their brethren in mutual beauty. I still believe in albums, but this year, there have been so many great SONGS, irrespective of the artists who’ve performed them, irrespective of the albums on which they reside or don’t, irrespective of their origins.
As a celebration of my newfound listening habits, I’ve put together a playlist of my favorite finds of the year. Now, some of the tracks were released before 2016, but I’ve only just heard them, and it would be a shame if they were to be left behind by anyone else, because they’re so lovely. And to clarify: These are all artists that I heard for the very first time this year. Sorry I slept on them before.
Accompanying the Spotify playlist (the order of which is more or less random), I’ve written a few little notes about each track for your reference and curiosity.
Are there any I missed? Tell me! I am a Sarlacc of new music, insatiable and needy.
THE DISCOVERY 2016 PLAYLIST
Nao, “Bad Blood”
A neo-soul gem of tension and release. Ride the pauses, and you’ll see.
Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
A heartbreaking yet hard-rocking girl-rock anthem for a new generation of strong young women.
Lowly, “Deer Eyes”
This was an exceptional year for indie pop with a soul edge. The drums and bass on this track alone are worth a listen.
Car Seat Headrest, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”
It might be a bad idea to put something so epic so close to the start of this playlist, but this is one indie rock song that will have audiences shouting along for years to come.
Laura Mvula, “Phenomenal Woman”
Laura Mvula combines popstar hooks, social commentary, and unique instrumentation into a fresh, vital sound.
Space Captain, “Landing/Up In the Hills”
Instrumental hip-hop has seen a jazz revival the last few years, and Space Captain here channels the work of Flying Lotus and BadBadNotGood to thrilling effect until a soulful voice breaks through and brings it from “instrumental” to “R&B bliss.”
The Amazing, “Moments Like These”
A soft acoustic number with a haunting, classic sound.
Turnip King, “Ho_Se”
You’ll see a lot of fuzzy rock tracks on this list. It was a solid year for throwback rock, here recalling the more shoegaze moments of bands like Broken Social Scene with a punk twist.
Lianne La Havas, “Midnight”
My obsessive desire for a singer with the chops to channel Janelle Monae’s afrofuturistic take on R&B were at last sated with this track which I’ve listened to approximately a billion times since it was released.
Ben Watt, “Between Two Fires”
My secret affinity for dad rock comes out on this one. It’s just so…calming.
Bully, “I Remember”
From calm to fist-pumping powerful. Bully is a beacon in new-era female-fronted punk bands.
Daniel Wilson, “Wedding Daze”
Love Gnarls Barkley but can’t stand Cee-Lo Green’s alleged misdeeds? Here’s a singer that just might have what you need.
Hannah Epperson, “Circles (Amelia)”
Hannah Epperson’s “Upsweep” features songs performed twice, once through strings and again through electronics. This version of “Circles” is from the more beat-heavy of the two versions, but they’re both excellent in their own ways.
Amanda Bergman, “Taxis”
A delightful musty indie-folk-rock track with a catchy hook and beautiful overtones. Amanda Bergman has had a heavy rotation in my CD player (shut up) this fall.
Iarla O Lionaird, “I’m Weary of Lying Alone”
Throw on some headphones and let this acapella Irish ballad envelop you. But be warned: You might weep.
Busman’s Holiday, “Mother”
Busman’s Holiday combines the songwriting styles of Andrew Bird and Father John Misty into a lush little package.
Ezra Furman, “Hark! To the Music” 
Guarantee: If you blast this song with your windows down while driving away from work at the end of a hard day, you’ll feel like a friggin’ hero. I don’t know how I managed to miss Ezra Furman before now, but this guy is the real deal.
Vio/Mire, “Dogs 1” 
Contemplative and quietly nostalgic, Vio/Mire recalls the string arrangements of Owen Pallett, with his own unique voice lulling the listener into a sense of peace.
Nadia Nair, “Hardships”
I pushed Nadia Nair on just about everyone I know this year. “Hardships” is what the kids a few years ago would call a “banger.” It bangs. Bangly.
Bayonne does surprisingly moving things with rhythms, and their percussive piano and synth work is captivating.
Belle Mare, “Ghostly”
As its title would suggest, this ethereal beauty swells and thrills and…dances?
YEYEY, “Set the Dogs”
Don’t let the harsh opening synth noise frighten you. This track could easily light up an indie rock festival with uplifting joy.
Flock of Dimes, “Everything is Happening Today”
Adult contemporary? Maybe. But get through this chorus and tell me this woman’s voice doesn’t just click. It’s pretty and catchy in equal measure.
The Snails, “Tea Leaves”
Did you know Future Islands had a side project? I didn’t. But it’s called The Snails, and it combines killer horns with thumping rock and the singer’s unmistakable vocals and it’s a kick.
Etta Bond, “Feels Like”
The title of the album on which this song appears summarizes Emma Bond’s current status pretty perfectly: #CoolUrbanNewTalent.
This is one of the most purely dance-focused tracks on the list, but its hook is just so infectious and its progressions so surprising I couldn’t leave it off.
NxWorries, “Lyk Dis”
I have some problems with NxWorries on a lyrical front, but damned if it isn’t some of the most undeniable R&B records of the year for its beats and Anderson .Paak’s smoky vocals.
Plush, “Dreams of You”
Another shoegazey indie rock track, “Dreams of You” sounds like it was recorded in a garage by your best friends.
Prism Tats, “Never Been Shy”
This is the sort of indie rock track that could make a band into superstars with the right exposure. It’s punchy and driving, and it just gets better on repeat listens.
There’s a certain beauty in a snarling wail, and damned if this singer doesn’t just nail that feeling. Throaty and snide, smoky and edgy, but emotionally rich.
Health&Beauty, “Asuncion & Dayanara”
As covered here previously, Health&Beauty owes more than a passing debt to Dirty Projectors. If you can accept that, this song is completely worth your time.
Slow Dakota, “The Lilac Bush”
A strange, ambitious mix of poetry, theology, baroque arrangements, and modern instruments, Slow Dakota’s The Ascension of Slow Dakota is a concept album of the inscrutable kind. “The Lilac Bush” is the closest thing the album has to a single. But it’s pretty in its own right.
Casey Mecija, “Palms Lose”
Another wonderful bass-and-drum arrangements underlines this soothing indie pop number.
Joesphine, “Pepper Shaker” 
It’s easy to imagine Josephine taking the world by storm in the ’60s. Even today, her music is a thrill and a gem.
Jack Garratt, “Far Cry”
The sort of choppy falsetto pop track that has been popularized by the likes of Chet Faker and James Blake, “Far Cry” could really shake up a club.
Rozi Plain, “Friend City” 
Not to diminish its pretty qualities, but “Friend City” is exactly what its title suggests it would sound like: Adorable, light, and approachable. It’s lovely.
Half Waif, “Nest”
A rhythm-driven electronic lullaby that turns into an almost desperate plea for safety, “Nest” is haunting and exciting in equal measure.
Trevor Sensor, “Judas Said to Be A Man”
A jangly rock track with a powerhouse voice on top.
Taking cues from the likes of Jose Gonzalez, Westerman blends far-away vocals with rich guitar work to create a lush folk sound.
Miya Folick, “Talking With Strangers” 
Have you ever had a friend who recorded acoustic demos in their bedroom and you politely told them they were great and never listened to them again? This is like that, only it’s actually good.
The Seshen, “Right Here”
The Seshen provides a compelling blend of funk and soul in this dancey, eerie track.
Jonwayne, “Dirty Dan” 
Jonwayne joins the likes of Action Bronson with his braggadocious flow and excellent ear for beats.
Aldous Harding, “Beast”
Probably the least harrowing of the songs on her debut full-length, “Beast” is nonetheless a breathtaking classical folk song that displays Harding’s fragile, heavily-accented voice.
Michelle Blades, “Needles in Your Pockets” 
If the rest of this list didn’t tip you off, I’m a fan of both feminist punk rock and weirdo indie that takes chances and shakes things up. Michelle Blades is a great blend of both.
Tiny Deaths, “Ever”
There’s a certain variety of ethereal electronic soul music which I’ve fallen in love with this year, and “Ever” is a perfect example of the style. Understated and soothing.
Johanna Warren, “Black Moss” 
I’ve written about Warren previously, and something about her voice and her melodies continues to draw me under her spell.
Black Oak, “A Dirge”
The absence of Fleet Foxes has left a void which has unfortunately been filled by a steady stream of dull, repetitious pop-folk Mumford-and-Sons knockoffs. Black Oak is a pleasant exception, reminiscent of the early days of Band of Horses.
Jaimeo Brown Transcendence, “Be So Glad”
A unique project of sampling and re-arranging slave songs, spirituals, and other historical recordings, Jaimeo Brown Transcendence’s Work Songs is a must-hear tribute to America’s musical past.
DILLY DALLY, “Ballin Chain”
Like Bully and Warehouse above, DILLY DALLY adds another entry to the growing resurgence of riot-grrl bands here to save rock and roll from itself.
Japanese Breakfast, “Everybody Wants to Love You”
Imagine this song in front of a jumping throng of fans, and you get a sense of why this might be one of the most purely fun rock tracks of the year.
Nadia Reid, “Runway” 
Nadia Reid has a voice like honey and a melodic sensibility of loss and promise. “Runway” is a quiet stunner portending great things.
Big Thief, “Velvet Ring”
What I love most about “Velvet Ring,” and many of the songs in Big Thief’s excellent album Masterpiece, is the rhythmic complexity hiding beneath its simple melodies.
Painted Zeros, “Call Back”
Bass and drums are the recurring motifs of this list, I think, and “Call Back” has some of the most satisfying. It’s pleasant, bouncy, and pretty.
PWR BTTM, “Ugly Cherries”
At turns silly and emotionally honest, PWR BTTM manages to pack a lot of heart into some seemingly straightforward punk party songs.
Arc Iris, “Kaleidoscope”
True, I’m enamored with the drums and bass on this track, and that’s what drew me into Arc Iris to begin with. But it’s the structure of the track that really brings me back to it; the chorus is beautifully unexpected.
Kirk Knight, “Brokeland”
This is maybe the closest to a classic Wu-Tang track that any record could achieve in 2016. Kirk Knight has a genuinely impressive flow, and if you enjoy 90s gangsta rap at all, you’ll be happy adding “Brokeland” to your library.
The Weather Station, “Everything I Saw” 
Reminiscent of Laura Marling and other folk darlings, The Weather Station provides a slice of homespun bluegrass Americana liable to make you smile.
Kai Straw, “Hurricane”
Kai Straw seems like the kind of neon-glow R&B singer who, with a bit of luck, could explode at any moment. “Hurricane” is probably his most grandiose track, and it’s like holding a candle to a stick of dynamite.
KAYTRANADA, “GLOWED UP”
Fusing his trippy electronic hip-hop beats with Anderson .Paak’s near-ubiquitous voice is a perfect way for KAYTRANADA to showcase his skill as a producer.
Lucy Dacus, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”
A dash of Courtney Barnett’s riff sensibilities with Sharon Van Etten’s mournful vocal flourishes gives Lucy Dacus a singularly arresting vibe.
Julia Jacklin, “Coming of Age”
This is a straightforward track, all strumming and drumming, indie rock throwback joy. You’ll know if you like it within ten seconds. I certainly did.
Kadhja Bonet, “Remember the Rain”
“Remember the Rain” artfully recalls the sound of classic soul records of the 1970s without resorting to treacle.
Gnarcade, “All Glory to the Hypnotoad”
Full disclosure: Gnarcade is the project of my friend Brian Follick. But his skillful blend of 8-bit chip music with straight-ahead guitar rock makes for a thrilling and positively cheery mix. “…Hypnotoad” is probably the most musically rich of his tracks so far.
Do you have even an ounce of nostalgia for the emo/screamo days of bands like Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, and Thrice, but can’t handle the era’s whiny vocal trends? Yeesh has the hallmarks of the best music of the era without the patina of guilt.
Alex G, “Adam”
“Adam” is the sort of Elliott Smith-inspired piano-and-guitar rock track whose minimalistic melodies create a powerful pang of nostalgia and childhood regret.
Peter Broderick, “Sometimes”
Technically a cover, Peter Broderick’s sole singing contribution on his otherwise piano only Partners is tender, mournful, and longing.